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Southeast Asia: An Anthropological Field of Study?

L’Asie du Sud-Est est-elle un champ d’étude anthropologique ?
Victor T. King


Cet article examine les relations entre anthropologie, histoire et région. On a longtemps fait le postulat d’un rôle significatif de l’anthropologie dans la définition et la concepualisation de l’Asie du Sud-Est comme une région en propre. On conçoit ainsi l’identité sud-est asiatique comme fermement enracinée dans des éléments culturels et sociaux pré-coloniaux communs dont certains ont encore une pertinence dans l’Asie du Sud-Est moderne. Cependant, il apparaît a l’examen que le rôle des anthropologues fut minime dans l’entreprise d’institution et d’authentification de l’Asie du Sud-Est comme une région et donc dans celle de légitimation des études sud-est asiatiques comme un champ distinct de quête savante. Ce furent plutôt surtout les historiens et les préhistoriens, par leur intérêt pour les origines et la découverte d’une Asie du Sud-Est « traditionnelle » et primitive, non contaminée par les influences coloniales et même par les influences indiennes et chinoises, qui jouèrent un rôle crucial dans l’identification de la région. Les anthropologues, de leur côté, dans leur désir de découvrir et de montrer l’altérite culturelle et par leur implication notable dans l’étude des marges et des périphéries transfrontalières, se préoccupèrent le plus souvent du « local », du particulier, de la communauté discrète. Leur intérêt pour la diversité culturelle les rendit généralement réticents a créer des catégories sociales et culturelles plus vastes et même les ardents comparatistes ne s’aventurèrent que rarement au-delà d’une sous-région déterminée ou d’un ensemble de populations socialement, culturellement etgéographiquement proches. À la diversité culturelle de l’Asie du Sud-Est répond aussi une diversité d’approches et de paradigmes anthropologiques et il est difficile de trouver un « style » analytique dominant dans l’étude de la région. De plus, les anthropologues auteurs de textes plus généraux sur l’Asie du Sud-Est ont toujours conservé la distinction entre les mondes continental et archipélagique. La réticence a élaborer une culture sud-est asiatique et l’insistance sur des « altérités » spécifiques se sont intensifiées au cours des dernières années, principalement en réponse aux critiques post-modernes et post-coloniales des racines impérialistes de l’anthropologie et de certains de ses postulats modernistes et universalistes.

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I wish ta acknowledge my debt to the organizers of the workshop Henk Schulte Nordholdt, Remco Raben, and Paul Kratoska, and to several contributors to the discussions who helped me formulate and rethink some of the ideas expressed in this paper, especially Mary Steedly, Patricia, Tony Reid, Wang Gungwu, Willem van Schendel, and Cynthia Chou. It is unlikely that they will ail agree with everything that I write. I also owe a debt of gratitude ta several anonymous and perspicacious reviewers. Smne were more enthusiastic about the paper than others, but ail offered suggestions for improvement, and thought that there were the makings of a debate in some of my observations and conclusions.

Context and Focus

1The definition, conceptualization, or “invention” of the region which has come to be known as “Southeast Asia” has never loomed large in anthropology, and I for one am content that it has not done so. I see no great advantage in creating a Southeast Asian anthropological or ethnological field of study. This might seem a rather odd position to take in that I am currently co-authoring an introductory text on the modern anthropology of Southeast Asia (King & Wilder n.d.), and recently I completed a volume on the relationships between anthropology and development in the region as a whole (1999). I have no problem with this. These enterprises have not required me to exercise myself unduly in defining the region. The concept of “Southeast Asia” has some currency in scholarly and other circles, even if we continue to argue about its definition, and it is likely to remain in use for the foreseeable future. It has been institutionalized in university centers, departments, and institutes, in academic chairs, teaching and research programs, professional associations, publication series and journals; Southeast Asian Studies as scholarly or professional practice has its own established structures of authority, patronage, and funding. This institutional context is especially important in the United States where government and independent funding bodies have generally based their support for teaching and research on Southeast Asia on the premise that it can be defined as a region in its own right and that this in turn demands that it be studied in a coherent, multidisciplinary way.

2In my view, Southeast Asia—which for an anthropologist cannot be confined to the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)—does provide a manageable and operationally convenient unit for organizing ethnographic data, although I am not convinced that it furnishes anthropology with a particularly useful analytical and comparative framework. On the contrary, for me “Southeast Asia” provides much less conceptual or methodological advantage than various “sub-regional” categories that have been formulated from time to time by anthropologists to address specific ethnographic or analytical problems; Edmund Leach’s “Kachin Hills” (1954/1970), Fred Eggan’s “Mountain Province” (1941, 1967), Jérôme Rousseau’s “Central Borneo” (1990), and J.P.B. de Josselin de Jong’s “Malay Archipelago” (1935/1977) immediately come to mind. In this regard I am in sympathy with Charles Keyes’s remark that “there is no actual geo-political reality which constitutes Southeast Asia”, nor does it “evoke, even for those who identify themselves as specialists in this area of the world, one of the great historic cultural traditions” (1992: 9, 10).

3This paper emerged from a panel on post-colonial anthropology in a recent workshop entitled “Locating Southeast Asia,” organized by the University of Amsterdam in honor of Professor Heather Sutherland’s contribution to Southeast Asian Studies in the Nether lands. It was only subsequently that I chanced to read John Bowen’s insightful and carefully argued article published in the first issue of Moussons on the “strong interaction” between area (and area studies) and academic discipline in the context of the study of Southeast Asia (2000: 3-19). I was already familiar with his earlier paper on the anthropology of Southeast Asia and his view then, which is re-emphasized and elaborated further in Moussons, that there is a dominant “style” of anthropological analysis in the region, which comprises “interpretive approaches to culture” (Bowen 1995: 1047), and most recently a cross-disciplinary “style” closely connected to “cultural interpretation”, which Bowen characterizes as a “historical anthropology of politics” and “comparative studies of culture in context” (2000: 11-13). In addition to his examination of a particular analytical approach in the study of Southeast Asian cultural forms, Bowen also identifies a cluster of substantive social and cultural elements, institutions, and principles [or “cultural continuities”) that characterize the region (ibid.: 6-11). He qualifies his position by advising that he is not considering all Southeast Asian anthropology—“in any case an impossible task,” he adds; his locus in both papers is principally on the work of American scholars, especially cultural anthropologists and most recently also political scientists and historians, who have worked in lndonesia, and he acknowledges that he has little to say about other traditions of analysis that examine, for example, social structure or ecology (1995: 1047; 2000: 11-13).

4It is not my primary intention to present a critical review of Bowe’s argument, although I will touch on some points of substance that he raises, and indicate significant differences between what I prefer to call the “American” and “European traditions” in the anthropology of Southeast Asia. 1 should add that in considering these broad “traditions” I have in mind certain emphases and tendencies; I fully realize, like Bowen, that both American and European anthropology are large and diverse fields of study. Nevertheless, my main concern is to argue that, for good reasons, the overwhelming majority of anthropologists who have undertaken research in Southeast Asia have been relatively unconcerned about the definition of the region, in contrast to historians, prehistorians and archaeologists, political scientists, geographers, and even economists, and that, unlike Bowen, I do not think that there is a dominant anthropological paradigm in Southeast Asian Studies. More especially, I am not convinced that there are meaningful common cultural threads or themes that define the region, and that with regard to those that have been claimed as regionally characteristic I contend that they present us with substantial difficulties. It is curious, nonetheless, that some of the crucial elements which have been mustered to demonstrate the reality and coherence of Southeast Asia as a region in its own right, separate from China (or more broadly East Asia) and India (or more broadly South Asia), comprise “cultural continuities” and “social patterns and institutions” that lall squarely within the domain of anthropology. Yet il has been historians and prehistorians in the main, and not anthropologists (although Bowen is an exception here), who have been concerned to put socio-cultural flesh on Southeast Asian bones, an observation to which I shall return in a moment.

5What I shall also suggest is that most anthropologists, far !from searching for unities or commonalities, have positively rejoiced in diversity and in conjoining with the complexity of “the local.” James Scott has suggested that il is the very cultural complexity, differentiation, and syncretism of the region, and its long-standing interactions and openness through trade, migrations, and political linkages that have proved such an attractive field of study for American cultural anthropologists (1992: 2). This obsession with diversity stems from the very nature of anthropology as a discipline and its project in understanding and, indeed, creating cultural “otherness.” Furthermore, in their recent mode of self-reflection and self­criticism, anthropologists have become increasingly preoccupied both with the exploration and implications of the concept of “alterity” and, in response to post-modernist and post­ colonialist critiques, the contribution of modernist, colonialist, and universalist perspectives to the history and development of anthropology. The consequence of this self-analysis has been a profound ambivalence about the primary object of anthropological study which, in post-colonial discourse, is the “Western imperialized other,” the “exploited,” and the “inferiorized” (Rapport & Overing 2000: 9).

6Discussions of alterity and the relationships between culture, difference, and power have resulted in a re-evaluation of anthropology’s imperialist past, and there is good reason to think that this anxiety is partly reflected in the increasing popularity of “anthropology at home” or “auto-anthropology.” To my mind, il has also resulted in the recent re-emphasis by many anthropologists on the contextualized, particular, knowable local community or ethnic group and the ways in which it has been “constituted” or “constructed” (see, e.g., Kahn 1993, Kipp 1993, Pemberton 1994, Spyer 2000, Steedly 1993, Tsing 1993), as against the more generalized “other,” which in Southeast Asian terms comprises such categories as Robbins Burling’s “peasant lowlander” or “hill tribesman,” or even more broadly, his concept of a “Southeast Asian culture” (1965/1992, and see below). In other words, the tendency to construct “the local,” which has always been strong in anthropology, the reluctance to indulge in generalized cross-cultural comparisons, and the antipathy towards contextualizing “otherness» in terms of broad cultural areas and categories have if anything intensified in recent years. lndeed, Joel Kahn has proposed that, in various fields of both scholarly and popular endeavor, there has been a decisive move away from universalism and a positive celebration of local diversities; he identifies, although I think he exaggerates, a “consuming and erotic passion” for cultural difference in the modern world (1995: 125), and these particular identities in turn present formidable problems of “location” and “constitution,” of addressing the point of who speaks for or about them and with what authority, and of demarcating what are ambiguous, changing, multivocal groupings of individuals. The most daring of the comparativists in anthropology usually confine themselves to a set of linguistically, socially, culturally, or geographically interrelated populations, for example, in Eastern lndonesia, or Highland Sumatra, or Northern Thailand. Seldom do they range further a field.

7Finally, I shall want to draw attention to the important work that anthropology has undertaken, and increasingly so, on what might be termed the “margins” or “peripheries” of a politically defined Southeast Asia. Those who have sought to define Southeast Asia in regional terms have usually concentrated on the cultural and historical content of the “heartlands» of the region and have frequently framed their work in terms of nation-states, political centers, and literate cultures (which I think is what Bowen concentrates on). On the other hand, and with some notable exceptions, anthropologists have tended to locus on the marginal populations, on minorities, on those “without history,” who reside on the borderlands of political and territorial units where state boundaries invariably cut across shared ethnicity and culture. This has involved an examination of the fluid and diverse populations that transcend the borders between the constituent nations of Southeast Asia, and between Southeast Asian nations and those countries, like China and India, which are considered to belong to regions beyond. This view from the borderlands and the skepticism about definitions in terms of nation-states and fixed international boundaries have recently produced exciting work on, for example, Austronesian-speaking populations and the upland peoples of mainland Southeast Asia and southern China. An early example of the fruitfulness of this concern is Edmund Leach’s now classic examination of the “frontiers of Burma” (1960). ln my view, this perspective, like the preoccupation with “the local,” also reinforces anthropology’s lack of interest in defining Southeast Asia as a region. The emphasis therefore is on openness, movement, networks and flows and not on closure and exclusion, and this interest in boundary crossing seems to me a much more arresting and crucial issue than the preoccupation with defining a region in cultural (and historical) terms.

8Let us first consider the attempts to find common cultural elements, social institutions, organizational principles, and patterns of everyday life in defining Southeast Asia before moving on to consider styles of anthropological analysis, which, Bowen suggests, lend further coherence to Southeast Asian Studies and the study of Southeast Asia as a region in its own right.

Southeast Asia as a Historical and Political Construct

9One of the most prominent champions of the concept of a Southeast Asian region has been the historian Anthony Reid; another is Milton Osborne in his best-selling introductory history [1985). Reid has argued that there are “profound commonalities in Southeast Asia, essentially arising from a similar environment, a long history of maritime interaction among themselves, and a somewhat similar pattern of influences !from their neighboring civilizations—China, India and Japan” (1999: 8). Denys Lombard, too, in defining a Southeast Asian region, stresses the importance of maritime connections, an outward orientation and the movement of cultural influences across the seas (1990). Reid’s “commonalities” are to be found primarily in culture, broadly defined, and the “everyday life of ordinary people.” He goes on to propose that, given these common threads, it is not surprising that, sooner or later, Southeast Asia would earn the recognition it deserves. It was identified as a region in early German, Austrian, and French ethnography, came to prominence in post-war English writings, principally of those scholars who taught and undertook research in the region !from their late colonial bases in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Rangoon in the 1950s and 1960s, received an international seal of approval in American scholarship centered on such institutions as Cornell and Yale, and has been most recently embraced by the political elites of the ten constituent states of ASEAN (Reid 1999: 10-18).

10Reid proposes a “saucer model” of Southeast Asian identity. He suggests that, during the past thirty years, a clear pattern has emerged in the context of such organizations as ASEAN of what he calls the “low centre” of the region—that is, Singapore and Malaysia and, to some extent, Brunei and Thailand—at the focal regional communications point and maritime meeting place of the Straits of Melaka. The post-war leaders of these states have pressed positively for the recognition and institutionalization of an indigenous Southeast Asian identity. There is then the “high periphery” of Myanmar or Burma, Vietnam (plus Laos and Cambodia), and to some extent the Philippines and Indonesia, which have decided that they do not wish to be mere “appendages of their larger and more threatening neighbors” (that is, lndia, China, and the United States), and therefore Southeast Asia has become “a kind of default option” for them (Reid 1999: 7). Thus, for Reid, although there are differing local perceptions of regionalism and “there is no dominant centre or common civilisational heritage” on which to base claims to “Southeast Asian-ness,” there is nevertheless “an indigenous origin of the Southeast Asian idea,” and the search began at the “low centre” and moved outwards to the “high periphery” (ibid.: 8, 19). However, we should note that this indigenous conception is essentially a very recent phenomenon, and the strength of commitment to it, its precise interpretation and the reasons for adopting it vary; it also arises primarily from post-war international political, economic, and strategic interests, despite Reid’s position that there is a cultural basis to a Southeast Asian identity, and that many earlier Western observers, going back to J.R. Logan and John Crawfurd in the mid­ nineteenth century, recognized a regional unity “from within.”

11Reid rightly questions the established view that the concept of “Southeast Asia” was a direct product of strategic considerations and the term a creation of the Americans and British during the Pacific War, although the Allies certainly made a vital contribution to raising the visibility of the area in official and scholarly circles (Emmerson 1984: 5-9). He points out that it had already gained some acceptance in pre-war German-language scholarship from the turn of the twentieth century in the worlc of A.B Meyer, W. Foy, F. Heger, and Karl Pelzer, and most important of ail in certain key publications by the Austrian ethnologist Robert von Heine-Geldern (Reid 1999: 10-11). As Charles Keyes has also suggested, Von Heine-Geldern was probably “the first anthropologist to attempt a general systematic ordering of Southeast Asian ethnography within a broader framework informed by anthropological theory” (Keyes 1977: 4); Von Heine-Geldern was also influential in the development of Southeast Asian Studies in America (Bowen 2000: 12). However, in Von Heine-Geldern’s diffusionist theories of population and cultural trait movements, his “Südostasien” embraced, shiftingly, parts of China (particularly the southern areas including Yunnan), Korea, Japan, Taiwan, parts of India (especially the north-east), and the Pacific islands (1928, 1932). The broad vision of a Southeast Asia beyond the present political boundaries of the ten ASEAN nation-states is one with which most anthropologists, I think, would be more comfortable, even if they might not accept that the region presents a distinct and identifiable cultural unity. Yet this vision differs very significantly from the post-war conception of the region that American and to some extent European political scientists, historians, geographers, and economists promoted and that has now gained official recognition in academic institutions and in current political and cultural discourse among Southeast Asians themselves. Interestingly, anthropologists have played very little part in this process of fine-tuning and honing a post-war Southeast Asian identity, nor have they expended any real energy in arguing for an anthropological definition of the region.

12Another notable attempt by a historian to identify common elements of identity in Southeast Asia was that by Oliver Wallers, although il has to be said that his search for the region is heavily nuanced and qualified. In his careful re-consideration of the possible ingredients of a regional history of early Southeast Asia up to the fifteenth century, he also discovers “cultural commonalities” (1999: 11). Drawing on the work of anthropologists, he points to the importance of cognatic or bilateral social organization and its association with the comparable status of men and women (ibid.: 17-18; and see Burling 1965 and Winzeler 1976). In addition, he notes the widespread occurrence of the politico-cultural institution of “big men” or, as he prefers, “men [and women] of prowess” (ibid.: 18-19); leadership is characterized by flexibility, instability, and achievement, and the personal qualities, or alternatively the “charisma,” of the leader have to be demonstrated and continually renewed. The organizational and cultural features associated with this kind of leadership pattern, rooted in reciprocity, comprise patron-clientship, personal entourages, factions and cliques, marriage alliances, and tributary and ritual relations with followers. The system is “heterarchical,” in other words, each of its constituent social elements “possesses the potential of being unranked [relative to other elements) or ranked in a number of different ways” (ibid.: 122). Social groupings and political units were historically not enclosed within a defined and fixed territory, but were focused on centers (mandala) that radiated indefinitely outwards, and waxed and waned in their fortunes, influence, and extent—the similarities between this concept and Geertz’s concept of the Balinese “theatre state» (negara) have been noted by several observers, including Reynolds (1995: 426-427).

13Aside from these “commonalities” identified by Reid, Wallers, and Lombard, Reid also draws attention to the post-war Commonwealth and British-trained pioneers of Southeast Asian regional scholarship, specifically those who taught in the University of Malaya (in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur) and in the University of Rangoon, and scholar-administrators who worked in these colonial dependencies, particularly Victor Purcell and J.S. Furnivall. The University of Malaya staff comprised the geographers E.H.G. Dobby, Charles Fisher, Terry McGee, Robert Ho, and James Jackson, political scientists such as Michael Leifer, Harold Crouch, and David Brown, an array of historians, including D.G.E. Hall, C.D. (Jeremy) Cowan, John Bastin, Wang Gungwu, Leonard and Barbara Andaya, David Bassett, Jan Pluvier, and Shaharil Talib, economists Anne Booth and John Drabble, and.the sociologist Hans-Dieter Evers (Reid 1999: 9-15). lt is not surprising then that the two main Southeast Asian Studies programmes in the region are to be found at the National University of Singapore and the University of Malaya. Undoubtedly, several members of this first generation of Southeast Asianists also had a strong sense of the social and cultural dimensions of the region, but they tended to work within what came to be the accepted post-war political definition of Southeast Asia.

14There were also prominent French and French-trained scholars who embraced a regional perspective. Reid refers to the important work on the “lndianized,” “Hinduized,” or “Indic” kingdoms of Southeast Asia of Georges Maspero, Gabriel Ferrand and George Cœdès, their preoccupation with the ancient civilizations of Angkor and Champa rather than the Sinicized culture of the Vietnamese, and therefore their comparative interests in other “lndianized” cultures elsewhere in the Southeast Asian region, particularly in Java (Reid 1999: 10-11, 15-16). lndeed, Cœdès, an epigrapher and historian, wrote a now classic text that was published in Hanoi in 1944, issued in second and third editions in 1948 and 1964, and eventually translated into English in 1968 as The lndianized States of Southeast Asia (1968). He [Cœdès] posited a unity of Indianized Southeast Asian culture based on important roles for women, wet rice technology, and various social institutions and mythologies (Reid 1999: 16); this in turn had a profound influence on the early English-language historical scholarship on Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. Reid also pays tribute to the Vietnamese ethnologist Nguyen Van Huyen, who taught in Paris and was “the first Iocal-born scholar to use the term ‘Southeast Asia’ in the title of a learned work” published in 1934 (ibid.: 11). We should also mention the work of Paul Mus and his identification of a distinctive Southeast Asian religion focused on “the cult of the god of the soil “ (Mus 1975; Reynolds 1995: 423; Bayly 2000: 602-611).

15Yet despite the increasingly important regional vision in both English- and French­ language scholarship, which emerged during the 1940s and 1950s, the contribution to the conceptualization of Southeast Asia as a region by anthropologists was minimal. This is perhaps hardly surprising in institutional terms. With regard to Reid’s Commonwealth pioneers, anthropology was not one of the established social science disciplines in the Universities of Malaya and Rangoon in the immediate post-war years, and in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore it followed on the heels of the mainstream humanities subjects and social sciences. On the other hand, there were certainly several distinguished anthropologists who worked in British colonial dependencies in Southeast Asia or supervised and sponsored research there al the time that the concept of a region was being crystallized and strongly promoted: among them, Maurice Freedman, Judith Djamour, Raymond and Rosemary Firth, Derek Freeman, Rodney Needham, Michael Swift, and Edmund Leach. But, in my view, they were quite marginal to this process of regional definition and conceptualization. The same can be said of French ethnology on the region; in the work and thinking of Georges Condominas, Jeanne Cuisinier, Paul Lévy, and Jacques Dournes, among others, there seemed to be little interest in region-wide comparisons, or little desire to construct a Southeast Asian cultural area. In any case, anthropology had long been overshadowed by French scholarship in archaeology, early history, epigraphy, and geography. Finally, in Dutch scholarship on the region, the overwhelming preoccupation among Leiden lndologists was the detailed examination of the relationships between symbolic classification and social structure among a range of lndonesian populations within “an ethnological field of study” defined by De Josselin de Jong as the Malay or Indonesian archipelago rather than in terms of a more general Southeast Asian cultural area.

16I recognize that there is now an emerging post-war regional identity focused on the ten nation-states of ASEAN, although I would maintain that the content of that identity is contested rather than it being based on agreed and directly identifiable general cultural traits, social institutions, and patterns of everyday !life rooted in history. Furthermore, I consider that for anthropology the social and cultural diversities have been of much greater importance than any similarities, and I suggest that most anthropologists have either not identified or acknowledged these supposed “cultural commonalities” or “continuities,” or, even if they have, they have often seen them as problematical and have not attached much, if any, analytical value to them for cross-cultural comparison. Where they have undertaken comparisons and broader analysis of interrelated societies and cultures, they have tended to confine their attention to sub-regions, and particularly to the communities on the margins and frontiers of the politically defined region, as well as to address the region’s openness, the movement of peoples and traits across boundaries, and inter-community and inter-ethnic interaction. I also have to conclude, in my reading of the work of the very few scholars who have written more general anthropological texts, that the importance of the distinction or division between the mainland and island worlds of Southeast Asia is greater than any claims for their unity.

Where are the Textbooks?

17A very direct expression of this minimal interest on the part of anthropologists in Southeast Asia as an area in its own right is the lack of region-wide anthropology and ethnographic texts. In his review of Southeast Asian Studies in the United States up to 1990, Charles Hirschman noted “the general absence of textbooks on Southeast Asia for university students” (1992: 49). Yet at least we can point to some standard sole-authored and edited texts in the politics, history, geography, economies, political economy, sociology, and even the archaeology of Southeast Asia, although not in anthropology. I would not include for these purposes the encyclopedic reference works of Frank LeBar and his collaborators on the ethnic groups of Southeast Asia, in which incidentally the mainland-island distinction is reinforced (1964, 1972, 1975), nor for that matter Bruno Lasker’s popular Peoples of Southeast Asia (1944). There have been recent attempts to tackle a specialist field within anthropology on a regional basis—my own Anthropology and Development in South-East Asia (1999), Roxana Waterson’s The Living House: an Anthropology of Architecture in South­East Asia (1990), Wazir Jahan Karim’s “‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Developing Southeast Asia” (1995), and Frans Hüsken’s and Jeremy Kemp’s Cognation and Social Organization in South­East Asia (1991), for example—but no region-wide treatment of general anthropological issues and ethnographic material.

18Those anthropology volumes that are frequently referred to in more general terms invariably comprise partial and equivocal attempts at defining Southeast Asia as a region. For teaching purposes, we probably have to refer back to Robbins Burling’s Hill Farms and Padi Fields. Life in Mainland Southeast Asia (1965, reprinted in 1992 with a new Preface) for something approaching a general anthropology text of the region. Yet it only concentrates on the live mainland states of Southeast Asia, with some attention to Assam. Interestingly Burling, although he taught in Rangoon in the late 1950s, undertook his main research in the “borderlands” of the region in 1954-56 among the Garo of Assam. Unlike those pioneers in the “low centre” of Southeast Asia in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Burling was a “marginal” man from the “high periphery.” The main threads of Southeast Asian culture that he identified have been frequently quoted by those pursuing the cultural essence of the region. However, these unifying elements have paradoxically more to do with diversity than unity: topography, the contrast between hills and plains, and the historical influences from India and China. It has to be said that Burling’s main regional unifying theme—the ecological (and cultural) contrast between hills and plains—works better in mainland Southeast Asia than it does in parts of the island world, and this problem is hinted at in Bowen’s comment that Indonesia, for example, has “a dispersal of cultural predominances” (1995: 1067). Burling’s search for a Southeast Asian culture also focuses on a “traditional” and seemingly timeless pre-Indian, pre-Chinese, and pre-European past—on rice-based village communities, on folk religions preoccupied with “malignant spirits,” and on a distinctive material culture, ail regional features that come close to those identified by Cœdès in the 1940s. Interestingly and surprisingly, in the Preface to the 1992 edition of his book, Burling argues that modern Southeast Asia “is not so different than it was thirty years ago,” despite the “upheavals” (1992: vii). Even so, it is not very clear whether he would define his Southeast Asia of the 1960s in the same terms as in the 1990s, let alone whether or not he considers that his construct of a “traditional” Southeast Asia continues to provide a useful framework within which to describe and analyze particular communities and groups. Furthermore, it would seem that we have to go back well over two thousand years to find, in an indeterminate, unbounded Southeast Asia, an assumed “prehistoric” regional cultural unity in the modes of adaptation to environments, residual elements of which are said still to be present as “survivals” among remote “hill tribes.”

19Finding truly unifying cultural elements, as Burling’s rather unconvincing efforts demonstrate, as he moved into the “heartlands,” has been particularly difficult. Languages (the four main language families of Austronesian, Tai-Kadai, Austroasiatic, and Sino-Tibetan) divide populations residing within the political and territorial boundaries of Southeast Asia, yet unite them diversely with communities from Madagascar to Easter Island, from central Taiwan to Assam, and from Yunnan to the Nicobar Islands, whilst excluding West Papua. Furthermore, “great tradition” religions (Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism in ail their rich varieties), and indeed folk religions, serve to differentiate populations within Southeast Asia, yet link various of them with those in Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East and North Africa, China, Western Europe, and North and South America. Cultural and other ties bring immigrant Indians, Chinese, Arabs, and others resident in the region into relationship with their cousins in their homelands beyond Southeast Asia.

20In addition, Burling, in his 1992 Preface, does not take into account recent significant socio-economic transformations in Southeast Asia that suggest that, despite economic differences between and within East and Southeast Asia, the region should be seen in some respects as part of a wider developing or newly-industrializing Pacific Asia. In this connection, Singapore shares as much (if not more) socially and culturally with various East Asian countries as it does with neighboring Southeast Asian ones. Sociologists and political economists have been looking increasingly al the “new rich,” the middle classes, and the development of civil society in Pacific Asia as a whole, as well as at the effects across this whole region of factory employment, modern urban lifestyles, changing gender relations, and, importantly, international tabor migration. The disparate social and cultural elements, such as bilateral kinship and relative gender equality, identified by Burling and subsequently by others like Wolters (1999) do not, in my view, define a Southeast Asian culture unambiguously and meaningfully.

21The counterpart of Burling’s book for the Southeast Asian regions to the south and east is probably Ben Wallace’s less well known Village Life in Insular Southeast Asia (1971); interestingly, Wallace is another “marginal” man having undertaken research among the remote Gaddang of northern Luzon. Even in the immediate post-war period, there was some uncertainty about whether or not the Philippines, predominantly Hispanized and Americanized with no lndianized or Sinicized state structures, should be considered properly part of Southeast Asia. Wallace, like Burling, is preoccupied with the theme of unity in diversity and draws attention to broadly similar cultural themes in the island region, stemming from the ecological and other contrasts between highland and lowland peoples. Yet again, the unifying theme is paradoxically diversity. Ananda Rajah, in commenting on the books by Burling and Wallace, suggests pertinently that the “paradox reveals the weakness of the conceptual framework... [because] ... if human adaptation to different geographical conditions results in cultural diversity, any argument for unity can only be a weak one” (1999: 42).

22Two other teaching texts deserve mention. The later two companion volumes in the Goodyear Regional Anthropology Series, which taken together cover most of the Southeast Asian region, comprise James Peacock’s Indonesia: an Anthropological Perspective (1973) and Ronald Provencher’s Mainland Southeast Asia: an Anthropological Perspective (1975), the latter including sections on Malaysia, the geographical bridge between the mainland and island worlds. These two scholars are most definitely “heartlanders.” Peacock worked in Java and Provencher in Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia. But there seems to be Jess concern in these two volumes to discover elements of a regional identity and much more attention to the historical processes of ethnic and cultural differentiation. ln any case, not too long after he published his study of ludruk, a Javanese proletarian drama form, Peacock departed from a regional locus and produced a general theoretical text on symbolic anthropology in evolutionary perspective (1975). It should be said that these four volumes (Burling, Wallace, Peacock, and Provencher) are primarily ethnographic-historical introductions and they do not discuss anthropological concepts, methods, and issues to any extent. Overall, they do not convince me that the search for Southeast Asian unities, from an ethnographic perspective, is a worthwhile enterprise, nor do their surveys present convincing evidence of common regional sociocultural characteristics. It seems to me that the reader is given an overriding impression of cultural diversity, specifically with regard to the division between mainland and maritime Southeast Asia. Ananda Rajah has also questioned the utility of constructing regions on the basis of cultural characteristics and argues for their construction, using both exogenous and endogenous perspectives, as “interpenetrated systems,” generated by interactions, inter-subjectivity, “concentrated structures of interests,” and brokers (1999: 44- 46, 50-51). Yet it is unclear to me whether, in applying these criteria, Ananda Rajah then discovers a Southeast Asian region. I suspect that he does not and that his emphasis on interactions and brokerage leads him in the direction of social and cultural differentiation, transformation, and boundary-crossing rather than identity and unity.

23The only other more general textbook worthy of note is Charles Keyes’s The Golden Peninsula. Culture and Adaptation in Mainland Southeast Asia (1977; second edition 1995). Keyes organizes his material more explicitly in conceptual terms and, in a relatively straightforward manner, addresses matters of theory. Its main orientation is “culture,” which, for Keyes, furnishes adaptive strategies and systems of meaning. The book has a more regionally reassuring feel about it, and rather than trying to identify substantive unifying cultural elements lt considers concepts that have generated significant debates in relation to the interpretation of region-specific issues and processes: among others, Von Heine­ Geldern’s “cultural diffusion,” John Embree’s “loosely-structured Thai society,” Edmund Leach’s “bill tribe social structures” in the Kachin Hills, and Melford Spiro’s psychobiological study of “syncretic” religion in Burma. Nevertheless, Keyes makes no strong claim for a Southeast Asian region; he concentrates on the mainland sub-region, and various of the concepts and perspectives that he discusses have not excited much interest among anthropologists working in the island world.

24Il should also be noted that other anthropology teaching texts, or series that include Southeast Asian material, have not been troubled by attempts to define Southeast Asia as a region. Grant Evans’ Asia’s Cultural Mosaic. An Anthropological Introduction (1993) covers, in a thematic way, what we commonly refer to as East, Southeast, and South Asia, although Evans warns, even more so than for Southeast Asia, that the “use of the term Asia can be extremely misleading if it is used to denote some sort of cultural uniformity throughout the geographic area” (1993: 6). There is also a series of monographs published by Blackwell, “The Peoples of South-East Asia and the Pacific,” which is intended to provide broad coverage of the Southeast Asian region, but its remit is much wider and covers the Austronesian-speaking peoples of the Pacific as well.

25There are two provisional points to make about this “textless” Southeast Asian anthropological world. First, most anthropologists who have attempted to write something beyond their immediate field research area or community, exemplified in the texts that I have just mentioned, have settled for a “sub-regional» locus, usually employing the division between mainland and island Southeast Asia. Secondly, there are those anthropologists or general editors of monograph series who prefer to move beyond the politically defined Southeast Asian region altogether and examine broader ethnolinguistic groupings; the Austronesians of Southeast Asia and the Pacific are a case in point (Bellwood et al. 1995, Fox & Sather 1996, Fox 1997). Recent work on mainland Southeast Asia has also been moving decisively northwards into southern China and studying populations living beyond Southeast Asia’s political borders (Evans et al. 2000, Michaud 2000, Wijeyewardene 1990).

Culture through History

26The identification of “cultural continuities,” “widespread cultural traits,” a “cultural matrix” or “substratum,” or “common threads” in Southeast Asia has been recently confirmed by John Bowen, who is one of the few anthropologists to take up the issue of regional definition. In effect, Bowen (2000: 6-11) re-emphasizes the criteria presented by Burling, Reid, Welters, Lombard, and others: “relative gender equality” (including “bilateral” descent and kinship), “hierarchical reciprocity” (expressed in marriage alliance systems, patron-clientship, and center-periphery relations), and an “outward orientation” (“Southeast Asia borrows in order to create what defines it—a paradoxical formulation that one sees across nearly all human domains in the area”). In his earlier paper, he also identified “distinctive features of social structure” that include “marriage alliances,” “similar tensions between world religions and local cultures,” “parallel processes of agrarian differentiation,” and “centre-periphery relations,” as well as “the ubiquity of publicly displayed cultural forms” (1995: 1048, 1066-1068; and see below). Overall Bowen, too, argues that Southeast Asia’s diversity and openness has “paradoxically” and “ironically” resulted in a “unifying analytical approach” (2000: 11).

27Each of these continuities or commonalities requires considerable qualification and, of necessity, they are couched in such broad terms that they present anthropologists with formidable problems when they attempt to apply them to particular societies and cultures, and even to those that are interrelated in specific sub-regions. As Wolters carefully advises, in his attempt to isolate common cultural elements, il does not mean that ail societies and cultures in Southeast Asia possess these traits or, for those that do, that they have identical characteristics (1999: 17). This leads him to conclude that, although he has discerned certain continuities in early Southeast Asian history up to the fifteenth century, the obvious cultural diversity of the region and the increase in this diversity through lime suggest that il is the “locality or subregion [that] should remain the focus for studying history in earlier Southeast Asia” (ibid.: 55). This is for the simple reason, he argues, that until we have accumulated much more knowledge and information on Southeast Asia’s local or sub­regional cultural diversities and their transformations—in legal codes, art styles, language and language use, religious beliefs and practices, social forms and identities—it is extremely difficult to establish similarities and dissimilarities between them and establish whether or not there is a regional shape to their several histories. He writes that he is now not “so fastidious in defining a ‘region’ and can now recognize a more ‘regional’ shape to the history of early Southeast Asia,” but he remains “as convinced as ever that the characteristics of subregional, or local, cultures are as significant as the shared cultural traits” (ibid.: 106).

28There are also clearly problems in disentangling what are presented in the historical records as indigenous Southeast Asian concepts and practices from Chinese and Indian ones. Reynolds, for example, indicates that the concept of mandala is not indigenous but “Indic” (1995: 427), descriptions of early Southeast Asian states in Chinese chronicles were infused with Chinese perceptions of what states and society should be like, and notions of “men of prowess» and achievement also square with what has been said about medieval Indian kingship (ibid.: 428). The characteristic of religious syncretism can also apply to societies beyond Southeast Asia, as can folk beliefs and practices focused on spirits and fertility cults; anthropologists have also debated and disagreed vigorously about how one can best understand and analyze the relationship between a “world religion” and a “local culture.” Certain of the supposed common threads to do with topography, ecology, and rice technology as they are expressed in the contrasts between bills and plains people, as well as the claim for a Southeast Asian outward orientation and openness, are as much if not more about diversity than unity. The emphasis on cognatic social organization does not give sufficient attention to the significant populations in Southeast Asia that organize their lives on the basis of unilineal descent and corporate descent groups – although I recognize with Bowen (2000: 7) that notions of linearity do not necessarily capture appropriately certain organizational features of these societies. lt also tends to gloss over the significant differences between societies that are lumped together as “cognatic,” and to accept the questionable proposition that cognation is itself a useful analytical category. Furthermore, social scientists have drawn attention to differing patterns of agrarian differentiation within the region, some of which provide parallels with cases outside Southeast Asia, some of which do not. Reciprocity in marriage alliances, between those of different rank and status, and between different political units is a fundamental principle of human social organization that is not confined to Southeast Asia, and is frequently given different social and cultural expressions across different communities within the region. The claim for relative gender equality in Southeast Asia needs considerable qualification and the changing patterns of relationships between men and women, particularly in the context of modernization and globalization, suggest some similarities with gender differentiation elsewhere. These assumed common characteristics also continue to present us with problems in drawing regional boundaries, and in squaring the recently emerging regional political identity with an assumed cultural identity. To give one example, does the concept of a Southeast Asian culture, in the terms in which it is depicted by those searching for common cultural threads, include Austronesian-speaking Pacific Islanders?

29In bis search for regional unity, Tony Reid’s important two-volume Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1400-1680 (1988, 1993) identifies and explores what he refers to as the “deep-seated structures» of Southeast Asian societies and proposes that the period from about 1450 to 1680 witnessed a dramatic increase in commercial interaction. This, in company with broad linguistic linkages, similar ecologies, and shared socio-cultural elements, served to define and unify Southeast Asia as a region. However, Reid demonstrates that by the seventeenth century local societies, cultures, and economies had become integrated into a wider international commercial system increasingly linked to Europe, and that this was the occasion for Southeast Asia’s break with the past, its graduai division and diversification into separate spheres of foreign influence, and the commencement of its underdevelopment and dependency.

30Reid’s attempt to identify unifying features in the “age of commerce” has not passed without critical scrutiny. Attention has been drawn to the fact that he focuses mainly on the maritime Malay-lndonesian populations, and for historians like Victor Lieberman (1995: 796-807), who have examined in detail mainland Southeast Asian history, this regional unity is not so obvious. As Barbara Andaya (1997: 164) has recently observed of Lieberman’s “thoughtful disagreement” with Reid’s thesis, the features emphasized by Reid “cannot apply in the mainland, where political and economic patterns reflect, albeit weakly, trends in Europe, Japan, and in the developing Dutch and Spanish colonial structures.” Furthermore, the significant cultural shifts identified by Reid in the island world of Southeast Asia in the “early modern period” seem not to be so evident in the mainland Buddhist cultures. Therefore, some historians of the region press for the importance of examining the variety of local societies, cultures and sub-regions, rather than attempting to generalize and “homogenize;” the anthropological division between mainland and island Southeast Asia surfaces again. Andaya (ibid.: 170) suggests, for example, that in the certainty of Southeast Asia’s contemporary recognition as a “global unit,” historians of the region “might be emboldened to press more strongly the view that Southeast Asia owes its regional identity as much to internal diversity as to cohesion.”

31How do we explain this preoccupation in the discipline of history, in particular in defining Southeast Asia as a region? Craig Reynolds, I think, is close to the answer. He suggests that history in its relationship with the region comprises “a discourse about origins” (1995: 422). He argues that historians of the pre-colonial period have been in search of the “real” Southeast Asia before European intervention and one might say “contamination.” More than this, it is an attempt, Reynolds proposes, “to authenticate Southeast Asia as a region and a field of study” and, in this respect, “the effort is very much a Western, postcolonial project” and primarily, although not exclusively, an American project in the construction of a cultural otherness, which is then assigned the qualities of tradition and authenticity (ibid.: 437, 438-439). It stems from a proclivity, especially in historical research, to seek origins, understand processes of change, and construct and sustain “an intellectually viable interpretive community” (ibid.: 438). Reynolds concludes, and I must agree with him, that “lt]he discipline of history... has been fundamental to building and maintaining Southeast Asia as a field of study” (ibid.: 439), occupying as it does (and as it has done for some time) a very important institutional and professional position in Southeast Asian Studies. Furthermore, it may well be the case that historians, for quite obvious reasons, have also tended to base their arguments for unity on those societies with history, or to put it another way, on those in the “heartlands” that have left us with materials about their past. On the other hand, the smali-scale societies of the remote hills and hinterlands, which demonstrate considerable social, cultural, political, and economic diversity, both among themselves and in relation to lowland populations, have left little in the way of evidence of their history, and in consequence have remained relatively anonymous in the historian’s search for a Southeast Asian identity rooted in the past.

32In contrast to this important concern among several senior historians of Southeast Asia, I would maintain that anthropologists generally have not been overly exercised by the search for origins and a desire to authenticate Southeast Asia as a region, nor have they usually wanted to demonstrate that from diversity springs unity. Instead, they have concentrated on “the local,” and increasingly on the ways in which “the local” has been constructed or constituted in colonial, nationalist, and post-colonial discourses (see, for example, Kahn 1993, Pemberton 1994, Tsing 1993). Overall, they have not taken the region too seriously and, given the importance anthropologists attach to the understanding of the specific community and the particular ethnic group, along with their preoccupation with comprehending diversity and their increasing anxiety about creating a chimerical “other,” their reluctance to indulge in broad cultural generalizations seems understandable. The legitimacy and rationale of the anthropological project derive from sources other than the discipline’s relationship with and location in a defined region.

Anthropological Styles

33There is another way in which regional studies take shape, and this happens to be the main locus of Bowen’s recent papers. Although some attempts at defining the region have been based on the identification of certain common social and cultural elements—an exercise on which I have already cast some doubt—it can also be sought in specific theoretical questions, perspectives, approaches, and methodologies, or, in Bowen’s terms, “styles” of analysis. He argues firmly that he has found such a “style” in “interpretive anthropology” (and a cross-disciplinary “historical anthropology of politics”) involving the search for symbolic systems imbued with “meaning,” an approach that draws largely on Franz Boas and Max Weber (and, one might add, Friedrich Nietzsche), filtered through the work of Talcott Parsons and Clifford Geertz. Bowen, of course, emphasizes that earlier concepts of culture have been subsequently modified to take account of the ways in which it is created, sustained, and transformed in the context of particular social and historical processes. Nevertheless, he is convinced that the dominance of interpretive anthropology and the concern with comparative cultural history lends coherence to Southeast Asian Studies in general and, in an appropriate response to the sociocultural particularities of the region, gives a certain unity to the anthropological endeavor there. It should be noted that Bowen also recognizes that different research traditions have resulted in the construction of different kinds of Southeast Asias (he refers to three such models: the Hindu-Buddhist or “Indianized” kingdoms; the Austronesian or “Malayo-Polynesian ethnological space;” and the region “as part of the Muslim world”). Nevertheless, he suggests that “in ail of these distinct traditions, certain regional continuities appear that constitute a shared point of departure for these several traditions” (2000: 4), and these shared regional features “shape the disciplines that study them” (ibid.: 6).

34From an anthropologically informed political science stance, Benedict Anderson, in his seminal concept of “imagined communities,” has also contributed to this “interpretive,” historical, and comparative perspective on culture. According to Bowen, the “interpretive style” comprises the analysis of “culture into publicly accessible forms and the interpretations different actors give those forms” (1995: 1047). There is no doubt that bath Geertz’s and Anderson’s work have had an important influence on subsequent studies in Southeast Asian anthropology, although largely in relation to Indonesia. However, it would seem that, at limes, Bowen’s view of Geertzian “interpretation” is so wide that it serves as an umbrella for what might be seen as significantly different kinds of anthropological analysis, especially some of those developed by European anthropologists, which have been critical of Geertz’s analysis of cultural forms. Bowen’s broad view of “cultural interpretation” is not altogether surprising given that “despite his Nietzschean (and Weberian) borrowings, Geertz can sound conventionally Durkheimian (and structuralist)” (Rapport & Overing 2000: 210). Yet, if one widens the conception of “interpretive anthropology” too widely, as Bowen seems to do, to include elements of Lévi-Straussian structuralism, and its British and Dutch variants, and various studies of gender, ethnicity, patron-clientship, and agrarian change, which are much more social structural (and in some cases political-economic and ecological) than cultural in orientation, then the notion of a defined and identifiable style becomes almost meaningless. Interestingly, in his recent article, Bowen is rather more modest in his alms and concentrates very specifically on a cross-disciplinary approach that brings together the study of culture, politics, and history in Southeast Asian Studies and is associated maili ywith “a Cornell perspective” (2000: 12).

35Let us now turn to examine these different anthropological approaches, colonial and post­ colonial, in a little more detail, on the assumption that colonial anthropology had some influence on the direction of post-independence anthropology. In this exercise, I shall want to argue that a dominant style is not discernible in Southeast Asian Studies unless one is very selective in the literature one chooses to consider, very flexible in one’s definition of the principal style, and overly focused on a particular stream of American anthropology and cross-disciplinary study. Bowen hints al the possibility of different perspectives in the study of Southeast Asia when he says that the Cornell studies have “not gone without strong criticism...[which] is generally rooted in analytic traditions that have historically been stronger outside the United States, and, in particular cofllict-oriented approaches, whether inspired by Marx or Weber” (2000: 13).

Colonial Anthropology

36Two important features to emphasize in the colonial anthropology or ethnology of Southeast Asia, which are hardly surprising given the political and economic context of Western expansion overseas, are, firstly, that it was preoccupied primarily with the peripheries, with the frontier areas of expanding colonial empires, with the insecure and undemarcated buffer zones between competing imperial interests, and with the unknown and uncontrolled interior and upland regions, and secondly, that it concentrated overwhelmingly on sub­regions and culture areas within colonial dependencies. Ethnologists and anthropologically oriented colonial observers studied and, in post-colonial discourse, “created” pagan races or non-Christian tribes in specific colonial territories—Central Borneo, Highland Sumatra, Central Sulawesi, Upper Burma and the Shan States, Interior Malaya, Mountain Province in Luzon, the Central and Southern Philippines, and the Central and Northern Highlands of Vietnam. Von Heine-Geldern, as a non-colonial, Austrian outsider, is an exception here in his attention to a region, however wrong he was in his speculations about the long-distance migrations of Neolithic peoples (1928, 1932).

37During the colonial period, one might be tempted to suggest that there were certain distinctive paradigms in Southeast Asian ethnology or anthropology, developed in response to specific socio-cultural commonalities, which might have been employed to define Southeast Asia as a region. The one that immediately cmees to mind was that provided by the so-called “Leiden school” or “Dutch school of structuralism” as it was developed by F.D.E. van Ossenbruggen, J.P.B. de Josselin de Jong, and W.H. Rassers. This seems to me to be an excellent example of the very close association between a set of ideas and principles about social and cultural organization and a specific set of colonial interests, relations, and activities tied very closely to the training in East lndies studies or lndology of colonial officers. But, and this is the important point, it was specific to the Netherlands East lndies, expressed in the Dutch language, and was not adopted elsewhere in the region prior to the Second World War. Indeed, if anything, il served to reinforce the divide between the island and mainland worlds, and in its post-war form it continued to locus primarily on Indonesia.

38There are two other pre-war concepts that deserve our attention and might indicate the possibility of a more general sociological or anthropological orientation to Southeast Asia: J.H. Boelce’s dual economy thesis (as applied to the Dutch East Indies; 1953) and J.S. Furnivall’s plural society (as applied to Burma and the East Indies; 1939, 1956), both of which saw colonial or tropical society as deeply divided. Yet these ideas were generated in debates within economics and political economy and not anthropology. Furthermore, they did not seem to capture the imagination of scholars who concentrated on other parts of colonial Southeast Asia. What they did do, however, was to help create, along with Dutch reconstructions of ancient Indonesian social structures, a unique “otherness,” different from that proposed by those Western writers (mainly British and French) of the “modernist” (techno-rationalist, instrumentalist, utilitarian, evolutionist) tradition, who argued for both the inferiority and backwardness of the colonized populations and the need to protect, civilize, and develop them. Indeed, Indonesian societies, in particular, were seen as having their own inner logic and dynamics, their own non-Western rationale and integrity, and the capacity to domesticate outside influences. These portraits of otherness establish interesting connections with certain post-war representations of Southeast Asia’s cultural diversity, especially in the emphasis on the receptiveness and adaptability of local communities to external cultural ideas and practices, which in turn, and paradoxically, are claimed to produce a kind of cultural unity.

39Aside from the partial and heavily qualified exception of Dutch structuralism, there seems to me to have been no other dominant pre-war paradigms or methods—colonialist, modernist, or those anticipating the post-colonial critique—to mark Southeast Asia off as a region in its own right. Ali the anthropological frameworks deployed were not specific to the region, and most of them responded to Southeast Asia’s diversity rather than any assumed unity. These include evolutionism (G.A. Wilken, A.C. Haddon); racial or ethnic categor ization and ethnographic encyclopedism (P.J. Veth, A.W. Nieuwenhuis, Albert C. Kruyt, J. Harmand, Charles Hose and William McDougall, Henry Ling Roth, Walter W. Skeat and Charles O. Blagden, J.G. Scott, and J.P. Hardiman); functionalism or structural-functionalism, and variants of them, particularly that stemming from Durkheim’s concept of social structure (Robert Hertz, Antoine Cabaton, Paul Mus, Raymond Firth, H.N.C. Stevenson, Derek [J.D.] Freeman, William R. Geddes, H.S. Morris, G.A. de C. de Maubray, Fred Eggan); dillusionism (P.W. Schmidt, Robert von Heine-Geldern, W.J. Perry); culture and personality studies (Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Jane Belo, Cora du Bois, Ruth Benedict, John F. Embree); and studies of acculturation, socio-economce change, and conflict (in addition to Boeke and Furnivall, B.J.O. Schrieke, J.P. Duyvendak, and the later Paul Mus). In any case, research tended to be divided between and oriented to the circumstances of particular colonial dependencies, using the appropriate metropolitan language (English, French, or Dutch).

Post-war Anthropology

40Alter the Second World War, the prospects for defining Southeast Asia as a region in ethnographic terms and on the basis of a dominant anthropological style of analysis (in tune with assumed region-wide characteristics) began to look even more unrealizable, in spite of the fact that this was precisely the time that the concept of the region had decisively entered academic discourse. American and European anthropologists tended to go their separate ways, despite the efforts of trans-Atlantc arbiters like F.K. Lehman and James Peacock, and we witnessed the development of at least two strongly competing paradigms, neither of them dominant, which were largely focused on different kinds of Southeast Asian society. This had already been prfiigured in the colonial period: Koentjaraningrat noted, many years ago, that the pre-war work of various American anthropologists, including Margaret Mead (with Gregory Bateson), Jane Belo, and Cora du Bois “did not receive much attention from Dutch Indologists” (1967: 15), nor, I assume, were these American cultural anthropologists enamoured of lndology, given the subsequent criticisms of Dutch studies of lndonesia by Hildred Geertz (1961, 1965) and Clifford Geertz (1961) and the sharp Dutch response (P.E. de Josselin de Jong 1965).

41Despite Clifford Geertz’s Durkheimian tendencies, there was to my mind a developing division between post-war American, largely Boas- and Weber-inspired cultural anthropology and European, largely Durkheim- and Lévi-Strauss-inspired structuralism, both of which had their roots in colonial anthropology. However, these were tendencies and there were also considerable variations and differences within both American and European anthropology and several cross-cutting lies, expressed not least in the work of Americans trained in Europe. American anthropologists, unlike most of their European counterparts, tended to direct themselves to the study and representation of Southeast Asia from the perspective of its heartlands. In this connection, Ruth McVey suggests, in her general evaluation of American scholarly endeavor in Southeast Asia, that following the liberation of the regionfrom both Japanese and colonial domination, the United States saw Southeast Asian peoples as beginning a journey on the road to “national self-realization” and “progress to modernity” (1995: 2). The twin concepts of nation-building and modernization were to form the core of so-called modernization theory, the dominant post-war, American-derived social science paradigm in the analysis of Southeast Asia.

42Several! influential American anthropologists of the lime translated this focus into an examination of small-scale agrarian societies, mainly so-called lowland “peasant,” cognatically organized societies, in the context of modernizing nation-states; they also focused on syncretic religions as a product of interactions between great and little traditions, as well as child-rearing practices, socialization, and personality formation - the obvious high profile research comprised the Cornell programme in Thailand and in Indonesia, mainly under the direction of Lauriston Sharp and Lucien Hanks (the tradition on which Bowen concentrates); the MIT team’s research in Java, dominated by the Geertzes, with support from Robert Jay, Alice Dewey, and others; Yale’s work, inspired by Raymond Kennedy and Karl Pelzer, primarily in Indonesia; and Chicago (and Illinois) researchers, particularly Melford Spiro and Manning Nash, who worked mainly in the Mandalay region of Burma. We should note that “schools” of study or common analytical perspectives also owe much to institutional factors, funding policies, graduate training and so on, and this was certainly the case in the United States—as it was to a lesser extent in Europe (King, 1996; King & Wilder, n.d.).

43Interestingly the Philippines was something of an exception to this focus on peasant societies, in that the pre-war American colonial interest in upland pagan minorities, which replicated the interests of other colonial powers in their minorities, continued (mainly through Fred Eggan, a Radcliffe-Brownian, at Chicago) with an important focus on traditional legal institutions and practices. Nevertheless, even in America’s former colony, there was a noticeable shift to lowland Filipino peasant communities, especially in Luzon and the central Philippines in the work of Chicago-, Yale-, and Cornell-trained anthropologists.

44Smne of the major research questions that American anthropologists who were interested in processes of modernization addressed were: How will local communities develop in the context of modernization? What directions will they take? What are the prospects for a democratic transition? What facilitates and hinders modernization? What roles do values play in modernization? How have modern values been diffused to traditional societies and what forms has acculturation taken? There was also emphasis in some studies on the practical value of anthropological research in the context of nation-building and development. Out of this research on peasant societies came notions of “loose structure,” “involution,” and “multiple societies,” and the concepts of dualism and pluralism were further evaluated. The paradigms of modernization, evolution, and acculturation were also transferred to local graduates who pursued their further studies in the United States or in Manila (among them, Moises Bello, F. Landa Jocano, Mary Hollnsteiner, Koentjaraningrat, and Selosoemardjan).

45Generally, American anthropological studies worked within or in response to certain assumptions about change and progress, and these perspectives, of course, were not specific to Southeast Asia. The main assumption to be tested was that small-scale communities – mainly the peasant “others,” and also “tribal” minorities – would be increasingly incorporated into the world system via the newly independent nation-state and would follow the path of Western modernity, individualism, rationalism, and liberal democracy. Nevertheless, given the sensitivities of anthropologists to cultural difference, they did not perceive the road to modernity to be entirely straightforward and unidirectional (Nash 1965). Clifford Geertz, for example, was by no means a mainstream modernization theorist, although he framed certain of his analyses within traditional-modern parameters. Very familiar with the main ideas of pre-war Dutch scholars on the uniqueness of Indonesian culture, Geertz’s conclusion on his field-site of Modjokuto (Pare) in the 1950s was that it was “a curious mixture of borrowed fragments of modernity and exhausted relies of tradition” in which “the future seemed about as remote as the past” (1983: 60). The transition to a modern society had commenced but “whether—or perhaps better, when—it will be completed is far !from certain» (1963: 4). A key Geertzian concept for exploring this in-betweenness and rendering it comprehensible was of course “involution.”

46There were important exceptions to studies within this dominant American modern ization/nation-state paradigm, among them, F.K. Lehman, James Peacock, and Oxford-trained American structuralists (Clark Cunningham, R.H. Barnes, and Kirk Endicott, among others). In addition in the Philippines, where American colonial anthropology continued to exercise some influence, Harold Conklin and Charles Frake, for example, studied marginal hinterland shifting cultivators using ecological perspectives and, through detailed analyses of language in the field of cognitive anthropology, examined native classifications and taxonomies. But overall, the study of peasant communities was pursued single-mindedly, and when field-sites became oversubscribed in the long-established heartlands, several American anthropologists shifted their attention to the Malay peasant lowlands and coasts of Malaysia and Brunei.

47In Europe, on the other hand, structuralism took the lead, and the immersion in symbolic classification directed British, Dutch, and French anthropologists to “tribes” and away from the heartlands, particularly to societies that were organized not on a cognatic basis but on principles of unilineal descent. Here we have a quite radical representation of cultural “otherness;” the communities studied were not generally “peasants becoming modern.” Structural anthropology was in many respects a continuation of the colonial tradition of focusing primarily on “exotic” minorities in the uplands, hinterlands, and outer islands. The inspiration came from the Durkheimian sociological tradition, filtered primarily through Claude Lévi-Strauss, and translated into English by Rodney Needham (quite literally, in his case), Edmund Leach, and the De Josselin de Jongs. However, variants of functionalism and structural-functionalism, which concentrated mainly on social and economic organization, continued to flourish under Raymond Firth’s tutelage at the London School of Economies; some work was undertaken by London-based anthropologists on majority lowland populations, like the Malays (the Firths, Michael Swift, Syed Husin Ali, Judith Djamour, William D. Wilder), and on the immigrant Chinese (Maurice Freedman). Occasionally, structuralists also strayed into the lowlands; but even here, European-based scholars did not usually move into the territories that had already been claimed by American researchers. The Cambridge- and Leach-trained Stanley Tambiah, for example, went nowhere near the Central Thai Plain and ended up in the distant Lao-speaking borderlands of Northeast Thailand.

48Looking back on this structuralist literature, some of il meticulous and thought provoking, there is something of a timelessness and quaintness about it, rather remote from the realities of political and economic development and change generated in the heartlands and addressed by American anthropologists in the main. Yet concerns with grammars of culture, right and left hands, “bad death,” male and female gifts, mother’s brothers’ daughters, and “circulating women” were not something that exercised most American anthropologists; structural analyses of these cultures, especially the total structural analyses of Rodney Needham and some of his Oxford colleagues, served to mark out the distinctive characteristics of particular categories of society and culture in Southeast Asia. These studies also gave further expression to cultural diversity and otherness and to the distinction between the majority lowland populations of the region and the minorities of the uplands, hinterlands, and outer islands (see, e.g., Needham 1962).

49From the 1970s onwards, there is evidence of some continuity in American cultural anthropology and European structurai anthropology in Southeast Asia, but, to my mind, the past thirty years has witnessed an increasing diversification of approaches and paradigms. Sorne European-based anthropologists continued with a broadly structuralist view of the world, although others converted to various strands of Marxism, including structural Marxism and political economy, again under the influence of the French. In Britain, it was London­based anthropologists, particularly al the L.S.E. and University College London, who embraced Marxist variants of anthropology, including Maurice Bloch, another student of the Southeast Asian “margins,” in his case, Madagascar. Joel Kahn, a London-trained American, was one of the foremost and eloquent exponents of neo-Marxist analyses of Southeast Asia (e.g., 1980), as was Andrew Turion in a Marxist-influenced political economy perspective (1989a, 1989b; Taylor & Turion 1988). It should be noted that this radicai literature, although critical of various studies that employed concepts and perspectives from American cultural anthropology [aswell as from British functionalism and structural-functionalism), made very little impression on these approaches, and these latter continued to be employed, albeit often in modified form.

50Much of the neo-Marxist effort was spent re-evaluating earlier work, subjecting the anthropologies of the colonial period to critical scrutiny, and castigating post-war American social science, including anthropology, for its close association with the perceived international hegemonic position and role of the United States. Geertz’s work on Java and Bali came in for special attention, as did American “conservative” sociology and anthropology in Thailand and the Philippines. From Talai Asad’s neo-Marxist critique of the colonial roots of anthropology, expressed most fervently in his Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973), and Kahn’s graduai movement away from “modes of production” and “social formations» to the construction of culture and the constitution of identity (1993, 1995) we have edged recently into post-modernism and post-colonialism, illustrated most clearly in Tsing’s subtle appreciation of the culture of the Meratus Dayaks of Kalimantan (1993), Pemberton’s brilliant study of Java (1994), and, most recently, Spyer’s complex analysis of the Aruese of Eastern lndonesia (2000) and Cannell’s intriguing excursion into the cultural idioms of the Bicolanos of south-eastern Luzon (1999). Yet these are not the only approaches to be adopted in the anthropology of Southeast Asia, as we shall see.

The Future?

51As I have suggested, it does not surprise me that anthropologists working in and on Southeast Asia have not been too bothered about defining the region for themselves and others. As I have tried to suggest, the preoccupation has been with the examination and appreciation of cultural diversity, of contextualized and particular others, and I see no obvious reasons why this emphasis is likely to change. In my view, the political and diplomatic importance of ASEAN and its promotion of an indigenous Southeast Asian identity will not have any noticeable effects on the conduct and direction of anthropological research. Indeed, the potential political and cultural fault-lines of the enlarged ASEAN, with the incorporation of the four mainland states since 1994, correspond rather closely with the persistent anthropological division between the mainland and island worlds.

52None of the prominent anthropologists of the post-war period who have established their reputations significantly on the basis of analyses of Southeast Asian societies and cultures (such as Geertz, Needham, Firth, Leach, Spiro, Nash, Sharp, Hanks, Eggan, and P.E. de Josselin de Jang) have, so far as I am aware, seen themselves primarily as Southeast Asianists. They have happened to work in lndonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Ail of them have also undertkeœn research in and/or on societies outside Southeast Asia and have seen themselves as primarily mkintng a theoretical and ethnographic contribution to the general discipline of anthropology.

531 suspect, because I confess that I have never had the opportunity to ask them, that even local anthropologists living and working in the region—Koentjaraningrat, Masri Singa­ rimbun, Landa Jocano, Bello, Shamsul A.B., Wazir )ahan Karim, and Hood Salleh immediately come to mind—would have argued that they are working within a discipline, although they might add that they have also contributed specifically to Malaysian, lndonesian, or Philippine Studies. I am left with the firm conviction that the study of Southeast Asia has generally been organized in relation to particular nation-states and sub-regions and has rarely been region-wide. ln my experience, this would also hold in Singapore and Malaysia, the only two countries of the region that have multidisciplinary university programmes of Southeast Asian Studies and relatively long-established traditions in Southeast Asian research. Wang Gungwu remarked recently (2001) on “the desultory efforts by local scholars to nail down a Southeast Asian regional identity,” and for Singapore (and the same could be said for Malaysia), “the limited support for intensive training in the languages of the region, for fieldwork in neighboring countries of ASEAN, for research in the cultures and histories of peoples not represented in Singapore itself.” lndeed, sociology, rather than anthropology, has held sway in Singapore and the nominal presence of anthropology at the National University of Singapore has been primarily provided by expatriates during the past three decades. Thailand, another constituent of Tony Reid’s “low centre,” has promoted Asian Studies and not specifically Southeast Asian Studies, and, even where there are interests in Southeast Asian places and peoples beyond Thailand, the locus is Thai-centered and extends mainly to the country’s immediate mainland neighbors. Brunei, the remaining “low centre,” has a modes! commitment to Southeast Asian Studies, but the main direction of research at Universiti Brunei Darussalam is Brunei and more broadly Borneo Studies.

54Furthermore, and in contrat to Bowen, I have not discovered any particular pattern or shape to the anthropology of Southeast Asia during the past two decades with regard to a dominant style or paradigm. I acknowledge that the post-modern or post-colonial study of cultural construction, the invention of tradition, and the constitution of identities, often in the context of national political culture, has been one important stream of work, particularly in Indonesia, although il does not seem to me to be a dominant stream, al least from a European perspective. On the contrary, diversity in concepts, methods, and subject matter enjoys an appropriate synergy with Southeast Asia’s acclaimed cultural diversity. There seem to be no dominant schools, centers, programmes, or paradigms that might provide the study of Southeast Asia with a distinctive profile in anthropology or, indeed, in Southeast Asian Studies. In current scholarly work, there is, happily, a healthy mix of the old and the new. Smne of us (and our students) continue to fill in ethnographic gaps with structural­ functionalist treatments of communities; others have gone ta the archives or to collect oral traditions to reconstruct ethnic histories and identities. There is still a considerable attention to symbolisms, often using culturally focal elements—rice-meals, houses, cloth, marriages, funerals—to build up more general cultural images of “community.” There are also those who, using variants of structuralism, continue ta explore classification systems, alliances, and ritual processes.

55More and more studies are being undertaken by anthropologists on gender relations, ethnic identities, tourism, leisure and consumption, material culture, and the media and performance; these subjects are bound to continue to command our attention. However, they are being increasingly examined !from the perspectives of post-modernism and post­ colonialism, and significantly !from within multidisciplinary (cultural, media, communication, film, tourism, ethnic, gender, museum) “studies” rather than !from within the discipline of anthropology. In other words, debates that were conducted much more decisively within anthropology up to about the 1980s have now moved into a much more multi- and inter­ disciplinary arena, and even beyond the confines of multidisciplinary area studies programmes. Within anthropology, Joel Kahn’s recent contribution has been significant in bis attention to the processes by which cultural otherness and identities are constructed, specifically with regard ta the Minangkabau (1993), and the relationships between culture, politics, and identity in the region (1998; Kahn & Loh 1992). Yet, even he states that in addressing these issues he has had to move beyond anthropology and area studies into “the relatively new fields of cultural studies, globalisation theory and, especially, postcolonial theory» (1995: xi).

56What is also apparent is the increasing anthropological attention to development and change in the region, neglected by Bowen, although this does not provide any coherent paradigm or locus in Southeast Asian Studies. Many anthropologists have become involved in the field of development, either taking advantage of it or denouncing the increasingly close relationships between social science knowledge and practice and the national development plans of the various governments in the region (King 1999). Policy-relevant and applied research has also been an especially important area of activity for local anthropologists. However, aside from those who have deconstructed development and those who conceptualize it as discourse and as a symbolic system, much of the work has been quite practical and down-to-earth. Allied to these concerns, and given the crucial significance of natural resource exploitation and technological development in Southeast Asia, there has also been growing interest among anthropologists in the study of ecology and environment, often with attention to indigenous knowledge of the natural environment (Dove 1985, Fox 1977, Ellen 1978, Hanks 1972, King 1998). Finally, local level studies of agrarian differentiation in the context of technological change and commercialization, and of local power structures and their relationships with wider political and economic processes, have also fed into debates about development (Hart et al. 1989).

57I shall finish where I began. The construction and definition of Southeast Asia as an anthropological field of study would, in my view, be an unnecessary distraction. We should also be celebrating the diversity of approaches and perspectives that the study of Southeast Asia occasions. In addition, what I think we should be doing much more decisively and single-mindedly is transcending political boundaries and examining cultures, social interactions, movements, and networks across political boundaries. I find the recent interest in re-exploring borderlands and “margins” and examining ethnolinguistic groupings beyond borders to be of considerable importance for Southeast Asian Studies. If nothing else, it serves to remind us that Southeast Asia as commonly constituted and delineated is not what it seems. Kahn draws attention to what, for me, are our main and formidable tasks when he asks how anthropologists can best represent the divergent cultures of Southeast Asia, and how we should appropriately respond to divergent accounts of the same cultures (1993: 5). My overall view is that there is little, if any, advantage to be had in framing these questions in terms of a Southeast Asian cultural area, nor is there likely to be one dominant paradigm or style that will help us successfully address them.

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Victor T. King

The author is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies with reference to Anthropology at the University of Hull, Yorkshire, U.K. His recent books are on the anthropology of development, environmental change, and ethnic identity in Southeast Asia. He has also written and edited numerous books and articles on the anthropology of Borneo, where he has undertaken research during the past 25 years (in Kalimantan, Sarawak and Brunei). He is currently writing a general text with Dr William Wilder of Durham University on the modern anthropology of Southeast Asia, and some of the ideas expressed here derive from these efforts.

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