A few months ago I found this very thought provoking article Who are the Tai? A Discourse of Place, Activity and Person that was presented by RICHARD A. O'CONNOR of the University of the South.
Here are some intresting quotes from his paper:
"Asking 'who are the Tai?' already presumes there are Tai. Are there Tai? No, not if that means a timeless ethnic whole.....All groups are always changing, and if their boundaries are absolute then we can't cross them to discover what's there anyway. Why then do we imagine 'Tai' as a fixed group that once had or now has a single consistent culture? We're creatures of our era. Ours is an age that imagines discrete peoples swept along or away by progress. That's the modern story. My own discipline, anthropology, gets caught up in this teleology which creates cultures that don't exist whose passing we then mourn."
"Building upon Leach, Moerman and Condominas' insights, scholarship on the region suggests four working truths. 'Working' means open to revision. Our four are thus first approximations. ... First, the Tai are a wet-rice people... Second, the Tai are social-cum-political entrepreneurs ... Third, Tai live in place-defined groups ... Fourth, Tai ethnicize difference"
"That requires me to retheorize culture and redefine the Tai."
"I propose three changes. First, to bring contradiction and power into our model as it is in life, we should equate culture with the openness of discourse rather than the closure of a code or text. Second, to ground our constructs empirically, we should focus on functionally and historically specific Tai complexes that we can study in the field. That's what 'place,' 'activity' and 'person' are. Third, to keep culture open, we need to stress the interaction of semi-autonomous complexes within a regional tradition rather than the integration of a single timeless ethnic whole. Making this shift redefines the Tai."
"What I'm calling the Tai tradition is a largely inherited set of well institutionalized cultural complexes. We might liken each to a tradition within a larger Tai tradition. I identify and group these complexes as 'place,' 'activity' and 'person.' That triad is my grouping."