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  • Disciplining Southeast Asian Studies
  • Thomas B. Pepinsky (bio)

The purpose of this essay is to explore the role of Southeast Asian studies in the disciplines, and to argue that there are distinct benefits to preserving a plural, disciplinary foundation for Southeast Asian studies as a field of inquiry.*

The tension between discipline and area is one of the two fundamental tensions in Southeast Asian studies. The other such tension is the ontological status of Southeast Asia as a coherent region. Ashley Thompson, in her review of Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (Pollock 2006) notes, almost as an aside, that “The existential question — [what] is Southeast Asia? — has been constitutive of and essentially coterminous with the field of Southeast Asian Studies since its emergence after World War II” (Thompson 2012). For Thompson, the fundamental anxiety of Southeast Asian studies is that we cannot quite defend our own existence as an area, and scholars of Southeast Asia have long recognized that the regional ambit of Southeast Asia is something of a historical accident (McVey 1991, pp. 1–3).

Yet the place of Southeast Asia in the academic disciplines is no less contentious, and the fundamental tension in Southeast Asian studies to which it gives rise centres on the question, what is it that we do when we study Southeast Asia, when we append the word “studies” to our contested area? When we teach undergraduates about Southeast Asia, we are usually careful to unpack and historicize the notion of Southeast Asia as a region, [End Page 215] and in doing so to expose the way that global politics and academic imperatives can construct our conception of the world. But, among graduate students, and among scholars more generally, the more urgent question has always been disciplinary and methodological. Our question is not “what is Southeast Asia?” but rather “how do we study it?” Most of us have made a separate peace with our contested region. Yet we continue to struggle to define the status of its study as a field or discipline.

Drawing on that thought, in this essay I make two points and offer one plea, all in the service of the theme of “Southeast Asia in the Disciplines”. The first point is fairly obvious: our disciplines determine how we approach Southeast Asia as a field of study. But a subsidiary message is not so obvious. The disciplines themselves are not monolithic; they are themselves defined internally by their own existential debates and disagreements. Whether we come from a disciplinary background or from an interdisciplinary area studies background, we do scholarship a disservice when we essentialize disciplines as immutable and coherent things with singular features. Disciplines do not just have disciples; they have heretics, too.

My second point is to turn around the way that most of us think about “Southeast Asia in the Disciplines”, and to talk about Southeast Asia’s place in our disciplines rather than the place of discipline in Southeast Asian studies. I draw in part on my own perspectives as a political scientist to describe some recent changes in my discipline that may have gone unnoticed by other Southeast Asianists. This is important because I suspect that much of the anxiety associated with the “studies” in Southeast Asian studies is not really about the clash between area and discipline, but about the tensions between disciplines, or within disciplines, that emerge when we interact in our shared area of interest.

My plea is that we embrace the tensions within disciplines, between discipline and area, and across disciplines in the area, as functional for our joint endeavour in creating Southeast Asian studies. Whether we come from anthropology, or the arts, or economics, it is only through the self-conscious reflection on what it is that we [End Page 216] think that we do when we study Southeast Asia that we can make sense of our place within its study. The disciplines are the place for that self-reflection, for the simple reason that the disciplines are where scholars have thought most rigorously about what it means to contribute to knowledge more generally, and there are different answers. The plea in this essay...


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