Faculty profile: Anthropologist Bowie ‘embraces the unpredictable’

The story of Katherine Bowie’s life and career might be titled “The Accidental Anthropologist” or perhaps “The Serendipitous Scholar.”

Bowie has followed a winding path guided by her constant curiosity and an openness to pursue unanticipated opportunities. As she explains, “Being a good anthropologist involves being well-prepared to embrace the unpredictable, just ready to go with the flow.” This philosophy has served her well.

This daughter of a Mayo Clinic doctor was once on a track to the medical profession herself, but instead opted for an odyssey that has taken her halfway around the world and back many times. Her journey led to her current position, as a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Here, she also has been affiliated with and served as director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, one of UW–Madison’s federally supported National Resource Centers.

Katherine Bowie
Katherine Bowie

In her research, Bowie has focused on Thailand, living in-country for over eight years over the past 40 years.  Exploring Thai peasant history, political economy, social movements, electoral politics, gender and Theravada Buddhism, her publications range from serious topics like counterinsurgency and vote-buying to the bawdy humor of “joking monks.” (For a list of publications, go to Bowie’s faculty webpage.)

In recognition of her standing, she was elected last fall as vice president of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), which places her in line to become president of the organization in 2017. With over 7,000 members drawn from a wide range of disciplines in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, the AAS, founded in 1941, is the largest organization in the world of scholars specializing in the study of Asia.

Asked about her career journey, Bowie tells a series of what she calls “shaggy dog stories,” often punctuated with laughter.

She entered college as a pre-med student, but, she says, “Looking back, anthropology makes a lot of sense.”

She was born in London, England, to an English father and Swiss mother. Her family moved to Canada and eventually to the United States. “I was always aware of cultural differences. Cultural differences just between my parents were obvious.”

How Bowie found her way, academically and physically, to Thailand was more by happenstance.

“As an undergraduate at Stanford, I was wondering about the meaning of life: Why are we born? Why do we die? What it’s all about?”

She enrolled in a course on Buddhism taught by Frank Reynolds, a visiting professor from the history of religions department at the University of Chicago. “He had us reading a whole spectrum, from folklore all the way through to the metaphysical stuff.”

When Bowie questioned him after class about how ordinary villagers’ understand Buddhism, Reynolds handed her a bibliographical essay he’d written. “I spent the whole winter break reading,” she says. “Then I took another class with him on Thai Buddhism.”

As she prepared to apply for graduate school, she searched for a topic. She had been thinking about going to Africa, but recognized that she knew far more about Theravada Buddhism. “So Theravada Buddhism it was.”

Next, she considered where to go to do her research on Theravada Buddhism. Back then, in the early 1970s, she says, “Sri Lanka was complicated … Burma, no … Laos or Cambodia, the Vietnam War was still going on. That left Thailand.”

She found reinforcement for that choice from her summer job, working in the cardiac catheterization lab at the Mayo Clinic. “Of all the residents in that period, I had already decided that the most outstanding doctor was this lady doctor from Thailand. So I knew if I went to Thailand, I had access to excellent medical care. That’s how it became Thailand.”

To do her research, she needed to learn the Thai language.

“Now, we teach Thai here (at UW–Madison); we even have a summer program,” she says. “But in my day, that wasn’t an option. The only way for me to learn Thai was by going to Thailand.”

Professor Reynolds, whom Bowie credits for her acceptance at the University of Chicago, arranged for her to study at a language school that was run by a woman who taught Buddhist philosophy at Buddhist universities and on national radio.

“During that period of time, I’d do four hours of intensive language, just memorizing as much as I could as quickly as I could. Then in the afternoon, I’d go watch Thai movies, because there were some air-conditioned movie theaters. That was as close to total immersion as I could get.”

Adventures in journalism

At a gathering of American ex-pats in Bangkok, she came across her next fortuitous opportunity, an opening for a research editor to help produce a yearbook about Thailand. Still struggling with her dissertation topic, Bowie saw this position as a means to learn more about the country by going out and interviewing people.

“I had a card that said I was doing something real. I could go ask for a meeting with the director general of the department of religious affairs or whatever, and they would accommodate me, help me get statistics, whatever information I needed.”

However, the group producing the yearbook had wanted to sell advertising, she says, “so they were not pleased when I ended up with this 1,000-plus-page tome.”

But in the course of researching this yearbook, she also had connected with some “serious journalists” who were putting out a publication called Investor Magazine. An unfortunate incident led to yet another opportunity.

“My housemate was taking a break and had gone to Laos, and she got attacked and beaten up,” Bowie explains. “She was scheduled to interview the controversial governor of a province in southern Thailand, but she was in no shape to do the interview.”

This governor had come under attack – including an assassination attempt – for denying a trade concession renewal for a major international company.

“He called the house to cancel the interview, because he was sick of Western journalists.” But Bowie told him that she had been asked to do the interview. “I said, ‘Well actually, I’m not a journalist. I’m a graduate student at the University of Chicago. I’ve read your dissertation, and I thought it was fantastic.’”

Amazed that she knew about his dissertation on the coup of 1932, he agreed to meet.

“I wrote an article about him that the magazine refused to print,” she says. “That was my first experience with censorship. I went over the Bangkok Post, and asked, ‘Are you willing to print his side of the story?’ And they said, ‘Sure.’”

With that, she became a freelance journalist. “I had a good nose for stories, and I was too stupid to understand how hot politics can be.”

During that time, village headmen involved with an organization loosely translated as the Peasants Federation of Thailand were being assassinated.

“I got interested in what was going on, so I went to those villages and tried to interview people. I found that people were afraid to talk,” Bowie says.

“I ended up getting smarter about how to do interviews, and stopped asking direct political questions.  I started asking indirect economic questions, basic background questions – Do people own their own land? What’s the going rate if you’re a tenant? How many people don’t have enough rice to eat? – so people would start to open up a bit more.”

She decided to do her dissertation on the history of this farmers’ movement. “I got networked in. The president of this group had been assassinated, and I was going to live with the newly elected president and his family. Then they tried to kill him. He joined the underground. I got death threats.”

The coup of October 6, 1976 made it impossible for her to continue this line of research.


From the 1970s: Bowie and village friends split bamboo to be woven into mats. She explains: This was before we formed the mat-weaving cooperative.

Finding a village to call home

“At that point, I decided that I wanted to learn about village life and village problems, and any village would be just fine,” she says. “Just let me learn the language, learn something about what people are doing, everyday life, everyday issues.”

A friend who oversaw practice teachers in village schools helped with her search.

“Various people said, sure, they’d be willing to take in this idiot foreigner. I moved into one village and that didn’t work out very well, because it turned out they were involved in the illegal teak trade. They were worried if I stayed there, they’d all get in trouble.”

She ended up in another village, living with an elite family.

“Shortly after I had arrived, it was soybean planting time. I was out in the fields with the villagers. When I got home, my Thai father was furious. I was not supposed to be out there losing face. I could take photographs, and write about it, but I wasn’t actually supposed to be out there in the hot sun. I hadn’t understood that there was this class stratification within the village.”

She lived with this family for a year. That ended when her Thai father, drunk at the time, learned that she had gone out threshing rice with a relative of his wife, with the wife’s approval. “He was furious; he broke a water pot. They were already having marital problems. My Thai mother said ‘I think you should probably find somewhere else to live.’”

Bowie moved in with Narong, the village school principal, who told her, “I thought you should move in with us from the beginning, but my wife was afraid. She thought you were a man (because when they first met, Bowie was wearing a jean jacket and pants and had short hair), and she had heard that Westerners liked bread. She didn’t know how to make bread, but now that she knows you eat sticky rice, move in with us.”

That, Bowie says, marked “the beginning of a fantastic friendship that has lasted 40 years. He just died last year and I miss him a lot. He was an outstanding teacher. He made so much of my research possible.”

Those were tense times. The Vietnam War had ended, but the region was feeling the fallout. In Thailand, the guerilla movement was growing.

“We started a mat-weaving cooperative with a hundred families, landless villagers, and that was a risky move,” she says. “This was at a time, if you did stuff like that, you faced charges of being a communist organizer.”

Bowie and Narong, the village school principal, met in the 70s and became long-time friends.
Bowie and Narong, the village school principal, met in the 70s and became long-time friends.

Narong’s wife, Kongchan, had become particularly concerned, and told Bowie: “Katherine, this is all fine for you, but I have a fourth-grade education and two children. If anything happens to my husband, I’ll never forgive you. One day, you’re going to leave and you might not even know what’s happened here.”

Bowie told Narong about his wife’s worries. “He said, ‘See what it’s like when you marry a woman with a fourth-grade education. She’s never understood me.’ Then I talked to the wife, and it was very clear that they loved each other. It was a very emotional moment, but it was an important turning point for all of us.”

Taking this risk alongside the villagers drew Bowie into the local network. “That’s how I gained access to the poor in the village, who otherwise would never have trusted me.”

She remained in Thailand for four and a half years, while taking a leave of absence from the University of Chicago.

“As an anthropologist, you’re only as good as your network of friends. Whatever I’m working on, my family and other people in the village will know somebody in some other village who can facilitate the introductions for me. It was an incredibly important time for me.”

Bowie, Narong, and and his wife, Kongchan, eating breakfast during a 2013 visit. Bowie says: "The strings on my wrist were tied by village elders to keep me safe before my return to the US."
Bowie, Narong, and and his wife, Kongchan, eating breakfast during a 2013 visit. Bowie says: “The strings on my wrist were tied by village elders to keep me safe before my return to the US.”

Moving forward academically

Bowie eventually went back to Rochester, Minnesota, where she got involved with Southeast Asian refugee resettlement, and then returned to the University of Chicago to finish her course work.

By now, she wanted to focus on the 19th century history of relations between villagers and the court in northern Thailand. “That was a politically taboo subject, so I had visa problems and research clearances denied.”

To work around that, she revised her topic. “It officially became a dissertation about oxen caravan traders, porters and boat rafters, and trade in the 19th century. But, in the process of learning about all that, everything else came up as well.”

Experience had taught her the value of interviewing around the edges to get at what she wanted really to know.

“My master’s thesis was on the history of irrigation, because I was not allowed to ask questions about royal landholdings or anything else to do with royalty. If I study the history of the irrigation system, I have to learn everything else, too. Irrigation sounds technocratic, so I got approved by the National Research Council of Thailand.”

She ran into further roadblocks when she sought approval to distribute her questionnaire to 130 villages in one district. The district officer, fearful after the 1976 coup, looked for a reason to bounce it up to the next level.

“He said my questionnaire asked questions that might concern national security. Like what? He said, ‘Does your village have a rice mill?’ How is that national security? He said, ‘You know, during World War II, the Japanese wanted to know where the rice surpluses were so they could feed their soldiers.’ I understood that he was just afraid to make a decision.”

She ended up facing an official at the provincial level who already knew her: “Oh, you again? Come back next week.” She eventually received permission to ask many of her questions, including the one about rice mills, but was barred from asking about royal land holdings and titles.

“I said, ‘But excuse me, sir, but you’re denying Thai history.’ He looks at me: ‘I’m not denying Thai history; I’m denying your right to ask these questions.’”

She adds, “But getting clearance to interview about irrigation gave me access to everything I wanted to know about.”

For her dissertation, she interviewed more than 500 villagers – most over 80 years old – in 400 villages in Chiang Mai Province about what their parents and grandparents had told them about life in the 19th century.

“I joke with my students, If you want to know the truth, only ask just one person, because after that, it gets confusing. I’d do an interview and they’d have one description. I’d do another interview and I’d learn something else, but it was different. The village I lived in wove bamboo mats, another village specialized in fish nets, another village did pottery, another one did the dyes for the cloth that was dyed in these clay pots,” she says.

“So each time I did an interview, it was like, Wait a minute, there’s no pattern here. It doesn’t make sense day by day, but after you’ve done hundreds of interviews and step back: Oh, I see this overall pattern.  There was a pattern of very close control and a very sophisticated division of labor.”

“I often tell my students that to be a good anthropologist you have to be a good journalist. It’s the same wanting to get the story, wanting to hear the other side, figuring out who isn’t telling this part of the story, how am I going to get access to it,” she says. “Many of my closest friends are Thai journalists.”

KBowie 002
Bowie has reminders of Thailand in her campus office.

Coming to UW–Madison

In one move that was no accident, Bowie came to UW–Madison in 1988.

“I had already decided as a graduate student at Chicago that I wanted to come to Madison,” she says. “There were just so many people – Jim Scott, Don Emmerson – who knew about Southeast Asia. I was just amazed at the expertise in area and international studies that Madison had. Wisconsin was always my top choice of where I wanted to be.”

Since joining the UW–Madison faculty, she has served on more than 70 dissertation committees, describing that as yet another kind of family.

“I’m pleased not only in training the next generation in Southeast Asian studies, but also the Thai students who came to Madison to do their PhDs and are now faculty members at Thai universities. I have three who have returned and are teaching in Thailand; several are currently working on their PhDs and will go back to faculty positions at Thai universities.”

She adds, “UW–Madison is playing a major role in shaping the next generation of anthropologists in Thailand. It’s important to make sure that there’s another generation.”

In addition, her networks include Thais who were studying in the United States when she was a student. “They went back to Thailand, and because they had their advanced degrees, they were, years and decades later, important people. My networks go all the way from the village to the upper echelons of Thai society.”

Bowie also has been active within professional organizations. She cites the Council on Thai Studies, noting that UW–Madison and Northern Illinois University have alternated as host of the annual conferences. “This used to be a small regional conference, but it’s become an annual national conference, because so many of us are working on Thailand.”

She also points to her involvement with the Midwest Conference of Asian Affairs, one of eight regional conferences under the Association of Asian Studies. She served as the program organizer when UW–Madison hosted, and went on to become president of the Midwest Conference and its representative to AAS.

“The Midwest Conference of Asian Affairs is worth supporting,” she says. “This is a conference in the Midwest region where our students can go to present their work, get some experience, and get some feedback before they start thinking about giving a paper at the big conference.”

Bowie won’t be the first UW–Madison faculty member to serve as AAS president. She is following in the footsteps of Thongchai Winichakul, professor of history and Southeast Asian Studies, who held the leadership post in 2013.

“Thongchai played an important role in pushing for more communication between scholars in Asia and scholars in the U.S.,” Bowie says. In addition to the regional conferences in the United States, AAS has added an annual gathering in Asia, which makes it easier for scholars there to participate and avoid the expense and visa issues of traveling to the U.S.

Bowie's favorite photo with Narong, who is helping to translate some texts.
Bowie’s favorite photo with Narong, who is helping to translate some texts.

Thailand continues to call

Bowie, meantime, maintains her close ties with Thailand, making five trips there last year.

“I spent a lot of time this last year with my brain left somewhere over the Pacific Ocean,” she laughs, referring to jetlag after the long flights and 12-hour time difference.

She has traveled there for speaking engagements, which she attributes to the most recent military coup. “It was more difficult for many of the Thai scholars to speak, and so they were looking around for speakers and asked who’s left. Well, there’s Katherine’ That’s how I think that happened.”

Perhaps her most important trip came on short notice, when she learned that her long-time friend, the village principal, was gravely ill. “I was there with his family and the whole village as he died,” she says.

“The book that I’m finishing right now started with him,” she says, launching into another “shaggy dog story.”

In 2004, she explains, “I was going to Thailand to study changes to village electoral laws that were leading to an increase in vote buying like I’d never seen before. But the headlines in the newspaper were about a female senator wondering if the northern Thai practice of forbidding women from entering certain parts of the temple was in violation of the equal rights clause of the 1997 Thai Constitution.”

Bowie became interested in this story, noting that the senator received death threats and had to resign her committee assignment.

“They had a cursing ceremony,” she says. “The key people organizing all this were village scouts from the counterinsurgency movement, which I had written my book on rituals and national loyalty about. So how was I going to approach them? In order to find common ground, I tried to remember everything I knew from all of these hundreds of interviews about northern Thai practices of Buddhism and other regions. I remembered going to funerals where I would hear tapes of what I translated as ‘joking monks.’”

She recalls hearing these tapes from the 1970s. “I could understand the setup of the joke, but the joke would happen. Everyone would be laughing, but I couldn’t understand the punchline.”

Her Thai friends directed her to a store in Chiang Mai that still sold the tapes. “Now I could stop and figure out the punchline. I was shocked. These were bawdy stories. I had no idea.”

Her friend, the principal, took her to interview a “joking monk.” She learned these monks were actually reciting an important chapter of the Vessantara Jataka, the story about one of the Buddha’s previous lives in which he gives away his wife and children to a beggar.

The way it’s described in the academic literature, Bowie says, the story focuses on the Buddha as a serious account of perfecting generosity and detachment.

“We interviewed this joking monk and I find out that it really is funny. I had no idea that it’s a bawdy story where the focus could be on the beggar who gets the kids. That was the beginning of the book I’ve just finished,” she says.

“As my friend was dying, I was talking to his family about having a ‘joking monk’ at the funeral, because that was the tradition in the old days. His older brother had been a ‘joking monk.’ Everybody thought that would be a great idea. For his funeral, I was the host in absentia for a performance of the ‘joking monk’ chapter.”

The monk who was invited to recite the story “was embarrassed to be asked to be telling bawdy stories. So he has a whole preface, ‘I have to apologize in advance if anything I say is offending anybody. I’m doing this at the request of this foreign professor.’ It was a cleaned-up version; it wasn’t as bawdy as it used to be. My friend would have been pleased to be there. His spirit would still have been around because it hadn’t been formally sent away yet.”

Bowie also wanted to contribute to the cost of the funeral, so her friend’s wife suggested that she could pay for the coffin. “That was very moving to me, and it was gorgeous. It was spectacular.”

Bowie and her Thai sister, Kongchan (Narong's wife), are off to do interviews.
Bowie and her Thai sister, Kongchan (Narong’s wife), are off to do interviews.

Adventures in motherhood

“I spent at least eight years of my life in Thailand, so it definitely affected the way I raised my two sons.”

Her older son studied math and physics at Stanford, and recently finished his master’s degree in electrical engineering. Her younger son graduated from the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and has started his own videogame development company.

“Got one in the arts, got one in the sciences, same mom,” she says. “How did that happen? I was pretty much a single mom raising them.  Because I was always too busy, all I could say when they left the house was ‘Make good decisions.’  Lucky for me, they did.”

“I went to Thailand when my older son was six weeks old. I had already committed to doing a Ford Foundation project, so I had the kid in a baby carrier,” she says. “Everyone was, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to Thailand with a small baby.’ I had no support here. Once in Thailand, I had a whole village.”

She recalls arriving in Bangkok, exhausted.  She stopped in a restaurant to get some food. Four teenage boys who were eating and drinking at a nearby table offered to play with her baby so she could eat. “I was so exhausted, I was just thrilled. I can’t imagine drunken American teenagers offering to play with someone’s baby.  Such a whole different world.”

When her sons were ages 3 and 5, she returned to Thailand as a Fulbright Scholar, in the northeast, a region where she didn’t normally work.  Accompanied by her boys, she interviewed former members of the Communist Party, “because I’d written about the right wing and I wanted to get the other side of the story.”  She adds, “I did lots of long interviews, many lasting several hours. My kids were incredibly patient.”

Her older son recently returned to Thailand with some of his best buddies from high school.

“My younger son has been back several times, and briefly worked for a videogame company in Thailand,” she says.

“He’s a break dancer, so he’s involved with break dancers around the country. As I was interviewing for this book on the joking monks, I was traveling all over, and had my younger son, who was 16 at that point, with me. I’d interview monks by day. At night, I had to find break dancers to keep my son happy. I learned a whole other side of life in Thailand for younger people.”

She adds, “They had a big break-dancing battle in Bangkok, so my son was very insistent that we had to make it to that. People couldn’t believe this old lady knew all these break dancers from around the country. He’s in touch with several of those kids to this day.”

Looking back, she says: “Permanent schizophrenia is how I characterize my life. So many people here don’t know my family in Thailand, and it is family. My friends in Thailand, in the village … I’ve videoed my house for them so they can see it. I take pictures, but it’s not the same. So it’s very hard for them to imagine what my life here is like.”

Reflecting on the loss of her friend, Bowie says, “I thought, how am I going to continue with my research? There were lots of other feelings, but this was one of them.”

“Right now, I’m working on a famous monk, who was under temple arrest in 1920 and 1935, and taken to Bangkok. Over 400 monks were forced to disrobe in 1936 before this monk was allowed to return to the north. It was a really big deal that no one has written about.”

Narong's family at the funeral, in front of his coffin. His grandsons had been ordained as novices.
Narong’s family at the funeral, in front of his coffin. His grandsons had been ordained as novices.

As she began this new line of research, she counted on her friend, who was retired and bored, to get around.

“He had a car, and the two of us, and whoever else was around, would head off on whatever the next adventure was. And the stories would percolate around the village about what we learned. When he died, I thought, how am I going to continue?  My research involves lots of driving; it’s not something I can do within one village. I’m going out into lots of different provinces.

She soon got her answer, from her late friend’s family.

“When I got back on one of my trips this year, and said I don’t know how I’m going to continue this, they asked, ‘Where do you want to go?’ I mentioned some villages that weren’t too far away. The son and his wife said, ‘We can drive you there.’

“‘How? You’re working every day.’

“‘We can do it on the Internet.’

“So, with the wife in the back of the car on the Internet, they drove me to the villages where I wanted to go. They got totally into the research. The wife is phenomenal, a natural investigative journalist. They are now pursuing the research as they go out and sell Amway. They are asking people what they’ve heard about this monk that I’m studying.”

Her late friend also had helped her by reading texts and explaining words that she didn’t understand. The friend’s wife, with her fourth-grade education, had little confidence in her ability to read, but she pitched in by going through a text written by the monk.

“She said, ‘Not bad, for someone with a fourth-grade education, huh. That was really interesting. If you want, we can read some more tomorrow.’”

“It’s kind of cool, that this fascination I have with northern Thai history is percolating out into people who work with me. They’re busy doing the research now because they’re interested in it for their own sakes.”

Bowie’s stories point to the fluid nature of her work.

“You think you’re going there to study one thing, and then something happens. I never know. Thailand is always amazingly interesting. Every time I go there, there is always something happening, always new topics.

“I’m never bored. I just go with the flow.”