Current Trends in Anthropological andSociological Research on and in Southeast Asia
SOUTHEAST ASIALooking at Southeast Asia commonignorance is rather wide spread.Thoseworking on Indonesia tend toignore concepts based on researchon the mainland and vice versa,and those working on thePhilippines ﬁnd it easier tocomparelocal processes with Latin America.A telling exception is the olddiscussion on the “plural society”and the “dual economy.” Incontrast, later research is far morelocalized.
Clifford Geertz “involution”has, as far as we know, neverbeen applied for the analysisofdevelopment in Thailand,Vietnam, or anywhereoutside of Indonesia. On theother hand the “looselystructured social system” or“patron-client” perspectivehas not received anyattention outside of thediscussion of Thailand.
As King and Wilder indicate, this has a lot to do with thecolonial past when the initial paradigms for the study ofIndonesia, Burma and Malaysia or Indochina were formed. Thistradition of colonial fragmentation perpetuated by thelanguages used in publications, and teaching courses at theUniversities, is one reason why no paradigm of Southeast AsianStudies has emerged, from which it might be possible to deﬁnethe region as such as a ﬁeld for anthropological enquiry. Anadditional more pragmatic reason certainly is the need to beﬂuent in quite a few rather difficult languages to docomparative ﬁeld research.A structural discrepancy among those working on SoutheastAsia might have its root in this:
FirstThis discrepancy concerns the status of the researcherswith regards to their discipline. In the European socialscience discussion Southeast Asian studies are marginal.In sociological research in Europe, the so-called “ownsociety” still reigns supreme. Less so in anthropology andethnology where ﬁeld research in a far away location hasalways been part of the initiation rites. Most social scienceresearch in Southeast Asian universities or researchinstitutes has in common with European institutions thefocus on the own society and culture, which is in this casethe own country.
As mentioned, studies comparing processes in Thailandwith Indonesia or Malaysia and vice versa are hardly foundoutside of the NUS (National University of Singapore).Thereby mainstream research in Southeast Asia is marginalfor Europe and vice versa mainstream research in SoutheastAsia is ignored in Europe. So far the impact of the Asian – European Centresestablished at Southeast Asian universities, namely atUniversity Malaya and Chulalongkorn University can notbe evaluated. Very interesting is the establishment of the“Centre for Occidental Studies” at University KebangsaanMalaysia (UKM).
Second There is an important implication to this different statusof Southeast Asian Studies within the region and outside.Research by those working in Southeast Asia has to addressissues deﬁned politically as relevant. The endings have to be fed into the local discussion offuture development and of how to solve problems. Incontrast, not the least due to the marginalization offoreigners doing research on Southeast Asia, they can, andquite often do, focus on quite speciﬁc and sometimes“exotic” topics that are not that closely connected to localsocial science discourses in the region.
Third The research work of the scholars is embedded indifferent structures. Europeans scholars are in SoutheastAsia for their ﬁeld research, for conferences etc. in otherwords outside of their usual work and everyday life. Incontrast, those working in Southeast Asian universities etc.hardly ﬁnd time for ﬁeld research due to the manifolddemands in terms of administrative work, teaching load,consultancies and political engagement. Still the number of European “Southeast Asianists” whowork for extended periods in universities of the region issurprisingly small, as well as the number of SoutheastAsians working in European universities outside of thelanguage departments.
At least a few Europeans who worked in universities of theregion for longer periods are doing comparative studies orfocus on Southeast Asia wide processes. Evers analysis of strategic group formation can be cited aswell as Mulders work on “everyday life in Southeast Asia” orthe studies of Evers, Nas and others on southeast Asianurbanism, to refer to just a few. The different life styles and research conditions of local andforeign scholars can lead to meconnaissance as Wazir (1996)notes, “how representative are the images of the developingworld which are created through the globalization ofknowledge and how distinctly different are these from theimages that the developing world conceives of knowledgeproduced from Europe and the United States”(2003:135).
A way out of such misreckoning is mutual workingtogether. This faces problems resulting from the mentioneddiscrepancies, and the valorization of knowledge on aglobal scale especially in publications. In a recent study on social science research in SoutheastAsia, Evers and Gerke show that during the last decadespublications dealing with the region have nearly tripled(Evers/Gerke (2003). Still most publications on Southeast Asia are producedby scholars associated to universities or institutes outsideof the region, especially the US and Western Europe. But,the proportion produced within he region is risingrelatively faster then publications outside.
But, the proportion produced within the region is risingrelatively faster then publications outside. This shows thatpossibilities for cooperation are improving, which has andwill have the effect that the issues addressed by researchmight become more comparable. In Malaysia and the Philippines about a quarter ofpublications are “home grown” and in Thailand a bit lessthan one ﬁfth. This rank order of local studies on the owncountry contrasts with global research on the respectivecountry. Here more than 30% of the publications refer tothe Philippines. Second comes Vietnam (26%), thereafterIndonesia (24%), Thailand (23%) and Malaysia (20%).
Concerning Vietnam and Indonesia we thus ﬁnd astrong contrast between local social science capacities andinternational attention. Whether this indicates thatinternational – local cooperation is less in these countries isa question of further enquiry. With regards to Myanmar,Cambodia, Laos and Brunei less than 5% of publicationsdeal with these countries.To put Southeast Asia on the agenda, more engagementof the regional institutes and individual scholars to involvein such large scale projects is necessary and, what is as oreven more important, to get together and establish such aprogramme as international cooperation focusing onSoutheast Asia.
References:Atkinson, Jane Monning/Shelly Errington (Ed.) (1990), Powerand difference. Gender inisland southeast Asia, Stanford: Stanford University PressEvers, H.D., S. Gerke, 2003, Local and global knowledge. Socialscience research on southeastAsia, working paper 18, Southeast Asia Studies, University ofBonnKing, V.T., W. Wilder, (2003), The modern anthropology ofSoutheast Asia. An introduction,London: Routledge
Manderson, Lenore/Pranee Liamputtong (Ed.) (2002), Comingof age in South and SoutheastAsia. Richmond: Curzon PressManderson, Lenore/Linda Rae Bennett (Ed.) (2003), Violenceagainst women in Asiansocieties. New York: Routledge CurzonOng, Aihwa and Michael Peletz (Ed.) (1995), Bewitchingwomen, pious men. Gender andbody politics in Southeast Asia, Berkeley: University ofCalifornia PressWazir Jahan Karim, “Anthropology without Tears: How a„Local‟ sees the „Local‟ andthe „Global‟,” in: Henrietta L. Moore (Ed.), The Future ofAnthropological Knowledge,London, New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 135