Contents>> Vol. 3, No. 1

The Family in Flux in Southeast Asia: Institution, Ideology, Practice
Yoko Hayami, Junko Koizumi, Chalidaporn Songsamphan, and Ratana Tosakul, eds.
Kyoto: Kyoto University Press and Bangkok: Silkworm Books, 2012, ix+546p.

The Family in Flux in Southeast Asia: Institution, Ideology, Practice is a long-awaited addition to family studies in Southeast Asia. It is edited by a multidisciplinary team of leading scholars on Thailand and Myanmar, Yoko Hayami and Ratana Tosakul (anthropology), Junko Koizumi (history), and Chalidaporn Songsamphan (political science). Presently, both Hayami and Koizumi are professors at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Kyoto University, and Songsamphan and Tosakul are associate professor and senior lecturer, respectively, at Thammasat University. The volume consists of an introduction (by Hayami) and 23 chapters, and examines wide-ranging aspects of family change and continuity in modern Southeast Asia that loosely spans from the nineteenth century to the present. While the book primarily focuses on Thailand, it also features comparable cases from Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. The present volume is a product of a three-year research program entitled “Changing ‘Families’” in which Thammasat University and CSEAS at Kyoto University served as home institutes between 2006 and 2009. The contributors are the former participants in this research initiative and come from diverse disciplines, including history, political science, economics, sociology, literary studies, and anthropology.

The book starts with an overview of family change or “macro demographic trends” in Southeast Asia over the past three decades with a specific reference to Thailand (pp. 1–2). These trends are marked by declining fertility rates, prolonged life expectancy, rising divorce rates, and an increase in female-headed households, and have been observed in a time of greater labor migration. While these phenomena find a plethora of global parallels, much of the theorizing in family history has focused on experiences in the West, particularly in Western Europe, and our understanding of family change in modern Southeast Asia remains inadequate. Thus, one chief objective of the present volume is to “fill in this gap” in family studies (p. 2).

Such an exploration into the course of family change in Southeast Asia inevitably involves comparison, especially with Western Europe, where industrialization was a decisive phase in ­family formation. During the industrializing period, families were institutionalized and came to constitute “the domestic sphere as separate from the public productive sphere” (p. 2). What ensued was a cluster of ideals about the modern family that emphasized the universal nuclear family and its reproductive function, romantic conjugal relationships, and blood ties among family members. In Southeast Asia, as Hayami aptly points out, “[T]he historical trajectory in which institutionali­zation of the family took place . . . has been different” (p. 2). Therefore, we cannot take for granted the notion of the “family” stemming from Western industrialized societies. The book argues that to understand “family” in Southeast Asia, we must take into consideration such historical processes as colonialism, nationalism, encounters with the West, state building, and the middle-class formation (p. 18). Through these processes, the very concept of the “family” was “debated, contested, and negotiated” in everyday practice and ideology (p. 2). Under these common concerns, 23 chapters fall into three areas of inquiry, “Family Law and Related Debates” (chapters 1–6), “State Policies, Ideology, and Practice” (chapters 7–13), and “Families and the Network of Relatedness in Flux and Flow” (chapters 14–23). Some of the featured issues include (but not limited to): the evolving notion of the family as a closed and monogamous unit in language and law; patriarchy buttressed through polygyny, transnational businesses (among overseas Chinese families), and national policies; various forms of kin and communal networks at work in family cycles such as child rearing of migrant female workers (many of whom were in transnational marriages). Together, these observations caution against making an easy association of the modern family with con­sanguinity and conjugality, the nuclear household, and the gendered divisions of roles championed by male wage earners and female homemakers. What the present volume illuminates is the fluid and plural notions and practices of the family across Southeast Asia then and now.

Family history is a relatively untapped area of research in Southeast Asian studies. One main reason for the paucity of historical studies on the family is that the topic has often been pursued (somewhat in disguise) through alternative and interrelated subject matters, such as women, households, gender, sexuality, kinship, and state, to name a few.1) Therefore, any contribution that is specifically about the “family,” as The Family in Flux demonstrates, is a welcome addition. One vantage point of taking a family-specific approach is that it opens room for comparison among cases from Southeast Asia and beyond that so far have remained largely overlooked in the existing scholarship. The book is already forthcoming in drawing parallels as to how the practice of polygyny and the accompanying discussion on monogamy as a modern ideal served as a focal point of colonial and nationalist politics in Thailand, West Sumatra, and Malaysia (chapters 2, 3, 4, 7).2) This line of comparative conversation can easily be extended to other similar studies on late-colonial Java and Egypt under the British protectorate, to name just two.3)

Another common thread for comparison concerns language. A few studies in the present volume illuminate linguistic ambiguities towards the nuclear family household in Southeast Asian vernaculars. In pre-modern times, the Thai word for family khropkhrua commonly referred to “a network of diverse relationships” (p. 7). In the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the meaning of the word evolved into one that emphasized the conjugal pair and their children. What propelled this linguistic evolution towards a bounded notion of the family were legal reforms and the accompanying state campaign for a modern monogamous family (pp. 7–8). Such encoding of khropkhrua with marriage and blood relations stands side by side with yet another word for “family” or ban in contemporary Thai, which literally means house and denotes a group of people sharing a residence (p. 29). In Javanese, the closest to the Indonesian word for family keluarga is somah whose meaning besides the nuclear family household includes “other family members, usually parents, unmarried siblings, or married siblings with their children might live together” (p. 288). Another case in point is the Burmese equivalent for family mithazu, which to this day remains relatively foreign among the Karen. Local conceptions of “family” in the Karen language center on “people of the same brood, child-mother, child-father relationship” (p. 297). Tagalog is another language marked by the initial absence of “family” until colonial times. While the existing indigenous concept focuses on “bilateral relatedness” or mag-anak, a new lingo and definition of the family or pamilya as “a basic autonomous social institution” was introduced and localized through colonial influences (p. 10). Similarly, colonial encounters in West Sumatra were the vehicle for introducing the Dutch word familie. In the 1920s amidst Dutch colonial rule, familie along with the Indonesian alternative rumah tangga or household were staple vocabularies for “family” thus overshadowing keluarga (Hadler 2008, 80). These preliminary observations further reiterate the problematics of the evolutionary and linear trajectory of family change looming so large in family theory.4) Moreover, further research into Southeast Asia’s linguistic complexity and local notions of “family” centered on a web of (bilateral) networks, when read against the background of colonialism and nationalism, could collectively form a pillar of theoretical critique in family history.

While The Family in Flux constitutes a rich depository of empirical and methodological issues in family studies, a few editorial limitations maybe noted, including the inconsistencies in the depth and length of the featured case studies, the underrepresentation of cases from Thailand (especially in Part II), and the concentration of anthropological literature primarily drawn from Japanese scholarship.

There is no question that The Family in Flux is a path-finding volume that paves the way for meaningful dialogues among scholars of the family. Each case study combined with the well-informed introduction offers a point of reference for global and regional comparisons on family change and continuity in modern world. The Family in Flux is highly recommended for researchers and students from all disciplines interested in family studies in Southeast Asia and beyond.

Sugiyama Akiko 杉山顕子
Department of History, University of Macau


Andaya, Barbara Watson. 2006. The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Day, Tony. 2002. Fluid Iron: State Formation in Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Hadler, Jeffrey. 2008. Muslims and Matriarchs: Cultural Resilience in Indonesia through Jihad and Colonialism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Ikeya, Chie. 2011. Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.

Koning, Juliette et al., eds. 2000. Women and Households in Indonesia: Cultural Notions and Social Practices. Richmond: Curzon.

Locher-Scholten, Elsbeth. 2000. Marriage, Morality and Modernity: The 1937 Debate on Monogamy. In Women and the Colonial State: Essays on Gender and Modernity in the Netherlands Indies, 1900–1942, pp. 187–218. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Loos, Tamara. 2006. Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pollard, Lisa. 2005. Nurturing the Nation: The Family Politics of Modernizing, Colonizing, and Liberating Egypt, 1805–1923. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2002. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thornton, Arland. 2005. Reading History Sideways: The Fallacy and Enduring Impact of the Developmental Paradigm on Family Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1) The scholarship on these subject matters is extensive. A few of the recent contributions (monographs) include: Koning et al. (2000), Locher-Scholten (2000), Stoler (2002), Day (2002), Andaya (2006), Ikeya (2011).

2) The book also refers to the recurrent debate over polygyny in the years leading to the legal abolishment of polygamy in Thailand in 1935 as chronicled in Loos (2006, 7–8).

3) For a study on Java, see Locher-Scholten (2000, 187–218). Pollard has shown that the debate on polygamy in the vernacular print media was one of the geneses of nationalism among the Egyptian bourgeois elite (2005, 94–97).

4) For a recent study on the historiography of family theory, see Thornton (2005).


DOI: doi.org/10.20495/seas.3.1_219