James Scott interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 26th March 2009

0:09:07 Born in New Jersey in 1936; father was a physician and he died when I was nine years old; there were three doctors in the town and the other two had been drafted into the armed services, but he was declared unfit as he had high blood pressure; he had a stroke in 1946; the effect on me was that we went from being relatively well-to-do to about the poorest people in the town; my mother came from a rather privileged background but had no resources, or sense of economy; I did not feel a sense of deprivation at all; I went to a small Quaker school but after my father died my mother couldn't afford to keep me there; I became the first scholarship pupil there - in return for working at weekends they waived my tuition fees; this school was my salvation, a surrogate mother and father to me, and I think that my academic achievements come in part from my desire to please my teachers; this school did things that a public school couldn't have done; we had things like week-long work camps in Philadelphia where we would go to work with a black slum family, painting and plastering their house; we would go to dock worker meetings, Communist Party meetings, eat at settlement houses for people off the street, we would visit prisons, state mental institutions, so got a chance as twelve to fifteen year olds to see the underbelly of Philadelphia in a way that no Government school could have allowed; the Quakers had a lot of conscientious objectors at that time; they put in front of me every day people who had the capacity to stand up in a crowd of a hundred and be a minority of one; that kind of Quaker courage was infectious; I can stand up against a crowd  but if you show me the instruments of torture I would betray anyone

6:22:24 Interest in subaltern studies comes from this experience; became a Quaker for a while but now lapsed; the Quaker doctrine of the light of God in every man and the history of Quaker social action, I admire; wrote a book 'Domination and the Arts of Resistance' which I dedicated to the school, Friends’ School Moorestown, and dedicated my royalties to them as well as a mark of my gratitude; Alice Paul was one of eight key women in the struggle for women's suffrage in America, most of them Quakers, was a graduate of the school; the school created an award in her name and I was its first recipient; I have never been as proud of anything since

8:43:20 I did not know my mother's parents; the family had been socially prominent in Philadelphia two generations before my mother; their descendants appeared to have drunk themselves to death, so have completely died out; my mother's mother died in childbirth so she was adopted by an uncle and aunt; I heard fond stories about her uncle, but I never met him; a force in my life were my paternal grandparents; they were from West Virginia, of Scottish-Welsh background; my grandmother was a classical Methodist striver for the success of all her children, with almost no money; my grandfather was a salesman to mining stores and could live anywhere in his territory; she decided they should live in Morgantown, they built a big brick house, and became a boarding house for junior professors at the University of West Virginia; all their five children went to that university; all her children disliked her but realized how responsible she was for their success in life; she had aspirations, at a later time she could have had a career of her own, but she wrote poetry and drove her children to distraction; I was the apple of her eye; she lived long enough to see me graduate for Williams College; I realized that it meant something to her for me to achieve some sort of academic excellence

12:41:12 I have an older brother who has had a working-class life; he went to another small Quaker school; though naturally left-handed they insisted that he write with his right hand, and this gave him a terrible speech defect which sapped his confidence; he didn't do well and ended up doing factory work; he was nine years older than I am, and fought in the Korean War; to show you the difference in our lives, he had not been in a plane in thirty years when I took him to Korea to visit the old battlefields; my mother had a problem with drink, and her background meant that she didn't have any skills; she had been completely dependent on my father and tried to commit suicide a month or so after his death; I did not know this at the time but I was sent to live with another uncle and aunt in West Virginia; I stayed with them for six weeks until my mother recovered; she managed to hold herself together and control her drinking until I went to college; at that point she more or less collapsed and was in and out of treatment; she died when I was beginning graduate school; it certainly gave me the realization that women who didn't have an independent source of self-esteem and a skill were in trouble in terms of what they had to fall back on; it affected the idea of the kind of relationship I wanted to have; I know there are support groups for people who live in alcoholic families now, but there was nothing available to me; eventually I did what most people are advised to do in such situations; we would have crying and screaming confrontations, me trying to get her to give up drinking, all of which failed; after four or five years of this I realized that I could not change her behaviour and it was destroying me; I can remember withdrawing and seeing my mother as a sad victim, and with an objective eye, emotionally detached, myself; it saved me though it is not something I liked about myself

18:29:20 I was very close to my father; those were the days when doctors went around doing house calls; he had a red Roadster and took every opportunity to have me with him in the afternoons when I was out of school; I came to admire him; he was a bon vivant; he and my mother actually believed that the world is divided into large and small spirited people; one thing they bequeathed to me is an over-the-top large spiritedness; for all her alcoholism, my mother would have given away the house to the next beggar who came to the door; my father was an authoritarian personality as well; when my brother came back from his school knitting blankets for the poor Europeans after the Second World War, my father took him out of the Quaker school fearing he was going to become gay, and sent him to a military school; it was the worst possible thing he could have done for my brother; I can remember him treating a man for lip cancer; he saw the man on his tractor, smoking a pipe; father stopped the car and walked over to him, climbed onto the tractor, took the pipe and broke it, and without saying a word walked back to the car

21:14:18 On hobbies: I was an avid stamp collector; my father was a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, and out of loyalty to him I identified with the Democrat Party at an early age, and was actually involved in democratic politics; I had pork-barrel jobs working at the unemployment compensation; I actually had to work all the time; by the time I was eleven, my mother and I were loading lawnmowers into the back of the car and I was mowing people's lawns, doing their gardening, working for the Quaker school in the summer, working in the machine shop at nights on school days doing metal fittings; whenever it snowed, a friend and I would shovel snow; this pattern of working continued all the way through college; I came to agriculture and animal husbandry later, but I had earlier had experience picking corn and peaches etc., along with the Puerto Ricans who came to work in my part of New Jersey, where the land was very rich agricultural land; my mother had grown up on a farm outside the town; I did a lot of agricultural labour but it wasn't that that brought me to agriculture; I can't say that I enjoyed it but it was a necessary way of making money

23:47:18 Went to the Quaker school from second grade, at age seven, and stayed there until the end of high school; it was a tiny school; people that you have know from six until eighteen you know right down to the marrow of their bones; I know them a lot more than people I have been very close to as an adult; they know me too, and I find that very comforting; I avoid reunions, but the two times I have done so have been extremely satisfying in finding the essential persons behind all the wrinkles; have kept in touch with two or three, especially those who have had comparable lives; on the subject of higher education, I did not have a clue and nor did my mother; I happened to have a Latin teacher whom I liked and he had gone to Williams College; I decided to go there on account of him; the other alternative was to go to Haverford or Swarthmore which were closer, but I wanted to put as much distance between myself and my mother as possible and Williams gave me a scholarship; I don't regret having gone to Williams; I was an economics and political economy major and had the best small colleges economics faculty in the country; I got a fabulous education; I arrived thinking I was badly trained; my brother brought me to my first day of my freshman year and I realized I was completely inappropriately dressed; I remember sitting down in a room where people were talking about artists, writers and poets whom I didn't even know about; thought I was truly out of my league; remember calling my mother and saying that I would probably be home before Christmas; it was a rich kids' school and I was uncomfortable socially, also it was all men at the time; it took me about three years to decide I belonged intellectually and was doing rather well; here I might connect it to the reason why I am a South-East Asianist; I had an economics professor Emile Dupré, who set me the problem of why Germany, in the early years of the war, didn't run double or triple shifts in its factories; it happened to be after working night and day at Williams where I now felt I belonged, and I relaxed for the first time; I fell in love and ignored my senior thesis; I went to see the professor and he asked me what I had done; I tried to bamboozle him and he saw right through me; he told me to get out as I was not going to do an honours thesis with him; I realized I would have to find somebody else to adopt me; William Hollinger, who had worked on Indonesia, said he wanted to know something about the economic development of Burma and that if I was prepared to work on it that he would adopt me; at that time I didn't know where Burma was, but I ended up doing an honours thesis on Burmese economic development; in the meantime I applied to Harvard Law School as I didn't know what I wanted to do, and was accepted there; then I won a Rotary fellowship to Burma so went to Burma for a year

32:19:00 At school I had piano lessons, but was not happy practising; I later took up the guitar, and am fond of listening to music but don't think I have a great deal of talent; I later took up pastel drawing, but envy people who at an early age either developed a musical or artistic skill; I do listen to music; my partner is a cellist, and I can listen to her playing Bach suites until the cows come home; my wife, who died twelve years ago, had a classical education and I was, I think, a civilization project of hers, and she was relatively successful; she brought me to opera, was an art historian and brought me to art; just living with her for thirty years or so was a kind of intellectual and artistic formation  that was remarkable for me; I embraced all her enthusiasms and ended up becoming fond of the things that she was fond of; as a high school kid I was far too anxious about whether our family was going to sink financially or whether I would do all right at school; I was fond of sport, and was a goal keeper in soccer; as it was a Quaker school we did not play violent sports like American football; we had an undefeated basketball season and an, all but one game, undefeated soccer season; I continued to play basketball with my children; I am not particularly good at anything but tend to make up for it by persistence; I am now learning Burmese which I started at sixty-six; I am not a great language student, but I find that sheer persistent application will get you any language

38:13:00 On religion, my father was a militant atheist; remember him seeing an elderly man dying of cancer; he would sit and talk with him for thirty minutes, trying to talk him out of his faith; it was a pleasant, even affectionate conversation, but my father didn't like the idea that this man was going to his grave with these illusions; my mother was an agnostic; however they did not have the courage of their convictions so insisted that I go to Sunday school somewhere, although not the Catholic church; I decided to go to the Presbyterian Sunday school; I actually liked singing; I then became an Episcopalian at a nearby church, and I got to know the Priest there and was fond of him; I was confirmed there, and became an altar boy; this continued for about two years; I was, thanks to the Quakers, completely taken up with Gandhi, and I asked at Sunday school whether Gandhi could go to the Episcopalian heaven; the doctrine then was that if you hadn’t known about Jesus Christ you might have a chance to go to heaven; Gandhi knew about Jesus Christ and did not accept him as saviour, so therefore there was no place in the Episcopalian heaven for him; I walked out of the Sunday school with my friend; I was about fifteen at the time; I remained quite fond of the priest who didn't hold it against me, but that was the end of my being an Episcopalian; later, at the University of Wisconsin, I decided to join the Quaker meeting there; this lapsed, although I admire the Quaker social gospel; I don't have faith in any higher being; if I thought it important, I suppose I would be an atheist, but I don't much care about my lack of faith; I,  don't admire Buddhism; I have seen it in action, and although I admire individual Buddhist figures, I see Burma on its back as a country; Buddhists may do valuable things in orphanages, but the sense that Quaker social action creates civil society and the passion behind it, I don't see in Buddhism; I find it an extremely individualistic form of religion and somehow wonder whether a different kind of Buddhism could bring about more successful results; I spent a lot of time in wats and abbeys, as it is a great way of seeing the country and these people have connections, but I not taken as so many Westerners are by meditation and so on

46:44:11 At Williams I was always on the lookout for father figures; I was taken under the wing of two people in the political science department; one was Frederick Schumann who wrote a book on international relations, and whose nickname was Red Fred; I found his left wing politics very satisfying; I took  attendance at his large lecture classes as part of my student duties for which I was paid; he got to know me as a poor scholarship student who did well, so took me under his wing; another professor, Robert Gaudino, who died young, took the Socratic method seriously; in tiny classes that were filled with intellectual tension, in which you were expected to be deeply engaged, I can remember them being rather frightening; he was a kind of small genius; I don't think much of Straussianism generally, but he as a teacher was quite remarkable; there was a Williams in India programme that was started after I left, which took Williams undergraduates to live in a village for six months; after about five years of this enormously successful programme it was realized that the Williams' students knew more about India than they did about their own country; out of this developed a Williams in America programme in which undergraduates would prepare to spend a semester living with ordinary workers, or in a public institution; a brilliant programme as none of these students would be able to say something facile about such people as they would have experienced that life; when I came back from the year in Burma, I was a student political activist and worked for the National Student Association in Paris for a year; I was elected an officer for another year, and then I went to graduate school; at that point, in 1961, I knew some Burmese but knew I couldn't go to Burma as it had closed up; I had been in Rangoon and had got involved there in student politics with a number of minority groups; after three months I got a death threat put under my door; I lived in the old staff chummery at the University of Rangoon; the Rangoon University Students' Union was a hot-bed of politics, and as I am not brave in that way, within a week or so I moved to the University of Mandalay; I spent the rest of the year there working, initially on economic statistics; within a few months gave this up, and travelled the country, trying to learn Burmese; I feel that I bungled that year and the book that I have done now and the time I have spent in Burma, is an effort to do Burma justice; this is a theme of my life; my dissertation, 'Political Ideology in Malaysia', was not a good book though it pleased my professors; it did not please the specialists who knew about Malaysia, so 'Weapons of the Weak' was an effort to do Malaysia right after having bungled it the first time; Burma was my first time abroad and it was really hard; I lost about 30lb in the course of the year; it was an enchanting country and I would have been perfectly happy to devote the rest of my life to Burmese studies; if I had been able to study with the assurance that I could go to Burma that it probably what I would have done; my next choice was Chinese but I couldn't go to China; I then decided that if I studied Malay-Indonesian it gives you four countries as it is spoken, not only in Malaysia and Indonesia, but in parts of the Philippines and Thailand as well; it was practical considerations like that which led me; I came to Yale to do graduate studies; I had been going to Harvard Law School but had postponed that for my year in Burma; after that year I realized I did not want to be a lawyer but wanted to be an economist; I applied to Yale economics department and they accepted me; then I had the chance to go to Paris; in the course of that year I realized that although I wanted to be an economist, Yale would want me to do a couple of years of advanced calculus; I had a chance to go to North Africa as part of a trade union delegation; I asked if I could do the calculus in connection with my first semester; James Tobin, who was Chairman then, said no; I appealed and he still said no; I asked if he would send all my things to the political science department to see if they would have me; they accepted me and I went to North Africa and became a political scientist rather than an economist; in Paris I was not a serious student but working for the students' union; it was a fabulous year, a kind of cosmopolitanization of Jim Scott; it gave me a familiarity with the huge international student community in Paris at the time; it also gave me an appropriately jaundiced view of political science which was then in the middle of its positivist, empiricist, moment of American political science though I was not aware of that at the time; I knew nothing about the behaviourist revolution and when I arrived at Yale this was complete news to me; I felt all these people were like Jesuits in the grip of a view of how intellectual progress could be made which I didn't share, but I needed to prove to them that I could master what they wanted me to master before feeling free to rebel; it took me about a year and a half before I was able to reject it