An interview with Holly High
Our guest this week is Holly High, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Holly was trained at the Australian National University, undertook fieldwork in Laos, and has held postdoctoral positions at Yale University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Sydney. She uses ethnographic methods and anthropological analysis to understand human experience. Holly has written about anthropological approaches to debt, power and desire; psychoanalytic theory and anthropology; Lao policy (including cultural, poverty, health and agricultural policies) in relation to lived experience in that country; everyday politics in Laos; emerging infectious disease as an intercultural zone; and religion in Laos. Holly is currently investigating transformations in pregnancy, birth and early childhood in Laos. She is the author of Fields of Desire: Poverty and Policy in Laos (National University of Singapore Press, 2014, shortlisted for the EuroSEAS Social Science Book Prize 2015) and has published articles in a wide array of anthropological and interdisciplinary journals including Critique of Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences, and Asian Studies Review. Holly’s second monograph, Projectland: Life in a Lao Socialist Model Village, is coming out with University of Hawai’i Press in Spring 2021.
Hello, Holly, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in the intersections of politics, agrarian life, desire, and disease in Lao PDR, and what theoretical or conceptual frameworks you deploy in exploring these diverse themes?
Thanks Sophie! My research really stems from the union of my will to practice anthropology with the serendipities presented by the fact that my fieldsite is rural Laos. My interest in anthropology stems from my fascination with the idea that an indispensable way of gaining knowledge of humans is through long-term observation of them in their day-to-day habitats - humans in their wilds, whether it be office lunches or rice paddies or domestic spaces - and then analyzing that knowledge through comparison. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been happier studying fish or microbes: there seem to be so many disciplines devoted to studying humans when what we really need is to decenter humans (and get over ourselves?).
But I comfort myself with the thought that the question of human desire is possibly the most pressing question of our time. Why do efforts to do good so often go bad? Why do people so often desire that which is self-defeating or contrary to their own interests or moral stances? Why, when we finally get what we thought we wanted, do we so often realize that it wasn’t what we wanted after all? I think we need answers to questions like these, or at least to keep questions like these in mind, when we consider any of the multiple challenges we are facing today - environmental, economic, pandemic, and political.
Your first book, Fields of Desire, explores how the politics of poverty in Lao PDR are often unconscious, culturally expressed, mutually contradictory, and sometimes contrary to self-interest. Could you share some insights into the practical and/or ethical challenges you faced in researching the politics of desire in rural Lao, and how these politics have or have not changed on the ground since?
I didn’t start out aiming to study desire. Desire was really an end point to that project, rather than a beginning. In the beginning, I was acting on faith that a disciplined, long-term immersion in a social world quite different from my own was bound to produce valuable results. Prior to my fieldwork, the most well-known study of rural Laos was the work of Grant Evans, and he openly admitted that he had never been allowed to stay overnight in a rural village or speak with rural residents unsupervised. As I was planning my own fieldwork in 2000, I was told by numerous “old hands” (expats etc.) that the government of Laos would never grant permission for me to conduct research by living long term in a rural village. They thought the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, who have held power since a peaceful revolution in 1975, were too secretive and suspicious to allow a project like mine. Some suggested doing covert research, or abandoning my project altogether!
However, my parents had been anti-Vietnam War activists, and I suppose that gave me a basis for respecting, or at least not dismissing out of hand, the Lao experiment with socialism. That, combined with my anthropological training in relativism as method, predisposed me to question the ease with which Westerners participate in Cold War fantasies about evil socialist scoundrels, and a willingness to at least attempt to engage with the Lao bureaucracy on its own terms. I borrowed a purple bicycle in Vientiane and approached all the Lao ministries one by one. I was pleasantly surprised when the Ministry of Education agreed to facilitate my research. They produced a letter which allowed me to do research anywhere in Laos! The only challenge then (and an unexpected one!) was choosing which village I would approach. I had to be careful that people in the village I ultimately lived in understood my project had ways of expressing and withdrawing informed consent. Laos has changed a lot since then: mobile phones, social media, the decline of water transport and the rise of roads, the spread of access to electricity, and the decline of livelihoods tied to fisheries and forest products are probably the most striking to me.
Your scholarship engages with human-environment relations across a range of different contexts – from territory cults and violent landscapes, to pathogenic avian influenza and irrigation projects. To what extent does an interdisciplinary approach inform your research and analysis of these diverse human-environment dynamics, and what in your view can be gained (or lost) from such an inter-disciplinary approach?
I find it so fruitful to belong to two, different but overlapping, communities of scholars: anthropology
and Lao studies. When I get sick of anthropology conferences I can always go to Asian Studies ones
instead! And vice versa! In terms of collaborations beyond my home disciplines: I am part of a fantastic
group run by the Committee on Women and Psychoanalysis (COWAP) of the International Psychoanalytic
Association (IPA) investigating women and desire. I am the only anthropologist. Others are practicing
or training psychoanalysts from Asia, Australia, the UK, and the USA. It is such a nourishing group, and I
think the two perspectives (psychoanalytic and anthropological) are very complementary.
I’ve also worked with epidemiologists, pediatricians, and veterinarians in various research ventures. This has grown quite naturally out of my work in Laos, which is always concerned with actual events and circumstances. Different disciplines bring different lenses to these same events and circumstances, so in some ways my interdisciplinary work has been inevitable. Different disciplines bring different concerns and even different emotional responses. I find that quite interesting, although it can be irritating, too (indeed, mutual irritation is itself an interesting dimension of the emotional terrain of some interdisciplinary work).
You were recently awarded a prestigious Future Fellowship from the Australian Research Council to undertake a new project on reproductive health policy rollout in Laos. Congratulations on this wonderful achievement! What are the anticipated applied outcomes of this project for Lao women, communities, and health professionals, and what are its anticipated theoretical contributions to the recent “biosocial turn” in anthropology?
Thanks Sophie! This particular project is about reproductive health. I know from previous work in Laos that families in remote and rural Laos already have tremendous knowledge about pregnancy, birth and infancy. Even in areas where biomedical services are available, birth is not generally treated as a medical emergency and many women plan to use medical care (including traditional midwives) only if and when it is necessary. Just 2.1% of new births registered in villages with no road access took place in a hospital. The government of Laos is aiming to radically change this: hospital births are now mandated and associated with modernity and improvement, and one of the most quintessentially socialist aspects of the LPRP’s governance of Laos is its commitment to free medical care, most prominently what they call “mother-and-child” health.
My aim is to provide a record of existing birth and parenting knowledge because, if the great transformation envisioned by the Lao government is actually achieved, much of what is currently common knowledge stands to be lost (as it arguably has been in other places where birth is heavily medicalized). I hope the results of my study will be a one day be a treasure trove for Lao families of the wisdom held by former generations. I also aim to study the way this transformation is being pursued, both at a micro level (through, for instance, a study of how young women from rural and remote Laos are trained as midwives in urban schools) and at a macro level (for instance, through financing involving record levels of sovereign debt). I understand these processes in terms of biosociality as a way of broadening the perspective beyond narrow technical understandings of birth. I want to broaden the frame, to show that birth is always part of - and a key part of - complex feedback loops between bodies, cultures, environments and minds.
Finally, Holly, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
There is no one-size-fits-all advice: it really depends on where you are up to with your
career and also what you are seeking. However, if you haven’t read it already, then I
would definitely recommend George Orwell’s Why I Write. I agree that the best writing
comes from people who are pursuing their true north. Faddishness, jargon and convoluted
prose are all clues you have gone off course. When you detect these in your writing, take
it as a cue to pause, reflect and seek clarity about your purpose. That kind of discipline
will show in everything you do.
“Different disciplines bring different lenses to [the] same events and circumstances [...] different disciplines bring different concerns and even different emotional responses.”
“The best writing comes from people who are pursuing their true north.”