A Tale of Two Disciplines

Hypothetical Disciplines

Think of a venerable academic discipline which focuses on the study of people. Scholars working within that discipline study individuals, societies, movements, nations, international forces, past and present. The discipline does not have a dominant methodological orientation or epistemological foundation. Some working within the discipline produce work that is primarily descriptive, others focus on theory, and still others on normative argument. This discipline is diverse. It is also big: its professional association in the United States boasts 15,000 members, and has a big annual meeting in which thousands of people try to network and feel professional. Truth be told, it feels like something of a fiction to believe that all of these people have something in common.

The other thing that you need to know about this discipline is that it came into being in its modern form through the study of Western societies. As a result, the concerns of Western societies have long shaped its conventions, practices, and strucures. The U.S., and to a somewhat lesser extent Western Europe, have always dominated its main journals. A common critique is that scholars adopt a Euro-centric or US-centric perspective on all questions of global import. Its “international studies” sub-field is really “U.S. and European foreign concerns, viewed through American or European conceptual lenses, and reifying U.S. and European stereotypes, even when it tries to be critical.”

Indeed, it used to be that everyone had to learn multiple languages during graduate study in that discipline, but those languages were normally German and French, to read the academic literature produced in those countries. Now you can be a perfectly serviceable scholar at a top department knowing only English, and focusing on the United States or its affairs abroad.

Undergrads have always found this discipline to be a nice major for law school.

A Place for Southeast Asia

Now given all of this, where is the space for Southeast Asian studies? The structural biases are pretty big: it is far from the North Atlantic core, the languages are non-Indo-European and rarely taught, student demand is low, the jobs are few (and tend to be clustered at big research universities, which are a small portion of all jobs). Geopolitically it was once important, but that just encouraged the “U.S. diplomatic affairs”-type of scholarship described above. Disciplinary training is weak within these countries as well. Southeast Asian studies within the discipline is bound to be small relative to the rest of the discipline. How could it be any other way?

Let’s go ahead and give our hypothetical discipline two actual names: political science and history. See what I did there? We have a lot more in common than we thought.

However, several conversations with historians over the past week have convinced me that the state of Southeast Asian studies within each discipline has diverged dramatically, and in ways that few would have expected 20 years ago. Here is a great example of the method of difference: under broadly similar institutional configurations and structural constraints, Southeast Asian studies is working out very differently in two disciplines.

In political science, Southeast Asia is thriving. I’ve written about this before, so I might seem like a broken record. Still, it’s an amazing state of affairs, with more good news every day. Just last week, Meredith Weiss and Allen Hicken announced that they had secured recognition for a Southeast Asian politics “section” within APSA. This is at least a little costly on APSA’s part: we get our own panel in our annual meeting. There is more good news to come soon from SEAREG (watch this space!).

In history, well, just read Kevin Fogg‘s description of Southeast Asia’s place at the American Historical Association. Kevin’s post intrigued me, and I’ve had a couple of email and facebook conversations with historians working on Southeast Asia as well as outside of Southeast Asia. Abstracting away from personal concerns to hit general themes, I’ve heard versions of the following:

  1. (From non-SE Asianists) To be frank, we don’t care about Southeast Asia. That’s not what AHA is for.
  2. (From SE Asianists) History is too broad a discipline. There’s no “center” for what historians do, at least not one represented at AHA.
  3. (From SE Asianists) Why would I care to go to AHA? It’s a big anonymous conference full of people who can’t give me good comments on my work because they don’t know anything about what I study.
  4. (From both) Southeast Asia does not exist, not really, so of course it shouldn’t be well-represented at AHA.
  5. (From both) Southeast Asia occupies too marginal a position within the discipline of history to warrant attention.

What I am unable to convey to my correspondents, though, is that all of these problems describe the place of Southeast Asia in political science too! The difference seems to be that political scientists who work on Southeast Asia have demanded recognition from the discipline, and just as importantly, refused to believe either that Southeast Asia is irrelevant to others or that others are irrelevant to us. One illustration is that the vast majority of SEA-related papers at APSA are part of broader comparative panels that are motivated by thematic issues that cross regional borders. It will actually be a bit weird to have a SE Asia panel at the next APSA.

Kevin’s post seems to be echoing a similar perspective, that it is bad news for both SE Asia and the discipline of history that SE Asia isn’t better represented. Perhaps an implication of the political science experience, then, is that SE Asian history will occupy a more central position in the discipline of history just as soon as historians of SE Asia demand that it take such a position. I’d like to see that.

Comments 3

  1. Kevin Fogg February 17, 2014

    Good post, and nice stark contrast between the disciplines. Let me just observe, half-jokingly, that once again a historian has put out a fine-grained study of a subject and once again a political scientist has made said study a data mine for a broader, comparative argument. Does this make us parodies of our disciplines?

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