Lao Social Structure
Boike Rehbein, Ph.D.

Acting Chair of Sociology
University of Freiburg

The tendencies of globalization start to reach the hinterland of the global periphery, to which the small country of Laos certainly belongs. What do the concomitant changes mean for the country’s social structure? To answer this question, the paper draws on the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Social structure is conceived of as a hierarchy of “fields”, the structure of which is determined by the social agents’ resources or “capital”. Globalization can be understood as a global differentiation of fields leading to integration as well as diversification. From this perspective, Lao social structure forms a system in itself and part of regional and global structures. To analyze current changes in Lao social structure, the evolution of social fields has to be understood in global and local terms. The agents’ position within the structure depends on the value of their social capital on the emerging fields in Lao society. Two dimensions have to be added to Bourdieu’s concept. First, social structure cannot be reduced to differences in capital alone but is shaped by cultural patterns of action as well. Second, historical differences and patterns still persist (somewhat covertly). The elements of these dimensions form a specific configuration, which might be called a socio-cultural structure. In Laos, we can determine the emergence of two main fields (economic and political) – as in Western countries. On these fields, agents adhere to cultures of patrimonialism (Ernst Boesch), subsistence ethics (James Scott), occasionalism and rationalism (Max Weber), while differing in their possibilities of action. These are changing due to global, regional, and local tendencies. The paper is to present the most important aspects of the relation between resources, current tendencies and cultures on the economic and political fields.