Dec 21 2010

IIAS in the new era

Philippe Peycam

This first director's note gives me the opportunity to introduce the Newsletter’s readers to some of the new initiatives IIAS plans to undertake in the coming years. An important point is that all IIAS members share the sense that the Institute’s original mission – of ‘initiating and facilitating innovative research in the study of Asia and creating new academic networks; supporting initiatives that address new themes and transcend national, regional and disciplinary boundaries; operating in collaboration with cultural and political institutions that focus on Asia; seeking strategic partners to set up new research partners, investing in talented researchers in the humanities, arts, social and environmental sciences; enabling young researchers in developing new projects’– is as relevant as before, and that moving forward, this should continue to inspire our actions. As in the past, IIAS wishes to operate as a clearing house linking together people and communities sharing an interest in/on Asia, exposing scholars to the wider world and facilitating relations between scholarship and society at large.

This global trend is taking place amidst a perceived crisis in the traditional Humanities and Social Sciences at universities in the West, with the Humanities often devalued and Areas Studies questioned amidst a market-orientated environment privileging ‘useful’ and quantifi able knowledge that can be turned into consumable ‘products’– in a context where the distinction between universities and informal learning is becoming blurred with TV, Internet, etc. aimed at a more multiform global public. At home, IIAS faces a trend towards decentralization between and within universities, and centralization of funding agencies, with increased competition for reduced funds.

IIAS’s answer to this new environment is to enhance its Asian relevance by increasing its visibility and focus. We want to do so by furthering IIAS’s institutional identity through the originality of its programmes and activities. Its position as an independent, fl exible, small institution, built on global networks, mutually-benefi cial collaborative partnerships and well-targeted quality services, can earn IIAS the support of its various members, partners and stakeholders, its prime benefi ciaries. Concretely, we aim to do so through well targeted, mobilizing, programmatic thematic clusters in phase with contemporary Asian currents; through strengthened activities and services, with more internal coherence and tighter adherence to the general strategy; and through reinforced networks with strategically selected partners and initiatives in Asia, Europe/Netherlands and elsewhere.

Because the present Newsletter’s Focus section deals with one of IIAS’s three programmatic initiatives (Asian cities), I propose to briefl y introduce them. All are built around the notion of social agency. Future activities, including fellowships, will be organized along these topical lines. The aim is not to exclude anyone or any topic, but to cultivate synergies and coherence between people and projects and to generate more interaction with Asian societies.

Cluster 1: Asian Cities
Over 60 percent of the Asian population live in cities. Urbanisation brings about tremendous changes in the social, cultural and political economy of Asian societies, increasing the development of new economic and social interactions, globally connecting individuals and societies while contributing to forging new social consciousnesses. Contrary to still pervasive Western assumptions, until recently translated in developmentrelated international programmes, this central role of the ‘urban’ in many regions of Asia is far from new. Cities and urban cultures have long been a feature of Asian history, with related issues of fl ows and fl uxes – of ideas, peoples and goods, of cosmopolitism, metissage and connectivity at its core, framing the existence of vibrant ‘civil societies’ and microcultures of contestation.

IIAS wishes to explore this longstanding Asian urban ‘tradition’, by linking the various elements of city cultures and societies, from the ancient period to modern times (colonial and postcolonial), into a broad multi-disciplinary corpus that can actively contribute to the development of Asian cities today. Through its fellowships, IIAS aims to engage social scientists and scholars in the humanities – its traditional ‘clients’– together with activists, policy-makers and city practitioners. The objective is to map out the contours of a new, integrated ‘Asian city knowledge’ rooted in the life and development of the cities themselves.

Cluster 2: Heritage and Social Agency in Asia
The general discourse on ‘heritage’ is a contested one. Whether articulated in the ‘Western’ or ‘Asian’ contexts, from civil societies or from states, they cover diff erent – and sometime contradictory – defi nitions. Initially a Europe-originated concept associated with architecture, it evolved to mean a diversity of cultures and values, with the assertions of material and immaterial heritages (rather than the artifi cial dichotomy of ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’), and the importance of defi ning one’s own identity or identities vis-à-vis those of others. It also carries with it the subversive notion of local ‘ownership’, and therefore, social agency. In Asia, the notion of heritage is often associated with the construction of post-independence nation-state models and the defi nition of national ‘traditions’ and ‘authenticity’, with the idea of a pre/post colonial historical continuity. In similar fashion, the notion of ‘heritage’ and ‘memory’ became central to a number of post-imperial European states and intellectual circles.

This thematic cluster aims at addressing the variety of defi nitions associated with heritage and their implication for social agency, including those currently questioned of ‘national heritage’ or ‘shared heritage’. The wish is to focus on perceived ‘endangered’ local cultural heritages: languages, religious practices, crafts and art forms, as well as material vernacular heritage – issues increasingly prevalent in Asia’s fast transforming landscapes with the affi rmation of multiple voices and identities. The cluster also aims at directly engaging Asian and European scholars, artists, intellectuals and other ‘social educators’ in a constructive ‘civil society to civil society’ dialogue.

Cluster 3: Global Asia
IIAS wishes to push the academic understanding of various processes of globalization through three specifi c objectives: by challenging the euro-centricity of much of its literature and the rehabilitation of the central role of Asia and, by extension, other regions artifi cially sidelined by this literature – stressing notions of fl uidity and interconnectivity that transcend existing delineated global regions; by countering the current tendency privileging contemporary processes of globalization over historical cases; by going beyond the ‘selfi sh’ knowledgegathering process traditionally imbedded in Western academia, by engaging in several collaborative educational capacitybuilding initiatives with the aim of ‘multi-locating’– and thus enriching – the fi eld of Asian studies.

Tackling these orientations should help develop a realistic comparative understanding of globalization processes, and with them, the role of Asia in both time and space, thus avoiding the risks of ‘exceptionalisms’ and ‘exclusiveness’ that abound. Likewise, and without such exceptionalism, we wish to assert the constructive role European intellectual institutions can play in this global redistribution process. The aim is to provide insight into some of the cultural-historical processes associated with knowledge production and circulation as they aff ect patterns of globalization. Here too, the objective is to encourage interaction between disciplines, cultural and social practices, in the form of renewed trans-regional synergies at both academic and practical levels. Again: welcome to IIAS!

Philippe Peycam
Director of IIAS