Migratory Models in Myanmar

Workshop at the University of Konstanz, 18-20 October 2018

Financed by the Center of Excellence 16: Cultural Foundations of Social Integration, University of Konstanz
In cooperation with the Myanmar Institut e.V.

Call for Papers


Workshop at the University of Konstanz, 18-20 October 2018

Migratory Models in Myanmar

Organized by Dr. Felix Girke (University of Konstanz)

Ongoing and wide-ranging changes in Myanmar are usually discussed in an internationally well-established terminology. Expressions like ‘transition’, ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, among many others, serve to categorize, explain, or justify the current societal dynamics. But these terms should not be taken for granted: They all come with their own histories, trajectories, and implications; they carry within them not one single referent, but encapsulate complex dynamics and both simplified and interpretable suggestions of how things (ought to) work. They transport teleologies, they promise practical cause-and-effect, and they imply the inter-connectedness of real-world elements. In the context of this workshop, we want to analyze such terms as globally circulating ‘migratory models’ that are today invoked in Myanmar to advance certain – often ideological – claims and support particular interests.

Migratory models are backed up by institutions, supported by technologies, made materially manifest in infrastructure, and become embodied in transnational actors. Migratory models demand local reaction and adaptation, as translatability of the usually English terms and their fit with local conditions are far from given. The frictions such migratory models experience in contact with other locally established frames of reference (such as Theravada Buddhism) offer insights into Myanmar culture and society as well as the global regimes that intervene in it.

This workshop seeks to discuss the most central concepts that drive both local politics as well as foreign interventions. Taken together, the papers are to provide a more general understanding of how models migrate to and in Myanmar, how they are translated, adopted and adapted, and how we incorporate this dynamic into our research.  

Several speakers have already been invited, but we are still looking for additional presentations on topics such as ‘diversity’, ‘federalism’, ‘interfaith’ and ‘rule of law’. All submissions that fit the framework as set out above will be considered. To integrate junior scholars at the MA or early PhD level working on Myanmar, there will also be an open poster session. To submit a presentation or a poster, please send a title and an abstract of no more than 200 words to the organizer, as well as brief biographical information, by March 19.

Contact: Dr. Felix Girke, felix.girke@uni-konstanz.de 

Financed by the Center of Excellence 16: Cultural Foundations of Social Integration, University of Konstanz


Call for Posters

Call for Posters

Im Rahmen der Tagung ‚Migratory Models in Myanmar’, die vom 18.-20. Oktober an der Universität Konstanz in Kooperation mit dem Myanmar Institut e.V. stattfindet (siehe tinyurl.com/migratorymodelsmyanmar), ist neben den thematischen Vorträgen zum Konferenzthema eine Postersitzung für den Abend des 18.10. vorgesehen.

Bei diesem Programmpunkt können DoktorandInnen sowie fortgeschrittene MA-Studierende in einem separaten Raum Poster zu ihren laufenden Forschungsprojekten in den Kultur-, Sozial-und Geisteswissenschaften präsentieren. Die Postersitzung ist als Teil der Konferenz eine der besten Gelegenheiten in diesem Jahr, mit wichtigen Vertretern der Myanmar Forschung in Deutschland und dem nahen Ausland in Kontakt zu kommen und neue Impulse für die eigene Arbeit zu erhalten. Die Poster werden von den Teilnehmern im Vorfeld der Konferenz mit technischer Unterstützung durch die Konferenzleitung entworfen und vor Ort in Konstanzin Größe A0 gedruckt.

Der hiermit eröffnete Call for Posters endet am 31. Mai. Erwartet werden bis dahin ein thematisches Abstract in englischer Sprache von nicht mehr als 250 Worten zum Inhalt des Forschungsprojekts sowie eine vorläufige Skizze des Posters. Es sind insgesamt zehn Poste rvorgesehen; jeder Poster Presenter erhält einen Reisekostenzuschuss von €100.

Bei Fragen wenden Sie sich bitte an FelixGirke (felix.girke@uni-konstanz.de ) , den Organisator der Konferenz. Online finden sich zahlreiche gute Ratgeber für den Entwurf von akademischen Postern. Hier drei Beispiele:





As set out by the title, this workshop pursues the research program of tracing the trajectories of ‘migratory’ or ‘traveling models’ (see Behrends et al. 2014). These present perpetual and yet specific epistemological challenges for academic investigations under conditions of cultural difference. The concept of ‘migratory models’ takes seriously the shifts triggered by colonial contact, de-colonization, and globalization in a very broad sense: One the one hand, we no longer assume that any social milieu offers us insights into pristine, solely indigenous ideas and practices; on the other, we no more assume that transpositions of institutions, ideas, ideologies, and practices happen unproblematically. Putatively integrative notions such as “civil society”, “interfaith” and “community” must be functionally understood as migratory models in the context of Myanmar, and they play a major role in the way social organization is framed and presented, both internally and externally. By way of example, “inter-communal violence” has become a rote explanation for heinous criminal acts, which not only naturalizes them but also solidifies groupism.

On Migratory Models

In studying Myanmar, trying to understand, analyze, and systematize the current changes that are taking place in front of the backdrop of several historical watersheds over the lastyears, the phenomenon of migratory models is particularly pointed. Partly, this seems caused by the urgency, immediacy, and intensity of transnational investment and intervention in the country: with foreign academics, aid workers, investors and tourists largely barred from interacting with the population for decades, there has been a massive surge of interest and engagement since 2011/12, which in some domains has fallen on very fertile ground.
To better communicate their concerns, to ensure compatibility with funding programs, to fit with UN categories, to attract investors, and to display modernity, people in Myanmar have tried to pick up on what provides global recognition. In country, we have found a tangible upsurge in the use of English terminology, especially of ‘high concepts’ – such as the ones listed above – that carry within them not one single referent, but encapsulate complex dynamics and while promising avenues change and development. These encapsulated andnecessarily both simplified and interpretable suggestions of how things (ought to) work, of teleologies, of practical cause-and-effect, of the connectedness of real-world elements – this explanatory and justificatory ambition makes them ‘models’ in the most general sense. A priori, it is acknowledged that such models as are encountered in the field need to be (as ‘religion’ offered in the classical approach offered by Geertz 1973; See Schilbrack 2005 for a critical yet sympathetic update on Geertz’ original conception ) ‘models of’ somethingand usually will be ‘models for’ something, that is, they are guides for both understanding and action.

Theoretical Background

As Behrends et al. develop (building on Rottenburg 2002/2009), models do not simply migrate: much rather, a token of a model travels – “a thing that works like an established symbol of something, but also as a replacement and evidence of the order for which it stands” (2014: 3). In their approach, de-territorializing an existing model produces a portable token, which then can be re-territorialized elsewhere – but its congruity with the ‘original’ is an empirical matter: that a model migrates does not necessarily speak of its functional superiority – a large part is played by its “aura”, its allure on the global stage (2014: 17; compare Streck 2011 on the rhetorical power of aura). A central role is held by “mediators”, skilled actors who do the transporting as well as the re-territorialization (2014: 2), as a rule aided by “social and material technologies” (2014: 2). Kaufmann and Rottenburg (2012) discuss this dynamic in terms of “translation”, and emphasize that both the traveling “element” (i.e., the token) as well as the recipient context will undergo change in theprocess – potentially even the sender context. Their threshold for translation to occur is when “in its new context, the transferred content will be picked up positively or negatively or in creative adaptation and triggers its own dynamics there” (2012: 221). Their larger theoretical frame of reference is W.V.O. Quine’s indeterminacy of translation, with the twist that they do not assume the existence of a “true meaning” of terms, but instead follow Latour, Callon, and the field of Science and Technology Studies in trying to sift out the positioned actants involved, the translations they undertake, and the way they relate to each other (2012: 224-225). In effect, this moves the approach beyond the strict binary of sending and receiving contexts: all there is to find is a series of world-crossing translations (Behrends et al. 2014: 4). Empirically, such translations can be identified in concrete situations, in institutional change, in shifting media discourses, and various other arenas (The terminology of “translation” is entangled with the existing literature on “traveling models”. It is used here to acknowledge this conceptual history and its relative usefulness in highlighting the agency involved in acts of re-territorializing models, which makes it preferable over other terminology at times used for situations of cultural contact in anthropology and related disciplines that evokes emergent processes with little space for strategy and pursuit of concrete interests. Compare Brandstetter et al. (2004) for a relevant overview). Behrends et al. suggest “that local specifics and global trends become visible exactly at the point where human actors, models, and technologies are enrolled into new networks to engage a particular problem. Thus what is global and what is local turns out to be dynamic –emerging from processes where distant actors are connected by dealing with a particular problem” (2014: 9).

This is precisely the recognition from which the planned workshop takes off. Already now, several relevant topics have been identified, which are currently regularly adduced to eithermake sense of the country or to justify policies and agendas. While such a list is never definitive or complete, the items listed below can be said to form a core sample, the analysis of which as migratory models will do much to sharpen our understanding. It will the task of the presenters to a) identify human actors, institutions, and mobilities that become involved, and b) figure out how models become rhetorically persuasive so as to “catch on” locally, so that we can c) both draw the contours of global trends and trace the new networks that arise from re-territorialization, while working out the dynamics of translation. The shift from a commonsensical use of these terms to analyzing them as migratory models marks a theoretical advancement in that it focuses on how competing emic understandings are acted upon through frictions, translations, and interest-guided strategies.

Framework of Inquiry

Beyond the benefits of the theoretical analysis, for Myanmar Studies it is a worthwhile goal to clarify false or superficial assumption about the current changes that obtain in local as well as global reporting. For many years, an assumption of “Myanmar exceptionalism” has fed into scholarly analyses; this also is usefully problematized and potentially rectified through the approach pursued here. The framework of migratory models will allow us to inquire

- whether suddenly popular notions should be seen as cases of “imposed concepts” (serving identifiable agendas) or as more inchoate sites of local initiative;
- how translation attempts make use of norms, justifications, and positions of legitimacy and authority;
- how rationality and aura play off each other in particular projects;
- if any translation processes of “travel-enabled ideas” (Kaufmann/Rottenburg2012) in Myanmar have a tangible impact on the respective sending contexts;
- which role culture and language play in translation, as any globalized (English) terms stand uneasily vis-à- vis their local counterparts, which often spring from ancient Pali and are shot through with Buddhist connotation (This was a widely mediatized topic over the last years; for example, see https://www.mmtimes.com/opinion/16231-is-democracy-really-lost-in-translation.html )
- whether models that arrive also depart again – be it through thorough vernacularization, active dismissal, or some other as yet unidentified means, a question so far rarely explored in studies of traveling models.

For the workshop, experts on specific economic models, on current rights paradigms, on political concepts, religious claims and social terminology that are increasingly used in Myanmar throughout multiple social fields will be invited to reframe their research topics as cases of traveling models, ideally while addressing several of these guiding questions. The currently widely mediatized persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, who are fleeing to Bangladesh in the hundreds of thousands, has unfortunately revealed another set of traveling models that are eagerly adopted by some while being violently rejected by others: racism, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. While it might seem overly detached to discuss human suffering at this scale in terms of “models”, our understanding of the situation in Myanmar and the motivations of the various actors hinges on it. It stands to reason that the territorialization of migratory models not only stimulates new knowledge-arrangements, but also of simulated (or: performed) knowledge and non-knowledge, as when experts aspire to gatekeeper functions in the local information ecology: experts’ cultural capital hinges on the non-knowledge of others, ideally on an institutionalization of non-knowledge that at the same time demands a relation of trust and support. Here, the various positionalities open to local elites, “re-pats” (i.e., foreign-educated Myanmar citizens who return to their “transitioning” home country), and “ex-pats”, who often arrive in Myanmar after diverse postings all over the world with certain expectations, skills, and blueprints to apply in any given setting.

References cited

Behrends, A., S.-J. Park and R. Rottenburg 2014: “Travelling models. Introducing an analytical concept to globalization studies.’ In: Travelling models in African conflict management. Translating technologies of social ordering. Brill.

Brandstetter, A.-M. et al. 2004: Zur rhetorischen Analyse von Kulturkontakt. Eine ethnologische Perspektive. In: Bisang, W. et al. (ed.), Kultur-Sprache- Kontakt. Würzburg: Ergon.

Geertz, C. 1973: Religion as a cultural system. The interpretation of culture. New York: Basic.

Kaufmann M. and R. Rottenburg 2012: “Translation als Grundoperation bei der Wanderung von Ideen.” In: Lühr, R. et al. (eds.), Kultureller und sprachlicher Wandel von Wertbegriffen in Europa. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven. Akten der internationalen Abschlusstagung zum Projekt „Normen- und Wertbegriffe in der Verständigung zwischen Ost- und Westeuropa“, 2./3. September 2010 in Jena.

Rottenburg, R. 2009 [2002]: Far-fetched facts. A parable of development aid. MIT Press. [orig. Weithergeholte Fakten. Eine Parable der Entwicklungshilfe]

Schilbrack, Kevin 2005: Religion, models of, and reality: are we through with Geertz? Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73(2): 429-452.

Streck, Bernhard 2011: The spellbinding aura of culture. Tracing its anthropological discovery. In: Meyer, Christian and Felix Girke (eds.), The rhetorical emergence of culture. Studies in rhetoric and culture vol. 4. Oxford, New York: Berghahn.


The conference will begin at 14:00 on Thursday, Oct. 18, and end around lunchtime on Saturday, Oct. 20.

Further details to be announced.