Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Custom as Capital in Upland South and Southeast Asia

Research how ‘custom’, ‘traditions’ and ‘heritages’ take on new meanings in the uplands of South and (mainland) Southeast Asia.

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Erik de Maaker

MSc Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology - Research opportunity


This is an opportunity for students to research the processes by which ‘custom’, ‘traditions’ and ‘heritages’ take on new meanings in the uplands of South and (mainland) Southeast Asia. The people who live in this upland zone have long remained marginal to states and markets. The uplands used to have little economic value, and their connectivity was poor. Gradually, the international borders that divide the uplands have ‘hardened’, creating borderlands that are divided between distinct states. The growing presence of the state is transforming the uplands into a resource frontier, with great opportunities for the ‘mining’ of hydropower and minerals. The uplands are also gaining value as nature conservation areas and gene sanctuaries. The increasing exposure to markets creates a shift from subsistence cultivation towards cash crops, and encourages both in- and out-migration . How do these developments put pressure on earlier economic, social and political arrangements, and demand the realignment, but also reinterpretation and renegotiation of customary practices in relation to the laws of the various national states?

The ‘indigenous’ upland communities of South and Southeast Asia are characterised by great ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. They are often seen as ‘traditional’, even though it is obvious from ethnographic records and sociological studies that they have gone through radical changes in a period of often less than two generations. How are customary practices and customary ‘indigenous’ rights part of people’s attempts to engage with the market, and to redefine rights and ownerships in an increasingly neoliberal context? How does custom relate to, but also conflict with, the formal laws of specific national states? How is making and performing heritage intertwined with ethnicity, and with making and contesting ‘place’ more generally? How does custom define land, gender and the morality of ‘society’? I would like to supervise research that connects to questions such as these. Given my own research work, I have a strong interest (and the strongest network) in North East India and Myanmar, but other areas within this larger region are feasible as well.

Connection with other research

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