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  • Between Frontiers: Nation and Identity in a Southeast Asian Borderland
  • Wu Xiao An
Between Frontiers: Nation and Identity in a Southeast Asian Borderland. By Noboru Ishikawa , Athens: Ohio University Press; Singapore: NUS Press; and Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2010. 268 pp., tables, figures, illustrations, appendix, bibliography, index. ISBN 978-9971-69-355-8.

This marvellous work is firmly grounded in solid empirical foundation and methodological sophistication. Ishikawa provides a 'spatial' understanding of the currently much-neglected field of historical ethnography. His thematic concern is how the issues of nation and identity operate at the ground level of ordinary people's everyday life under the global forces. For that purpose, Ishikawa chooses a peripheral Southeast Asian borderland straddling Malaysian Sarawak and Indonesian Borneo for his fieldwork inquiry. Transnationalism forms a fundamental context for Ishikawa's inquiry into the key issues of nation and identity. The spatial and temporal dimensions and implications are equally examined both as a process and as a contextualization. As a mixture of history and ethnography, the book is inspiring and sets a high standard for interdisciplinary scholarship, especially on local knowledge.

This is evenly implemented in Ishikawa's long search for his empirical data and manifested in his structural presentation of the complex and interwoven forces, while not losing his sharp focus. His study is convincingly and vividly established upon the rich materials collected from the archives, newspapers, colonial travelogues, interviews, and other sources. Centred on the state-society interaction, the key questions raised in the book are presented at two levels of perspective, from top and bottom: firstly, how does the state from above maintain national space? Secondly, how do the people from below accommodate themselves in their everyday life? His field investigation is focused on Lundu District's regional history and on Telok Melano Village's micro-ethnography. The research covers a period of over 140 years as a long-term dynamic process. The communities are located along a borderland, which is culturally similar, but vastly different economically, politically, as well as historically, due to their currency, laws, citizenship, commodity prices, and living standard.

The book consists of two parts, comprising 8 chapters together with introduction and conclusion. Part I, based on the interdisciplinary approaches of history and anthropology, concentrates on history up till 1963, while Part II is on ethnography, with the time frame extending up to the present. However, they are not separate parts, but complement each other, hence forming 'a set of nested structures that provides viewpoint at various scales' (p. 91). Such methodological sophistication is especially embedded in Ishikawa's deliberate interdisciplinary concern of history and anthropology. Unlike subject-oriented historians, for Ishikawa history is approached as 'historical one-ness of a micro-area, much as anthropologists in the heyday of functionalism'. However, unlike model-oriented social scientists, [End Page 116] ethnography is in turn treated as 'the study of the most recent layers of spatially bounded local history' (p. 8). Throughout the book the spatially focused historical ethnography is illustrated by a cluster of correlated concepts, such as frontier, geo-body, border, borderland, margin, displacement, and periphery that serve to highlight the thematic concern of nation and identity.

Despite the methodological sophistication, the book is well presented with skilful clarity and tight integration. Ishikawa's impressive 'structured analysis' and 'thick description' intertwine history and anthropology, and alternate between space and time. Through 'structural analysis', he discusses the various hierarchical forces at work globally, transnationally, nationally, regionally, communally, and individually, and in the operational domains of political control, economic activities, ethnic formation, labour migration, location work, and the role of contraband. Through 'thick description', he convincingly delineates detailed empirical data, both in line with the various hierarchical levels of structural forces and operational domains. Lundu District as a regional history and Telok Melano Village as a micro-ethnography appear apt vehicles for 'thick description' and also for 'structural analysis' methodologically.

Nevertheless, there are some minor flaws concerning the sources. For example, Ishikawa makes it clear that he has consulted Colonial Office Files 144, 531, 874, and 974 (p. 8), but strangely they are not listed in the bibliography. Moreover, he has collected a great deal of impressive oral history, but...


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