Cornell University Press

Alice Beban on Cambodian Democracy

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We asked author Alice Beban three questions about her new book, Unwritten Rule, and her research on land reform in Cambodia.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

Imagine you are quietly sitting in class. Suddenly the university president announces that classes are canceled for the semester, and all students are encouraged to volunteer for a national land reform. You’re given three days of training and a set of military fatigues. Then you’re trucked across the country to survey land. I shadowed teams of these volunteers. They told me they barely knew how to operate the GPS units (one young man said he didn’t know where the ‘backspace’ key was, so “we didn’t know how to delete a mistake! So then we deleted everything, and sometimes we input the wrong numbers. Sometimes we got completely lost!”). They had no training in mediation, yet they found themselves dealing with angry farmers and government officials. The speed and uncertainty with which this campaign rolled out has parallels to Trump’s “build the wall” and other recent populist authoritarian policies, and has much to teach us about how populist politics works. 

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

There are many ways to be a field researcher. When I started research for this book, I aspired to something of an old school anthropological model: the lone ethnographer with a firm plan doggedly rooting out the story. But the greatest insights in the book—on the political power of uncertainty, and how this shapes understandings of land and property—emerged when everything fell apart. They came from moments of vulnerability, from failure, from constant adaptation, and from leaning on and working with others. Failure opens us up to different ways of seeing.   

3. How do you wish you could change your field of study?

There is growing recognition within political ecology and related fields that the traditional focus on material dimensions of environmental conflict cannot fully explain how power operates and why people resist. I’d like to see more work that grapples with the centrality of emotions to projects of state making and social change. We need to work through the complexities of how we know emotions, how we write about them, and the ontological implications of how attention to emotions allows us to understand objects in new ways.

*Featured photo: Fish Island, Kampot, Cambodia. Credit: Boudewijn Huysmans.

Cover image of Unwritten Rule.
Read more about this book.

Alice Beban is Senior Lecturer of Sociology at Massey University.

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