Valuing hierarchy, valuing autonomy

Can a person value hierarchy and autonomy simultaneously or are these concepts at odds?

As many of you know, in this research in Cambodia, I aim to try to understand concepts and their relationship to women’s empowerment, empirically, through conversations and observations.  Are underlying values of autonomy, individualism, freedom, equality–what I’m calling liberal values–necessary for women’s empowerment?

As any amount of time in Cambodia shows and many other Cambodia scholars have attested to: hierarchy is important in Cambodia. (This is clear from Chandler’s famous essay, “Songs at the edge of the forest” and reaffirmed by many others.)

I have presented on the possibility of having a feminist ethics that values hierarchy (SEASSI student conference in 2009) and now, reflecting on my fieldwork observations, I’m wrestling with hierarchy again.

More recently, I have been pondering the larger question of whether there exists a type of empowerment that is not based on liberal values or a liberationist framework.

How do we approach the question, “Can a person value hierarchy and autonomy simultaneously or are these concepts at odds?”

As one friend has implied, these concepts are at best vague outside of a context.

Granted, I’m thinking about a Cambodian context.  Autonomy is, at first thought, acting in one’s self interest (not considering others‘ interest or limitations imposed by others).  This feels a lot like the way “rights” is understood around here as in “I have the right to marry who I want even if my parents don’t approve.”

Similarly, my first thought on hierarchy is that it is a respect for the limitations imposed by those higher up rather than solely following one’s self interest.  Or, perhaps it’s more helpful to think about attention to a system, a group, institution, family of which you are a part, rather than your individual desire.  Surely, doing what your parents say might be in your self interest.  But choosing to “follow your own heart” instead of the wishes of your parents might be–for me–valuing autonomy over hierarchy.

In some cultural contexts, it would be unheard of (or at least generally disapproved of) for the parents to refuse to let their daughter marry who she wanted.  Maybe this is not a denial of hierarchy but a redefinition of which aspects of life should be subjected to it.  (This makes this concept of rights seem a little culturally contrived.)

Thinking on a broader level, even institutions which depend on liberal presuppositions or profess liberal values need hierarchy.  It’s not bad to make some decisions on your own and defer to the higher ups for others, right?  While people have tried, it’s proven laborious if not impossible to conceive of another way of running a system like an institution.

Is strictly following the procedures and checking with superiors about some decisions beforehand valuing hierarchy over autonomy?

Another friend suggested my question itself makes a categorical mistake.  He suggested we think of four cases, systems with autonomy and hierarchy, or just one, or neither.  Because he could think of examples of each, he concluded they are independent concepts.

I still think there’s something there.  There’s something about limiting the autonomy of the individual or conditioning one to think first of the whole and only second of the individual self that goes against liberal values, like the idea of the liberation of the individual.

Feminism with which I’m most familiar is steeped in these liberal values.  Many activist organizations want to empower women (to seemingly follow their self interest or exercise their rights).  Is there another type of empowerment possible that values hierarchy over autonomy?  Is the question merely a false dichotomy or does it provide a helpful lens for thinking of which values are necessary for women’s empowerment?

How do you buy a car in Cambodia? Part I

Truth be told, I’ve never sought and bought a car in any country.  I have a hand-me-down 1991 Acura in the U.S.  But in order to get my work done in Cambodia, to be able to visit the communities of the women leaders I’m learning about, I needed to figure out: how do you buy a car in Cambodia?  Here in Cambodia my first thought is to ask for help.  (Surely this already says something about the culture in which I’m more or less engulfed or something about me or both…)

I decided to ask the driver of the organization that graciously hosts me for advice and help.  I told him I was looking for something cheap, maybe $2000, to use to drive to the provinces during my 10-month stay.

He said I probably would want to get a very little car, like a Tico.  I did some internet “research” and learned that this was a Korean car that has been very popular in various Latin American countries and  other places where cheap cars are in high demand.  It’s a tiny car with a 3-cylinder engine and was made from 1991 to 2001.

After a week or so, he told me that he found one. It belonged to the mechanic who worked at the shop that the company car was serviced.  The mechanic bought it for his wife and wanted to sell it because she was pregnant and they would need the money for hospital cost.

The driver from the office took me on a very long motdo ride out to the area where the car lived.  It apparently had a new engine, a Japanese engine which was supposed to be better than the original Korean one.  I drove it a few hundred feet on the tiny road in the outskirts of the city.


The mechanic said that when I was in traffic, I would have to turn the air conditioner off but when I was driving normally it would be fine.  It looked a bit worn out (with a crack in the windshield and no gear markings) but it was probably fine, reconditioned to sell.

The driver from the office thought this 1996 or 1997 was a good choice for $1800 (or a little less).  I should get it checked before making long trips to the provinces but this was normal.  I didn’t know whether to buy it or not.

I liked it fine–it was a car and that was my sole requirement–but I was also nervous.  I had only test driven it a few hundred feet.  What if it couldn’t do a normal trip?  I asked at a mechanic shop near my house if they would check it for me.  They asked about the car and said it shouldn’t be more than $1500.  Finally, I made up my mind.  I would ask to drive it into the shop by my house to see how it did on an actual test drive and get it checked and I’d ask him to drop the price to $1500.

When I told the driver who was helping me to find a car, he talked to the mechanic selling the car.  The mechanic said he didn’t trust me to go without him and he couldn’t leave because his wife was very pregnant.  He also was not interested in reducing the price.  That made me mind up for me.  Finally!

I was a little down, feeling guilty because the driver had done so much work for me and also worried because I didn’t expect he’d do any more which made me wonder, How do you buy a car in Cambodia?


meaty mushrooms

“Meaty” Mushrooms


Feast–curry, fruit, and sweets

fish amok

Fish Amok

bongaim (dessert)

បង្អែម Bongaem (Dessert)


Breakfast–pork with rice and pickled veggies, some kinda soup, and iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk

Consequences of the Gendered Culture of Engineering

Judging from the responses I’ve received, the publication of a 1-page article in the February 2013 issue of STRUCTURE magazine was well worth writing.  Overwhelmingly the responses have been positive, thanking me for my contribution.  Both women and men have contacted me, affirming that they have had similar experiences or that they recognize the intrinsic difficulties for women in the culture and that they want to open up the culture for the good of the profession.  Some report fiery conversations with colleagues who disagree.  So glad to have instigated some good conversation!

The second article in the set, focusing on the consequences for women especially, is in the current (April 2013) issue of STRUCTURE.  Here’s the link:

Consequences of the Gendered Culture of Engineering

[Here’s a little background if you missed the post announcing the first article: After completing my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, I worked as a full-time structural engineer.  Since then, I have continued to work part time in that profession (and hope to go back to it upon my return).  Even when I’m not working within engineering, I am committed to it and interested in helping to help make it better.  My contribution to STRUCTURE magazine comes from my new perspective, benefiting from the distance gained and different tools of analysis developed.  Here’s a piece I’ve written primarily to those within engineering, intending to makes strides toward strengthening the profession.]

Who’s got power?

This is a nice quick article that shows something of challenges of daily life and who has the power (in every sense) and the privilege.

Blackouts tell a tale of two cities–Phnom Penh Post article

Incidentally, we live in the section of the city near Tuol Sleng.  Yes, we’ve experienced crazy power outages lately.  But we live in a nice enough place that the landlord decided to rent a generator which has been keeping the power sort of on when the city turns it off.  Today, though, no water for more than eight hours! yii! យី!

Travel to the Provinces: the fit-as-many-people-and-as-much-stuff-as possible-into-a-15-passenger van

The motoscooter-taxi driver waited with me at the place where the “bus” for Road 4 was supposed to stop as he could tell I was anxious.  Various areas along the road function as makeshift bus stops.  The drivers look for people waiting for a “taxi” and the people also look for the “taxi.”  Apparently, I had the appropriate look and a van drove up, slowing to a crawl but never stopping and the back passenger door opened.  I asked the women sporting pink fingerless gloves and a round hat where the van/bus/taxi was going.  She asked where I was headed.  I told her and she said it was the right bus.  As the van was still moving slowly, I got in and sat next to her and next to a woman and her little (maybe 3 year old?) girl.


View from the inside of the van with a view of other fit-as-many-people-and-as-much-stuff-as possible-into-a-15-passenger vans

So far, it wasn’t bad at all.  The three of us and a middle aged woman in the front seat were the only ones on the bus other than the driver and the woman who sat at the door with her hand out the window showing four fingers, communicating to people on the side of the road we were going to route 4.  At eight in the morning, it was still cool and the bus was nice, not run down at all.  In fact there was a video player that the driver eventually turned on and showed karaoke, typically khmer tv viewing.

We kept going slowly down the street and picked up more and more passengers, just waiting at the side of the road.  A well dressed woman came in. (number 7)  Then there was a young man with two big bags of rice and another similarly-sized package. (number 8)  I was in the front middle seat so I couldn’t see what was going on behind me.  The little girl was very wiggly and very cute.  An old woman asked where it was going and then how much.  The girl said six thousand (equivalent of $1.50).  The women said no, five ($1.25) and was ready to let the bus pass by.  Okay, okay, she let her come for five thousand. (number 9)  People kept coming in, filling the back seat. (numbers 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)  Finally, the bus slowed for a wiry woman who was adamant about her price.  After a bunch of negotiating, with her head turned away she boarded the van, sitting next to me and making the woman who minded the door stand with the door opened, holding onto the roof of the vehicle. (number 16)

After we got a bit further out of town two young girls boarded. (numbers 17, 18)  A more well-to-do couple also got on. (numbers 19, 20)  The wiry woman shifted up to the front and the two girls sat on two little plastic stools between the two front passenger seats.  The woman who sat next to me was taken by the little girl next to me.  The girl was fair with brown rather than black hair.  She asked the mother if it was hers and what nationality she was.  She told the mother the child was beautiful, so fair, and she couldn’t believe she was hers.  (This happened several times.)  By the time we were a ways outside of Phnom Penh, we had 23 people and some big bags of stuff.  People were sitting in between the front seats, two in the front passenger seat, and some were sitting on the floor of the vehicle in the way back.  Despite this craziness, I felt comfortable.

I realized that the fact I could understand all of the conversation made the experience much less intimidating than similar firsts I’ve experiences in other trips to Cambodia.  It was a welcomed change.

The way home was a bit different.  Although now I was already seasoned (well, with one trip under my belt), I wasn’t quite ready for the very different experience of the ride home.  The woman I had visited asked the folks inside a van which was stopped if they were going to Phnom Penh (but with the roads the way they are in Cambodia, there’s no other likely destination).  They said yes and so she opened the door and I climbed in next to a woman in the middle-back seat.  Early afternoon was not a pleasant time to be stuck in the van with a bunch of people.  It was very hot and very sweaty.  We sat there and I realized there was no driver.  I also realized that we couldn’t open the back sliding door from the inside.  When the driver returned he started the vehicle and zipped in and out of traffic passing on the right when it suited him and at the next small town had us all file out and climb into another van.  In this short ride, the van felt a bit like a death trap–no way to escape and no control over the decisions about when and where to pass.  This second shady experience helped convince me to find an alternative method of transportation.  And so the search for a car was born…

The Invisible Gendered Culture of Engineering

After completing my undergraduate degree in civil engineering, I worked as a full-time structural engineer.  Since then, I have continued to work part time in that profession (and hope to go back to it upon my return).  Even when I’m not working within engineering, I am committed to it and interested in helping to help make it better.  My contribution to STRUCTURE magazine comes from my new perspective, benefiting from the distance gained and different tools of analysis developed.  Here’s a piece I’ve written primarily to those within engineering, intending to makes strides toward strengthening the profession.

Here’s a link to the 1-page article in the February 2013 edition of STRUCTURE magazine:

The Invisible Gendered Culture of Engineering

What do you see?

Inherent Difficulties in Fieldwork: What do you see?  What you’re looking for, of course.

At church recently, I heard a sermon in khmer that stressed that help comes from God and that God is the source of hope.  The preacher encouraged congregants to tell others about this.  After the message we sang a song and then there was an announcement.  The service was held in a concrete house, the worship was in a large room on the second floor which had a balcony that faced the street.  After the announcement, several people got up from the congregation and went out onto the balcony at the front of the room.  I kept asking the woman who sat in front of me, “What are they doing?”  There was an answer but I didn’t know the word in khmer so I asked for more explanation.  Something about telling others about God.  I just couldn’t understand.  I thought that several people were going out to the balcony to shout something like, “God is good!”–a little real-time evangelization–in response to the message for today’s service.  Several of the worship leaders were inside talking and I kept waiting for something to happen outside.  I thought they, too, were waiting for the big “Happy New Year!” type display.  Or was it going to be a song sung to the world?  Were they waiting for the music or inviting others to join in?

Finally, somehow it clicked and I realized what was going on.  The people that had gone out to the balcony were the youth and they were putting on a skit or short play about inviting others to church.  The balcony was serving as backstage space, while the front of the room was the stage.  I ignored the conversation going on inside and focused on the outside, completely missing the main event because I was looking for something else.

This was a good reminder that one can only write about what one sees.  The data is circumscribed.  But, with still imperfect language skills, it’s easy to miss very important occurrences when you’re not looking for them.  Because I was expecting something to happen outside I missed the beginning of the play.  Realizing my mistake, I had to laugh.  I will transcribe (with the help of a native Khmer speaker) and translate services and conversations because of my imperfect language skills and hopefully get more and better data through these exercises.  But, as I sit and read a book about qualitative analysis about ways of analyzing the data the researcher has collected, I am reminded that all researchers‘ analyses are only as good as their data and their data is necessarily filtered through their eyes…which might be missing the main event!


Before I left California, I was asked for an interview by Brendan Babish from Claremont Graduate University’s office of communications.  His resulting article on me and my work is up on the Claremont Graduate University website–a link from the home page–with the title “Eye of the Beholder.”

Click on image below to get to CGU’s homepage.


Freedom to Find Food

Freedom to Find​ Food: A Quest for Breakfast

It’s difficult to convey how invigorating and freeing it is to get a bike here in Phnom Penh.  Freedom of movement.  No negotiations with a tuk tuk driver.  No more nervous riding as a modtodop (motor scooter “taxi”) weaves through traffic, but finally sitting in the driver’s seat.  The first thing I do with this freedom?  Eat.  I ride around my neighborhood and check out lots of food stands, stalls, alleys, and outdoor restaurants.  My favorite is breakfast food.

Yes, there are plenty of fancy foreigner joints, but the ones I’m talking about here are the Khmer-style food stops.


DAY 2 – View from inside the “restaurant”

DAY 1: After I finally got a bike and could ride to work, I decided to seek out a breakfast spot.  The first day I stopped at a very small operation in which most people seemed to be getting food to go.  I saw a little table with just one woman and one chair free.  I asked what they had មានអីខ្លះ? (mien ey klas?) and was told it was បបរត្រី​ bah bah drey (fish-based rice porridge).  Sounded good to me so I wiped the chair and my spot at the table with the tissues available (as you do) and sat down.  I asked if they had coffee and the answer was (sadly) no.  Having sat down, I noticed that there were a whole line of people (4 or 5) sitting at a long table inside this tiny alley behind the “kitchen” (pots sitting on charcoal burning stoves).  The woman sitting next to me asked the owner (and cook) if she had seem me before.  No, never.  I interjected in Khmer that I only just moved nearby.  When I received the bowl of porridge, I took a spoon from the container in which spoons were kept.  The container is usually full of water as boiling water is used to sanitize the utensils.  You take the spoon and wipe it dry with one of the tissues on the table.  The tissues either go directly on the ground to be swept away later or if it’s a fancy place they provide a tiny trash can for each table.  I asked for advice on how to spice up the concoction, pointing to two different kinds of pepper sauces in jars on the table and asking which one is better.  It was a yummy cheap meal (I forget now, 50 cents maybe) but I had to stop for a coffee at another shop on the way to work.

DAY 2: I rode a bit further down the street and saw a “restaurant” well hidden but the sight of women grilling of pork on the charcoal stove right at the street caught my eye.  I asked if they had coffee and what else they had and sure enough they had had both coffee and my favorite បាយសេាចជ្រូ pork on rice.  I probably wrote about this meal during my other visits to Cambodia because it’s quite tasty.  What you get: a plate of rice with grilled sweet slices of pork, sometimes a little spicy sauce and green onion on it.  It comes with a soup that I never eat and the best part is a pickled garnish that you put on the rice.  This sweet and sour yumminess reminds me of pickled ginger at sushi restaurants.  It’s called ជ្រក់​and it’s amazing.  There’s usually pickled (or at least vinegary) carrot, cucumber and maybe ginger.  I usually need two little side dishes of it to make it through a plate of rice with pork.  This meal with the glass of iced coffee (what I always called vietnamese iced coffee in the States) is perfect.  It was pricier than usual – $2.15 for everything.  The place wasn’t packed but there were four distinct tables with young professionals I’d guess (office workers?), sitting eating their morning meals.


DAY 3 – Sidewalk breakfast spot

DAY 3: I couldn’t find that hidden, fancy spot so I rode some more.  I stopped at a place that sold baotze (chinese-style buns).  The cook told me these had duck egg inside.  She was also making sandwiches (very similar to vietnamese-style sandwiches) which wouldn’t work for me this morning.  I kept riding, looking for breakfast stands and saw a street side operation–a pretty big one.  They had three big tables or sets of tables.  The food preparation occurred at the middle set of tables and was likely a family working in a production line.  One man made the drinks.  A woman next to him was cooking.  Another woman prepared plates and another added the extras (like the soup and pickled veggies), and finally the youngest woman, the one closest to me, was running around taking orders and shouting them out to the others.  They had a display case with various dishes so I had to ask if they had my favorite.  Yes, they did.  And coffee?  Yes.  I asked where I should sit and she pointed to the spot right in front of her.  It was a bad spot for conversation.  No one else was at seated at the middle section, but a perfect place from which to view the operation.  I got the plate of rice with pork pretty quick, turned down the soup, and had to ask for ​ជ្រក់ .  The coffee required the woman second from the end, who was wearing a wide brimmed hat to shout out the order over and over កាហ្វទឹកដោះគោទឹកកក cafvway (dek) dah go de gak, cafvway (dek) dah go de gak.  “Hold on a minute!,” the man finally retorted.  I got it eventually.  The other tables were mostly full of men.  Older men in buttoned-down shirts sat at the group of tables to my left.  To my right looked like university-aged students in their white shirts and black pants.  There was a mother and child at the furthest table away but I couldn’t really see them.  A young woman came and sat a seat away.  She finished her food in a few minutes and left.

After enjoying my meal and the people-watching, I paid my money $2.15 and rode away on my little freedom-giving bicycle.