Society and Identity
Many scholars in Asian studies readily agree that hierarchy matters importantly in the societies they study. Nevertheless, the importance of this point is often neglected. People simply assume it is the case, without analyzing further the implications the role that hierarchical assumptions play in people’s social relations, political choices, economic outcomes, etc. Many scholars fail, for that matter, to distinguish hierarchy from mere inequality, thereby encouraging progressive observers to bewail, rather than think about, the workings of hierarchical arrangements. Participants in this panel choose instead to consider how hierarchical understandings inform the behaviors we consider: how the unspoken assumption that knowing and showing one’s place in any given relationship should guarantee real, social and affective, benefits for all concerned. People in subordinate positions do not necessarily feel themselves humiliated in making gestures of deference, although they will express dissatisfaction and even outrage should their deference—and often labor—win them no or too little return from their superiors. Superiors, meanwhile, assume the validity of their superordinate status and may well disagree as to what appropriate rewards recognition of that status entails. At the same time, anyone’s “place” applies variously in different relationships: hierarchical position is contextual, not a permanent identity. It is also endlessly contestable, and contested, but according to criteria that may well differ from one society to another. Just as much as “modernities,” therefore, the topic of how hierarchy differs in various regions deserves close study.