The Newsletter 96 Autumn 2023

HAB and its Role within IIAS

Philippe Peycam

With its fundamental cross-cultural, inter-regional foundations – starting with its Asian, African, but of course also European backgrounds – HAB had the ambition to engage with the need to re-enchant the universal act of education. To do so, it set about engaging with the often biased geo-politico-institutional economy of knowledge production and dissemination, and in general with the position of the university, often considered as a bulwark of conservatism and hierarchy, itself often associated with the West’s lingering normative dominance.

As opposed to the usual initiatives aimed at decolonizing education, mainly engaged in negative deconstructing actions, HAB has, from the onset, prioritized the exploration of new, creative – and therefore positive – methods of knowledge transmission. It has done so by seeking to transcend institutional fragmentations of knowledge by engaging headstrong with communal local experiences, encountered especially in societies where the import from Europe of the university model never fully overwhelmed other more traditional modes of knowledge and their acts of transmission. For this reason, it was necessary for the programme to start with concrete areas of lived/experienced knowledge, rooted in human activities, regardless of their situation, location, and backgrounds. These were the four 'sites of knowledge' that are food, space, words, and making. Around these inclusive, universal – and therefore humanistic – thematic frameworks (to which some others were added: e.g., health, death, etc.), different forms of enquiry, including those considered most specialised or scientific, could be mobilised in a way that they would regain their true role and function in the service to society, and not the other way round. By definition, an initiative like that of HAB is fundamentally experimental and experiential. It often takes unexpected forms of action. It is fundamentally subversive yet always constructive. 

Perhaps its most important and lasting legacy is HAB's demonstration of the need for any academic institutional undertaking to allow for an open, institutionalised space of inter-cultural, inter-disciplinary and inter-sectorial intellectual experiment. This is also one of the best justifications for IIAS's existence as it stands today, beyond its original narrow Area Studies assignment. This spirit of intellectual experimentation provides an institute like IIAS the kind of multi-functional facilitating purpose at the intersection of the acts of research, education, dissemination, community building, and civic engagement. IIAS owes a lot to HAB for its unsettling questionings and its constant reminder of necessary self-reflexivity in regard to what it can achieve for the academic and civic community as a whole.


Philippe Peycam is Director of IIAS.