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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Bhutan and research on the social science

Françoise Pommaret

Texte intégral

1August 2004

2Covering over 47,000 km2, Bhutan is a kingdom situated on the southern side of the Himalayas and inhabited by around 630,000 people. There has been and still is a strong Tibetan influence in various socio-cultural domains, including religion.

3The study of different aspects of the working-class culture, linguistic data and ecology shows that this country is the cultural and ecological link between Tibet and South-East Asia, not to mention an exceptional repository for Tibeto-Burmese languages.

4Unlike Nepal, Bhutan did not allow foreign researchers to stay in the country and conduct fieldwork without permission. The reasons were varied, but one of them was related to the recent acceptance of the concepts of research and critical methods, understood only by an elite. These concepts were totally unthinkable in a country that still functions according to religious principles and where monks are the traditional holders of knowledge.

5The discipline of the social science was therefore unknown in this country where modern, that is to say non-monastic, education only began in 1965. Even by the 1980s, the very concept of the social science was still not understood and many were sceptical about it.

6At the end of the 1980s, the opening up to research in general, and the social science in particular, went hand in hand with the development of the country and the end of its geopolitical isolation. This opening up was supported by the political sphere to train Bhutanese researchers rather than depending on foreign researchers. This choice was made in line with the sustainable development policy that the government was pursuing in all sectors.

7Following the efforts of individual foreigners, favourable circumstances, the quick opening up of the others’mentalities and global concepts, the country has taken a genuine step forwards in the domain of the social science since the mid-1990s.

8Through individual researchers acting as intermediaries, different foreign institutions (including the CNRS) were able to form links between the Bhutanese institutions that were created at the same time. These included the Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS), Institute of Language and Culture Studies (ILCS), Sherubtse College, Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) and the National Library.

9Today, these institutions serve as correspondents for researchers who want to work on a specific subject in Bhutan on the condition that a Bhutanese researcher has not already undertaken this study.

10Higher education scholarships were granted to Bhutanese scholars by different countries: Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. As English is the official language in Bhutan, France is at a disadvantage.

11However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs actively supports the involvement of CNRS researchers in the training of Bhutanese researchers in the social science. The presence of CNRS researchers could be described as “historical” as they have been there the longest, since the 1980s.

12This long familiarity with the country has enabled these researchers to produce a great number of publications and create a Bhutanese programme within the then UMR 8047 (CNRS-EPHE), now the UMR 7133, which acts as a centre of studies and brings together foreign researchers working on Bhutan.

13The studies carried out by foreign and Bhutanese researchers are diverse, but can be classified as political and/or social studies, history, history of religions, socio-economic history, ethnography, literature and linguistics. The national interest in culture has also sparked a revival of traditional historiographical studies in Dzongkha, the national language, and also compilations of oral literature.

14On the other hand, the Bhutanese nowadays hardly produce any philosophical studies of the Buddhist doctrine, neither in research centres nor monastic schools, except for a researcher based in Cambridge (UK) and an associate member of the CNRS.

15UNESCO plays a significant role in the country. The departments of education, tangible heritage and intangible heritage support preservation projects that exercise the methods and disciplines of the social science, in particular, the documentation of rituals.

16Since 1999, the Centre of Bhutan Studies has published the Journal of Bhutan Studies (JBS) and various articles can be downloaded from the website

17At least three publishing houses publish books in English and in Dzongkha.

18In 2003, 2004 and 2006 the organisation of three international conferences in Bhutan by the Centre for Bhutan Studies, and the publication of their proceedings were major events in the country in terms of promoting the concept of research in the social science.

19However, what we see is the influence of a more Anglo-Saxon idea of the social science research being applied to development and becoming part of specific projects in the fields of health, education, social development, and grassroots politics, especially in well-established rural communities.

20Moreover, the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which underlines the philosophy of the development of a nation and its path towards democracy, has received wide international coverage and the Centre for Bhutan Studies in Thimphu is working on defining this concept with the assistance of the UNDP and Canada.

21It is certain that fundamental research is difficult to fund in a developing country that is short of highly skilled professionals. Most of the people who are considered as researchers are civil servants and mostly teachers, who cannot devote all their time to books or fieldwork.

22Having received an English education, the Bhutanese do not have access to the numerous French publications on Tibet and Nepal. They are unaware of the work of medievalists, such as J. Le Goff or G. Duby, whose analysis of the Middle Ages in Western Europe sheds new light on a culture where the sacred and the powerful remain interlinked.

23Yet, at the same time their English education gives the Bhutanese a clear advantage over their colleagues from other Asian countries who, for linguistic reasons, are less able to express themselves or read specialised documents. Finally, uncensored access to the internet enables Bhutanese intellectuals to be informed of events and publications in their relative disciplines and to keep in touch with their foreign colleagues.

24Virtually unknown fifteen years ago, the social science has gained recognition in Bhutan and the government now ensures its development in different institutions.


Centre national de la recherche scientifique

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