The Search for a Better Life: How Partnerships with Westerners shape Thai life chances, social relationships and development
The study examines social relationships produced by Thai-Western partnerships, their impact on Thai individuals, their extended families, and socio-economic development in rural communities. First, partnerships importantly shape individual life chances and wellbeing. They can improve life chances by providing a route out of poverty and the sex industry, or damage them, leading to exploitation or trafficking. Second, partnering produces new ‘family’ structures that cut across generations and cultures, and build transnational relations between Thailand and the West. Third, partnerships can impact on the socio-economic development of a Thai’s homeland region, e.g., if remittances are sent to support the extended family, or a Westerner pays for family members’ healthcare insurance or education. The study uses official statistics and interviews to estimate the scale and form of Thai-Western partnerships. Analyses are undertaken of a sample of Thai partners, their social media sites, their families, and homeland regions, to assess impacts on life chances and development.
Thailand is increasingly a temporary and permanent residence for significant numbers of Western immigrants, so-called Farang of European ancestry, from Europe, Australasia, and North America. For some Thais, establishing a partnership with a Westerner is an explicit goal, because it is the most likely route out of poverty and the sex trade (see applicant’s previous research). But there is little research on these partnerships and their impacts on individual life chances, family relations and home communities. The study addresses the social relationships produced by Thai-Western partnerships, their impact on Thai individuals and families, and socio-economic development in rural communities.
Estimates show 80% of Western immigrants to Thailand are men. Many are older than 55 years, so partnerships are usually with much younger Thai women and men. Initial meetings are often through paid sexual encounters. The question is what happens when this transforms into a relatively stable relationship that endures over time and becomes formalised, perhaps by marriage, and maybe sexually exclusive? How can this transform Thai lives, society and places?
First, partnering importantly shapes the life chances and wellbeing for the individual. It can improve life chances by providing a route out of poverty and sex industry. Or it can lead to sexual exploitation, or trafficking abroad. Given age differentials, Thais may become care-workers for ageing Western retirees. Women may be child-providers for Western men. Are the relationships loving or functional? How are they sustained emotionally and practically? We study how partnerships ‘work’ as a social relationship that involves financial, material, cultural and emotional exchanges between individuals.
Second, partnerships can impact on Thai society. They can produce new structures for ‘families’ that cut across generations, cultures and religions, and build transnational links between Thailand and the West. How do Thai-Western families work? How do they fit with existing friends and family relations? On what basis are these relationships accepted? Do they lead to significant intercultural exchanges? Do they promote further Thai-Western partnering by encouraging their friends to meet?
Third, partnerships can impact on the socio-economic development of a Thai’s homeland region. Remittances may be sent to support the extended family. The Westerner may pay for healthcare insurance or education for family members. Western retirees may settle in sufficient numbers to finance improvements in local health care services, with spill over benefits for locals. Increasing Thai-Western partnering may create regional opportunities for service industries (health; leisure; tourism; dating, visa, marriage agencies). Is socio-economic development brought to regions by foreign capital flows and remittances?
The project has been funded by the British Academy Newton Advanced Fellowship scheme, and will run between 2016 and 2018