Studying Faraway Places from Faraway

ALERT: VENTING TO FOLLOW. In the past day, two colleagues have said in public forums that my understanding of Malaysian politics is superficial (and therefore misleading) because I live far away. One accused me of “parading.” By public forums I mean “in situations where there are lots of my colleagues listening.” I’m not embarrassed to say that such accusations sting. They sting even if no one else is listening, but they sting even more when I know that my friends and colleagues are.

What to do about this? Well, I could stay up at night worrying about it, or I could try to fire something back, but instead what I’d like to do is to accept the critique with a caveat. Yes, I am just not able to have an on-the-ground understanding of Malaysian politics that others can. Being employed in a U.S. university with teaching and research and service requirements and a young family and so on makes it nearly impossible to travel to the other side of the planet very often. When I do, it’s quick, and I rely on old networks to get information—these contacts may no longer be relevant or informed. Consequently, lots of deep contextual information is hidden from me. It’s a problem. And I know that it’s a problem. I know it without having to be lectured about it.

The caveat, though, is that I don’t think that this is precisely the challenge that these critics think that it is. I view my task as bringing the area into conversation with the rest of the discipline: with non-Malaysianists who do Asian studies, or with political scientists more generally. To do that requires a rather different sort of intellectual endeavor than really describing with complete nuance all of the facts on the ground. It requires distance. It requires something other than careening from crisis to crisis or scandal to scandal. (Importantly, nothing substantive that my critics said after noting that I study Malaysia from far away leads me to change any inference that I have drawn about Malaysian politics.) Sure, I can give my thoughts on current events in Malaysia (that’s what this is for), but if you want an expert, don’t ask me because I don’t know, and I’d be the first to tell you. If you want the broader picture, the one that deliberately abstracts away from the details because doing this is useful, then that’s where I can help (that’s what this is for). So I take my cue from the baby elephant:

10 thoughts on “Studying Faraway Places from Faraway

  1. As importantly to me, the alternative of “describing with complete nuance all of the facts on the ground” is a chimera. I hold the world to be infinitely complex (and yes, I mean infinitely, rather than overwhelmingly-but-finitely). So the goal of complete description is unattainable, and your critic is, in some sense, just as ignorant as you are, since the amount of real-world complexity that will elude him/her is just as infinite as the amount that will elude you. Take that, critic!

  2. That’s awesome, J, and a key theoretical point that gets to the very heart of what it means to claim “expert knowledge.” We all must be humble.

  3. The evident response to such critiques, Tom, is that there is a set of benefits to studying far away places from far away.

    One problem social scientists face is that we live in the social world that we are trying to describe and explain. This contrasts with the natural sciences, where the investigator is more or less independent from the substance in his/her petri dish, which s/he is studying.

    The consequence of this lack of subject/object independence is that social scientists both have an impact on the phenomena that we are studying (albeit often admittedly minimal) and, importantly, we are impacted by the phenomena under study. When those phenomena are political, then it is likely that both the questions we ask and the answers we give will be somewhat politicized and, therefore, contaminated. This is unavoidable. However, at least by studying far away places from far away, we are able to get some critical distance and, in so doing, minimize the danger of politicization of our analysis.

    For mine, suggesting that area studies can only be done effectively by those who are residing in (or very regularly visiting) the area under study is analog to suggesting that micro-biology can only be done effectively by scientists who choose to dive into the petri dishes of the substances that they are investigating. This would come to a gooey end (as, indeed, has the work of some social scientists I know who have ‘gone native’).

    Of course, social sciences studied from afar come with their own bases of contamination. We have fixed sets of conceptual lenses, we may privilege theory over empirics etc etc. All this limits our analyses, but it also enables those analyses.

    The trick is to recognize that there are both advantages and limitations to studying far away places from afar. There are also advantages and limitations to studying them proximately. The two approaches are ultimately complementary and each would benefit from recognizing as much.

    Those who want to be haters in either direction are simply doing so to the detriment of their own, and our collective, understanding.

  4. Well said, good man. Let me add the following: “going native” is a common response for many devotees of their field sites, but the natives are never as native as they think that they are, yet once one makes the decision to go native, as Colonel Kurtz learned, you can never go back.

  5. Hi Tom,

    In principle, I do not agree with the fact that one can be dismissed simply because one lives far away (or what does not live in the area one studies.)

    I do know that historically there has been wrong diagnosis of local situations by academics from a different culture (I’m thinking of Said’s Orientalism)

    However, I do not think this to be the case of foreign researchers on Malaysia post independence. Some of the best analysis of Malaysia is done by people from outside Malaysian.

    People such as Clive Kessler, John Funston, Harold Crouch, Colin Barlow, etc are testament to this.

    John captures the pros & cons well. Add to that is the fact that academia in Malaysia is neither free nor fair. Hence, analysis by Malaysians in Malaysia public universities have an added constraint.

    Therefore, unless the criticism are related directly to some theoretical or methodological aspect, or your interpretation of findings, I would not be too worried about it.

    Keep up the good work Tom.

  6. Thanks for reading, Greg. It’s much appreciated. My conclusion is the same as yours: we should disagree on substance rather than credentials. Anything else is just noise.

  7. Hi Tom,

    As a “native” myself, being born and raised in Indonesia, I only achieved a clarity of viewing my country from here, in the States. I also think when I’m in Indonesia, whether living or while shooting a documentary, a different part of my brain is activated in order to cope with the intensity of experiencing life in real time. I need to surrender to influence. Distilling this experience uses a different part of my brain. Distilling while experiencing can work against each other. Distance, in space and time, helps me make sense of things. The Javanese like to practice kungkum, soaking in a stream overnight, in order to sharpen the senses, in seeking clarity. Kungkum is a sort of finding a distance.

    Kian

  8. There are people who live outside of the US that are far more knowledgeable about our country than the majority of people living within the US boundaries. I believe you do not have to live within a country to become an expert about an outside country.

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