Everyday Economic Interactions and Morality in Pathein, Myanmar

This project investigates economic actions, values, and morality in Myanmar. It is based on a year of ethnographic research (2015-2016) in the mid-sized town of Pathein, in cooperation with Pathein University. Hornig focuses mainly on small businesses and the social structures they are embedded in. This includes relationships between business owners and their families, employers, and workers, as well as social and economic ties within neighbourhood communities. Concrete topics of the dissertation range from self-employment to child labour to indebtedness. Hornig shows, for example, the socio-economic conditions under which small businesses emerged in recent decades, e.g. in the years of economic transition after 1990. The project is informed by an awareness that business owners, family members, and workers cannot be seen only as economic actors, for economic action, as all human action, is understood as always socially embedded (Polanyi 1944). The role of kinship in the establishment and management of businesses is one topic of study. Furthermore, the project investigates how business owners interact not only with their employees and family members, but also with the wider community they live in.

Shwe Moke Htaw Pagoda. Photo: Laura Hornig, Pathein, October 2015.

In addition to looking at social structures, this study of economic interactions also takes into account morality and values. How, for example, are  phenomena like child labour and indebtedness judged morally? What kinds of jobs are seen as desirable and which ones are contested? What are people’s attitudes towards redistribution of wealth and how do they see the role of the state in organizing that? What happens if business owners face social or moral demands that contradict market logic and profit orientation?
In the region being studied, morality and values are closely linked to religion, namely Buddhism. A foundational work in this regard is Max Weber’s study of the links between Buddhism and economic ethics (1967); however, he relied mostly on textual sources of doctrinal Buddhism. Hornig contributes to the same debates using insights based on recent empirical research in an urban setting in Myanmar, a country that is currently undergoing a major political and economic transformation. This anthropological study can help to explain how newly emerging economic structures affect existing social realities on the ground.

 

Sources:

Polanyi, Karl 1944. The Great Transformation. New York: Farrar and Rinehart.

Weber, M. 1967. The religion of India: the sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism: Free Press.

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