Certain basic rural social patterns were discernable in modern Thai society. According to United States anthropologist Jack M. Potter, "The spatially defined rural village, which receives the allegiance of its members, furnishes an important part of their social identity, manages its own affairs and communal property, and has its own temple and school, is present in all parts of Thailand as an ideal cultural model, although in many cases the actual form of community life only approximates it."
Affecting the degree to which specific communities approached the model were "ecological, economic and demographic circumstances and the nature of rural administration," Potter writes. In the densely settled central plain, villages were often spatially indistinct, although boundaries defined by patterns of marriage, wat (Buddhist religious complex) attendance, and other social factors might be discerned. In other cases, some of the important features of a functioning community were lacking. Thus, if the proportion of nonlandholders was high and if landowners were absentee and did not provide the social or political leadership typically supplied by wealthy local peasants, community structure was weak.
The wat in the 1980s remained the center of the rural community in many respects, although some of its functions, e.g., as an educational center, were lost, and it was increasingly difficult to retain monks. Most rural communities built and maintained a wat because, as Potter states, the Thai consider it "necessary for a civilized social existence." The wat included the special quarters and facilities reserved for monks, a building for public worship and religious ceremony, and a community meeting place. Typically, the wat was run by a temple committee that consisted of prominent laymen as well as monks who had left the sangha without prejudice. Abbots and senior monks often enjoyed considerable prestige. In times of personal crisis, people often sought their advice.
The wat was first of all a center for religious ceremony, much of which was regularly carried out according to a ritual calendar. These scheduled rites involved the community as a whole, even if their ultimate purpose was the acquisition of merit by individuals. Other irregularly held rites also took place in the wat and almost always included the community or a significant segment of it. The temple was also the locus for astrological and other quasi-magical activities. Although such rites were outside the canon of Buddhism, they were important to the community and were often carried out by monks. Thus, a person would go to a monk versed in these matters to learn the propitious day for certain undertakings (for example, a wedding) or to be cured of certain illnesses by the application of holy water. A large wat usually had a crematorium; almost all dead were cremated.
The temple committee often administered a loan fund from which the poor of the community might borrow in emergencies. The wat was also the repository of mats, dishes, and other housewares that could be borrowed by members of the community. If an aged person had nowhere else to go, the wat was a refuge. The wat was not reserved solely for serious matters; entertainment and dances open to the community were also held there.
Within the village in the 1980s, the basic organizational unit was the family, which changed its character in the course of a developmental cycle. A nuclear family became, in time, a larger unit, but the death of the older generation once again left a nuclear family. Typically, a man went to live with the parents of the woman he married. Such residence was temporary except in the case of the youngest daughter. She and her husband (and their unmarried children) remained with her parents,taking care of them in their old age and inheriting the house when they died. Thus, at some point in the cycle, the household included what has been referred to as a matrilineal extended stem family: the aging parents, their youngest daughter and her husband, and the younger couple’s children.
Emerging from this developmental cycle was a cluster of related and cooperating households consisting of the extended stem family household and the households of those daughters who had settled nearby with their husbands. That pattern was predicated on the continuing control over land and other resources by the senior couple. The closeness of these related households and the extent of their cooperation in a range of domestic activities varied considerably. With a growing shortage of arable land in parts of the country and the aggregation of substantial holdings by a limited number of landowners, the pattern was no longer as common as it had been. The senior couple may have had little or no land to allocate to their older daughters, and the daughters and their husbands may have had to move elsewhere. In the case of wholly landless agricultural workers, even the extended stem family might not be possible.
Most villages were divided into local units or neighborhoods. In the North, neighborhoods were often the entities that on a weekly basis collectively provided food for the monks in the local wat, but these neighborhoods also engaged in other forms of cooperation. Inasmuch as the nucleus of a neighborhood, perhaps all of it, often consisted of related households, activities such as house-raisings might be undertaken in response to either territorial or kinship requirements. If the community was the result of relatively recent pioneering by landless families from other communities, the neighborhood was important, and those living in the same area might come to address each other in kinship terms.
The labor exchange system was initially based on villagers’ relative parity in landholding and their participation in subsistence agriculture. Typically, those involved in an exchange system were kin or neighbors, but the system sometimes extended beyond these categories. Each household arranged with others to provide labor at various stages in the agricultural cycle; in return, the same number of units of labor would be provided to those who had worked for it. Besides a labor exchange, the system provided opportunities for socializing and feasting. Although the arrangements were made by a single household with other specific households, the regularity with which representatives of households worked together gave the households a grouplike character.
The growing commercialization of agriculture in certain parts of the country and increasing landlessness and tenancy in the 1980s diminished the ubiquity of reciprocal work arrangements. Wealthy peasants hired labor; those who had no land or too little to subsist on worked for wages. Commercialization alone, however, did not prevent the use of a labor exchange system if those in it held roughly equivalent amounts of land. In some cases, a household would hire labor for one task and engage in the exchange system for others.
Peasants could be categorized on the basis of the nature of their land rights and the quantity of the land they held. The holdings that made a peasant family rich in one part of Thailand might not make it rich elsewhere. A rich rural family was one with substantial landholdings, some of which it might rent out. Moreover, if a family had the capital to hire agricultural labor and the implements necessary to cultivate additional land, it might rent plots from others. In any case, such a family would rely almost exclusively on hired labor rather than on the system of labor exchange, and it was likely to invest in other local enterprises, such as rice mills, thereby acquiring additional sources of income. The category of rich peasants could be subdivided into those with very large quantities of land and those with smaller but still substantial amounts. Usually that distinction would correlate with the magnitude of their nonfarming enterprises and the extent to which they had money to lend to others. In any case, rich peasants tended to be creditors, while other peasants were often debtors.
At the other end of the scale were the agricultural laborers, who held no land as owners or tenants except, perhaps, for the small plot on which their houses stood. To the extent that opportunities were available, they supported themselves as hired farm workers. Life was so precarious for some families, however, that they had to resort to hunting and gathering. Between the wealthy peasants and agricultural workers were two other categories. The families in the first group had sufficient land (some of it rented) to meet their own rice needs. If there were a crop surplus, it would be sold, but the families in this category did not produce primarily for the market, as the rich peasants did. They might also acquire cash through wage labor from time to time if opportunities were available. The families in the second category owned less land and had to rent additional parcels. Owned and rented holdings combined, however, did not always provide the means for subsistence, so these families frequently had to resort to wage labor. Not all tenants were poor. In some cases, tenants did well in good crop and market years, particularly in central Thailand. In general, however, the tenant farmer’s situation was precarious. Rents, whether in cash or in kind, tended to be fixed without regard for the size of the harvest, and in a bad year tenant farmer families were likely to go into debt. Tenants and agricultural laborers had little or nothing of their own to pass on to their children.
In some areas, particularly in central Thailand, the land was controlled by absentee landlords who lived in Bangkok or in provincial towns and for whom landownership was another form of investment. They could have direct or indirect effect on the social and political lives of their tenants, and some occasionally acted as patrons to their tenants. At the local level, however, it was the rich peasant who wielded political power and was granted deference by others in the community. Differences in wealth were consistent with the Thai villager’s understanding of the Buddhist concept of merit (see Religion , this ch.). According to this view, the accumulation of merit led not to nirvana but to a better personal situation in this world, preferably in this life. Wealth signified that one had merit. One might, therefore, demonstrate one’s merit by striving and succeeding. Villagers at the lower end of the social scale, however, sometimes questioned the doctrine of merit if they perceived the behavior of those at the upper end as unrighteous.
Most observers agreed that the patron-client relationship was pervasive in Thai society, not only at the village level but throughout the military and the bureaucracy. There was less agreement on its links to a class system and the degree to which the relationship was typically marked by social ties of affection and concern as opposed to a clearly calculated assessment of relative economic or political advantage. At the village level, it was not necessary to be rich to have a client, although a wealthy family was likely to have more than one client. It was possible for an ordinary peasant (although not a landless one) to provide limited benefits to someone less fortunate in return for certain services. Often such a relationship was arranged between kin. In the modern era, however, it was the wealthy villager who could provide benefits and expect, even demand, certain services from his client.
In principle, a patron-client relationship lasted only so long as both parties gained something from it, and the relationship could be broken at the option of either. Often, however, the client had few alternatives and would remain in the relationship in the hope of eliciting more benefits than had hitherto been forthcoming. To the extent, however, that prestige and power accrued to the person (or family) who had and could retain a large number of clients, the patron was motivated to provide benefits to those dependent on him.
The patron-client relationship also linked villagers and persons at other levels of the social, political, and economic orders: leading figures in the village, themselves patrons of others in the rural community, became clients of officials, politicians, or traders at the district or provincial levels. In such cases, clientship might reinforce the status of the rich villager who could, at least occasionally, call on his patron at a higher level for benefits that he might in turn use to bind his own clients to him. Just the fact that the rich villager was known to have a powerful patron outside the village could enhance his status.