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Eric C. Thompson & Vineeta Sinha, ed., Southeast Asian Anthropologies: National Traditions and Transnational Practices

Singapour, NUS Press, 2019, 335 p.
Gabriel Facal
p. 244-247
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Eric C. Thompson & Vineeta Sinha, ed., Southeast Asian Anthropologies: National Traditions and Transnational Practices, Singapour, NUS Press, 2019, 335 p.

Texte intégral

1This book aims at contributing to the “decolonization of anthropological knowledge” (p. 1) in the Southeast Asian study field. In their introduction, the editors, Eric C. Thompson and Vineeta Sinha, claim to follow the paradigm of “world anthropologies” which blossomed two decades ago with the ambition of problematizing Anglo-American centrality, to criticize Eurocentrism and then to produce alternative anthropological practice. To apply this “indigenization” work in their volume, the contributors present the construction and emancipation processes of the Southeast Asian anthropological communities. While they rely on complex networks embedding both field sites and institutional belonging, these communities are first of all shaped by the nation-state, as the “hegemonical form of political organization in the world”. It is from this perspective that the editors explain the approach of the different chapters, based on the national framework.

2Drawing the main lines of the discipline institutionalization in the region, the editors underline that, while there is a profusion of locally based ethnographies, theoretical developments are more circumscribed, due to language constraints and a lack of supra-national comparative fieldworks. Then, the present volume, through its regional transversal approach, can potentially enable “to theorize the conditions under which anthropologies thrive and the ways in which they are configured” (p. 12). The aspiration of the book is predominantly to render more transnationally visible the practices of anthropology in SEA, to document and feed the ongoing debates about the regional research traditions, and to encourage the networking of scholars within the region.

3In chapter 1, J. J. Canuday and E. Porio describe how anthropology contributed in shaping the national notions of the Filipinos “subjects”, from late 19th century until today. The authors provide a detailed account by reviewing the institutionalization of anthropological practice. They describe the struggles of successive generations of researchers to develop strong prospective possibilities and to keep anthropology relevant to the material social and political conditions of the imagined national community. They trace back the emergence of counter-Eurocentric discourses from the colonial period and describe the continuance of the critical efforts, pushed by national prominent figures of the discipline: early modern scholars like J. Rizal, I. de los Reyes, and P. Paterno, as well as contemporary researchers like E. Abaya, L. Lucas-Fernan and D. Noval-Morales. These engaged figures contributed to the recognition of indigenous people’s rights, and their work resonated in a large variety of citizens’ movements for social and environmental justice.

4The following chapter, signed by C. Peou, focuses on the “Cambodian local scholarship”, through a significant effort to draw the frame of this identity concept. The author provides a brief account of the country’s modern history, underlining the process of the Cambodian identity formation through the colonial times and the postcolonial nation-building after the 1950s, which saw the reinvention of a national culture, religion and language. The war and the Khmer Rouge period resulted in a loss of “traditional cultural order” (p. 75), while the post-conflict era and the progressive reintegration into a new world order in the 1990s enabled the emergence of a renewed dynamic for anthropology. Despite a lack of governmental support, a weak academic system, and difficulties to access to the francophone scholarship, a small number of individuals (like Ang Choulean) and institutions (as the Royal University of Fine Arts) encouraged the development of the discipline, particularly in an applied orientation.

5In chapter 3, N. Van Chinh examines the development of cultural anthropology in Vietnam. He considers three historical periods: its introduction under French colonial rule at the beginning of the 20th century until 1954; the integration of the Soviet school of ethnology under the socialist construction (1954-the early 1990s); the new trends of globalizing anthropology (1990s up to the present). After the collapse of communism in the 1990s, economic reforms stimulated national efforts for global academic integration and the increasing prospect for applied ethnology. Nonetheless, changes in the academia occurred quite slowly, in the continuity of the previous socialist era trends, when ethnology appeared as a sub-discipline in the historical sciences and suffered an important closure from the international scientific dynamics. Even today, social sciences remain poorly supported by the state and the disciplines mainly develop thanks to individual researchers’ initiatives.

6The next chapter, authored by M. F. Mangahas and S. Rodriguez-Roldan, reviews maritime anthropology in the Philippines, a subject which remains under-studied in this archipelagic nation of more than 7,000 islands. The authors examine the reasons of the marginalization of the coastal communities’ study: public perception of “unexotic-ness”, compartmentalization between the sciences, priorities within anthropology subject matter and advocacy, difficult access to and under-utilization of the existent archives. Since the national anthropology, influenced by European and North American academic traditions, is mainly terrestrial, maritime anthropology embeds a counter-hegemonic approach, conscious intention to indigenize ideas, privilege of local knowledge and grounded practice.

7In chapter 5, Y. Seng-Guan considers the relatively ancient emergence of anthropology in West Malaysia. The country’s wide plurality of languages and cultures invited numerous researchers to realize in-depth ethnography, among whom prominent authors ranging from colonial times’ administrator-scholars (R. O. Winstedt, W. Skeat), British structuralists (R. Firth, E. Leach, M. Swift), and local anthropologists studying their own ethnic group, while developing important theoretical reflections (A. Ong). Seng-Guan shows that in accordance to the multi-cultural state’s rhetoric on society, the social scientists predominantly focus on ethnicity and race. The author relates this topic focus to “the particular colonialist legacies of the discipline and contemporary political contestations in the postcolonial milieu” (p. 162). He also regrets an instrumentalist perspective, embedded under a regime of technologically driven academic excellence discourse.

8V. Sinha dedicates the following chapter to the development of anthropology in Singapore. A main consideration is that the discipline as long been eclipsed by sociology, from which it only recently gained institutional autonomy. This historical structural limitation, the small number of social researchers, the lack of institutional supports and of collective discussion between colleagues have for a long time restricted conceptualization and indigenization possibilities. However, today researchers manifest a reflective capacity, through historicization of their discipline’s colonial roots, and by criticizing the dichotomic view between western scholarship-theorization/non-western counterparts-empirical approach. Singapore’s political leaders increasingly recognize the relevance of anthropology to address contemporary issues in the country’s rapidly socio-economic, cultural and political changing.

9In an illuminating contribution, V. T. King and Z. Ibrahim draw the genesis of social science research in Borneo, to depict that the studies have become increasingly transnational in bringing together the three nation-states represented in the area. The authors argue that there has been a growing concern in identities and ethnicities, in link to government policies of nation-building, in the relation between majority groups and minority social segments, “ethnic tensions, processes of cultural absorption, religious conversion, tourism development, increased movements across borders, and national educational and language policies” (p. 225). Nowadays, the general dynamic for anthropology in Borneo is the strengthening of local grounding and practical concerns.

10In chapter 8, Y. T. Winarto and I. M. Pirous consider the colonial legacy of the Dutch civil servants-academics, who encouraged applied science at the detriment of any theorizing. This land of great social diversity stimulated rich ethnographies (among many other productions: H. Geertz, J. Fox) and led the local researchers to favour the archipelago as their ethnographic fieldwork instead of engaging in extra-national comparison. While during the New Order era of the President Suharto (1965-1998) state ideologists, like Koentjaraningrat, based their worldview on Western modernization theory (national security, political stability, economic development), some anthropologists retained a critical stance and promoted instead a more culture-based model of development. The collapse of the regime renewed the methods and fieldwork towards potentially politically sensible issues like terrorism, ethnic conflicts, corruption, political violence, patronage, environmental problems. Also, ethnographies of activism, public and engaged anthropology strongly developed, even if the projects are not always independent from the ruling government’s or private sponsors’ interests.

11In the following contribution, D. Nguyen Anh examines anthropology in Vietnam before, during and after Doi Moi “renovation”, a series of market oriented-reforms (1986-2015). While pre-Doi Moi research was mainly focused on ethnic minorities or contributed to the national historical developments, the discipline reformed at the beginning of the 21st century with the desire to improve or even replace the Soviet ethnological model. This turn impacted the methodology employed: more survey- and quantitative-orientation, stress on interdisciplinarity, autonomy towards history, and an emphasize on applied research. Many anthropologists work as consultants for development projects and provide state-policy recommendations. This stance is encouraged by the author, for example to increase an equal socio-economic development between the ethnic groups and thus “to promote a more singular national Vietnamese identity” (p. 285).

12In the last chapter, R. Tosakul examines the Thai scholars’ interest in the broad dispersion and historical mobility of Tai/Thai people. She notes that, compared to the prior decades, there has been an increase in theoretical work (postmodernism and theories of globalisation), particularly in the modern American anthropology tradition. While there is a growth of the transnational dimension of the topics researched (marriage migration, the local/global interface, and diasporic subjects), there is a tendency to divide fieldwork based on regional specialization and geographical specificity.

13This short review doesn’t reflect the richness of the ten accounts presented in this volume, the in-depth historical and institutional contextualization and the interesting depicted ethnographies. The reader will maybe regret that the theoretical contributions listed by the authors concern almost only the post-colonial and postmodernist approaches and tend to minimize the structuralist-oriented inputs that enriched the understanding of the regional social dynamics. This perspective choice is probably linked to the profile of the contributors, whose majority received their PhD in Anglo-American universities. However, the authors’ theoretical stances are not homogenous nor does their position towards the relation that the discipline may assume with nations-state developmental policies. The book remains an important contribution to the understanding of the countries’ anthropology histories and current trends.

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Gabriel Facal, « Eric C. Thompson & Vineeta Sinha, ed., Southeast Asian Anthropologies: National Traditions and Transnational Practices »Moussons, 35 | 2020, 244-247.

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Gabriel Facal, « Eric C. Thompson & Vineeta Sinha, ed., Southeast Asian Anthropologies: National Traditions and Transnational Practices »Moussons [En ligne], 35 | 2020, mis en ligne le 13 août 2020, consulté le 27 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Gabriel Facal

Anthropologue associé à l’Institut de recherches asiatiques.

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