"Support's Composite Nature"

Research Fellowship, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle (since 2006). The project investigates social support in general social-theoretical terms and specifically with reference to Northern Vietnamese villagers and their ideas of well-being. This research is part of a larger group project on issues of social support in the People's Republic of China and in Vietnam.

One-year fieldwork in a poor rural commune in the coastal province Hai-Phong looked at multiple support arrangements, including patrilineal groups with hardship funds, state benefit schemes, loans and practical assistance from relatives, various state and state-endorsed associations, and religious groups. Villagers depend mostly on the unprofitable wet-rice cultivation for their livelihood. Many have migrated to the cities to find employment.

In the French and American wars, the local community experienced human losses to a degree that is extraordinary even for Vietnamese standards. In return, regular state allowances for widows, orphans, and war invalids are paid out and constitute an important source of financial support. War-related state support is on the wane, however. The generation of ageing recipients is dwindling. The destitute situation of neighbouring communes provides a warning as to what will happen to Thanh-Ha once state war-related social benefits run dry.

Many issues, with a direct bearing on social support, are not particular to the Vietnamese case, but can be found in other late and post-socialist settings: the urban/rural wealth divide and labour migration; a widespread sense of uncertainty and dislocation along with searches for sources of identity, ethnic, religious or otherwise; a strong reliance on personal ties rather than institutions; and, not least, the common legacy of a one-Party supplier state.

The project consists of four main research areas:

Social support is often directly tied to claims about the past. Efforts to solicit assistance frequently involve references to previous actions so as to legitimise the request. Those asked to provide support may also point to the past to argue that sufficient assistance has already been offered.
If social support frequently involves claims about past actions, that they have incurred or settled a debt, then truth becomes a central concern. Moreover, the elicitation of truth itself can be an act of support, as in the case of spirit mediums and psychics.
There is an obvious link between power and support, the degree to which power can ensure an effective delivery of support. In Vietnam, this link pertains specifically to empathy.
While existing literature has tended to postulate insecurity and risk as a kind of universal denominator that underpins all social support arrangements, findings of this project indicate that it is the uncertainty of support itself, as it unfolds, that is of even greater interest.

Findings from Thanh-Ha and from comparative analyses of case studies from other settings suggest that support is best conceptualised as a composite of two types of actions, each with an almost opposed directionality. It often takes the form of purposive action--deliberate efforts to secure or provide benefits and assistance--which existing literature has mostly focussed on. However, support always involves another directionality, what I have called mutuality. It is an ongoing sharing of resources and a sharing in each other's lives. In Ethnographies of Social Support (2013) support's composite nature is explored through a comparative reading of ethnographic case studies.

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