Recent Issue – Vol 87, No 3 – September 2014

♦♦ Special Issue ♦♦

Context, Concepts and Comparison in Southeast Asian Studies

Guest Editors: Mikko Huotari and Jürgen Rüland

Context, Concepts and Comparison in Southeast Asian Studies—Introduction to the Special Issue

Mikko Huotari, Mercator Institute for China Studies, Berlin, Germany
Jürgen Rüland, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany

Keywords: Southeast Asian studies, area SE Asia mapstudies, Comparative Area Studies, comparative research, context sensitivity, concept formation

Debating the challenges of comparisons in Southeast Asian studies, the objective of this Special Issue is to advance the agenda of context-sensitive and methodologically reflected Comparative Area Studies (CAS). As a deliberate attempt to infuse new meaning into the embattled genre of area studies, CAS seeks to overcome increasingly rigid (sub-)disciplinary barriers often constructed around methodological arguments. Moreover, through stepping up the inclusion of non-Western regions in the research agenda, CAS also makes a decided bid to transcend the usually strongly Western-centric theory-building in most social science disciplines. This introduction locates the following articles in the broader context of the area studies-discipline divide. It highlights how the challenges of comparative research practice on different layers of social reality are at the heart of this divide but at the same time provide a productive ground for exchange in interdisciplinary Southeast Asian studies. We expand on the contributing authors’ arguments by providing a typology of comparative research practice that captures the value of various forms of area studies comparisons and by reflecting on the conceptual preconditions for fruitful comparisons. Abstract in Chinese – 摘要

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SE Asia puppetsContext and Method in Southeast Asian Politics

Thomas B. Pepinsky, Cornell University, Ithaca, USA

Keywords: methodology, comparative politics, Southeast Asia, area studies, context

This essay introduces and evaluates a central debate about 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 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, nor 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 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, and that population context is the superior approach. Abstract in Chinese – 摘要

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Remaking Southeast Asian Studies: Doubt, Desire and the Promise of Comparisons

Amitav Acharya, American University, Washington, DC, USA

Keywords: Southeast Asian Studies, transnational Area Studies, disciplinary regional studies, comparative method, regionalism, Eurocentrism20140617_150651

Southeast Asian studies faces multiple challenges, such as misgivings among its scholars regarding the field’s geopolitical lineage, skepticism about the relevance of Area Studies in an era of globalization, and the rise of competing discipline-based approaches. But these challenges also provide the impetus for rethinking and broadening, especially through a closer engagement with disciplinary approaches and comparative studies. To this end, this paper highlights two possibilities: “transnational Area Studies” and “disciplinary regional studies.” Together, they attest to the “promise of comparisons.” Using examples such as the discourse on “Mediterranean analogy” in Southeast Asian historiography and the study of Southeast Asian regionalism by international relations scholars, this paper argues that comparisons need to go beyond analogies that do little more than serve as a self-vindicating “comfort zone” for the scholar. Also, comparisons can be enhanced by studying the processes and consequences of diffusion, not in the sense of establishing the universal validity of certain ideas and institutions, but of exploring their localization and contribution to diversity. Comparisons should not privilege an ideal type on the basis of which “others” are studied and judged. Citing the danger of Eurocentrism in comparing Southeast Asia with the Mediterranean, and ASEAN with the European Union, the paper argues that comparisons should recognize the significance of each case in terms of its own context. Such comparisons do not invoke a “spectre,” but offer the promise of broadening Southeast Asian Studies to overcome the lingering doubts about the future of the field. Abstract in Chinese – 摘要

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­­­National_Archives_of_Singapore,_Jan_06Southeast Asia and Comparative-Historical Analysis: Region, Theory, and Ontology on a Wide Canvas

Erik Martinez Kuhonta, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Keywords: Southeast Asian studies; comparative-historical analysis; qualitative methodology; ontology; theory; area studies.

This article seeks to assess the contributions and key characteristics of comparative-historical analysis in the field of Southeast Asian studies. It does so by examining three specific issues that emerge from this methodological genre: the conceptualization of the region of Southeast Asia, the role of theory, and the emphasis on macro structural ontology. These issues are analyzed in three disciplines: political science, history, and anthropology. The article shows that dialogue among comparative-historical researchers is most evident within the disciplines of political science and history. In anthropology, important comparative-historical work has also been produced but it has been less engaged within the comparative-historical canon. In reviewing these three disciplines’ shared analytical concerns as well as contributions to comparative-historical analysis, the article makes an implicit case for greater interdisciplinary engagement across the disciplines. Abstract in Chinese – 摘要

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Modular Comparisons: Grounding and Gauging Southeast Asian Governance

Christian von Lübke, University of Freiburg, Freiburg, Germany

Keywords: comparative analysis, area studies, governance, decentralization, Southeast AsiaThai-Class-teaching-UC Berkeley

This paper argues that analytical tensions between comparability and distinctiveness, which often drive a wedge between disciplinary and area-studies debates, are not irreconcilable. Drawing on original research of public governance in Southeast Asia, I contend that modular comparisons—which blend different levels of analytical scope and abstraction—offer a valuable methodological instrument for cross-fertilizing empirical depth and breadth. To showcase modular comparisons in practice, I present four interconnected studies of public governance in Southeast Asia. The analysis combines in-depth city-level analyses and subnational cross-sections (that draw heavily on Indonesia’s multilevel governance experience) with an intraregional governance comparison (that expands the focus towards the Philippines and Thailand). To shed further light on “what makes governments work,” the discussion traverses micro/macro-level confines and within-case/cross-case boundaries. In doing so, the concept of modular comparisons provides a systematic and contextually grounded perspective on Southeast Asian governance and a means for narrowing prevailing area-discipline divides. Abstract in Chinese – 摘要

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20140617_151208The Spectrum of Comparisons: A Discussion

Donald K. Emmerson, Stanford University, Stanford, USA

Keywords: area studies, comparison, context, methodological pluralism, Southeast Asia, spectrum

At the contested analytic core of this special issue of Pacific Affairs lie two different ways of linking enlargement to assessment. Southeast Asian studies, as a spatially limited instance of Area Studies (AS), are focused wholly or mainly on one part of the world and on phenomena occurring in it or directly relevant to it. In contrast, no toponym constrains the scope of Comparative Area Studies (CAS). The editors of this issue recommend the expansion of AS into CAS. Does a convincing case for such enlargement from AS to CAS require only a nominal or taxonomic expansion—subsuming more space in which comparisons can be made—without necessarily privileging one method over another? Or does the case for CAS presuppose a negative assessment of AS as less hospitable to systematiccomparison, and thus methodologically inferior to CAS? The discussion that follows is not epistemologically agnostic. Nor is it promiscuous as to methods. But it emphasizes the need for methodological pluralism and the virtues of openness and ecumenism thereby implied. A segue from AS to CAS will multiply the opportunities for comparison along with the scale and complexity of the items, changes, and interactions that could be compared. It may be tempting to simplify all these empirics by filtering them through the lens and format of a systematically reductive technique. It would however be ironic if that understandable temptation were to reproduce in method the narrowness of scope that warranted CAS in the first place. If and as scholars expand their analytic horizons in the hope of making more sense of a globalizing world, the notion of unwanted or uncontrolled comparison may seem less demonic—a “spectral” invitation to chaos—than creative—an intellectually refreshing way of thinking outside of any box whose efficacy depends disproportionally on closure. Abstract in Chinese – 摘要

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Vol 87, No 3 – September 2011

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