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  • Learning, Migration and Intergenerational Relations: The Karen and the Gift of Education by Pia Joliffe
  • Su-Ann Oh
Learning, Migration and Intergenerational Relations: The Karen and the Gift of Education. By Pia Joliffe. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. xvii+179 pp.

This book is a solid attempt at providing insights into the experiences of young Karen migrating both internally in Thailand for schooling purposes and from Myanmar to other countries. The author has considered the experiences of three distinct populations of the Karen: Karen who were born in Thailand, Karen from Myanmar living in a predominantly Karenni refugee camp on the Thai–Burmese border, and Karen from Myanmar who lived in refugee camps on the Thai–Burmese border and currently live in the North of England.

The book begins with an introduction of the main theory and concepts used. The author employs Malinowski's and Mauss's work on the gift economy to frame the way in which the Karen perceive [End Page 211] education, "as a gift that cannot be immediately reciprocated" (p. 2). An examination of how social change affects childhood, education and social dissonance and the relationship between learning and intergenerational relations follows. Chapter Two presents the way in which learning occurs in the family and in everyday life and the linkage between children's aspirations and their family economies. The author provides a historical account of the establishment and development of formal schooling in Myanmar and Thailand for the Karen, and provides a case study of a Thai Catholic school attended by many Thai Karen children and the development of new education pathways for these Thai Karen children in chapter 3. Chapter 4 also focusses on a particular school in Thailand and on the experiences of young Karen who migrate to attend this school. This chapter provides insights into the clash of values between urban, middle-class Thai teachers and their rural, working-class Karen students to highlight the nature of social reproduction in the school.

In my view, chapter 5 provides the best descriptions of the many forms of inclusion and marginalization that Thai Karen youth experience in the Thai lowlands, and of the way in which they negotiate their identities among peers and between communities. The next two chapters focus on two different Karen communities and locations. Chapter 6 examines the post-secondary schooling of young Karen from Myanmar in a predominantly Karenni refugee camp on the Thai–Burmese border, providing valuable information regarding their life course aspirations. Chapter Seven describes the different values and norms encountered by resettled Karen refugees from Myanmar in schools in the North of England. The concluding chapter summarizes the book using the theory and concepts discussed in the introduction. As a whole, this book contributes to the literature on the Karen, in particular their education, schooling and migration. It provides rich descriptions of young people's schooling experiences, their aspirations and their trajectories.

Notwithstanding its many strengths, the book would have benefitted from a more critical reading of Mauss as his theory relates to the [End Page 212] assertion that education is an intergenerational gift. The author does not critique Mauss's theory or engage other theories on reciprocity—those of Marshall Sahlins or David Graeber for example. The main critique of Mauss's theory of the gift focuses on the lack of a universal obligation to reciprocate; there are, after all, gift-giving practices from which this obligation is absent. In addition, the term "obligation" has many different meanings, covering distinct social realities. Attention to these points would have helped to provide more nuance to the analysis in this book.

Moreover, although the author has very clearly taken into account the wider structural constraints that permeate the lives of young Karen students, she has not adequately incorporated them into her analysis of education as a gift that "engages people in permanent commitments, therefore creating and sustaining relationships between educators and pupils of different ages" (p. 3). In other words, young people's motivations to help their parents, their families and their communities by using the learning that they acquire are more complex than the book suggests. There is a desire for parental approval, to justify leaving...


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