Anthropology and ‘Southeast Asia’: Can the Region Be a Field?


If one is to investigate the academic circles today, s/he can soon realize that every academic field is being divided into further specializations and each researcher is asked to narrow down their focus and to do a more meticulous study. This is something which I have personally become conscious of as an anthropology student—seeing that a major difference between anthropology today and in the past is the definite specialization of researchers’ field and topics of interest. The case has concerned many people to point out that overspecialization prevents researchers from seeing the larger picture of the problems that they intend to tackle (Colagrossi 2018). And by taking a course concerning people’s and cultures of Southeast Asia, I have come to see the validity of such a critique as investigating each nation in the region solely on its own would overlook some common cultural and political patterns and fall into the trap of contributing to the discourse of nationalism—by assuming the people of a nation as distinct and coherent as a whole(Anderson 1991). Thus, in an attempt of bringing into the light the common patterns of the region, I will be looking into the concepts of nationalism, mandala, and post-colonial political struggle, to argue that the Southeast Asia region can be studied as an anthropological field, in addition to the specialized approach of many anthropologists. This is not to disregard the criticisms of scholars like Acharya who argue that the imaginative construction of “Southeast Asia” as a region is a product of a colonial past and orientalist scholarship (1999). It is true that the word is neither apolitical nor represents an organic homogeneity. However, one should also not ignore both the region’s pre-colonial borderless history in which ideas and traditions spread more freely without the direct interference of ruling elites and the impact of colonialism to the region as common patterns have emerged in the struggle of the formation of a nation-state. Hence, in this paper, I will first briefly analyze the mandala system to argue that different traces that lead to this idea calls for a scholarly investigation. Then, I will look into the colonial and post-colonial challenges the region faced and how this presents common patterns of behavior. Lastly, by investigating the region’s relationship with nationalism, I contend that any nationalism study done in the region should be done in a comparative manner—as there are many common cases and patterns. 


If we are to look at some of the most prominent mandalas in the region, such as Ayudhya, Sriwijaya, Angkor, Majapahit, it can be said that the political system was widespread both in Mainland and Maritime Southeast Asia. One definition of mandala is “a centre-oriented configuration, in which power radiates outwards from a pre-eminent centre, with smaller nodes of radiating power nested within the hierarchy” (Walker 2010)—where the centre is politically, economically, and spiritually dominant. What differentiated this political model from state-like kingdoms in many other places in the world at the time is its definition by a centre instead of fixed borders. So, smaller circles “tended to look in all directions for security” (Wolters 1999, 17)—meaning that mandalas could overlap and create a scenario in which kings compete for hegemony over the other rulers in his mandala

Looking into the history of Southeast Asia through the perspective of the mandala system bears its own problems which Wolters sums up to three general considerations (1999). According to him, the mandalas “were a phenomenon of the lowlands” (1999, 32); whereas many people lived in distant highlands—arguing that mandalas may not have reached a large number of people. Second, since each centre claimed “universal” sovereignty, the overlapping centers—instead of developing close relations—may have not accepted each other. Thirdly, Wolters sheds a light on the absence of linear history in the region as “it was the present that always mattered” (1999, 33).Although the issues that Wolters presents may concern historians or other scholars that are interested in the very context of the region during the time of mandala kingdoms, we have to keep in mind that scholars, such as anthropologists, who are concerned with the people and cultures of the contemporary world, may not be interested in the questions of ‘what was the effect of mandalas to the region’s people?’ or ‘what were the dynamics between different mandala circles?’ but instead focus on questions such as ‘what cultural behaviors and patterns today owe their existence to mandala—not just as a political system but as a framework of life?”. I believe it is the pursuit of the latter type of questions that could help describe the common traits that can be observed in the region today. For instance, the competition for hegemony through various means, both diplomatic, and social, may have formed common cultural patterns in the region; especially concerning phenomena such as kinship, reciprocity, and religious authority. This is certainly evident both historically and anthropologically. Historically, the adoption of certain religions in the region, such as Theravada Buddhism (Keyes 1994) and Islam (Mutalib 2008) as the rulers’ acceptance of a new faith resulted in the conversion of a population that is under the influence of a mandala centre. Anthropologically, the desire for charismatic powerful leaders, therefore, can be observed in the post-colonial history of the region as many of the newly born nation-states consisted of central figures that resemble(d) mandalaauthority. 

To further elaborate, if we are to take Geertz’s definition of culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols” (1973, 89), then, I believe, the links of transmissionof cultural knowledge in the region can be traced to a time when the majority of the people shared the concept of mandala and shaped their life accordingly. Thus, arguing that studying Southeast Asia as a region would simply be falling into the trap of ‘regionalism’, as a product of power relations (Acharya 1999), is also to ignore that cultural behaviors are rooted in numeroustraditions that have given and taken certain traits and have been transmitted accordingly—as part of the cultural knowledge. In the case of Southeast Asia, given the emergence of many oligarch-like leaders (followed by the veneration of many people), I believe fragments of mandala can still be observed among many parts of the region; which calls many anthropologists to do a comparative study to find out how the influence of a mandala-like structures shape certaincultural behaviors and ideas in the “arc of possible human behavior” (Benedict 1934, 148). 

Colonial and post-colonial struggle

With the exception of Thailand, most of the nation-states in the region today have been part of the European colonial expansion. It has often been argued by critiques that anthropology, as a discipline, was the handmaiden of colonialism (Fanselow 2014). However, significant scholars like Talal Asad have argued that viewing sociocultural anthropology as simply an aid to colonial administration would be a mistake because anthropology also apprenticed to the study of both colonialism and post-colonialism (1973). By equipping this view, a scholarly inquiry into the region’s colonial past and post-colonial struggle today, I believe, unearths the power-relations, ethnocentrism, Orientalism (Said 1978), and violence inherent in the very idea of European colonial rule and “white man’s burden” (Easterly 2006). Different studies today present a comparative substance in the colonial encounter in the region as the region’s pre-colonial past included a diverse range of ethnic and language groups, widespread among vast areas of land,which had to be classified and ruled accordingly (Kumar and Sharon 2008). As an example, an interesting topic that is studied in a variety of sites in Southeast Asia is the problem of translation in the missionaries’ encounter with various indigenous groups; ‘translation’ here covers not only the linguistic issues of translating biblical concepts but the very challenge of inducing Christian concepts to the local customs. Webb Keane, in his work, investigates the century-long interactions of Dutch Calvinist missionaries in Indonesia (2017). He looks into the place of Christianity in the semiotic ideologies of modernity as he researches the challenge the missionaries face in trying to seek a more ‘sincere’ conversion of the local people by trying to Christianize some of the local beliefs that have a symbolic resemblance to Christian concepts. Another work of an anthropologist, Courtney Handman, introduces us to the contemporary denominational schism in Papua New Guinea which can be traced back to the arrival of German Lutheran Christians who have struggled, in their own way, in translating the Bible—as they could not find a common language (both linguistic and cultural) that reached out to the majority of the local people (2015).

In the two anthropological examples that I have provided, by doing a comparative and a holistic study of the cases, I hold the view that many curious questions can be answered; such as ‘what are the ethical dilemmas of missionaries and their subjects under the colonial encounter?’, or‘what are the limits of ideas that constitute modernity—especially when confronted with the vastly diverse understandings of being human in a non-Western context?’. I consider that anthropology’s contribution to both colonial and post-colonial studies would be further enhanced with the answering of such questions with a broader lens that covers multiple areas in the regionwhich have gone through a similar pattern of colonial history. The examples that I have given aremerely a small fragment of a broad literature. However, the potential of creating inter-connected links among different contextual findings is tremendous. At the end of the day, isn’t it the goal of the anthropologist to identify “patterns of culture” (Benedict 1934)—regardless of whether it be in the context of a small village or the people of a region (like Southeast Asia)?


D.G.E Hall has characterized Southeast Asia as a “chaos of races and languages” (Hall 1981, 5).It is precisely such a “chaos” that has made the region a landmark of nationalism studies. As an example, when any scholar speaks of nationalism, s/he cannot bypass the work of Benedict Anderson, who calls nations “imagined communities” (1991). In one part of his book, concerning the ambiguity that ties people of vast differences under one (seemingly homogeneous) identity, he analyzes the case of the peoples on the eastern coast of Sumatra. According to his narration, people in this region are not only physically close to the populations of western littoral of the Malay Peninsula but are also ethnically related, share the same religion, and understand each other’s speech. However, the same Sumatrans neither share a common mother-tongue, ethnicity, nor religion with the Ambonese, located on islands thousands of kilometers away. But, after the emergence of nation-states in the 20th century, the Sumatrans have come to perceive the Ambonese as fellow-Indonesians and the Malays as foreigners. Hence, it is the aforementioned “chaos” of races and languages in the region, accompanied by the post-colonial struggle of forming unified nation-states that makes the region scholarly approachable as the Southeast Asian region. The pattern of facing the challenge of creating a unique and unified national identity, despite all the differences in the country, is evident in almost all the states in the region today; from the renaming of Burma to Myanmar, an attempt of unification (in the face of all the ethnic uprisings) (Lintner 2003), to the construction of Indonesian national identity of living under one God (despite the presence of people of non-monotheistic religions) (Owen 2005). Thus, I believe most people in the region face the dilemma of being a citizen of a certain national identity and, at the same time, living with people, side-by-side, who hold a marginal position in the narration of nationalist discourses. In this perspective, I think the anthropologist studying nationalism is not only prescribed to do his/her fieldwork in a specific place in the region, but also to do a comparative study with other cases in the region which may bear similar issues inherent in nationalist discourse with different contexts and people. In this sense, I argue that the perspective of ‘nationalism’ too contributes to the idea that Southeast Asia carries numerous common patterns and thus can be approached as a scholarly region.

To conclude, looking into the concepts of mandala, (post-)colonial struggle, and nationalism in the region, one can observe various patterns that are perhaps unique to Southeast Asia and should not be ignored when doing more specific studies in the region. If the aim of the anthropologist is to identify cultural and behavioral patterns, and if Southeast Asia bears many similarities among itself (like the aforementioned concepts), then one cannot simply argue that studying Southeast Asia as a scholarly region would be to overgeneralize. I believe enhancing one’s specific findings with comparative cases would further extract the richness of human behavior and uncover the links that connect the mosaic of cultural groups in Southeast Asia. 


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Mutalib, Hussin. Islam in Southeast Asia. No. 11. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008.

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Said, Edward. “Orientalism: Western concepts of the Orient.” New York: Pantheon (1978).

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Wolters, Oliver William, and Olivers Wolters Wolters. History, culture, and region in Southeast Asian perspectives. No. 26. SEAP Publications, 1999.

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