Tropes of Indolence and the Cultural Politics of Development in Lhasa, Tibet


Correspondence: Department of Geography, University of Colorado, Campus Box 260, Boulder, CO 80309-0260. email:


Tibetans in Lhasa negotiate development, as a hegemonic project, through idioms animated by situated practices and historically sedimented memories. Two related idioms through which development is experienced are a pervasive trope of Tibetan indolence and one that describes Tibetans as being spoiled. A Gramscian analysis of contradictory consciousness is critical to understanding the trope of indolence, which is both a performative speech act and a reference to patterns of labor and time allocation. The trope is informed by contemporary state development discourse and national value-codings of “quality” under economic reform, as well as culturally, historically, and religiously constituted notions of proper work. These idioms tie together ambivalence about multiple aspects of life as transformed by development, including underemployment, urbanization, and chemically intensive agriculture. Though culturally specific, these idioms of development are not “merely cultural.” Instead, they are shaped by specific policies for economic development and political control in the Tibet Autonomous Region. These idioms, in turn, also shape possibilities for maneuver within the larger trajectory of reform and development. This analysis builds on the work of geographers, anthropologists, and others who have recently argued that conceptualizations of development as a monolithic and globally uniform discourse elide the cultural effects of development as well as the grounded practices through which it is enacted and contested.