On the Historiography of Srivijaya

This post is written especially for current students in GOVT 3443/ASIAN 3334, Southeast Asian Politics.

Earlier this semester we briefly discussed the great kingdoms of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, from Dai Viet to the Khmer Empire to Pagan to Majapahit. One kingdom that we mentioned briefly was the Srivijayan Empire, a maritime state whose territory spanned Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. Here is the map that I showed you.

Later we mentioned Srivijaya one more time, in addressing the rise of the Malacca sultanate.

A theme in this part of our lectures was (1) the difficulty of describing the polities of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, owing to the incomplete and fragmentary evidence available to us today, (2) the role of colonial powers and colonial-era scholarship in producing the knowledge that we do have, and (3) the attendant result that it appears that we only can start talking about “politics” in depth in Southeast Asia when we start to get European records.

We tried our best to react against this, noting that in addition to the local evidence that has survived in the form of monuments, temples, constructions, inscriptions, and others, we do have other records left by Chinese and later Arab and European traders. We discussed the concept of the mandala as the dominant pre-colonial political form, of Zomia as outside of the lowland mandala polities, and the distinction between hulu and hilir. Still, we didn’t have much by the way of concrete discussion of any of these empires; for that, you can look to other great classes here for more on these empires’ history, architecture, art, and religion.

However, because I am not a historian of pre-colonial Southeast Asia (and neither are any of you! at least not yet), I presented these pre-colonial empires as basically facts. So, too, did your SarDesai reading. It was not up for debate whether or not the Khmer Empire was a great empire–it was–or whether Ayutthaya was the central political actor in the Chao Phraya valley. It would be unthinkable for me to even debate that.

As it turns out, the same is not true of the Srivijayan Empire.

This blog post by Liam Kelley, a historian of Vietnam, introduces a striking argument that has sparked a serious debate about the status of the Srivijayan Empire. The author’s claim is that the sources that scholars have used to describe Srivijaya as a great empire are talking about something else–in the author’s view, Angkor. The argument is not that there was no such thing as Srivijaya, as there are inscriptions that use the word Srivijaya that have been found in southeastern Sumatra. Rather, the point is that this Srivijaya is not the same thing as the polities described in the important pre-colonial sources that have served as our main evidence for the Srivijayan Empire.

He makes this argument by analyzing the primarily Chinese accounts that serve as the evidentiary basis for describing Srivijaya as an important pre-colonial polity, such as accounts of Chinese traders spending months in Srivijaya learning Sanskrit before later traveling to what is today India. We do not have local evidence of this, we have only the accounts of others, as well as the names of the places that they used, written in the Chinese of the time. Kelley argues that those words (such as Shi-Li-Fo-Shi) do not describe Srivijaya. You can read his posts for all the gory details.*

Remember the important distinction between Srivijaya and the empires of the mainland. Whereas many of those formed around great riverine systems (Mekong, Irrawaddy, Red River, etc.) that allowed the empires to amass large population bases through the intensive cultivation of rice, Srivijaya was a maritime-facing polity. It has been described recently as a thalassocracy: an empire with a maritime focus. Majapahit on Java was a thalassocracy. But Majapahit also left reams of evidence in Java itself of its own existence, and of its own greatness. The same is not true of Srivijaya.

I must insist that I am not qualified to evaluate the argument that Kelley presents. I must also insist that even if it were true that the sources used to describe Srivijaya are actually talking about some other place, this does not logically entail that there was no such thing as Srivijaya: this word appears in inscriptions found in Sumatra, so it describes something.** But there are some important points to take away from this emergent debate, even if it turns out that Kelley is entirely wrong.

First, the evidentiary basis for what we know about Srivijaya is very incomplete. Kelley is not the first to note that the analyses of Srivijaya rest to a large degree on the accounts from others traveling through the region. There is precious little evidence of Srivijaya that comes from the territories where it was located. To say anything about the politics of pre-colonial Southeast Asia in this case requires us to work very hard to assemble an evidentiary base.

Second, the effort to discover and analyze Srivijaya is intimately tied with colonial-era scholarship. I did not fully appreciate, for example, that the first concrete proposal of the existence of a Srivijayan Empire came from George Cœdès–a French archeologist–in 1918. That is not that long ago! He has been described as having “discovered” Srivijaya. A lot of scholarship about Srivijaya rests on his interpretations of words in Old Malay found in contemporary Thailand, and those interpretations are much more contested than I realized.

Third, these facts interact in what might be uncomfortable ways when it comes to post-colonial scholarship and our understanding of the pre-colonial polities of Southeast Asia. The concept of the Srivijayan Empire is important to the concept of Indonesia itself, much like Majapahit is, as a pre-colonial antecedent to the post-colonial state. Much of the post-colonial scholarship on Southeast Asia sought to uncover what John Smail called in 1961 an “autonomous history of Southeast Asia.” That is a history of Southeast Asia that sees the region in its own local terms, rather than merely as a reflection of Indic, Chinese, Arab, and European influences*** as they spread culturally, economically, religiously, and politically throughout the region.

I value this search for an autonomous history of Southeast Asia as well. And yet I am forced to think critically about the possibility of writing that history when the accounts that we use to do so were not produced by Southeast Asians in Southeast Asia.


* Also the graphics are great. I wish that these existed as a series of TikToks too.

** But careful. Kelley suggests that Srivijaya describes a person, not a polity. And indeed, to anyone familiar with the Sanskrit influence on naming conventions in Southeast Asia, when you stop to think about it, “Sri Vijaya” sounds like a royal title.

*** Here we grapple with the question of Orientalism in the study of Southeast Asia, because the region itself is the subject to the external gaze of others in the East, not just Europeans.

On Requiring Pre-Registration

The new editorial team of the Journal of Politics–one of the premier disciplinary journals in the field of political science–has announced that going forward, all experimental research submitted to the journal must be pre-registered:

Pre-registration: authors who want to submit manuscripts containing original experimental work, including laboratory, field, and survey experiments are required to submit proof of study/design pre-registration with one of the available research registries (e.g., EGAP, RCT, Open Science). Pre-registration of other types of research design is very much encouraged.  The submission of unregistered laboratory, field, and survey experiments will not be accepted.  This policy will be phased in: For manuscripts submitted in 2021, authors need to justify in a letter to the editor why the study was not or could not be pre-registered.

There’s lots of chatter on Twitter about the implications of such a policy. In my view it runs the risk of creating a series of inequities that will make it harder for those without resources to publish experimental research, especially given how common follow-up studies are.

Setting this particular issue aside, I have two general concerns.

The first is, I am also unclear as to why this policy would be obligatory for experimental research and not for non-experimental research. I say this as someone who has 2.3 million observations from the Indonesian census sitting on my computer (through IPUMS). You want an argument that having a phone line increases your propensity to speak Indonesian, and that that effect varies by the number of family members living in your household? I can cook up those significance stars for you in 20 seconds. If we truly believe that we need to police p-hacking through obligatory pre-registration, then I do not understand the substantive argument why this would be obligatory for experimentalists but not for those working with observational data.

Now, there may be a practical argument here that pre-registering observational studies is impossible, because we can never verify that pre-registration was done before seeing the data (except for in rare circumstances such as this one). But that’s not even correct! This practical objection to pre-registering observational research only applies to the analysis of secondary data. Why not insist on pre-registration of survey data analysis? Elite interviews?

The second concern that I have is that we actually do not have a common disciplinary understanding of what constitutes a pre-registration. I will not link to examples here, but I have been shocked by what editors believe “counts” as a pre-registration, and the inequalities that emerge as a result. A vague statement that “we will collect the data, and then we will test the hypothesis that X causes Y using regression” suffices for articles that currently appear in top disciplinary and general science journals. Contrast that the “earnest/completist” version of pre-registration that many of us follow, in which we announce not only the hypothesis but also the coding rules and statistical analyses, even providing the actual computer code that we will run once the data is there.

Insistence on pre-registration for experiments pushes us back to the antecedent question of whose standards must be followed for ascertaining that a study has been pre-registered. It introduces opportunities for editorial and review discretion as a result. Is my incentive as an author to pre-register only the main analysis, and then to announce that any subgroup/heterogenous treatment effects analysis that I might cook up later is exploratory? Will I get the benefit of the doubt from the referees if I just say that? Will a PhD student get the same benefit of the doubt? Who gets to say how much exploratory research is too much?

Surely there are other reactions out there to this particular editorial policy of requiring that experimental research only be pre-registered. But these two jump out immediately to me as reasons to be careful in implementing prospective rules about how research must be conducted.

Stepping back, I generally find efforts to implement hard and fast rules to discourage p-hacking and p-fishing to be misguided. These problems are hard to solve, but I do not know a model of the scientific process that works through rigid pre-registration standards (a point I make here). I’d prefer to embrace a Bayesian approach to how we evaluate research when p-fishing is possible, a topic I first touched on here but which Andrew Little and I addressed formally here. In the JOP!

P.S. In the course of reading the Twitter chatter about the JOP‘s new editorial team, I saw some criticism of the new team for lacking an Associate Editor who covers political theory. I think it a terrible mistake that a premier disciplinary journal would not have a political theory editor. Hopefully I’m misunderstanding this situation, or that it will be rectified quickly.