On the epistemology of Southeast Asian Studies

Niels Mulder

The six essays compiled in this book open a variety of ways of looking at Southeast Asian studies, particularly regarding their origin and development in the Cold War environment in the USA. The idea of Southeast Asia itself originated during the Second World War, and concomitant with the process of its decolonization, the resource-rich Region promised to become a frontline area in the contest between communism and American ideas. As a result, there was an urgent demand for information on almost any of its aspects; Southeast Asian Studies Programmes became fashionable at many universities, and developed in splendid isolation from their European colonial precursors. Instead of the older humanities-based traditions, the American view was primarily informed by social studies perspectives, among which political science and anthropology dominated with history as their handmaiden.

Now, some fifty years after the first efforts to gain understanding of the wonders of Southeast Asia, the Region, home to a quarter billion post 9/11 Muslims, regained its strategic interest, even as the situation of Southeast Asian studies changed with the questioning of their validity, usefulness, (social-)scientific soundness, and grounding in the shifting paradigms of the day. What do area studies really contribute? Do they more than just provide ‘data' for lofty theorists half a globe away, or should the perspectives they open serve as challenges to often appallingly narrow-minded ivory-tower dwellers? And then, especially from the early 1970s onwards, what to do about scholars from the area who had begun to talk back? Was, and is, Southeast Asian studies a privileged, white endeavour to which Southeast Asians have little or nothing to contribute but research facilities and information?

These, and many less obvious questions, such as the choices made in representing Southeast Asian studies in American scholarly libraries, the challenges to the field posed by feminist criticism or the voices of second generation Americans of Southeast Asian origin; or by the insights generated through the quest for humanistic and ‘culturalistic' understanding, or by the pursuit of true history versus nationalistic propaganda, make the collected essays like a fascinating course in epistemology, and seen from that side, I found them fun.

Does Southeast Asia exist?

They also raise discomforting questions. The first would be whether the area itself is a meaningful object of analysis, or whether it is more like a patchwork from which anybody can choose his pick. This problem is avowedly not new. Coedès proposed les pays hindouisés, translated as the ‘Indianized countries' of Southeast Asia, which is, in its very sense, a meaningful category that excludes a vast compass of histories and cultures in the Region. On the other hand, if we look at the main populations on the littoral of the South China cum Java Seas, we find a different grouping defined by the similarity of their ways of life, the adherence to the wider scopes of Buddhism, Islam or Catholicism notwithstanding.[1] At the Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development at the University of Chiang Mai, they have delineated the area that is defined by the Salween and Mekhong basins as a meaningful area of analysis. Even so, the idea of Southeast Asia as a ‘crossroads of religion' would subsume the whole area, and so, after sheer endless discussions, we may still be in doubt whether Southeast Asia is more than an accident of geography.[2]

The enigmatic Southeast Asianist

So much is certain: Southeast Asia is in no sense an oikumene if we compare with the Chinese, Indian or Western culture areas, but within its scope we can group populations and cultures in a plausible fashion, yet given these classifications, I remain stuck with a question none of the contributors-a political theorist, a librarian, two anthropologists, a humanist with a focus on Vietnam, and a senior historian-has addressed, namely, who is or who qualifies as a ‘Southeast Asianist'? Whereas the very word occurs at least a hundred times, we'll find no answer to this question, even as it put me to ponder the contours of such an enigmatic figure. Should it be able to compare within the vast area, and then, compare what? Hill tribe with lowland populations? Do I qualify as a Southeast Asianist? I have only some knowledge about the world of thought of urban salaried middle classers in three provincial towns of the lowlands along the Southeast Asian littoral, but the rest of my ideas is scattered and unsystematic. Perhaps we need thorough historical knowledge to qualify, or is a stint of a year's dissertation research among the Baduy enough?

In his provocative, yet well-balanced chapter-after all, the lone Southeast Asian contributor is a Javanese- ‘Can there be Southeast Asians in Southeast Asian Studies?', Ariel Heryanto touches on the attempts of analyzing the local condition through the use of Southeast Asian languages while noting that Filipino scholars have been most determined in promoting their national language to that purpose. It is unfortunate that he leaves it at that, because the venture of the so-called Pilipinolohistas at the University of the Philippines at Diliman is worth evaluating.[3] Their critics, especially at the neighbouring Ateneo de Manila University, refer to the formers' efforts as ‘confusing nationalism with science', at the same time that the mythology they create has been reduced to its proper proportions by the carefully worded meditations of Professor Zialcita.[4] Among the epistemological issues raised in the discussions under review, I would consider that language use and supporting motivations are well-worth some scrutiny, but then, as with the enigmatic Southeast Asianist, we cannot expect that the collected exploratory essays could possibly exhaust the field of inquiry.


[1] Niels Mulder. 2000. Inside Southeast Asia; Religion. Everyday Life. Cultural Change , and 2003. Southeast Asian Images; Towards Civil Society? Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

[2] For elaboration and justification of a geographical delineation of, at least lowland, Southeast Asia as a culture area, see Barbara Watson Andaya. 2006. The Flaming Womb; Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press

[3] See chapter 5, ‘"We, among ourselves"', of Niels Mulder. 2000. Filipino Images; Culture of the Public World. Quezon City: New Day Publishers.

[4] Fernando N. Zialcita. 2005. Authentic Though not Exotic; Essays on Filipino Identity. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Niels Mulder is a retired independent researcher of Filipino, Javanese and Thai culture, and is currently working on his field biography, such as Doing Java; an anthropological detective story. Yogyakarta: Kanisius, 2006, and Doing Thailand; the anthropologist as a young dog in Bangkok in the 1960s. Bangkok: White Lotus, 2008.