Ethnographic exposures: Motivations for donations in the south of Laos (and beyond)



In January 2009, I arranged the renovation of a school in my field site in the south of Laos with funds raised from donors in Australia. This project was initiated at the request of village leaders, and, initially, I saw it as a chance to acknowledge the generous assistance that residents had granted me during my fieldwork. However, the execution of the project was tense, particularly when it brought to the surface long-running ambiguities arising from my adoption as a daughter into a particular Lao family. This adoption, like the school project itself, involved a series of donations that could be interpreted as either self-serving or altruistic—or both. Antagonisms, repressed in donations intended to produce solidarity, make frequent return and imbue those donations with an ambiguous character. Thus, although such exchanges are essential to everyday life in the south of Laos (and to fieldwork), they are also precarious and can lead to conflict as easily as to peace. This ambivalence is especially pronounced in the cross-cultural context of fieldwork, in which the ethnographer is invited to seek out relationships of solidarity and shared understanding but also confronts his or her own specificity. [Laos, the gift, ethnographic fieldwork, fantasy, exchange]