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Ideology, subjectivity and agency: some reflections on the rhetorical use of these themes in ethnological studies

A response to Susan Åsman
Brigitte Steinmann

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1I had spent a great deal of time reading and studying very carefully Susan Åsman’s work before offering a very lengthy review of it to take into account all the nuances, both complimentary and critical, that I grasped from it. In her reply, however, she claims that I did not fully comprehend the overall scope of her thesis: the importance of the agency of the Tamang women going to Bombay to work as prostitutes and her intuitive discovery of the perpetuation of the Tamang house even in the red-light district. Susan Åsman, however, refrains from taking such a laborious approach to my objections. Her answer takes no account of the results of my work on the Tamangs, on their labour circuits and of everything I have studied about the Tamang house, history, religion, economic and social practices, rites, migrants’ successive careers, etc. Without having read any of my work, she immediately identifies in my review ideological biases, preconceived ideas, a paternalistic and moralising feminism, implicit support for developmentalist NGOs, not to mention a kind of of Brahmanic superiority she seems to attribute to me that immediately elevates me to the superior caste of rulers, economic advisors and dominators.

2But what is the author’s blinding insight into the veracity of her theories based on? On the powers of ‘a detailed ethnographic investigation’ accomplished in the space of about ten years, and above all on a ‘subjectivity’, that of any ethnologist, but that has allowed her to break free from any ‘ideological’ point of view. Let us therefore re-examine the arguments by focusing first and foremost on the key notion put forward: that of agency which the author makes use of in her depiction of Tamang women’s work in the red-light districts of Bombay. The subsequent discussion therefore addresses the issue of agency in the analysis of ‘prostitution’, as well as that of ‘gender’ and ‘sex work’ and the success of this notion in academic theory – urbi et orbi.

3Åsman relies, in particular, on Lois McNay’s (2004) re-reading of gender theories to argue for a view of agency in the debates on the ‘feminine’ gender as based above all on a ‘lived social relation’, rather than a ‘structural location’, which would prevail as much in the materialist sociological perspectives of Marxist feminists as in the cultural perspectives focusing on identity constructions. McNay’s balanced position tends to challenge the one-sided view of domination, particularly male domination, as Bourdieu had developed it in France and which Judith Butler in the United States had seriously questioned. The idea emerges that those ‘dominated’, if they ‘consent’ to their domination as Maurice Godelier would have it, retain greater agency than that afforded by Marxist materialist theories, which emphasise the unilateral oppression of social classes.

4What does our author do to develop the issues at stake and the arguments of this theory on which she relies to prove that Tamang women would have had the initiative to influence their living conditions from the very start? We discover throughout the book that this is in fact an a posteriori rationalisation used by the author to prove the validity of all her reasoning about ‘agency’ and about the ‘house’. Indeed, she borrows from the outset a concept of ‘house’ from Lévi-Strauss’s structural theory that does not apply to Tamang society, which is hardly a ‘house society’. Yet she simply dismisses my serious argument. What is more, by describing my research on the real position of women in a house that was not theirs but that of their mother-in-law and husband, I clearly showed in my book review that Tamang women were not the absolute heads of a house and, to be more precise, of a hearth which is regularly destroyed, purified and rebuilt by lamas. Åsman actually describes a ‘Tamang house’ in an abstract way, beginning with a one-sided vindication in her book of Tamang women as head of houses with their innate ability to establish and maintain close ties between relatives, these relationships possibly extending as far as Bombay where the women have gone to practise their ‘sex work’. This is followed by definitions of the ‘work’ in question, an ‘easy job’ – so the Tamangs themselves say, and according to unnuanced comments reported globally by the ethnologist –, in which Tamang women who returned or who remained in India would have excelled much more than any other Nepalese women and even Indian women, given their material and spiritual success. Here emphasis should be laid on the very subjective and essentialising nature of the analyses made by Susan Åsman, who reproaches me in her response for my ‘ideological’ and ‘biased’ points of view or ‘preconceived ideas’, whereas she describes a form of female Tamang essentiality, a virtue that translates into an infinite capacity to reproduce warm and welcoming ‘houses’, with unwavering devotion to kinship, allowing in the end the exercise of a form of universal compassion reinvested in particular in funeral rituals, and allowing even the brothels of Bombay to be transformed into ‘Tamang houses’.

5To begin with, and without referring to brothels, let us point out that the ethnologist finds it perfectly useless to learn from the past years’ very thorough ethnology of actual Tamang houses in the villages, before committing herself to her own investigations in other parts of Nepal. This is evidenced by her complete ignorance of the very detailed ethnographic studies of these worlds and houses conducted by numerous anthropologists in Nepal, the places and positions of men and women, the studies of religion and rituals, including the Tamang funeral rite (gewa) in the 1980s. I personally praise Tamang women for their autonomy and their maintenance of the houses and fields, which I researched at length during those years, including during the Maoist years, while studying in particular how, when families needed cash, the women would pawn their gold jewelry to Newars and would take it upon themselves to send their children to school, or to purchase surplus bags of rice during periods of crisis. Or how, again, they could in some cases become heads of small transport companies in town; how young women earned money themselves by making and selling fermented drinks at festivals. I have not, however, brandished a universal theoretical view of ‘gender’ or ‘agency’ to describe these situations but have rather contextualised my arguments fully and in great detail, including the positionality of the ethnologist, to explain the effects of the emergence of a market economy in the cycle of customary exchanges, and the gradual loss by the populations of their overall autonomy, especially in a quasi-subsistence economy.

6A major flaw in Åsman’s study is that it leaves the case of ‘male workers’ completely out of the picture. This oversight is probably due to the fact that it is impossible to address the case of Nepalese and foreign agencies that have sent so many workers abroad (South and East Asia, Arab and European countries) by simple and more or less theological reference to ‘agency’ or ‘free will’.

7When a Nepali, and a Tamang in particular, is recruited by a brokers’ agency that sends him to work abroad under conditions that, for many, lead to a form of dependency similar to slavery, it is certainly not because they lacked agency in the first place: all of them are very fearless people who want to take their destiny into their own hands and take care of their families! The theme of agency can also be extended to pimps who would like to defend themselves with regard to the profits that are made. But isn’t the role of the anthropologist, at this point, to take an interest in the entanglement of these ‘free enterprises’ in overdeterminations that escape the ‘isolated agent’, a phenomenon which, in any case, the kind of analysis produced by Åsman aims to conceal, even within academic criticism? She even begins her book with an in-depth description of how a woman revealed and boasted, in front of the author, about the jewels and goods brought back from India. The ethnologist’s amazement in the face of the finery and junk is matched only by her blindness to the overall indebtedness that allowed these purchases!

8Having personally investigated and written about Nepalis employed in France in the service sector, and in particular in the Foreign Legion, I found the same ambiguities about the liberating significance of the considerable amount of cash that is brandished, to justify the suffering, alienation and profound degradation they may have experienced in Western-style military enlistment, and the ordinary racism and bullying experienced on a daily basis. I am not disturbed by Åsman’s fascination with the success of the women who returned from the red-light district and I’m not waving a feminist flag: it simply saddens me to see the cruel lack of real social contextualisation of the conditions in which this massive departure of Nepali women for prostitution in India took place (and not only Tamang women), to accomplish what local women could no longer do at home.

9Without having to launch into a review of my own articles or books, I can hardly be accused of paternalistic or moralistic sentiments for having come to the rescue of women beaten by their drunken husbands in the village; or for having tried to pass on condoms to Tamang women weighed down by multiple offspring; or for telling them that letting their daughters go to India was not necessarily the best way for themselves to cope with the situation in the village, and for taking legal action in France against an agency that trafficked children who had been sold in Nepal by indebted Tamang families.

10In all these interactions with Tamang women, note that I have never accused them of reacting like dominated women but have instead tried to reveal to them the global conditions of subalternity that affect populations, men and women alike. Not a member of an NGO myself, I got my students to conduct a number of enquiries about anti-trafficking NGOs, about those that developed Western points of view on hygiene and paternalism, and in particular ‘Maiti Nepal’, about the slavery-like working conditions of Nepalese employees in the new latifundia in Portugal. And I accompanied, over a period of forty years, the children of the Nepalese family with whom I lived, during their European peregrinations in order to record the last types of jobs they held in the service sector, such as for UBER agencies in England.

11Nor is it ‘feminism’ that I refer to when I consider that ‘the body’, that of women as much as that of men, when engaged in mercenary activities, prostitution, foreign armies, work as porters for the army, international tourism, migratory work, etc becomes part of the capital available to an individual, transformed de facto into an ‘entrepreneur of themselves’. Here I refer to Michel Foucault’s expression, from a philosophical, analytical and critical point of view of the very notion of ‘sexuality’, to say that this capacity to exploit oneself freely, which can be attributed to everyone – whether or not the person is endowed with a phallus, a vagina, an athletic or emaciated body, a status of free citizen or forced labour –, is in no way assimilable to what Åsman equates with ‘freedom of choice’ and the virtuous maintenance of a house. The problems of a suffering individual in any situation cannot be understood or solved by simply affirming that people ‘are free’! It is easy to argue with Åsman that her belief in a freedom that is at the root of solutions to a difficult life corresponds to the liberal illusion unilaterally maintained in Western democracies. Did she even analysed, as I pointed out in my review, the Tamangs’ overall work conditions at the time she was writing, and the very fact, she underlines, that Tamang men themselves characterised prostitution as ‘easy work’ for women? This easiness may simply stem from a radical reduction in ideas about women’s sexuality and their relationship to their own bodies. Is it not rather a reduction of their physical capacities for work of a domestic nature and linked to a ‘sex’ which, in prostitution, is detached from the overall vital and emotional functions: an obligation to ‘stay in a house’ to do the work, that is to say absolute control over their mobility by men who own the land where the women run their house, and the Bombay apartment blocks where they work in promiscuity? Can the fact that some of them may have become pimps themselves in India or may have made investments in real estate in the village be attributed unilaterally to the effect of a magical ‘agency’, a conception that is ultimately very dismissive of women’s real emotions, of the diversity of their interests and, above all, with no further ethnological explanations about the functioning of the ‘infrastructures’ in their existence prior to leaving for Bombay? Is it therefore an argument to attribute to the benefit of ‘agency’ the hold that goods began to have over villages after NGOs (whose perverse effects I was the first to denounce in the 1980s) intervened directly in the way villagers managed their lives, forcing them to use the new materials they were obliged to consume ‘free of charge’ (concrete, creation of private schools, donations of all kinds made by tourists, etc)?

12To respond to Åsman’s own sarcasm directed at me, concerning the misuse of money earned from prostitution that I would have mentioned, does she herself not say that among the Tamang women who have been the most successful in Bombay are also those who have opened new brothels: here again, one should admit that it is the miracles of ‘agency’, the luck of individual adventures that has generated such inequalities between India and Nepal. I can only reply to the author that it is in any case out of the question, for an ethnologist, to discuss the good or bad uses of money – which she on the other hand does by constantly stressing the argument about the upkeep of the family and the domestic household –, all of which are elements of village life that are essentialised, instead of making a critical analysis of the uses and the intrusion of money in this society since the last decades of the 20th century.

13In whose ethnographic writing therefore, would there be the most ‘ideological’ bias? She who tries to contextualise her experience and that of others in daily life situations and struggles, or she who brandishes the notion of ‘free will’ whatever the circumstances, including those that caused the illness and death of an incalculable number of young women, as well as those that forced them to perpetuate a life of domesticity? But lastly, let’s address one of the most serious accusations the author makes about me, without any evidence. Åsman writes:

However, the ‘moral untouchability’ (Fassin 2010) of the humanitarian sector, that is the problem of discussing, critically scrutinising and analysing these organisations with regard to their intentions of ‘doing good’, is problematic. Surely it must be possible to critically scrutinise this sector amongst others, the many actors with different interests at stake and the implications of the work they do, its unintended consequences and what their work produces without being labelled ‘anti-developmentalist’ as Steinmann chose to define me in her review. In this way Steinmann reproduces a ‘moral untouchability’, silencing a much-needed discussion on the subject. (Åsman, this issue)

14Let us therefore develop the discussion further on this point. Åsman has not really understood what Didier Fassin said and confuses ‘moral untouchability’ with ‘moral economy of feelings’. I thought I was paying the author a compliment when I wrote that she indeed presented herself as ‘anti-developmentalist’; in fact, she constantly advocates emancipation through mechanisms that can be traced back to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. If the sex market has become official in Nepal, it is certainly not to allow Tamang women to continue to display their ancestral virtues as warm-hearted and homely women! Åsman’s out-and-out idealism is matched only by her absolute ignorance of all comparative studies of the sex market around the world.

15Isn’t extolling small businesses (such as the village tea shop), solar panels, Buddhist rehabilitation through investments in the funeral industry but not stock market investments in India even worse than the ‘paternalistic moralism’ she accuses me of? It is the endorsement of Margaret Thatcher-style utilitarianism. Indeed, why do we insist so much on ‘justifying’ the money earned by women as going to their ‘home’? Why this glorification of the ‘home’ and of domesticity, an argument that is in fact very vague and in the end abandoned to go back to the idea that the women, thanks to the money from Bombay, could have initiated ‘structural changes’ in the village, the possibility of inheriting and choosing a husband themselves.

16I think I have shown that, as an ethnologist and through my long studies, I have always excluded any moralising judgment – which, by the way, no one in the village could be bothered about. The Tamangs very rapidly understood the kinds of development injunctions they were subjected to, and I have never shown nor written that the observation they themselves could find, as a result of complex historical processes, of being rejected in harsh, arid hilly regions, exploited and dominated in the city and abroad, could stem from any Brahmanic patriarchal ‘paternalism’ or God knows what! However, Åsman’s final assimilation of financial success, no matter how modest of some of these village women who emigrated under difficult conditions, to real emancipation derives from a taste for the ‘self-made man’ fable and from confidence in the absolute logic of money. Personally, I recently investigated very closely into why and how the (very young) girls who left of their own accord in busloads from Kathmandu after the 2015 earthquake, resisted police officers who wanted to pull them off the bus. It was a complex issue: it is undeniable that among these ‘volunteers’, their ‘agency’ duly certified by the ethnologist, some took the initiative and others did not; some were deported by pimp networks; others were initiated by women pimps. This is not surprising in a population where men may also find themselves taken in by emigration agencies and sent to a destination in Southeast Asia or in Europe where they are deprived of their papers on arrival and condemned to work as forced labour (see, for example, the studies by Tristan Bruslé on the kafala system in Arab countries).

17Lastly, Åsman’s analysis of the funeral ritual is somewhat caricatured. As if money was ever the only thing that mattered in Buddhism! Ignoring the available studies on gewa, she is unable to point out the transformation of chores to which women were subjected in gewa, into purely financial contributions. Once again, the study of how Tamang societies have been transformed through money is avoided.

18What Åsman is actually saying is that for Tamang women, the watchword for social success was the forced ‘acceptance’ of prostitution, not the ‘determination’ to become prostitutes. Is this not a serious over-interpretation? In fact, it is because there was already a vast market for sex that Nepalese newcomers were able to carve out a place for themselves. Agency in this case is only a tree that hides the forest of unequal economic relations between India and Nepal; something the Maoists understood very well.

19The rehabilitation of Tamang women is thus carried out in this book in the name of a new absolute ‘realism’, that of an ‘agency’ pulled out of the ethnologist’s hat, capable of providing social success and money whatever the undertaking. One would have liked the ethnologist to clarify her position in her own society, at least in relation to the radical association she makes between the ‘house’ in the village and the ‘houses’ in Bombay’s red-light districts. What does she think, for example, of the showcasing of Western prostitution in Amsterdam or Hamburg? What place does she give exactly to this Tamang singularity, exemplified as a model? Do women who are prostituted in the West have more or less agency than Tamang women?

20Last of all, it is worth noting Susan Åsman’s inability to actually put herself in the place of those she observes and her offering easy commiseration when one decides not to intervene under the fallacious pretext of the realism of the observation! As Susan Åsman says at the end of her response to me, ‘That is not to say that there are no serious conflicts or problems in the red-light district or, as mentioned in the book, hierarchical relationships between different categories of sex workers and erotic entertainers. These units constitute somewhat different kinds of social or family units when compare to the rural area in Nepal’.

21Here, the use of ‘somewhat’ is of key importance in lieu of a proper study of class and caste inequalities and conflicts between sex workers. In the end, and to conclude, what Åsman is saying is that the difference between life in the village in Tamang houses and life in the brothel in Bombay would only boil down to a sort of ‘degree’! We can only advise her to make a more global and comparative ethnographic study of the society she describes, in order to explain more clearly the subtleties of this gradualism.

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Fassin, D. 2010. ‘No me tangere. The moral untouchability of humanitarianism’. In Forces of Compassion. Humanitarianism between Ethics and Politics, edited by E Bornstein and E Redfield, pp35–53. Sante Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.

McNay, L. 2004. ‘Agency and Experience: Gender as a Lived Relation’. Sociological Review 52(2):173–190.

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Electronic reference

Brigitte Steinmann, « Ideology, subjectivity and agency: some reflections on the rhetorical use of these themes in ethnological studies », European Bulletin of Himalayan Research [Online], 57 | 2021, Online since 15 December 2021, connection on 17 January 2022. URL :

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About the author

Brigitte Steinmann

Brigitte Steinmann is emeritus professor at the Institute of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Lille I. Her last publication, with M. Singh Tamang and Thuden Gyalcen Lama: Exorcizing Ancestors, Conquering Heaven: Himalayan Rituals in Context (Vajra Publications, 2020).

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Les contenus de la revue European Bulletin of Himalayan Research sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.

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