Political scientists who work on Southeast Asia have historically felt marginalized from the mainstream of political science. Indeed, some the most well-known scholars of Southeast Asian politics (in particular, Benedict Anderson and James Scott) are also known as critics of political science as practiced in most U.S. political science departments.
Viewed against that background, this list is rather amazing. It contains the Division Chairs for the 2013 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Each “division” represents a subgrouping of political scientists doing research in a particular subfield of political science. These are the people who have been vested by the discipline with primary responsibility for deciding which papers will appear at APSA’s 2013 annual meeting: the main event of the main professional organization in political science.
And if you are familiar with the names, you will find that Southeast Asianists feature prominently in this list. Not just people who have been to Southeast Asia or who have written about the region in some loose way, but people who have made their careers at least in part through extensive field research in Southeast Asia and who can conduct primary research in the region’s languages. The five in which Southeast Asianists are represented include
- Comparative Politics
- Comparative Politics of Developing Countries
- New Political Science
- Political Economy
- Representation and Electoral Systems
In fact, these five are among the subfields that are most centrally important contemporary Southeast Asian political studies (although we are missing Conflict Processes, Women and Politics, Race and Ethnic Politics, and several others).
This is really meaningful. It should be taken as prima facie evidence that is no longer true (if ever it were true) that field work and primary research in Southeast Asia is incompatible with professional success in an American political science department. And to be clear, there is nothing like a policy of positive discrimination in favor of Southeast Asianists in APSA. Rather, this happened naturally—or at least, as naturally as these things ever happen in any professional organization.
(Another interpretation you might have is that scholars of Southeast Asian politics have been brainwashed by their discipline, falling into line like good little foot soldiers. If you know any of these people like I do, you’ll know that this isn’t even close to accurate.)
Southeast Asian politics, in other words, has arrived. Doing research on Southeast Asia is no less a part of mainstream political science than is doing research on any other part of the world. Moreover, despite what some may believe, cross-national quantitative research does not appear to be the Great Tradition in modern comparative politics (although most of the scholars listed above have done at least some such research in their careers).
There is still a way to go: the population of Latin America is about the same as the population of Southeast Asia, yet Southeast Asianists remain much less common than Latin Americanists in American political science departments. But this is good news for Southeast Asian politics and for the interdisciplinary field of Southeast Asian studies. If I have anything to say about it, the next step should be bringing political science back into the Association for Asian Studies.