Annotated bibliography and the State of Southeast Asian Studies


Below is my annotated bibliography and key questions/themes for Part I of my list with Penelope Edwards on Southeast Asia. This part covered the state of the field of Southeast Asian studies.

  1. State of the field of Southeast Asian Studies
  2. Southeast Asia Colonialism and Modernity
  3. Southeast Asia Print Culture & History of the Book
  4. Southeast Asia Institutions: Museums & Libraries


Key Questions and Debates

Southeast Asia as a Region:

Eleven countries of immense diversity, what are the overlapping similarities and relationships?

Early studies (pre-colonial/colonial) of Southeast Asia focused on understanding the civilizations of the region in its constitution of cultural-linguistic commonalities. The search for the ‘real’ or indigenous Southeast Asia had its origins in early explorers, traders, missionaries, and then more formally from philological and ethnological studies of the region from colonial scholar officials in the region such as J. Furnivall (British Burma), J.C. Van Leur (Dutch East Indies), later US work on Philippines.

WWII generation of scholars: George Kahin (Indonesia), Harry benda (Dutch Indies), Clifford Geertz (Indonesia) These scholarly attempts tried to define Southeast Asia as a region rather than simply ‘under threat’ by centuries of influence from the Chinese mainland and Indian subcontinent.

Cold war American institutions of SEAs: After World War II, interdisciplinary studies of the non-Western world, or area studies developed in several key American institutions. The American political relationship with Southeast Asia has historically framed the region as a terrain of contested colonialisms, nationalist movements, and a hotbed for Communism.

SEA and Cosmopolitan Crossroads aka Colonialism and SEA

Many scholars have argued that one of the unifying aspects of the SEA region is its socio-economic position as a crossroads between China, India, and the Islamic world, as well as its colonial experience (Dutch, British, French, Spanish, Japanese, American, Portuguese)

  • Scholars such as Wolters have argued that SEA underwent processes of ‘localization’
    • the ways that foreign cultural influences from China, India, Europe are domesticated in SEA
    • example of Confucianism in Vietnam – Alexander Woodside

Laurie Sears argues that SEA is ‘cosmopolitan’ in nature. From its early relationship as a trading hub to its American/European colonialism, processes of exchange and hybridity are central to understanding Southeast Asia as a region. However, within American area studies institution, the ‘cosmopolitan’ nature of exchange between America and SEA is tremendously uneven in the imbalanced funding and privileging of American scholarship.

(Harry Benda)

  1. importance of questioning analyzing colonialism as historical category: understanding civil service experts, understanding economic development, what about destruction of colonialism and Japanese invasion?
  2. indirect rule: Annam, Malaya, Outer Islands of Dutch East Indies where indigenous social and political structures maintained, aristocracy access Western education
  3. direct rule: Burma, Java, Cochinchina – replaced by Western style administrations manned by Europeans, education heterogeneous (Philippines doesn’t fit this two-part division)
  4. what about nationalism religious developments during colonial era have not been examined? nationalist movements roots in the countryside? de-centering elite narratives of nationalism

Culture and Anthropology in SEA

Geertz, Steedly

Studies of Southeast Asia as a region with a bounded, unique culture:

  • Wolters : cognatic kinship of premodern SEA states, men of prowess, mandala, public performance of power
  • Geertz: theatre state
  • Steedly discusses the role of the state and institutionalized power on culture, communities (importance of understanding the fragmented, localized nature of states in order to understand it as dispersed and polyvalent
  • “great” and “little” traditions: precolonial agraiarn kingdoms of SEA influenced and oblitered by India, China, Islamic world, and later by other foreign influences
    • debate re: authenticity:
      • underneath the ‘thin flaking glaze’ is essential Southeast Asia
      • imagined communities, constructed identities
    • continuity v. disruption debates
  • Colonialism and colonial scholarship
  • Gender and power: often cited relatively high status of women in SEA, but lack of detailed discussion; shift in anthropological attention to power of encompassing forms and forces to influence social roles of women and men

“Crisis” and Critique in Area Studies

The ‘crisis’ of area studies also involves changing American international politics after the Cold War and a critique of Orientalism to address the power hierarchies between the Western and non-Western world. The study of Vietnam in particular underwent several distinct waves measured by United States foreign engagements in Vietnam that directly correlated to ability for American scholars to conduct research in Vietnam. Starting in 1986, the liberalizing economic reforms of “Đổi Mới” and a general loosening of access restrictions have ushered in a wider and deeper range of scholarship on Vietnam. Furthermore, with increasing access to Vietnamese archives and primary documents, scholars have begun to challenge the narrative of the Vietnamese nation by critical examination of nationalist figures, colonial influences, and rural politics. Although still relatively limited, Vietnamese research has widened and provided unique perspectives into difficult to access and analyze sources.


  • Orientalism: anthropology’s reflexive critiques of its lineage as ‘handmaidens’ of the colonial state and also Cold War area studies programs
  • Cold War geopolitics: acknowledgment of the ties of modern area studies to geopolitical campaigns and priorities (‘afterlife” of SEA [ Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian] and context of post 9-11 US concern over counter-terrorism, re-masculining practice of area studies within security studies and national security)
  • Post-modern subaltern studies: debates arising out of cultural studies over cultural relativism and the necessary contingency of knowledge production.
  • Ariel Heryanto’s critique of imbalance of knowledge and resources between US and SEA; US universalist tendencies towards scholarship and call for collaboration

Critique of nation-state unit of analysis

Vicente Rafael:  By privileging the nation-state as the elementary unit of analysis, area studies conceive “areas” as if they were the natural-or at least, historically necessary –formations for the containment of differences within and between culture.

The edited volume Recalling Local Pasts by Suantai Chutintaronond and Chris Baker also challenge modern nation-based units of analysis and focus on historiographically peripheral port cities in pre/early SEA.

Ruth McVey comments on the two themes of nationalism and modernization that formed the focus of work on Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. “Some Southeast Asia specialists considered the former aspect all-important, with national self-realisation the goal to be achieved whatever its further ideological consequences; others saw preventing nascent Southeast Asian states from falling domino-fashion into the black hole of Communism as the essential task. Both approaches were basically evangelical, and both saw nation-building and modernization as inextricably entwined.”9

Voices in Area Studies Scholarship:

In recent decades, movements to decenter knowledge production (often identified with the Subaltern Studies Group) has in many ways repackaged area studies into a ‘critical’ area studies that scrutinizes the role of power within knowledge production. In the case of Southeast Asian Studies, there is increasing recognition and a necessity to collaborate with rising Southeast Asia centers and researchers in Southeast and East Asia. This trend has been part of the rethinking of regional claims to knowledge as well as the post-colonial theory within area studies.[1] Hence, claims to ‘provincialize’ Europe and critically examine histories of nation and modernity currently abound within research on modern Vietnamese history.

However scholarship on Southeast Asia remains dominated by American academics, a relationship that Ariel Heryanto describes as the inherently ‘exogenous character’ of the field where Southeast Asians hold a subordinate position in the “production and consumption of this enterprise.”[2] This challenge of Southeast Asian representation is similar to Vinay Bahl’s critique of the Subaltern Studies program and its focus on how “subalterneity was constituted rather than finding their voices.”[3] Thus while there is the general agreement over the Western hegemony of knowledge, the incorporation of scholarship from ‘subalterns’ remains slow and measured. At times skepticism against subaltern perspectives even instigate of debates on universal objectivity: for example, there remain certain hesitations to include some Vietnamese research due to potential connections with state sponsored nationalism campaigns. In this way, the mission to make visible subject-positions is almost taken as a given, but can at times create a complicated dichotomy with the pressures to remain ‘objective’ as an intellectual.


Asia-centric perspectives:

  • John Smail – autonomous histories rather than antithesis between Euro and Asia (but singular world culture, colonialism a part of this)
  • Winichakul Thongchai – “home scholars” (pushing against Euro-nationalism as teleological understanding of history- nationalism & independent country histories
    • Localization and new spatial identities on the intersticies (margins of being- borders, citizenship, exclusion, gender)
  • Benda – importance of structural themes and local periodization


[1] Laurie J. Sears, ed., Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects, Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 62.

[2] Ariel Heryanto “Can There Be Southeast Asians in Southeast Asian Studies? in Ibid.

[3] Vinay Bahl, “Relevance (or Irrelevance) of Subaltern Studies,” Economic and Political Weekly 32, no. 23 (June 7, 1997): 1333–1344.


Annotated Bibliography: State of the field of Southeast Asian Studies (chronological order)

(WWII, decolonization of SEA, rise of American Area Studies in Cold War context)

  1. Smail, John R. W. “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia.” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 2 (July 1, 1961): 72–102. +
    1. John Smail critiques “Europe-centric” histories (namely 1930s van Leur and later D.G.E. Hall 1948/1955) and elucidates the concept of ‘autonomous’ histories to concern both a shift in ‘perspective’ (assessment of relative importance) and away from the false antithesis of Europe v. Asia centric. Rather, Smail argues that ‘one thought world’ (universal scholarship) has emerged and should concern itself with understanding coherent social structures, domestic issues, and processes of creative adaptation, development, and acculturation from the perspective of the region.
  2. Benda, Harry J. “The Structure of Southeast Asian History: Some Preliminary Observations.” Journal of Southeast Asian History 3, no. 1 (March 1, 1962): 106–38. +
    1. Harry Benda is concerned with identifying coherent structures in SEA and their change over time such as colonialsm, anti-colonialism, colonial capitalism. Overall, Benda focuses on the methodologies of teaching SEAs and local periodizations. For example, the 14th-16th century witnessed significant changes in world religions (Islam, Catholicism, Indian Sufism, Theravada Buddhism), the 16-18th c changing socio-political situation of insular SEA, and the 19th century was a new epoch of Western influences and formalization of frontiers.
  3. Emmerson, Donald K. “‘Southeast Asia’: What’s in a Name?” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 15, no. 1 (March 1, 1984): 1–21. +
    1. “SEA” is an imaginary but named to discuss a reality (space, societies, cultures). Prior to WWII, SEA was used within European cartography to refer to the region, but not studied as a region. By WWII, the region was made visible, the range of the region was contained, and a strong political connation was associated with the region particularly through US containment interests. SEATO and ASEAN formed to respond to regional political situation. During this period, American SEA studies shifted towards “modern” topics on economics and politics.
    2. “Political disunity bolstered the semantic unity of “SEA.”’
  4. Anderson, Benedict. “The Changing Ecology of Southeast Asian Studies in the United States, 1950-1990.” In Southeast Asian Studies in the Balance: Reflections from America, 25–41. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Association for Asian Studies, 1992. +
    1. Benedict Anderson critiques post-war American area studies and lack of cultural literacy. Compared to the cultural immersion of colonial bureaucrats (respectful nostalgia for Paul Muss, J. Furnivall), Anderson argues that American area studies post-1960s grew out of theory, public policy, professionalization, and pulled area studies away from engagement with language and translation, as well as the potential for comparative regional work.
  5. Sears, Laurie J. “The Contingency of Autonomous History.” In Autonomous Histories, Particular Truths: Essays in Honor of John Smail. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Center of Southeast Asian Studies, 1993. *
    1. Laurie Sears argues that Smail’s work was necessary, but not emancipatory to reconstitute marginalized speakers and postcolonial epistemologies. Sears highlights Smail’s important contribution to ideas about cultural change through creative adaptation, particularly from a domestic, ‘autonomous’ perspective. Sears calls for ‘situated knowledge’ (Donna Haraway) that could contribute a partial vision (rather than Smail’s universal moral vision) as an alternative to relativism or totalizing hegemonic viewpoints.
  6. Rafael, Vicente L. “The Cultures of Area Studies in the United States.” Social Text, no. 41 (December 1, 1994): 91–111. *
    1. Vicente Rafael argues that since the end of WWII, the institutionalization of area studies has reproduced North American styles of knowing built upon the proliferation and containment of Orientalisms and their critiques. Rafael examines the case of US area studies, the development of area studies in the late 1940s, and its connection to Cold War liberal projects for understanding global and local differences. In other words, Rafael considers how area studies was ‘modernized’ (through masculine social sciences methodologies, pursuits of global peace/consensus on knowledge of foreign, and structuralism) and domesticated ‘difference’ within the liberal culture of the U.S. academy.
    2. Rafael also draws attention to the oversimplification of the ‘area’ of SEA and the complexity of ‘indigenous scholars’ (and concept of ‘home’) when considering ‘fragmented’ narratives of immigrant/diasporic imaginaries. Here Rafael engages with Anderson’s examination of the changing ecology of SEA and the emergence of SEA studies in the region itself.
  7. Reynolds, Craig. “A New Look at Old Southeast Asia.” Journal of Asian Studies 54, no. 2 (1995): 419–46. +
    1. Craig Reynolds critiques the pre-occupation of the nation-state within area studies and the use of a modern nation-centric lens to understand early histories. Furthermore, Reynolds sheds light on how scholars prioritize modern questions of origin, agency, and continuity in order to legitimate the SEA region and field of study.
  8. Steedly, Mary Margaret. “The State of Culture Theory in the Anthropology of Southeast Asia.” Annual Review of Anthropology 28 (1999): 431–54.
    1. Based off her experience as an anthropologist of Indonesia, Mary Steedly examines the state of culture theory in anthropology of SEA and how culture has become an object of state power and policy (in uncertain times of globalization, Americanization, political changes). Steedly questions if processes of domination, displacement, diasporic imagination, and hybridity undermine the concept of ‘culture’ as a coherent system of analysis. Steedly responds to the work of Cifford Geertz (1973, 1980) and his concept of a meaning-based interpretive concept of culture. She questions how SEA functions as a ‘culture area’ based off an anthropological idea of culture. Steedly calls for more polyvalent interpretations of states and their dispersed power, movement, local experiences, and the everyday.
  9. Wolters, O. W. “History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives.” ACLS Humanities E-Book, Studies on Southeast Asia, 1999. + (ebook)
    1. Responding to Coedes and Hall’s assertion of SEA as an Indianized State or modelled after the West or China, Wolters addresses the question of SEA as a space of regional coherence. Wolters proposes a schema of SEA regional identity around cognatic kinship (bilateral kinship), indifference towards lineage descent, and preoccupation with the present and spiritual qualities. Wolters argues that SEA had an alternative system of legitimacy outside of lineage based on achievement, prowess, and accomplishment stemming from ‘soul stuff.’ (Earn ‘ancestor’ status through action.)

(Post- 9-11)

  1. Winichakul, Thongchai. “Writing at the Interstices: Southeast Asian Historians and Postnational Histories in Southeast Asia.” In New Terrains in Southeast Asian History, edited by Abu Talib Ahmad and Liok Ee Tan, 3–29. Ohio University Press, 2003.+
    1. Thongchai proposes the writing of history at the ‘interstices’—the margins of national and assumed boundaries in order to understand the localization of transnational elements. He challenges the nation as the self evident dominant spatial identity as the product of colonial/anti-colonial narratives. Rather, globalization interrupts the nation-state identity and provides new forms of diversity such as understanding hybrid, re-inventive processes of localization. IN other words, Thongchai proposes a new epistemology of history that is not rooted in teleological national narratives, but looking at the limits of meaning, the “boundary of an entity in which it claims authority and where beyond that it is something else.” This decentering of the nation thus includes attention to the ‘local’, new actors (scholars of home), and sites of cultural production and transformation.
  2. Chutintaranond, Sunait, and Chris Baker, eds. Recalling Local Pasts: Autonomous History in Southeast Asia. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 2002.
    1. This edited volume attempts to write an “autonomous” (Smail) history of the region by focusing on pre/early modern peripheral port cities rather than colonial/national capital centers. The authors highlight the autonomy of thriving port cities, their relationship with capitals, and their relative independence as trading principalities. The underlying historical themes of the book include alterantive ideas of ‘power,’, the power of markets to undermine dominating authorities of central states, and the states attempt to control markets in order to ehance their own power. The port cities include Pegu (Burma), Arakan (Burma), Phuket (Thailand), Hoi An (Vietnam), Martaban (Burma), Orang Laut, and Malay kingdoms Melaka and Johor.
    2. Book published in Thailand, many of the scholars are from Chulalongkorn university, no American scholars.
  3. Sears, Laurie J., ed. Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects. Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007. (ebook)
    1. This is an edited volume rethinking regional claims to knowledge, the universalizing tendencies of the American academy, and the inequity of resources, academic legitimacy, and scholarly discourse between Euro-America and Southeast Asia. Includes primarily Western/UWashington SEAists, divided into two parts: SEA Subjects and Collaborations, collections, disciplines. Overall this book emphasizes the importance of rethinking disciplinary claims to knowledge and engaging conversations between cholars of and and from the region.
    2. Laurie J. Sears proposes a “cosmopolitan”, postcolonial understanding of flows, crossings, and decentered nature of knowledge. “A multisited Southeast Asian studies that unites its commitments to locally contextualized knowledges with attention to the diasporic and hybrid identities produced by the travels of ideas, peoples, and capital has the potential to enrich a growing practice of postcolonial close reading for Southeast Asian texts.” Sears uses the case of contemporary Indonesian feminist literature to disrupt and contribute to current narratives of power, feminism, and literary theory.
    3. Ariel Heryanto describes the unequal relations in production and consumption of knowledge of Southeast Asia. He explains that Southeast Asians are criticized as ‘inadequate’ within the metric of Euro-American scholarship as lacking in theoreticial and methodological complexity, or biased as nationalist informants. Heryanto calls for Southeast Asians to be part of space of critical intellectual interventions and new local perspectives on media, policy, global capitalism…rather than just re-orientalizing Southeast Asians as speakers of authenticity.
    4. George Dutton and Judith Henchy examine the institutional limitations in departments and library collections that perpetuate a hierarchy of scholarly production between the US and SEA. Dutton lays out the history of SEAS universities and the limited incentives and resources to collaborate with SEA. Henchy argues that collections have ‘bibliographic and exhibitionary orders’ of Euro-American conceptions of knowledge such as the commodification of certain texts, American classification systems, and the tremendous imbalance in access to knowledge.
  1. Lan, Goh Beng. Decentring and Diversifying Southeast Asian Studies: Perspectives from the Region. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011. * (shelf) (introduction only)
    1. This is an edited volume of autobiographical accounts of Southeast Asian scholars concerning Southeast Asia. Rather than thinking about the field as Eurocentric or anti-Western, the scholars reflect upon the diverse political and social currents of their scholarly genealogy.

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