Progress and its Ruins: Ghosts, migrants and the uncanny in Northern Thailand

By Andrew Alan Johnson, Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College


In this talk, I analyse stories of ghosts and criminals told by residents and workers in urban high-rise buildings and suburban gated communities in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. For many in Chiang Mai’s “communities of exclusion,” the fantasy of progressive, orderly neighborhoods and intellectual, prosperous communities coexisted with stories of empty streets haunted by violent ghosts and drug-addicted foreign invaders. With the added shocks of economic and political crises in 1997 and 2006, events that littered the Chiang Mai skyline with abandoned buildings, the idea of progress in Chiang Mai—in the Thai idiom of khwaam caroen—underwent its own crisis. Through an analysis of these stories of progressive or haunted sites, I show how, for many in these communities of exclusion, the fantasy of progress and development has been rendered uncanny.


Andrew Alan Johnson is an Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College until August of this year, when he will be joining Princeton University. His work looks at popular religion and its relationship to environmental and economic crisis in Northern and Northeastern Thailand. His first book, Ghosts of the New City, examined the relationship between urbanism, ‘animism,’ and haunting in Chiang Mai, and he is currently working on his second book, The Shadow of Sayaburi, which deals with the aftereffects of new hydropower projects along the Mekong River. In addition to these projects, he has also published in Cultural Anthropology, American Ethnologist, Anthropological Quarterly, and others.

All are welcome!