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Siege of the Spirits

Community and Polity in Bangkok

What happens when three hundred alleged squatters go head-to-head with an enormous city government looking to develop the place where they live? As anthropologist Michael Herzfeld shows in this book, the answer can be surprising. He tells the story of Pom Mahakan, a tiny enclave in the heart of old Bangkok whose residents have resisted authorities’ demands to vacate their homes for a quarter of a century. It’s a story of community versus government, of old versus new, and of political will versus the law.
Herzfeld argues that even though the residents of Pom Mahakan have lost every legal battle the city government has dragged them into, they have won every public relations contest, highlighting their struggle as one against bureaucrats who do not respect the age-old values of Thai/Siamese social and cultural order. Such values include compassion for the poor and an understanding of urban space as deeply embedded in social and ritual relations. In a gripping account of their standoff, Herzfeld—who simultaneously argues for the importance of activism in scholarship—traces the agile political tactics and styles of the community’s leadership, using their struggle to illuminate the larger difficulties, tensions, and unresolved debates that continue to roil Thai society to this day. 

272 pages | 9 halftones, 1 map | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: Southeast Asia and Australia


“With painstaking detail, anthropologist Herzfeld documents the two-and-a-half decade struggle of Bangkok’s Pom Mahakan community to resist eviction. . . . this is a study of human ingenuity and the impulse to make meaning within the paradoxes and limits of history and culture.”


“Herzfeld writes anthropology as if delivering a fireside chat, without a trace of jargon, and with humanity filling the frame. He narrates the negotiations between community members and bureaucrats in graphic detail. He dissects the vocabulary used by both sides. He places the whole issue within the framework of Thailand’s present and past. . . . Herzfeld’s book tells the story of the community with great color and verve but also places it in an international context of community, state, and heritage.”

Bangkok Post

“Herzfeld draws on his ethnography of local resistance to demonstrate how the local people have not destroyed but created a sacred historic space with humanity and dignity. This book makes a significant contribution to the anthropology of politics, both in a general sense and in the context of the violently political conflicts of Thailand. Much of the prevailing discourse on politics in Thailand focuses on the contradictions between two different kinds of political systems, and treat Thailand as a country swinging between monarchy and democracy. Herzfeld, however, not just revives the anthropological discussion of how ‘pulsating galactic polity’ and nation-state polity coexist in postcolonial times, but stresses the agency of the local people to move between the two polity models when they are fighting for their community. Tracing the community’s strategy and leadership style, this book demonstrates the deep tension and dynamics in Thai political culture. With his involvement in the local resistance for more than ten years, Herzfeld also shows us how engaged anthropology can be as one part of the real political society.”

"From start to finish, Siege of the Spirits reads like the captivating political drama it is, evoking what is a very complex reality through the struggles of people in a small, even temporary community. Scholars of Thai studies, sociology, political science, anthropology, and cultural psychology will find much that is worth thinking about in this book, especially in the increasing attention paid to social inequalities and the competing social values that reinforce and resist them."

Current Anthropology

“A virtuoso ethnographer and writer, Herzfeld dissects the heritage effects of the Pom Mahakan citadel in Bangkok on the surrounding neighborhood in vivid detail. Echoing Leach in the urban jungle, he looks over the shoulders of the protagonists by describing how the neighborhood navigates between the cultural model of the older mandala-style, segmentary polity as a moral community (moeang) and the culturally alien model of the centralized bureaucratic state (prathaet). This book is a must-read for Southeast Asianists, scholars of heritage, urban planners, and urban anthropologists alike.”

Oscar Salemink, coeditor of the Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia

“Herzfeld gives us a wonderfully crafted example of engaged anthropology in his analysis of both developmentalist and civilizational discourse in Thailand. Full of stimulating insights, it is a passionate and intimate account of the struggle of a small, poor community in Bangkok. Urban ethnography at its critical best.”

Peter van der Veer, author of The Modern Spirit of Asia

“This vivid book shows just how ugly the top-down politics of beautification and heritage can be. More important, it also shows that the real beauty of Bangkok lies in the creativity of communities like Pom Mahakan, whose residents play with the idioms of power both to co-opt and to resist the will of those seeking to bulldoze their lives. Herzfeld’s account bursts with energy—the writing is nimble, and the theorizing is grounded in anthropological classics but always tied to the realities of the case at hand. In this way, the book carefully guides the reader through the complexities of Thai politics without ever getting in the way of the story.”

Erik Harms, author of Saigon’s Edge

"Despite the apparent outcome for this particular community, the book will remain as a powerful tribute to the long-suffering residents of Pom Mahakan and it can and will still be read as a unique and relevant perspective on cultural politics in Thailand."

Pacific Affairs

"Siege of the Spirits is an essential resource for understanding Pom Mahakan's past and present--as well as its uncertain future. Herzfeld paiints a picture of a complex community that subverts numerous assumptions and stereotypes that are common to urban eviction narratives. The result is an important work of scholarship that will appeal to a wide audience outside of scholars of Thailand and Southeast Asia, especially those interested in engaged anthropology, urbanism and development, heritage and conservation, civil rights, and grassroots movements."

Southeast Asian Studies

Table of Contents


1    Claiming Culture
2    Community, City, and Polity
3    The State and the City
4    Law, Courtesy, and the Tactics of Temporality
5    Currents and Countercurrents
6    Time, Sound, and Rhythm
7    The Polity in Miniature
8    Building the Future of the Past


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