I was delighted to launch my book Projectland: Life in a Lao Socialist Model Village at the AAS conference in Geelong a couple of weeks ago. A big Thank You to my amazing colleagues Emma Kowal and Will Smith from the Alfred Deakin Institute for giving their thoughtful and thought-provoking comments on my political ethnography on a model village in contemporary Laos. While Projectland was already published a year ago, Covid-19 made it tricky for me to have a proper lauch, so I wish to thank the organisers for providing a space for my book at this year’s AAS conference!

One of my favourite features of the book is the presence of Holly the anthropologist. She takes pleasure in working things out, only to later reflexively critique her theories and diagrams as objectifying the messy realities. She works hard, she never stops asking questions and listening to the answers, she is amazingly patient as some people tell her the same things again and again, and she worries often that she has said or done the wrong thing.

[…] She also felt unsafe for periods of time when she lived in a household that had descended into alcoholism and gendered violence, until she worked up the courage to change her living situation. She writes about these things reluctantly and ambivalently, reluctant to play into racist stereotypes of ethnic minorities in Laos, but also acknowledges that staying silent on these realities feeds into the conditions of gendered violence. These moral and ethical quandaries are familiar to social scientists working with marginalized groups, but the question of personal safety is different for anthropologists conducting long-term fieldwork, especially women. Is this kind of fieldwork even possible anymore? Are the risks involved too difficult to justify in an era of awareness of gender violence and in the risk-averse university?

Emma Kowal, Deakin University, Alfred Deakin Institute