The recent conference on Methodology in Southeast Asian Studies at Uni Freiburg was a lot of fun and a good learning experience. It was also revealing about some basic differences among the disciplines in which Southeast Asianists work. This calls for a big, two-part post on methods in the disciplines. Few of these are my own ideas alone—I learned a lot from the other participants, and the conversations helped me to think about these issues—but won’t use other people’s names in order not to implicate them for what I’m about to say.
The basic contrast that emerged was between the hard social sciences (political science and economics) and the more humanistic ones (anthropology, global/cultural studies, area studies). History was not much represented, but to the extent to which it was, it acted like a humanistic social science. The specific point of contrast was in cross-disciplinary engagement: The political scientists especially seemed far more comfortable engaging outside of their discipline than the more humanistic social scientists. As an indicator of the divide, when the anthropologists, for example, gave presentations, the political scientists would ask questions. When the political scientists and economists gave presentations, the only questions they received were from other political scientists and economists.
This matters a great deal to me because I see the point of interdisciplinary conferences like this to be to encourage debate and discussion of the very foundations of the way that we study Southeast Asia. I claim that the goal of Southeast Asian political studies is to make true statements about how politics actually works, why it works that way, and what the consequences are. I gave a presentation in which I argued that the best way to figure these things out is to compare things, that qualitative and quantitative methodologies are both equally suited to doing this, and that Southeast Asia is not that special. It somewhat irks me that I didn’t get a comment on this argument from anyone in cultural studies, even though I know that people in that room disagreed pretty fundamentally with these perspective and even though I deliberately tried to provoke a discussion by exaggerating my position for effect. It also irks me that the representatives of experimental methods, comparative historical analysis, quantitative methods, and formal theory in Southeast Asian political studies similarly received no comments from outside our discipline (except for from economists). As much fun as we had talking to our likeminded friends and colleagues, we didn’t write presentations for them.
It’s actually the asymmetry that is most striking. I was taken aback by how openly the political scientists in the room (not just me) were willing to engage at a pretty fundamental level with the presentations by scholars working in history, anthropology, cultural studies, and so forth. I mean, to ask critical but not hostile questions, or to seek clarification on unclear points.
So what’s going on here? Here are five potential explanations for why the PS and econ representatives seemed so much more engaged with their counterparts from other disciplines.
1. Numeracy. We often talk about literacy as this basic skill that students must have, but numeracy is just as important. It could be that the more humanistic social scientists simply could not understand our presentations, which (despite our best attempts to simplify) assumed an understanding of things like functions, correlations, treatment effects, Boolean algebra, equilibria, and so forth.
2. Disdain. It might be that the problem was that our audience actually understood our presentations perfectly, but that they considered our arguments so obviously wrong as to not even warrant a response.
3. National academic culture. For better or for worse, there was a pretty clear divide between the economists and political scientists (mostly U.S. trained and employed in U.S. universities) and the others. Maybe those employed or trained in the U.S. just have a more aggressive and confrontational style.
4. Gender. Also for better or for worse, there was a pretty clear gender divide between the two groups, although the overlap between gender and discipline was not perfect. Maybe men just have a more aggressive and confrontational style.
5. Personality. It’s possible that there is some unobserved factor—call it personality—that explains the differences across groups. Maybe aggressive and confrontational people just sort into the harder social sciences, which explains why our group was more vocal, while more introspective or reticent people sort into the humanistic social sciences.
These factors may explain some of what I saw in Freiburg. However, I don’t think that any of these things really capture the origins of this divide between the hard and the humanistic social sciences in Southeast Asian studies. Stay tuned for more later.