My arguments about urbanized villagers began with the Asian Survey article I published with Naruemon Thabchumpon about the 2010 redshirt protests. The redshirts were popularly characterised as ‘poor farmers’, but from our interviews, we found two problems with this idea: they weren’t poor and they weren’t farmers.
In contrast to their popular image as “poor farmers,” the redshirt protesters we talked to in 2010 offered a counter-narrative along the following lines. They were geographically and ideologically adrift between the city and the countryside, dividing their time and their aspirations between the two (Naruemon and McCargo 2011).
Most of the redshirts we talked to had middle class incomes, and some of them were better off than low-level government officials and company employees. They were generally ambitious, hard-working and upwardly mobile, trading their motorcycles for pickup trucks and sending their kids to college.
At the same time, many of these redshirts were in debt, hustling two or more jobs to stay afloat. They had low-paid employment in the service or industrial sectors, often casual or freelance, which they supplemented by running businesses on the side.
The ‘farmer’ question was also confusing. Many redshirts did indeed have family ricefields or other agricultural plots back in their home villages, but were usually too busy working in urban areas to take care of them. They hired other people – often migrants from Cambodia or Burma – to do their farming for them.
In this article I make one basic argument: the much-vaunted distinction between the
city and countryside in Thailand does not exist. Or to be more precise, it does not
exist in the ways in which it is typically described and imagined. What actually exist
are multiple blurrings of the distinction between urban and rural, and the emergence of
a hybridized population that operates in a hinterland between the two realms (McCargo 2017).
The key to the urbanized villager question is the issue of legal residence. In Thailand, it’s perfectly possible to live and work for decades in Bangkok while maintaining your house registration in your original home province (often in the North or Northeast). This leads to a kind of identity confusion – perhaps almost half of the people living in Bangkok and five surrounding provinces formally reside somewhere else.
Urban areas are full of ‘villagers’ from the provinces, while in recent years provincial towns have expanded far beyond their notional municipal limits. In other words, the town has become rural and the countryside has become urban.
I discussed the question of urbanized villagers further in my keynote address to the 2017 International Conference on Thai Studies in Chiang Mai, and in this 2017 Critical Asian Studies article.