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  • Southeast Asian Anthropologies: National Tradition and Transnational Practices ed. by Eric C. Thompson and Vineeta Sinha
  • Robert Barnes
Southeast Asian Anthropologies: National Tradition and Transnational Practices. Edited by Eric C. Thompson and Vineeta Sinha. Singapore: NUS Press, 2019. xi+ 335 pp.

This survey covers the scope and institutionalization of formal anthropology in several Southeast Asian countries. There has been varied success in these matters in different countries. Thailand has a long history of anthropological research, including work beyond Thailand, whereas other nations have had less extensive developments, or have had their traditions interrupted, especially Cambodia and Vietnam because of the imposition of Soviet interference. Though the authors set out the facts, they do not state that Soviet colonialism was the worst form of colonialism to which anthropology in these countries was subjected. Despite the claim in the introduction that American anthropology has recently become parochial while Southeast Asian anthropology has become open to global trends, most of the research discussed in this book has been carried out on the writers' own countries. Nevertheless, their educations represent an impressive array of universities, mostly foreign. Although there are references to Western hegemony in anthropological traditions, for the most part these authors are evidently well-prepared in terms of international developments.

The introduction provides a summary of the topics covered by each of the authors, plus a count of the number of papers devoted to each country covered. Even so, it cannot be said that any of the papers is comprehensive in this respect or tries to be. Each contribution may be read as an introduction to the depth and form of the establishment of formal anthropology—so a reader needing an introduction to a particular country's anthropology may select that—but the book also has comparative ambitions.

There is much reference to theory in this book. But the question to be asked, as the introduction points out, is theory of what? 'Theory' should be read as analytic notions. In fact, there is no theory in anthropology comparable to that of the hard sciences. [End Page 387]

An important early figure in Filipino anthropology was José Rizal, a politician and polymath, and by profession an ophthalmologist, who was executed by the Spanish colonial government in 1896. Another such figure is Isabelo de los Reyes, who collected folklore and published ethnology. Both men have come in for criticism. General anthropology in the Philippines, as in the other countries represented in this book, has been shaped to an extent in reaction to political circumstances.

Despite being a nation of islands, published ethnographic research on fishing communities in the Philippines is sparse. Such research that exists is mostly in academic theses rather than in publications. The authors describe their own research and that of other ethnographers. Cambodian anthropology lacks a distinctive tradition and was badly affected by the communist period. It 'remains a long way from coming of age'. Vietnamese anthropology was influenced by French colonialism and, to its detriment, by Soviet ethnology. Soviet influence declined after the collapse of world communism, but individual anthropologists are confused and have lost their sense of direction. Many students write their theses without doing any field research.

The essay on West Malaysia begins with a useful discussion of the history of anthropology in Malaysia generally. When Mahathir Mohamad was education minister, policy became very restrictive. Involvement of students and staff in societies, trade unions and political groups outside the universities was criminalized. Lectures and the conduct of staff were closely watched. Sensitive topics were not permitted. These restrictions caused weak scholarship. Later, as prime minister, he introduced extensive social engineering policies that also affected anthropological research. There is also a strong bias towards Muslim topics. Furthermore, because of limited linguistic skills, scholarship has been weak.

The separate contribution on Singapore by Vineeta Sinha gives a balanced discussion of the relation between academic anthropology and colonialism. Anthropology has acquired an institutional position in Singapore over the last fifty years. The relationship between [End Page 388] sociology and anthropology is good. She states that the situation for anthropology in Singapore is highly promising.

The paper on Borneo deals with a group distributed across three separate nations: the Sultanate...


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pp. 387-389
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