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Context and Comparison in Southeast Asia: The Practical Side of the Area Studies-Discipline Debate

A Response to the Special Issue of Pacific Affairs: “Context, Concepts, and Comparison in Southeast Asian Studies” (Vol. 87, No. 3)

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A recent Pacific Affairs special issue explores key dimensions of the discipline/area studies divide in the context of Southeast Asia. It asks whether it is possible to use the comparative methods favoured by disciplines while doing justice to the rich nuance of individual cases. We offer a practical perspective on this debate. We argue that the demands of discipline audiences and area-studies audiences can vary significantly, making it difficult to effectively address both within a given project. Furthermore, while individual scholars retain agency over the nature of their research, structural factors like the job market and tenure requirements nudge junior scholars towards disciplinary audiences. We support this claim with an analysis of several academic job markets across the social sciences and humanities. We also interview several junior scholars who focus on Southeast Asia to examine the channels that link structural factors with scholarly orientations, finding both direct and backchannel connections. We conclude that in the absence of structural changes to the hiring and promotion practices at major universities, the question of an ideal balance between comparative approaches and deep area nuance will be answered by practical—rather than ontological or normative—concerns.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2015

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