Agency and its Ambiguities: Stretching Definitions

Chris Lyttleton’s “When the Mountains No Longer Means Home” uncovers how agency can be exemplified by the implicit freedom to utilize one’s negotiated ethnic identity to its advantage. It is important to also note that early 21st century anthropology discourses have surrounded agency, providing a substantial juxtaposition with discourses of vulnerabilities. I will like to stretch the ambiguous definition of agency further. I propose looking at how Patricia R. Pessar and Sarah J. Malet’s see agency manifested in “quintessentially individual characteristics such as initiative” and “cognitive processes” for example, the imagination.[1] It is my prerogative to critique how Lyttleton has extensively ignored the imperative aspect of including the Akha’s mindscapes and their ability to conjure imagined attempts in revolting against the structural forces that served to subordinate them.

In this article, Lyttleton speaks about Tooker’s “compartmentalization” of ethnic identity which allows the Akha to negotiate their ethnic identities to adapt to various capitalistic notions such as wage-labour.[2] An “ethnic minority group” on the highlands of Upper Mekong, the Akha’s “desire” to gain access to institutional services such as health services together with the state and international prohibition on opium growing has resulted in the Akha’s migration to lower lands.[3] As modernization seeped in to the lives of the Akha people, they learn to sell their labour with the premise that they are then able to enjoy wages and soak in the desirability of modernity.

One of the highly noticeable strategies of resistance is the Akha’s switch in drug consumption from opium to “methamphetamines”, [4] reflecting how they have possibly changed their selection of drugs to function in a fast-paced, capitalistic environment. What was interesting was how the strategic usage of drugs is interpreted as an effort to be ridden off their identities as uncivilized beings. This exemplified an account of converting one’s “Other” status; Akha’s attempt at increasing one’s adaptation to modernity. What we can see from here is the anthropologist’s interpretation or rather, origins of Clifford Geertz seeing culture as text, and therefore interpretation of culture. Although Geertz’s methodology of treating culture as a literary text has warranted critiques such as romanticization, we see in many ways how “interpreting culture” was similar to “inventing” culture as Roy Wager in “The Assumption of Culture” has proposed.[5] Geertz has definitely pushed the boundaries of anthropology and that is imperative in producing a paper that dealing with the sometimes, inconspicuous ethnic minorities’ agency.

Lao Akha women’s “cross-border marriages” is a good account of an imagined attempt at seeking a better life where greater incidences of “prosperity and well-being” were thought to be across borders. [6] Agency is depicted within the mindscapes of these Akha women as they imagine better lives and personal transformations across borders. However, with regards to how Akha women are being coerced or chose to using sex as a strategic method in obtaining economic gains remains unclear. When Lyttleton mentions how “sexuality” is being “controlled” by local men,[7] there was an almost intentional omission of oral narratives depicting how women felt and why were they still engaged in these sexual relationships. To assume that these women are imposing structures which they deemed as opportunities to greater agency but as Lyttleton seemed to suggest, actually diminished chances of greater freedom is hardly justified by his almost bland and lifeless depiction. Simply put, Akha women’s voices are diminished by the omnipresence of Lyttleton. The importance of ethnography is situated within the oral aspect where real emotions, thought and individual characteristics are entrenched within the subjects’ answers and non-verbal expressions. Furthermore, a monolithic explanation of increasing one’s chances of marriage to earn greater economic benefits without considering personal narratives such as escaping from the hardships of a previous relationship is slightly reductive. The contentiousness of such a linear narrative propagates a basic assumption that all Akha women are essentially the same.

This article, to a certain extent, has provided a voice for the subaltern but the extent of which is not large enough to explain the subjectivities of Lao Akha identities. Often but not, one needs to be nuance in trying to show the agency of gendered bodies and how they are able to mitigate the ills of modernization.
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[1] Patricia R. Pessar and Sarah J. Mahler, “Transnational Migration: Bringing Gender In” IMR Volume 37 Number 3 (2003): 817
[2] Chris Lyttleton, “When the Mountains No Longer Mean Home” in Everyday Life in Southeast Asia, ed. Kathleen M. Adams and Kathleen A. Gillogly (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2011), 276.
[3] Lyttleton, 275.
[4] Lyttleton, 279.
[5] Roy Wagner,The Invention of Culture(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), accessed September 16, 2010,
[6] Lyttleton, 280.
[7] Lyttleton, 281.

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