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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Being an expert on South-East Asia

Stéphane Dovert

Texte intégral

1April 2004

  • 1 Translator’s note: literally “South-East Asianist” or “South-East Asianer”, which the author descr (...)

2Does South-East Asia exist philosophically? Such a question does not spring to mind for China or India, not because they are nation-states. Their status as “great civilisations” also justifies them and researchers identify them in their entirety. One is either a specialist on India or China. One is never a sud-est asiatiste or a sud-est asiatisant1. These terms are considered somewhat barbaric, with only a few readily claiming to be one or the other. Studies on aspects of the Vietnamese, Indonesian, Khmer or Philippine cultures are more popular, but are conducted on a much smaller scale.

3The concept of South-East Asia is quite recent. It does not appear in Elisée Reclus’s or Paul Vidal de la Blache’s geographies of the world that marked the turn of the 20th century. It was not until World War II, with Lord Mountbatten’s South-East Asian command, that it became used in language.

4For a long time, academics qualified its different components by the “crossroad” influences that they were supposed to be: George Coedès’s “Indianised” and, “Sinicised” worlds or the multiple in-between “mountain worlds”. The past two centuries have shown that even though Europe may be far away, it is capable of leaving its mark on these vast spaces and their inhabitants.

5The influences were experienced in different ways, according to cultural foundations laid down by the various “native” groups. Today, we are constantly distinguishing between “rich” Singapore and “poor” Laos, the “Christian” Philippines and “Buddhist” Thailand as long as the national contexts themselves are relevant to the scope of our studies. For many ethnographers, the villages and the people that they study do not reflect a nation as a whole. Historians are suspicious of anachronisms that would see a long vanished kingdom be the “ancestor” of a modern state, despite the fact that they are extremely different in terms of their context and population.

6So if we were to question the relevance of a national context for our studies, can we really see ourselves looking at a larger and much less uniformed picture? The initial answer lies in the development of the political context. Although ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) can sometimes seem to lack substance, its obvious growing strength is in sync with an era that takes sub-regions into account. Better still, since Vietnam, Laos, Burma and Cambodia joined in the second half of the 1990s, the regional organisation corresponds perfectly to the map of South-East Asia, which somehow harmonises politics and geography.

7The past itself cannot be understood in the same way. The history of states and dynasties has replaced that of groups and networks. Denys Lobard paved the way for this global vision in 1990 with his book The Javanese Crossroads. Since then, Anthony Reid and Pierre-Yves Manguin have called to mind the “golden age of trade” during which all trade went beyond the borders in the “South-East Asian Mediterranean”.

8Today it would be difficult to list all of the research units interested in South-East Asia. French research is unquestionably dedicated to this part of the world. CNRS laboratories such as IRSEA (Institut de recherche sur le Sud-Est asiatique), Archipel or LASEMA are completely devoted to the region. Since 2000, IRASEC (Institut de recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est contemporaine), a research centre under the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has joined them. The EFEO (École française d’Extrême-Orient), now over a hundred years old, has always had a considerable number of specialists studying this area, specialising in Vietnam, Cambodia or even Indonesia. The EPHE’s (École pratique des hautes études) laboratory, “États et sociétiés en peninsule Indochinoise” brings together several researchers on South-East Asia. The IAO (Institut d’Asie orientale), REGARDS, CERI (Centre d’études et de recherche internationales), IFRI (Institut français des relations internationales), IFU (Institut français d’urbanisme), the Eurasia Institute of the HEC (Hautes Études Commerciales) or CERDI (Centre d’études et de recherche sur le développement international) are becoming increasingly interested in the region. Although the IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement) is better known for its research on Africa, it also has a dozen social scientists working on South-East Asia. Finally, in terms of universities, INALCO (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales), Paris-VII, ParisX, Bordeaux-I, Toulouse-II, La Rochelle, Grenoble-II or Lille-III are all involved in South-East Asian studies. The list obviously goes on, with a special mention in particular to the various institutions’ reviews, bringing the work on this region together including BEFEO, Archipel, Péninsule, Aséanie, Moussons and La Lettre de l’AFRASE (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales).

9This great institutional diversity stimulates the necessary divisions that add to the lack of disciplinary flexibility. It nevertheless generates a wealth that often stems from the cooperation between researchers. Beyond the differences, we can feel a sense of unity in terms of the area studied, at least when it is perceived as an area of research. South-East Asia has well and truly produced an intellectual corporation. However, this increasingly prominent scientific collaboration in South-East Asian studies can also be valued on another level. The Asia Network (Réseau Asie) provides us with the opportunity to share common interests and practices that show similarities in French research.

10We therefore have here an “Orientalist” synergy that raises the question of whether it is necessary to adjust the method to the area studied. Like others, the IRASEC attempts to foster this critical thinking through one of its research programmes. In any case, epistemology is joined by practice. A sub-region exists mainly due to the attention paid to its existence as a whole and, in this light, the Asia Network now contributes to shaping South-East Asia.


1 Translator’s note: literally “South-East Asianist” or “South-East Asianer”, which the author describes as inelegant in French and which refer to experts on South – East Asia.


Doctor of Political Sciences

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