Outside Civilization: An Essay

New essay, and not the last before semester’s end.


Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably restores a man to that condition in which God placed him, i.e. what is called savagery. Your true whale-hunter is as much a savage as an Iroquois. I myself am a savage, owning no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals; and ready at any moment to rebel against him.

— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Outside Civilization: James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed as History

In the preface to his 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott writes, “To my mild astonishment, I find that I have become a kind of historian—not a particularly good one, perhaps, but a historian nonetheless.”[1] Scott, a professor of political science, anthropology, and agrarian studies at Yale University, has published groundbreaking books on the Southeast Asian peasantry, often branching into larger sociopolitical themes such as subaltern resistance, for which he is well known. His works offer philosophic challenges to traditional ways of thinking, from 1976’s The Moral Economy of the Peasant to 1985’s Weapons of the Weak and his theoretical 1998 monograph Seeing Like a State. In Not Being Governed, his most recent major work and potentially his last,[2] Scott attempts to sketch the story of peoples beyond the reach of state hegemony, and in so doing presents a dissident, even unabashedly radical politicized discourse to a field typically dominated by the stories of states.

It is appropriate and perhaps illuminative to deal first with the complete title. By calling his work “history,” he does not intend thereby to indicate a purpose to recount and interpret specific events. Rather, the material of history is used to present a non-statist model meant to be broadly applicable and aid the reader in understanding upland societies—the question of whether or not the designation of “history” can be accurately applied to the monograph as a whole will be dealt with at greater length later in this paper. It quickly becomes evident, moreover, that Scott does not call his work “anarchist” to be sensational; it is not merely a history of peoples purportedly in a condition (or striving for a condition) of anarchism, but is a history consciously anarchist, that is anti-statist, in its perspective. It loudly challenges historiography that remembers only peoples under state domination, commonly referred to as civilized, who were a minority for most of human existence, and it aims to problematize a narrative of barbarism and civilization that has refused to die.

This is made clear in the first chapter, which advocates and proffers a “non-state-centric history”[3] of mainland Southeast Asia, more particularly Zomia, the uplands. Scott notes that typical histories of lowland centers have ignored the hills; without understanding the relationship between the two, he argues, each is incomprehensible except by the self-interested cultural narratives of lowland elites, which scholars have tended to unthinkingly adopt.[4] Most importantly, “Earlier debates over the writing of Southeast Asian history were about how the history of states should be written—not about whether states should have been the center of attention in the first place.”[5] No, Scott writes, we must shift our focus and understand the stateless uplands as areas of resistance and refuge in a symbiotic relationship with the administered lowlands. The shifting way of life of uplanders reflects not primitiveness but a choice to elude state domination.

The next chapters reinforce this thesis. Providing maps and descriptions of terrain and how it was approached before “distance-demolishing” technology,[6] Scott helps the reader understand why Southeast Asian states tended to center on sedentary wet-rice fields, grow along navigable waterways, and collapse within a few generations. Then he asserts that manpower was the major unit of political power. Without “superior access to concentrated manpower,”[7] states could not achieve or maintain supremacy. Therefore states strategized for maximizing the available (in other words, sedentary and “legible”) workforce, forcing shifting cultivators to settle and raiding for slaves. “Manpower was wealth.”[8]

Then Scott makes an argument, which will recur in his book, that the concepts of civilization and barbarism have throughout history been used primarily to indicate those within and without the administered state, respectively, rather than position on a universal scale of “progress”; moreover, “undeveloped” tribes often do not exist prior to the formation of a civilized state, but are created in its wake. In Southeast Asia and elsewhere, civilization was typically a matter of altitude, with the uncontrollable hill peoples representing savagery to the settled valley-dwellers. Nevertheless, valley states were economically dependent on the barbarians for commodities and slaves, while barbarians often mimicked or borrowed symbols of power and statehood—something “entirely compatible,” Scott notes, with a lack of administrative apparatus and with “disdain for the subject populations of these lowland realms.[9]

It is here he arrives at one of his major points: states create barbarians, for barbarians exist by definition in relationship to incorporation in the state, namely on the state’s periphery. Despite the civilizing mission of lowlanders and, today, missionaries of development and modernism, there is no inherent magnetism to civilization. “Going over to the barbarians”[10] was often a deliberate choice to escape administration, forced labor, conscription, and/or taxation. Mobile populations threatened by conquest and servitude fled to shatter zones and adapted to a new lifestyle. Uplanders, by and large, were former lowlanders who sought to define themselves apart from the state.[11] Scott elaborates on the ways in which Southeast Asians fashioned a cultural, social, and economic identity of autonomy. In one chapter, he makes the controversial case that many illiterate tribal societies are probably postliterate, having given up writing for the flexibility and illegibility of an oral culture and identity.

His last couple chapters deal with specific topics of “ethnogenesis,” or a “radical constructionist”[12] perspective on ethnic identity, and millenarianism. The ethnogenesis chapter’s primary assertion is “that ethnic identities in the hills are politically crafted and designed to position a group vis-à-vis others in competition for power and resources.”[13] Many of these identities, self-fashioned though within circumstances beyond the control of the fashioners, incorporate statelessness, egalitarianism, and resistance to state-making or ingathering. The final chapter discusses wonder-working prophets, a staple among many hill peoples, and rebellion, suggesting that prophetic charisma and millenarianism are a constant through religious change and difference because they are “ideological materials”[14] for self-invention and escape from incorporation into a state.

It should be evident from this summary that Not Being Governed is organized thematically rather than chronologically or by geography, and its theoretical or interpretive aims are in a sense every bit as important as its factual content. “I have come to see this study of Zomia, or the massif,” Scott wrote in his conclusion, “not so much as a study of hill peoples per se but as a fragment of what might properly be considered a global history of populations trying to avoid, or having been extruded by, the state.”[15] Not only is its sense of time loose, vaguely pre-1945, but the volume is rampant with expressed parallels, from ancient Greece to Berber Africa to frontier America, encouraging scholars to further explore manifestations of statelessness across time and space.

Generalization and theoretical primacy are features of Not Being Governed, which raises questions about whether the subtitular designation “history” is accurately applied. Like most of Scott’s books, it seems a curious blend of history, anthropology, and political science, utilizing diverse details to encourage a change in perspective. The roster of scholars he often most cites includes Ernest Gellner, Clifford Geertz, Hjorleifur Jonsson, Owen Lattimore, F. K. Lehman, Victor Lieberman, Richard O’Connor, J. George Scott, Oliver Wolters and above all Edmund Leach, author of the classic in the field, Political Systems of Highland Burma. Significantly, six out of these ten are anthropologists by training, the others being historians (Liebermann and Wolters) or without a fixed label (Lattimore and J. G. Scott). James C. Scott places his work in an interdisciplinary (or perhaps extradisciplinary) context, and it seems that his primary justification for calling the book a history is that the relationships he describes between valley and hill peoples, or states and the stateless, exist today in extremely different form than in the period he examines, before the advent of modern technology.

Indeed, Scott is not so much interested in the accuracy of his model for application to individual instances as he is in encouraging us simply to see these peoples differently, without the chauvinism of modern industrial civilization. He is not worried about challenges to particulars leveled by critics and fellow scholars, so long as his broad arguments for resistance and agency remain in place. Theoretical cohesion is more important to him than meticulous fact-perfection. Scholar of Southeast Asia and reviewer Mandy Sadan suggests that Scott is giving us a “paradigm for ‘thinking’ about the uplands,” and Not Being Governed ought not be considered adequately history at all, something which does not invalidate its usefulness to historians but makes it “theory before much of the research has been done.”[16] If it is to be considered history, Not Being Governed is problematic and should remain controversial, but the historian, of Southeast Asia or elsewhere, may find much to make the read worthwhile nevertheless.

His Marxist and agrarian background shines through clearly. He is emphatic, for instance, that peoples who turned to millenarianism did so more out of interest in socioeconomic independence than deep religious feeling;[17] likewise, hill peoples tend to turn to heterodoxy or religions not held in the lowlands for similar reasons.[18] Not merely in religious matters, Scott places material interest at the heart of the agency and choices of hill peoples. He apportions much space to dealing with specific crops and crop practices, notably arguing that uplanders pursue methods of shifting cultivation and swidden agriculture out of definite socioeconomic advantage rather than mere primitivism.

Meanwhile, Scott limits himself in the analytical categories he chooses to employ, something which may again open him to accusations of generalization. Gender issues receive almost no mention, and his discussion of ethnicity in his “ethnogenesis” chapter seems to indirectly target its usefulness for scholarly inquiry by defining it as protean, mosaic-like, and socially constructed. He will often cite supporting information from one group next to another with little effort to note difference or relationship; counter-examples to his assertions are deemed exceptions and dismissed. In all these ways, Scott misses out on opportunities to investigate nuances and complexities in the populations he examines. But that seems, again, not his intent, as such lines of questioning fall outside his main theoretical argument and would probably have bogged down an already substantial book meant to be widely consumed.

Scott notes that, in choosing to write a history of illiterate, stateless peoples rather than of powerful dynasties, he has taken a considerably more difficult course, but one more in line with his aims.[19] Consequently, his sources vary from early anthropological observations to documented events to oral culture and local aphorisms, sometimes explicitly bringing in the written records of nearby states and empires, although he is very cautious with the latter, given his project is to deny the validity of their perspective on the hill peoples. As noted above, his secondary sources are mostly anthropologists who recorded a way of life and interaction in Zomia before it disappeared.

Scott has talent as a communicator, and he incorporates his sources easily into his narrative so they do not distract from his argument. Not Being Governed is, like Seeing Like a State, written to be easily read by non-experts, including those without a particular interest in Southeast Asia. He addresses the reader directly at several points, and his casual, even colloquial erudition gives him an aura of trustworthiness. Even at his most speculative, his bold and direct claims demand attention, and the most tenuous of positions still suggests that it is worth our consideration, perhaps one reason why Scott remains both heavily critiqued and widely read by scholars.

I see the usefulness and significance of Not Being Governed to historians as inhabiting his theoretical challenges, regardless of whether his interpretation of Zomian hill peoples is absolutely correct. It can inform the study of history because it provokes new ways of thinking. Scott adamantly denies that there is a natural evolution from tribal peoples—fluid groups of nonexistent or merely salutary administration—into states. He argues that illiterate and stateless peoples should not be stigmatized as primitive remnants or without a history because they stand outside the modernist ideal of progress. In this way he pursues the goal of many social historians to give voice and agency to hitherto-ignored populations and re-examine history to include the experience of those often forgotten or marginalized. He takes it beyond administered space and civilization.

In an interview with the Boston Globe, 73-year-old Scott addressed his critics by admitting possible overgeneralization, but said, “The question is whether I am basically right…. If I had my way, you’d never think about civilization in the same way again.”[20] Scott’s aims are unmistakably grand. He demands nothing less than that we adjust our view of civilization and the inherent normality and desirability of the state. From Scotland to Afghanistan to the Philippines, there have been peoples who have deliberately avoided settling down where they are vulnerable to an assertion of sovereignty, fleeing attempts to make them settle and become subjugated citizens of one power or another. These “barbarians” problematize the traditional and ubiquitously-applied narrative of the primitive, nomadic tribe which gradually realizes civilization and progress with a sedentary lifestyle and complex governance system. Self-appointed civilizers, likewise scholars who uncritically support their agenda and version of history, ignore this at their peril.



Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009.

[1] James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), xi.

[2] Ruth Hammond, “The Battle Over Zomia,” The Chronicle Review, September 4, 2011, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Battle-Over-Zomia/128845/ (accessed April 22, 2012).

[3] Scott, 38.

[4] Ibid., 27.

[5] Ibid., 33.

[6] Ibid., 45

[7] Ibid., 64.

[8] Ibid., 69.

[9] Ibid., 114.

[10] Ibid., 122.

[11] Ibid., 136.

[12] Ibid., 244.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 323.

[15] Ibid., 328.

[16] Mandy Sadan, review of The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott, Reviews in History no. 903, May 2010, http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/903 (accessed April 21, 2012).

[17] Scott, 298.

[18] Ibid., 319.

[19] Ibid., 33-34.

[20] Drake Bennett, “The mystery of Zomia,” The Boston Globe, December 6, 2009, http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/12/06/the_mystery_of_zomia/ (accessed April 22, 2012).

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