Context and Methods in Southeast Asian Politics

I recently finished a new paper on context and method in Southeast Asian politics. I wrote it for a conference next week on area and method in Southeast Asian studies at Uni Freiburg. Here is the abstract:

This paper summarizes my reflections on methodology and context sensitivity in Southeast Asian political studies. Within this diverse field, there is no agreement about what context means, or how to be sensitive to it. I develop here the idea of unit context (traditionally, the area studies concern) and population context (traditionally, the comparative politics concern) as parallel organizing principles in Southeast Asian political studies. The unit context/population context distinction does not track the now-familiar debates of qualitative versus quantitative analysis, nor debates about positivist epistemology and its interpretivist alternatives, or even political science versus area studies. Context is not method, nor epistemology, nor discipline. Rather, the core distinction between unit-focused and population-focused research lies in assumptions about the possibility of comparison, or what social science methodologists call unit homogeneity. While I conclude on an optimistic note that a diverse Southeast Asian political studies (embracing many disciplines and many methodologies) is possible, the fact remains that unit context and population context are fundamentally incommensurate as frameworks for approaching Southeast Asian politics. Although it is a matter of personal taste, I believe that population context is the superior framework.

I feel just a little bit badly about this paper because it doesn’t deliver what I wanted it to deliver. I was invited to present on my experiences studying Southeast Asian politics from a quantitative perspective (no accident that I’m on a panel with Eddy Malesky and an economist). But I was unable to think of anything penetrating or non-obvious to say about that. So what the paper has turned into is an extended commentary on how the qualitative/quantitative distinction (or debate, or war) should not be seen as an important one as we organize the field of Southeast Asian political studies.

Instead, the main distinction is about context and comparatibility: either things can and should be compared or they cannot and should not. I make a strong case in the paper that eliding “quantitative” with “comparative” and “qualitative” with “contextual” is just not right. “Context” has at least two meanings: population context forces us to think about cases as exemplars of broader phenomena, whereas unit context encourages us to understand the particular features of each case. Neither of those definitions has anything to do with qualitative or quantitative methods.

Two other features of note:

  1. My thoughts in this paper were deeply shaped by the comparative methods course that I taught this year.
  2. My conclusion is either hypocritical or self-contradictory. A close read will make that very clear. I’m just putting that out there before anyone gives me that “gotcha” critique.