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FLAS Graduate Spotlight: Alexandra Dalferro

Alexandra's headshot

Interviewed by Catarina Massa, MPA '19

What are you researching and how did you end up at Cornell?

My research is about the politics and processes of sericulture (silk making) and silk weaving in Surin Province, Thailand. Woven in the region for over 1,000 years, silks were traditionally key tributary gifts exchanged among kingdoms, bestowing rank and status and embodying political and social hierarchies. Although silk producers can be found across Thailand, weavers in Surin are renowned for their sericulture, weaving and natural dyeing skills. Today, silk has become a powerful symbol of “Thainess” and of enduring cultural heritage, and people from Surin Province are nationally recognized for their sericulture, weaving and natural dyeing skills. Using sensory ethnographic methods and archival research, I follow the energy flows of silk and its human and nonhuman coproducers to analyze how this industry is embedded in social worlds and forms of identification, including contested ethnic and national assertions, entomological classifications, and genderqueer affiliations. By paying close ethnographic attention to the affective, ethical, aesthetic, material, and sensory dimensions of silken energy transformations, I seek new insights into how precarious forms of life and human-nonhuman relations are sustained in the face of political, economic, and ecological uncertainties. After years of studying and working in Thailand, I decided to pursue graduate studies at Cornell because of its strength in both anthropology and Southeast Asian Studies. I knew I wanted to learn Khmer language to prepare for my fieldwork, and Cornell is one of the only universities in the country to offer Khmer.

Tell me about a typical day in the field. What does it look like?

Every day is different - that's what makes anthropological fieldwork exciting and challenging. This week, I participated in a district-level festival with people from one of my fieldsites, a small village where many inhabitants raise silkworms and weave silk. The festival involved different competitions, like dancing, storytelling, cooking, and silk modelling, and youth from the village also demonstrated their silk spinning and weaving skills. People from the community are proud that their children are learning about weaving, even though they know that the interest might not develop into a long-term occupation.

How is FLAS going to help you in your research?

FLAS has helped me to study Khmer. Many people in Surin are ethnically Khmer, and they speak both Khmer and Thai in their daily lives. Some members of older generations are more comfortable speaking Khmer, and so I have used both languages during my fieldwork. My training in Khmer has been invaluable in helping me to connect with people in Surin, to build relationships with them, and to learn more about Khmer-Surin history and culture.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of learning a local language vs. using an interpreter/translator?

Coming from an anthropological background, I feel that knowledge of the local language is crucial, even if one works with an interpreter sometimes too. I think that being able to communicate (even at a beginner level) with another person in the language they are most comfortable speaking is a sign of respect and openness; it can lead to opportunities for different kinds of dialogue and deeper understanding. Grasping the intricacies of local languages helps to understand significant cultural nuances -- both similarities and differences. These nuances often get lost if words and concepts are being translated through English-language frames of reference.

What advice would you give to other graduate students who may be interested in learning a SEA language or pursuing FLAS?

Take a course at Cornell! Set up a meeting with one of the language teachers first to discuss your interests and needs. The SEA language teachers are fantastic and usually tailor curriculum to respond to individual research interests. Nekkru Hannah has taught me a lot of weaving and silk-related vocabulary, and we've studied about Khmer art forms and practices.

How has SEAP helped you?

SEAP has shaped my experience at Cornell in incredibly positive ways. The community is vibrant and welcoming, and in addition to the intellectual stimulation I find at SEAP, I've made some dear friends through SEAP activities. SEAP has been a crucial source of funding for me, too; with support of SEAP-sponsored programs like FLAS and small summer research grants, I've been able to develop my project and spend a lot of time in Thailand and Cambodia.

What are your long-term goals?

I hope to continue my engagements with Thailand and Cambodia, and Southeast Asia more broadly, and I remain open to the form that these interests may take. I'd love to be able to teach in a college or university and to undertake collaborative and creative research projects that transcend disciplinary and profession-based boundaries. I also plan to continue weaving!

Can you give me one fun fact about yourself?

When I was growing up, my family took care of over 20 cats and 2 dogs (with some birds and fish for good measure). I still love both cats and dogs a lot!

on the farm
weaving
doing an interview
selling silk