Study Asean in its villages, not in Internet cafes

At a time when globalisation has brought nations and regions closer together, and when scholars may have a role to play in bridging the gap between cultures and societies, it is ironic that many academic institutions the world over are facing difficulties when it comes to securing funding for extensive long-term fieldwork.

Farish A Noor For The Straits Times
Published Sep 5, 2015, 5:00 am SGT

Fieldwork key to capturing complexities, fast-changing realities

As we get closer to the goal of creating the Asean Economic Community, it is heartening to see that on the ground level, awareness of Asean and appreciation of Asean’s achievements have both grown, notably among the younger generation. This was at least one of the findings of a survey released by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute) last month.

But while appreciation of Asean may have increased among the younger generation – some of whom now identify themselves as “South-east Asian citizens”, notwithstanding the fact that such a category does not exist – one wonders to what extent the peoples of South-east Asia actually know each other, at least to the point of being able to make claims of knowledge that are founded on real first-hand experience.

For scholars working on South-east Asia and other parts of the world, the difficulties they face today are compounded by developments worldwide.

At a time when globalisation has brought nations and regions closer together, and when scholars may have a role to play in bridging the gap between cultures and societies, it is ironic that many academic institutions the world over are facing difficulties when it comes to securing funding for extensive long-term fieldwork.

An anecdote comes to mind which illustrates the problems that academics face when confronted by the radically different logic of funding agencies: A young academic whose field was Asian musicology once told me that she could not get a grant to do six months of fieldwork on local music production in a South-east Asian country. The reason given was that “world music” is all the rage these days among the trendier set, and she only had to go to the nearest CD shop to get samples of any kind of music she wanted to study.


Gone are the days when research on societies and countries was done on a first-hand basis by scholars who literally placed themselves smack in the centre of their chosen fields of study.

This is partly the result of the Internet age we live in, when an abundance of information can be easily found in cyberspace, and which in turn gives any amateur the mistaken impression that she or he is suddenly an expert on any subject under the sun after browsing through a handful of websites.

Yet I would argue that the Internet is to knowledge production what karaoke is to music: A device or tool that lends the mistaken belief in sudden expertise, as if any person who is given a microphone is suddenly able to sing. (Some people, including myself, should never be allowed to sing in public, under whatever circumstances.)

Added to this is the cult of the “expert”, who is often consulted to give her or his “expert opinion” on subjects deemed worthy of interest. Though the term is in currency, I would be disinclined to accept it too. For despite working on South Asia for more than a decade, and on Indonesia for nearly two decades, I would still be uncomfortable with the label “expert” on any of these countries.

The reason is simple. Any scholar who has done sustained, long-term on-site fieldwork anywhere would understand this: The longer you work in a particular setting, the more you realise that your own claims to knowledge are limited.

If there is one thing I have learnt after two decades of research in and on Indonesia, it is this: That Indonesian society is so complex, plural, hybrid and dynamic that it defies neat categorisation and simplified explanations. One might then ask, “Why should we do fieldwork at all?”


The social sciences – sociology, anthropology, history and political economy – are perhaps somewhat different from the hard sciences in that they do not offer fixed axioms and formulae that can be used in a universal way. If anything, the emphasis of social sciences is the human subject itself, which is imbued with agency and identity and is seen as a valid unit of study.

As such, the theories that we use to explain human behaviour – as economic agents, adherents of credo, consumers of goods or even as terrorists and law-enforcers – hope to explain human behaviour which is always complex.

Policymakers may seek and expect policy directives or prescriptions that tell them what to do and how to manage society, but scholars on the ground will tell you that often the patterns of human behaviour we seek are themselves less prescriptive and more descriptive, and that theories do not have some miraculous power to divine the future.

But fieldwork matters because it brings us face-to-face with real human beings whose behaviour and attitudes bring out these complexities in bold relief, and reminds us that as we study and write about societies and states, the real subject matter that counts are the human beings who make up those societies in the first place.

Whether it be the study of consumption patterns or modes of anti-state violence, social scientists place weight upon the study of the human actors and agents who engage in these activities, and try to explain how and why they do what they do.

The result may be a more complex picture of life as we know it, but I would argue that the job of the social scientist is to capture the complexity of life – like a photographer capturing the impression of movement in a photo – rather than to iron out these complexities to produce an over-simplified picture.

For those of us who work on Asean at the moment, the need for such a nuanced approach to South-east Asian studies is great, for the region is growing more complex by the day as well.


After being around for almost half a century, and with the Asean Economic Community upon us, it is high time for the popular discourse on Asean to go beyond the staid repertoire of tropes and symbols like satay, chicken rice and batik – some of which, by the way, have not been unitary symbols in all cases.

But for this to happen, we in South-east Asia need to have a deeper and more nuanced knowledge of each other, and that is where the fieldworking scholar comes into play.

For all the controversies that surrounded the work of the earlier generation of colonial scholars of South-east Asia, it cannot be denied that they did their ground work well enough.

Stamford Raffles’ The History Of Java (1817) may have been written with the agenda of the East India Company in the foreground, but Raffles did at least compile an impressive amount of data about Java, including the Raffles-J.Walker map of Java which was so accurate that it can still be used today by anyone who wishes to take a walk from Banten to Surabaya.

The same cannot be said about some young scholars I have met, who bemoan the humidity and heat of rural villages where air-conditioning is not on offer and where they cannot get Wi-Fi connection to check their Facebook accounts.

If this is the present state of affairs as far as South-east Asian studies is concerned, then South-east Asian area studies are heading nowhere fast.

Proper long-term fieldwork in South-east Asia today is necessary to capture the rapidly changing socio-cultural-economic realities taking place all around us, and though the descriptive power of such analysis may be greater than its policy prescriptions, it is nonetheless vital for us to understand what is happening all around us, beyond the headlines.

And if, in the course of fieldwork, the scholar comes to realise that the societies she or he studies are far more complex than they seem, that may not be a bad thing too: For it may alert us to the pitfalls of providing hurried explanations and bite-sized information nuggets that contain little or no wisdom.

Above all, fieldwork which draws upon the face-to-face encounter between the scholar and the subject of his study reminds us that the social sciences lays most emphasis on human agency, and that in our study of states, societies and even international bodies and multinational/regional groups it is the human being that matters.

For more than the flag and anthem, institutions and slogans of Asean, the core of Asean lies in the people of South-east Asia themselves: It is in their hearts and minds that the idea of Asean lives or dies, and if we are to understand what is happening across South-east Asia today, then it is to South-east Asians that we need to look to for the answers.

That humanises Asean, and scholarship on Asean too.

• The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.