- Producing Indonesia: The State of the Field in Indonesian Studies ed. by Eric Tagliacozzo
Indonesia, Indonesian Studies, knowledge production and dissemination, historiography, intellectual history, Cornell Southeast Asia Program
- Review Essay I
The essays on “Government, Political Science” in Producing Indonesia provide an interesting and illuminating discussion of developments and trends in scholarship on the politics of Indonesia. Thomas Pepinsky’s introduction to this section of the book reminds readers of the accelerating incorporation of this field of study into mainstream American political science, while Ed Aspinall offers an overview that is suggestive of the rich diversity and vitality of contemporary research on Indonesian politics by scholars who have little interest in linking the puzzles thrown up by developments and trends in Indonesia to the methods, buzzwords and debates dominating the pages of journals like the American Political Science Review. Bill Liddle and Don Emmerson add historical depth to the coverage. Emmerson’s lengthy discussion of debates over the events of 30 September 1965 is especially provocative, as it was clearly intended to be. But perhaps the editor should have included a “progressive” voice to complement and counter the conservative, Panglossian perspective so forcefully articulated in Bill Liddle’s rambling diatribe against “critical” scholarship on Indonesia. Coverage of the “state [End Page 256] of the field” is, after all, arguably enhanced through the analytical distance afforded by critical — and comparative — perspective.
Thus it might be useful to consider the study of Indonesian politics alongside the pattern of scholarly work on the politics of other countries in Southeast Asia such as Thailand and the Philippines. Looking back over the past four decades, there are numerous striking parallels in the trajectories of research and writing on politics in these three countries, which — alone in Southeast Asia — have experienced transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy (albeit not without retrenchment in the case of Thailand). In the case of all three countries over these years, scholarship shifted from a narrow focus on authoritarian states to a broader interest in oppositional movements, “civil society”, and diverse social forces in tandem with the onset of transitions to democracy. It then turned analytical attention to the — local and national-level — pathologies and possibilities of formal democracy by considering longer-term struggles for popular empowerment, good governance, social justice, regional autonomy, the management of ethnic and religious diversity and the redistribution of the fruits of economic development.
In the case of all three countries, the same decades saw rising scholarly interest in patterns of economic growth, a flurry of scholarship on the Asian economic crisis of 1997–98, and then a marked decline in research and writing on “comparative political economy”. In all three countries, scholarship on politics traced an arc in which bitter political differences among scholars appeared to ease as authoritarian rule gave way to democracy, even as Southeast Asian scholars seemed to gain somewhat greater prominence outside the region over the same period. In all three countries, scholarship followed “real-world” levels of excitement and interest in politics, with these fields of study experiencing “booms” and “busts” as the high drama and grand narratives of democratization and development faded from view. Thus it is tempting to speculate that, if ongoing political change in Burma today produces a full-blown transition to democracy in due course, scholarship on politics in the country will follow a similar trajectory to that seen in the study of Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, albeit under twenty-first-century [End Page 257] circumstances that have been rather different from those found in earlier decades.
Against the backdrop of these parallels, there are at least two peculiar features of scholarship on Indonesian politics which stand out as meriting special scrutiny, especially insofar as they fall out of the overviews provided by Pepinsky, Aspinall, Liddle and Emmerson in their contributions to Producing Indonesia. First of all, compared to Thailand and the Philippines, the past thirty years has witnessed far greater expansion and encroachment of...