Mar 02 2018

Connecting knowledges and peoples

Philippe Peycam

The past few months, following ICAS 10 in Chiang Mai, have been a phase of consolidating IIAS’s ongoing programmes and reinforcing its capacities in order to carry out its mission. Some important events have punctuated the period: a workshop on ‘Reimagining the Civic Role of the University’ at Mandalay University and a methodological meeting on ‘the Workshop’ at Brown University’s Cogut Center for Humanities (Providence), both under the Humanities Across Borders (HaB) programme funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (p.49); a conference followed by an in-situ roundtable with a policy action plan in Peneleh Neighbourhood in Surabaya, in collaboration with communities and Airlanga University, under the Southeast Asian Neighborhoods Network (SEANNET) funded by the Henry Luce Foundation (p.44-45). Meanwhile, preparations have begun for the second edition of the Africa-Asia Conference, ‘A New Axis of Knowledge’, which will take place in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, 20-22 September 2018. Work on ICAS 11, under the theme ‘Asia and Europe, Asia in Europe’, which will be held in Leiden, on 16-19 July 2019, has also begun in earnest.

Expanding our capacities

This relatively ‘quiet period’ - for IIAS - may be a fitting time to take stock of some of the transformations the Institute has undergone. The last five years or so have seen the reinforcement of its character to serve as a global facilitator, or enabler, while new spaces of involvement, beyond the traditional limits ascribed to academic area studies, were opened. The exciting endeavour to renew the Institute’s communication strategy has also significantly contributed to these transformations. More on that below.

The past years have seen IIAS respond more assertively to a number of external and internal challenges. They relate to the original position the Institute occupies as both ‘national’ and ‘international’, with an equally unique mandate of facilitation of research, pedagogy and public service. IIAS, as a global promoter of knowledge regarding ‘Asia in the World’, has been forced to take a position in the larger academic context where area and humanistic studies are under economic threat, and at a time when scholars face increasingly overt attacks on their basic academic freedoms. One response by the Institute has been to reinforce the potentialities of its own public service mission. IIAS is continuously expanding its capacity to serve as a space in which contextualized knowledge practices are put into fertile conversation with broader transdisciplinary questions of universal significance. This is demonstrated by the Institute’s ability to engage with social actors located outside mainstream academia (e.g., artists, urban practitioners, community members), or by rediscovering the benefits of working alongside scholars and universities deemed ‘at the margins’ of mainstream academia.

IIAS’s versatile character allows it to simultaneously engage with local and global, theoretical and applied, research-led knowledge. This capacity to reduce barriers, by testing new methodological and epistemological instruments has propelled the Institute to the forefront of scholarly innovation. The introduction of new formats of activities and engagement has permeated a number of IIAS’s ‘traditional’ programmes, such as its Fellowships, or ICAS, while new initiatives, under the HaB and SEANNET programmes, or the highly popular ‘IIAS In Situ Graduate School’, were shaped to translate this quest for connecting different modes of experience and knowledge, in context.

With the HaB and SEANNET programmes especially, IIAS inaugurated an original model of scholarly engagement conceived as: research-led; collaborative; decentralized; local-global.

  • In both HaB and SEANNET, research is carried out by a selection of local and international Principle Investigators informed by a multiplicity of actors not merely involved as materials for knowledge extraction but as co-producers of this knowledge. 
  • The two programmes contribute directly to the educational, social and institutional needs at the local and supra-local levels. Both share a pedagogical ambition that seeks to facilitate synergies across artificially held boundaries, i.e., university-society; teachers-students; north-south, research-teaching and services.
  • In their operations, HaB and SEANNET privilege collaboration over competition. They stand to counter the prevailing trend of academic atomization resulting from the deleterious application of quantitative ‘Key Performance Indicators’ evaluation. The two programmes, moreover, are built on networks made up of diverse albeit willing partner institutions. These networks will hopefully crystalize into active consortia, like the Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA).
  • The two programmes are decentralized: their coordination is conjointly carried out from Leiden and Chennai (HaB), Leiden and Singapore (SEANNET), or with regional colleagues coordinating their own project and budget. The Dutch/European dimension is not dominant. Partners, as co-owners of the projects, are in turn encouraged to seek additional funding or at least to contribute in-kind to the overall initiative.
  • Both programmes are articulated in a way that local projects can grow out of their environment while their findings are put into dialogue with other centres of knowledge practice. The objective is to shape locally-globally framed spaces of exchange. For instance, ‘neighbourhoods’: a universally accepted site of urban knowledge practice that finds its distinctive meaning at the level of the local. 

Multiple forms of collaborations

This decentralized and mutualized way of operating complex programmes can also be found in the way ICAS reinvented itself. Originally organized along the traditional academic mega-conference model, ICAS, a global event platform, has in the past years morphed into an inclusive collaborative framework enabling a multiplicity of activities to converge in the same place for an intensive short period. Whilst the traditional model of parallel panels and paper-presentations remains, the biennial ICAS events are now framed in a way that they allow for multiple forms of collaborations, with partner institutions partaking in the overall enterprise. This is the case between the ICAS Secretariat (at IIAS) and the host institution(s) and city. It is also true about partners supporting events within the larger conference framework: for instance, Leiden University’s Asian Library sponsoring the ICAS English-language Book Prize. ICAS, moreover, aims to facilitate dialogue and collaboration involving academic and civil society actors.

ICAS 10 in Chiang Mai (20-23 July 2017) was a case in point. It featured within its midst two international graduate schools: the first on ‘craft’, co-organized by IIAS-Columbia Chiang Mai universities; the second on ‘intra-Asia studies’, with the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). The documentary film festival was organized by Kyoto University’s Southeast Asian Studies Centre. A number of exhibitions were put together by local NGOs, in collaboration with Chiang Mai University. The various language editions of the ICAS Book Prize involved collaborations with Leiden University (English), Seoul National University (Korean), The Education University of Hong Kong (Chinese), the German Institute of Global Area Studies and the Schweizerische Akademie für Geistes und Sozialwissenschaften (German), and GIS Asie (French). Book launches, exhibition booths, public roundtables, concerts, etc., also resulted from collaboration. IIAS itself sponsored a number of events including: a HaB institutional roundtable; two SEANNET meetings; an Africa-Asia roundtable (with A-ASIA); a Latin America-Asia roundtable (with Federal University of Rio, and the Asociación Latinoamericana de Estudios de Asia y África, ALADAA); an Indian Ocean roundtable (with Leiden U., Michigan U., SSRC, National University of Singapore, Réunion U.); and a Critical Heritage Studies roundtable (with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and Academia Sinica).

The success of the ICAS meetings has led IIAS and the ICAS Secretariat to facilitate a number of Asia-focused events in new regional environments: in Africa (Accra, 2015 and Dar es Salaam, 2018) with the Association for Asian Studies In Africa (A-ASIA); in the Indian Ocean region (Zanzibar, 2018); in Latin America (workshop Rio de Janeiro, 2016; first conference possibly in 2020). ICAS also assists nationwide or regional events such as GIS Asie Paris in 2015 and 2017; the Southeast Asia Studies conference in Kyoto (2016); or the two Myanmar Studies international conferences in 2016 (Chiang Mai) and 2018 (Mandalay). From a traditional mega-conference organizer, ICAS (and IIAS) has thus transformed into a collaborative clearinghouse for a multiplicity of knowledge on, in and with Asia, in the world. ICAS’s governance reflects this spirit of inclusiveness: since 2013, its Secretariat works in tandem with an International Council made up of institutions from the different regions of the world where Asia is the focus of academic interest.


Reflecting on these substantive evolutions of IIAS and the perceived gap that has grown between what the Institute has become and what it was just a few years ago, our team embarked last year on a soul-searching collective exercise to seek to refine the way our ‘message’ is received while deepening synergies and cross-fertilization between the different activities that shape it. To that end, we engaged with an Amsterdam-based communication strategy organization, LAVA. The exercise led to introspective discussions. Questions regarding visual and textual representations ignited discussions and the crystallization of new communication tenets. One highly debated issue concerned the name of IIAS. The idea of a name change was floated. Today, IIAS clearly does more than ‘Asian studies’; its scope of intervention goes beyond the ‘inter-national’ framework. Only the word ‘institute’ still reflects its organizational and operational character. However, the introduction of a new name may be too drastic a move for now and so perhaps a new tagline would be more appropriate. One suggestion has been, ‘Connecting Knowledges and Peoples’, which certainly addresses our wish to align the Institute’s public image with its current modus operandi.

Philippe Peycam
Director IIAS