More on Thailand's classes

Following on from yesterday's brief gloss over Thailand's class tension, I came across this doctoral dissertation (PDF), via BP, by Sophorntavy Vorng. I wanted to share a few excerpts that shed some more light on the possible reasons for antagonism between the middle and upper classes.

On education:

Elite institutions like international and private schools in Bangkok are crucial places for making social contacts and connections, and form the basis of the elite circles of friends and acquaintances that an individual will move within in adult life.

As another informant explained, 'These days it's very important to get your child in the best school as possible. So people use connections to get them in. If you don't have connections, then you use money. Which school the child goes to affects their future, because they will have more opportunities if they get into a good school'. Someone else had also pointed out, 'If you are upper [class] you would go to a prestigious, private school. You wouldn't go to a government school. So you'd come out of there full of high society friends, who in turn would give you high society jobs, a high society spouse'. Moreover, being an alumnus of elite institutions plays a major role in everyday status distinctions, either serving to place one in a superior position to most, or, crucially, placing one in the category of 'equal' when encountering other elite individuals. It is often possible to discern between 'true' members of the Thai elite, and hi-so hopefuls, by looking at their respective educations.

Because success and acceptance into the elite strata of society hinges upon the prestige and social ties formed in early education, competition for entrance into elite schools is incredibly intense. The same is true of university attendance at a prestigious university like Chulalongkorn [popularly known as 'Chula'], Thammasat, or Assumption (ABAC).

Might this show a little about why the English-language Thai daily The Nation focused so heavily on Sastra Chaothiang, who was killed in the car-van smash last month?

Sastra lived a difficult life but was determined to better his circumstances through education. He got his PhD in England at the young age of 27, five years ago, they said.

We were poor and couldn’t afford cram schooling for him but he was a good student and would take textbooks to go and ask teachers right away.

He passed the entrance exam to study Mathayom 4 [grade10] at Bangkok’s Triam Udom School and managed to pass the university entrance exam at Mathayom 5 level to study medicine at Siriraj Hospital. But Sastra said he wanted to study abroad, so he asked me for Bt3,000 to get tutoring for 10 hours per month,” she said.

With Sastra and Praewa you have two opposites. One came from a poor background and had to work damn hard to get his doctorate. The other, albeit younger, comes from a world where the focus of going to school is making the right connections to serve in later life. These two encompass a metaphor for the differences between the two classes.

Perhaps some of the reasoning behind why the middle classes have lashed out at the upper classes can be traced to the difficulty that comes with moving from one class stratum to the other. As Sophorntavy continues, "[A]lthough upper-middle class individuals can attend elite educational institutions, moving into the upper classes is challenging. As one informant pointed out, 'To go from upper- middle to upper, then you need fame, connections, and power, other things which are more difficult to acquire.'"

But that doesn't mean that the middle classes don't at least attempt to identify with the upper classes.

During the time I lived in the Thong Lor area, there was a lot of hype surrounding Playground!, a mini-mall billed as a so-called 'inspiration store' and 'lifestyle complex'. When I went to survey the place, however, I felt it to be highly overrated… Mostly, these 'shoppers' were there to dern len, sit in Starbucks, or leaf through collections of design books while hoping to 'be seen'.

As Gottdiener (2000:284) observes, 'people may [go] to the mall [to shop,] but they also [go] there to see and be seen, much like people have done for centuries through daily visits to the town square or central city downtown'. Most often, such places in Bangkok are those which are perceived to be hi-so – like Playground! – and the people hoping to 'be seen', middle class hi-so hopefuls (although, obviously, members of the elite must also be induced to socialise in such places for them to acquire and maintain hi-so status).

This is why there is a level of hypocrisy in the middle classes shooting from the hip at the upper classes.

Essentially, the attainment of hi-so status is not only highly desirable for a great number of middle class Bangkokians. Those who might capitalise on middle-class consumption also have interests in pursuing an association with hi-so culture and identity through sophisticated market differentiation techniques closely attuned to the aspirations of the middle classes.

It is clear that the many within the Thai middle classes are keen on imitating aspects on hi-so society. It's as simple as attending a certain nightclub, eating at a certain restaurant or drinking a certain cocktail, but money is always the limiting factor. That being said, the visible lines between middle and upper classes can at times become blurred. Image is everything and middle-class aspirations to become hi-so cannot be ignored, which makes the whole Praewa incident all the more curious.

However, this isn't to say that all middle-class Thais fit into this category. Indeed, many simply don't care to project an image of higher status, and even those who do most likely feel most comfortable at less prestigious establishments. (Sophorntavy, 205)

For me, one of the most striking aspects of Bangkok life is how well dressed young people are, especially around areas like Siam. I always felt shabby walking around places like this. You can discern a great deal about young people from their clothes.

The emphasis on appearances is easily apparent, and the teenagers take great care in their dress and grooming so as to fit in with the elite crowd to which they wish to belong and 'be seen' with.

More…

Elite youths may look down upon (ดูถูก; duu tuuk) less privileged ones, even referring to them as dek slum (เด็กสลมั ; 'slum kids'). On the other hand, lower and lower-middle class youths may stereotype the kinds of teenagers who hang around Siam Square and other hi-so places as khun nuu/chai (คุณหนู/ชาย), which translates to 'children of important people', but is similar to the English slang usage of 'spoilt prince/princess'. Individuals from the two groups do not tend to mix.

Sophorntavy highlights how many members of the elite tend to look down on the lower-middle class. There is also quite some difference in status between the lower-middle classes and the upper-middle classes.

Elements of class tension can be seen in Bangkok's malls, where it is easy to feel inferior. Walking around places like Emporium and Paragon, even I as a foreigner sometimes had this slightly paranoid feeling that I didn't quite fit in. As a foreigner you're excluded from the silent class battle within the malls, but it's there, almost dripping from the ceiling, and when you walk around the malls, the tension rubs off on you and you start to think that you are somewhere important, where you need to be seen. It's ludicrous.

As one individual remarked, 'I know of some cases where people go past but don't actually dare step into the Paragon, because they find that it's too hi-so'. In contrast, this phrase is never used in reference to any of the lo-so places. Obviously, money is a very real issue.

Suda, an MBA student at ABAC, was able to blend in at Siam Paragon and Emporium, although she also described such places as 'another society', where one must be conscious of one's appearance: 'Well, if I go to a mall…say for instance if I go to Paragon, or Emporium, I wouldn't dress too ugly or poorly…'

I wasn't aware of this, but there is apparently a whole series of popular literature aimed at middle-class Thais keen to improve their social status. I find this fascinating. There are so many paradoxes at play here. Many members of the middle classes strive to move up a stratum, which leads them to marking out boundaries not only with those above them, but also with those below them. This is where the hypocrisy of the Praewa incident comes in once more. After all, think back to the Bangkok crisis, when the middle classes were calling for blood and then they all got together to clean up the area in front of the Central mall.

Middle class individuals must continuously mark out the boundaries between themselves and the strata below, establishing a relationship of superiority in regards to their lifestyle, consumption practices, education, work, and leisure activities, whilst simultaneously grappling with the frustrations of being unable to penetrate the more exclusive circles above them due to social and financial limitations. As such, the tension and anxiety inherent in attempting to transcend one's normal lifestyle are usually felt more intensely by members of the middle class than by lower and upper class individuals.

Lots to think about here.

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