Fred Branfman

Publication Date



Introduction and Edited by Joel M. Halpern and James A. Hafner


This paper is a companion piece to The Village of the Deep Pond,Bari Xa Phang Meuk, Laos issued by the Asian Studies Committee in 1978 as Occasional Paper No.3. Both studies grow out of the work of Fred Branfman who resided in a village, nine kilometers from downtown Vientiane, the capital and major city of Laos. He spent approximately a year and a half in the community during 1968-69. Although he was not a trained social scientist, he was a good observer, knew the language, and had worked in U.S. government aid programs as a member of the International Voluntary Service where he was concerned with programs of rural development. His observations are now approximately a decade old and the local scene has changed dramatically following the corning to power of the Pathet Lao and the disintegration of the Royal Lao government in 1975.

The value of these studies does not lie in depicting a current situation as such, but rather in conveying the texture of rural life as experienced by one villager during his six decades of life. Although his life span included the French colonial regime, the Japanese occupation, the struggle for independence and the subsequent civil war, there is little reflection of these national level conflicts in this old man's account. Rather, he was concerned with more fundamental problems of raising a family and producing enough food for his household. Although his proximity to the city did influence his life, and particularly that of his children, his recollections still relate primarily to a subsistence oriented rural economy and the context of a face to face village community.

The biographical account grows out of a long series of conversations that Branfman had with this villager. While this account is not phrased in the conceptual framework of the professional anthropologist it does form a valuable record based on direct participant observation and is best read in conjunction with The Village of the Deep Pond. It can also stand on its own and be compared to other biographical accounts of peasant life in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

For context with respect to other studies of village life, especially the Vientiane Plain, there is the work of the Japanese anthropologist Tsuneo Ayabe on a neighboring village in the 1950s and the more general work of Howard Kaufman on the Vientiane Plain. This American anthropologist wrote his observations at the time of his employment by the community Development Division of the American aid mission in the late 1950s. Both of these reports were published in the Laos Project Papers (nos. 14 and 12 respectively) edited by J. Halpern. A general perspective, drawing in part on these specific monographs, is presented for Laos as a whole in J. Halpern's Economy and Society of Laos, A Brief Survey (Monograph Series No.5, Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, 1964). For other Lao biographies from various strata of society, including both villagers and those who were born in rural areas and achieved urban careers, see J. Halpern's "Laos Profiles," (Laos Project Paper No. 18). A number of these biographies are reproduced in the monograph by the same author, Government, Politics and Social Structure in Laos, A Study of Tradition and Innovation (Monograph Series No.4, Southeast Asia Studies, Yale University, 1964) in the Appendix of which the "Memoirs of a Young Lao Official," covers some of the same ground but from a more politically aware point of view. Finally, also from the 1950s, is the work of the French anthropologist, Georges Condominas. His publications encompass a detailed survey of the Vientiane Plain and an analysis of the role of religion in village life. An introduction to his work in English translation is available in Laos: War and Revolution (edited by Nina S. Adams and Alfred W. McCoy, Harper and Row, N.Y., 1970, pp. 9-27), where specific references to his works in French are cited.

The world of the old villager depicted in these pages is now historical, his children, even those who remained in the village lead vastly different lives. The new government of Laos has instituted many changes but the attitudes and values which this villager presents to the reader are essential to an understanding of the present. Some aspects of these recollections such as commitment to religious activities, attitudes toward work, perceptions of the status structure, and specifics of the functioning of the kinship system are particular to Lao-Thai culture. Others, such as involvement with the seasonal cycle of crop cultivation, the constant readjustment to changes in life and family-household cycles as children mature and old age comes about, the often unsuccessful struggle to earn a living and the attempt to adapt to village and family politics, are more universal themes.

The editors have intentionally preserved Branfman's informal style and his accounts of personal interaction with the Old Man and other villagers.

The initial assembling of the material presented in this paper was made possible by a grant received by Joel M. Halpern in 1969 from the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group of the Asia Society.