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Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping Scale in Southeast Asia


Abstract and Figures

'Area studies' use a geographical metaphor to visualise and naturalise particular social spaces as well as a particular scale of analysis. They produce specific geographies of knowing but also create geographies of ignorance. Taking Southeast Asia as an example, in this paper I explore how areas are imagined and how area knowledge is structured to construct area 'heartlands' as well as area 'borderlands'. This is illustrated by considering a large region of Asia (here named Zomia) that did not make it as a world area in the area dispensation after World War 2 because it lacked strong centres of state formation, was politically ambiguous, and did not command sufficient scholarly clout. As Zomia was quartered and rendered peripheral by the emergence of strong communities of area specialists of East, Southeast, South, and Central Asia, the production of knowledge about it slowed down. I suggest that we need to examine more closely the academic politics of scale that create and sustain area studies, at a time when the spatialisation of social theory enters a new, uncharted terrain. The heuristic impulse behind imagining areas, and the high-quality, contextualised knowledge that area studies produce, may be harnessed to imagine other spatial configurations, such as 'crosscutting' areas, the worldwide honeycomb of borderlands, or the process geographies of transnational flows. Scholars of all conventional areas can be involved in this project to 'jump scale' and to develop new concepts of regional space.
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Sit down in any food stall and listen to the peopl e around you. Imagine you are a
language expert. Enjoy the flow of Mon-Khmer from the tables around you. Listen
to the children in the street shouting in Tibeto-Burman and to the song in Indo-
European floating from the radio. Observe newspapers i n five differe nt scripts lying
on the counter. Order your bamboo-shoot lunch i n any of a handful of languages
and guess where you are. Welcome to ... Southeast Asia?
Well, yes and no. We are in Shillong, a town in northeastern India. Is this Southeast
Asia? And if so, why? Does it matter? In this paper, I look at the `geographies of
knowing' that have come about as a result of the academ ic regionalisation of the world
in the second half of the 20th century. My spe cial interes t is in looking at the margins
of these geographi es, o r the fringes of the intellectual frameworks known as `area
studies'. The region around Shillong could be described as the northwestern borderland
of Southeast Asia, or as the northe astern borderland of South Asia. I examine the
issue of `area borderlands' fro m the perspective of Southea st Asia. Thus Shillong may
stand for towns as dispersed as Antananarivo, Trincomalee, Merauke, and Kunming.
The scramble for the area
The academic division of the world after World War 2 was neither a military campaign
nor an administrative campaign but it showed a certain resemblance to the scramble for
Africa two generations earlier. First, like its precursor, its impetus was political and
external to the areas concerned: it emanated from North America and Europe, which
were not really considered to be `areas' themselves. Second, it resulted in lines being
drawn on the world map that were just as bold as the imperial boundaries conceived at
Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: jumping
scale in Southeast Asia
Wi llem van Schendelô
Asia Studies in Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 237,
1012 DL Amsterdam, The Netherlands; e-mail:
Received 6 February 2002; in revised form 27 March 2002
Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2002, volume 20, pages 647 ^ 668
Abstract. `Area studies' use a geographical metaphor to visualise and naturalise particular social spaces
as well as a particular scale of analysis. They produce specific geographies of knowing but also create
geographies of ignorance. Taking Southeast Asia as an example, in this paper I explore how areas are
imagined and how area knowledge is structured to construct area `heartlands' as well as area `border-
lands'. This is illustrated by considering a large region of Asia (here named Zomia) that did not make it
as a world area in the area dispensation after World War 2 because it lacked strong centres of state
formation, was politically ambiguous, and did not command sufficient scholarly clout. As Zomia was
quartered and rendered peripheral by the emergence of strong communities of area specialists of East,
Southeast, South, and Central Asia, the production of knowledge about it slowed down. I suggest that we
need to examine more closely the academic politics of scale that create and sustain area studies, at a time
when the spatialisation of social theory enters a new, uncharted terrain. The heuristic impulse behind
imagining areas, and the high-quality, contextualised knowledge that area studies produce, may be
harnessed to imagine other spatial conf igurations, such as `crosscutting' areas, the worldwide honeycomb
of borderlands, or the process geographies of transnational flows. Scholars of all conventional areas can
be involved in this project to `jump scale' and to develop new concepts of regional space.
ô Correspond ence address: International Ins titute of Social History, Cruquiusweg 31, 1019 AT
Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
the Berlin Conference; in fact, they often followed imperial boundaries. And third, it
created conceptual empires that were thought of as somehow essentially homogeneous
and self-contained, and it deemphasised preexisting social realities cutting across the
boundaries of the newly conceived `areas', with the exception of those with (neo)colonial
The scramble for the area led to an institutional an choring of academic com muni-
ties worldwide, which trained separately, b ecame engaged in area-specific discourses
and debates, formed well-established referenc e circles, and developed similar mecha-
nisms and r ituals for patrolling their intellectual borders. The emergence of what came
to be known in North America as `area studies' was a source of strength but could also
lead to obscurantism and even in their least hidebound forms area studies hampered
information flows between the new intellectual arenas. It i s hardly surpr ising that
today a Latin Americanist listening in on a conference of Africanists, or a s cholar of
the Middle East among Southeast Asianists, feels rather like an Anglophone African
at a meeting of Francophone co-continentals. But even those who specialise in the
study of contiguous world areas have trouble following what goes on next door. For
example, at Asian Studies conferences it is easy to observe how strongly specialists of
different areas within Asia interact within their own regional subgroups and how little
they interact across them. Even during coffee breaks, regional subgroups on, for
example, South Asia or Southeast Asia can be seen to persi st, varying from sharply
bounded jatis to more vaguely demarcated ma ndalas.
Meanwhile, the scramble for the area is not over, it is continuing. As the world has
moved beyond the political realities of the mid-19th century that gave rise to area
studies, acade m ics have attempted to adapt their areas accordingly. This c an be seen
clearly i n the emergence of a new academi c area, `C entral Asia', during the 1990s.
Areas have also changed because each became a nexus of changing relations between
specialists in the area and their `Northern' colleagues; these relations varied from
antagonistic to collaborative and evolved in area-sp ecific p atterns. Over several gen-
erati ons old now, these webs of relationships have developed into `area lineages',
imagined area communities whose disputes and preoccupations draw them ever close r
together and who have created their own distinct systems of rewards, sanctions, and
taboos. In formerly colonised societies, me mbers of the rapidly developing intelligent-
sias with international ambitions had little choice but to adapt to the area mould.
Mo reover, the closing years of the 20th century have seen the project of area studies
itself coming under fire, parti cularly in the United States, which had gone furthest in
instituti onali sing it. A heightened awareness of global economic and finan cial connec-
tions, international migration, and deterritorialised and diasporic identities resulted in
the charge that area studies fetishised the local
and this impelled area studies to
rework the ir claim that knowledge production without `contextualisation' was, at
best, woefully i ncomplete. And finally, it is gradually daw ning upon those who have
sp ecialist knowledge of Europe, North America, or Australia that they are as much
Among scholars of South Asia the term `jati' is used to denote endogamous groups with clear
social boundaries (`subcastes'); Southeast Asianists use the term `mandala' to refer to precolonial
political entities whose geographical extent and borders were only vaguely defined.
This area is still an unsettled unit, as indicated by the terminological confusion surrounding it.
Many writings on Central Asia deal exclusively with the former Soviet part, now divided between five
independent states east of the Caspian Sea. Some, however, also include the ex-Soviet states in the
Caucasus. Lewis and Wigen (1997, pages 176 ^ 181) propose a much larger area, covering the states
east of the Caspian Sea, Sinkiang, Mongolia, and Tibet. Others demur, such as Soucek (2000), who
argues that only the ex-Soviet part is `Central Asia', and that the region which Lewis and Wigen
propose should be named `Inner Asia', or Christian (1994), who proposes the term `Inner Eurasia'.
In the Journal of Asian Studies books are reviewed under the heading `China and Inner Asia'.
648 W van Schendel
engaged in area studies as their colleagues spending a lifetime analysing A frica or
Latin America.
W hat is an area?
There are three pr incipal ways of understanding an academic area: as a place, as a site
of kn owledge production, and as a career machine. Let me illustrate this by taking the
example of Southeast Asia.
Many have descr ibed Southeast Asia as a physical space, a geographical region, an
area that c an be pointed out on the globe.
But Southeast Asianists have been
remarkably diffident about their region, which does not have the distinctive continental
shape of Africa or Latin America and is a collecti on of discontinuous territories united
by large bodies of water.
As Southeast Asia lacks the geographical obviousness of
other areas, Southeast Asianists have emphasised the human ties that make the region
a unit. In the constructio n of this region as a social space, the physical intent was
infused with a more liberal dose of social i ntent than elsewhere (Smith, 1990).
But even when it comes to the people inhabiting these ter ritories, they are often
described in term s of what they are not. Recently, Charles Keyes said that Southeast
Asia is a region comprising the ``p e opl e living east of India and south of China and
north of Australia'' (in Weighing the Balanc e 2000, page 8). Others have tried to
emphasise the unity of the regio n's peoples by suggesting that they are characterised
by ``shared ideas, related lifeways, and long- standing cultural tie s'' (Lewis and Wigen,
1997, page 158). Usually it rem ains vague which cultural ties ac tually are deemed
crucial i n defining Southeast Asia, although civilisations, languages, and religio ns are
proffered as alternatives.
What these definitions share is a concern to present South-
east A sia as a well-bounded geographical place w ith a c ertain internal consistency and
a regional je ne sais quoi, an essenc e that even area specialists find hard to p ut into
As a result, the geographical boundaries of the region remain highly problem-
atic: civilisations, l anguages, and religions have never c oincided with each other, nor
with the contemporary political boundaries that most Southeast Asianists accept as
the spatial limits to their quest for knowledge.
Another way of thinking about an area is to consider it as a symbolic s pace, a site of
theoretical-knowledge productio n rather than as a mere object of speciali st knowledge
(Morr is, in Weighing the Balance 2000, page 11). Neferti Tadiar suggests that:
Agnew (1999, page 92) ha s described this approach as that of realists, for whom ``the `region'
typically conjures up the idea of an homogeneous block of space that has a persis ting distinctive-
ness due to its physical and cultural characteristics. The claim is that it exists `out there' in th e
world.'' They find themselves in an `unfortunate opposition' with constructionists, ``who regard all
regions as mere inventions of the observer whose definitions say more about the political-social
position of that observer than the phenomena the regions purp ort to classify.''
Southeast Asia spe cialists have been discussing the nature and identity of their area, as well as
their own a chievements and shortcomings, to an extent completely unk nown to their colleagues
speci alising in, for example, South Asia (see Emmerson, 1984; Hirschman et al, 1992; Solheim,
1985; Weighing the Balance 2000).
But culturalist criteria make geographic definitions highly problematic. As Hill and Hitchcock
(1996, page 12) argue, ``in ethnographic terms parts of Northeast India, Southern Chin a and
Taiwan can be said to belong to Southeast Asia whereas Irian Jaya h as much in common with
the Melanesian world.''
This is
rather en igmatically for the uninitiated
how it is put in the preface to The Cambridge
History of Southeast Asi a: ``Southeas t Asia has long b een seen as a whole, though other terms have
been used for it. T he title Southeast Asia, becoming current during World War II, has been
accepted as recognizing the unity of the region, while not prejudging the nature of that unity.
Yet scholarly research and w riting have shown that it is no mere geographical expression'' (Tarling,
1999, volume 1, page xi).
Geographies of kn owing, geographies of ign orance 649
``the `area' of S outheast Asia can b e understood more as a theoretical problematique
than as an object of inquiry
similar to the way we understand `cultural studies' as
an `area' offering new sets of questions and methodologies'' (in Weighing the Balance
2000, page 18).
This approach invites a sociology of knowledge of Southeast Asia. How has the
field of Southeast Asia been constituted by the predilections, traumas, and theoretical
fashions of North A meri c an, European, Australian, Japanese, and Southeast Asian
academic institutions? Is it possible to define the `theo retical problematique' in any
unequivocal way? What is the canon that i s b eing taught to new entrants in the field?
What are the questions and methodologies that Southeast Asia h as to offer to other
fields? And, in the wider context of area studies, some crucial issues are how a
`regional' system of knowledge, with its emphasis on the specificity of spatial config-
uration, relates to other regional systems, what the me diations are between these and
an overarching social theory, and what contributions area studies can make to an
ongoing spatialisation of that theory.
Finally, Southeast Asia can be thought of as an i nstitutional space, as the name of a
group of transnational scholarly lineages, circles of referencing, structures of authority
and patronage. In this perspective, `Southeast Asia' is both a global mutual-support
society and a network for protecting, promoting, and validating particul ar kinds of
expertise. This transnational community is dominated by established scholars who act
as gatekeepers to a controlled `area' labour market, to which selected young trainees
are given access. At stake is the protection and, if possible, expansion of the field
within universities, research institutes, and centres of policymak ing. Scholars of South-
east Asia (or any other `area') act as lobbyists for their field. Today, one of the worries
that plagues Southeast Asianists is the fact that a generation of towering figures in the
field has reached retirement age. It is feared that this will weaken `Southe ast Asia' both
as a scholarly project and as a career machine.
The structure of area studies
Regional studies use a geographical metaphor to legitimate the p roduction of specific
types of knowledge. This knowledge is structured geographically as well as according
to academi c disciplines. The geographical m etaphor demands that one `area' ends
where the next one begins, but in reality area studies resemble the mandalas of old.
Kingdoms in some parts of what is now called Southeast Asia were powerful and well
defined at the centre but vague and contested at the edges. They would expand and
contract in concertina-li ke fashion depending o n their relationship w ith surrounding
political entities, and there were often areas in between whose political status was
undecided. Area studies are like that. They lack clear boundar ies and may lay claim
to new ter ritories if it suits them. A good example is Afghanistan, which is variously
in cluded in, or omitted from, the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia.
Some area studies have a strong central court. South Asian studies are a case in
point. Here most scholars work on India, perhaps even North India. By contrast,
Southeast Asian studies appear to form a more multicentred mandala based on an
alliance of three major provincial factions: the Indonesianists, the Thai expe rts, and the
Vietnamologists (Weighing the Balance 2000, pages 17 ^ 20). The concerns of these groups
dominate the field. They tolerate weaker factions at the peripheries, for example, those
generating scholarly knowledge about lesser satrapies known as the Philippines, Laos,
Malaysia, or Burma (Myanmar). And then there are the marches, the borderlands that
separate the region from other world regions. In the case of Southeast Asia these are the
Much work in this field is being done in human geography, a discipline that is still poorly
integrated into area studies (for example, see Harvey, 1996; Gregory, 1994; Smith, 1990; Soja, 1989).
650 W van Schendel
liminal places referred to above: Northeast India, Yunnan, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, New
Guinea, and so on. Those who produce specialist knowledge about these places may
occasionally be invited to court, but they will never be a part of the power elite. In true
mandala fashion, these marc hes are sometimes claimed as part of some regional pr o blem-
atique, but always from the vantage point of the court. The borderlands are rarely worth
they are more often forgotten than disputed between neighbouring areas.
Similarly, regi onal studies are structured by discipline, some offering h igh er statu s
(and better career prospects) than others. A recent overview sugge sts that anthropology
and history dominate in Southeast Asian studies, although another group of spec ialists
might perhaps have come u p with more policy-oriented disciplines (Weighing the
Balance 2000). But clearly, some disciplines have low status. In terms of career plan-
ning, a student would b e wiser to train as an anthropologist than as a geographer, and
she or he would be wise to choose Java rathe r than C ambodia. Th is i s not, of course,
be cause the geographical study of Cambodia is inherently less important than the
anthropological study of Java
in fact, one might reaso n that an individual scholar's
impact on knowledge production can be greater in a relatively undeveloped field
because of the reward system operating among those who define area relevance.
An area of no concern
The current refashioning of area studies as a scholarly project may sadden many
disciples but may come as a relief to others. T hey welcom e a reconsideration of
the contexts, boundaries, and types of knowledge associated with the scramble for the
area. And it is not only the `globalists' who have been chomping at the bit.
have long felt that, in a bid for academic recog nition, p roponents of area studies have
overstated their case. Under the banner of area studi es, particular academic fiefdoms
have been allowed to flourish at the expense of others. Even those who feel that the
idea of area-based academic activity is sound may rebel against the statu s quo. For
example, although many Southeast Asianists think of their area as a young and fragile
one still waiting to come into its own, they have b een put on the defensive by
newcomers who describe Southeast Asia as a `traditional area' and who propose new
regional contexts, for example, the `Indian Ocean', or `Asia-Pacific'.
The construction of spaces in which human activity is thought to take place is
always contested, and so is the production of knowledge about these social spaces,
their ``geographies of knowing'' (Gregory, 1994). Because spatial metaphors are so
important in the constitution of area studies, the visualisation of these space s needs
to be carefully considered. Maps are major tools of spatial representation, and the
visions, politics, and assumptions underlying them have become an important field of
study within human geography (for example, Harley, 1992). Over the p ast half-century,
the scramble for the area has influenced mapmakers as much as the rest of us,
and atlases commonly have maps with the captions `Southeas t Asia' and `South Asia'.
These apparently objective visualisations present regi onal heartlands as well as periph-
parts of the world that always d rop off the map, disapp ear into the folds of
For a fierce attack and a portrayal of area studies as ``idiographic, self-referential, ... anchoring
in an anachronistic, positivist, epistemology'', see Palat (199 6, page 301).
Both areas, which crosscut `Southeast Asia', gained considerable currency in the late 20th
centur y. Their emergence owed much to Fernand Braudel's ideas regarding the Mediterranean,
which Reid (1988; 1993) also applied to Southeast Asia. For a programmatic statement on the
Indian Ocean area, see Dowdy (1985). Since then, academic journals (such as The Indian Ocea n
Review) and research institutes (for example, the Centre for Indian Ocean Regional Studies, Curtin
University of Technology, Perth) have t aken th e area as their focus. On the Pacific Rim/Pacific
Basin/Asia-Pacific, see, for example, Dirlik (1992).
Geographies of kn owing, geographies of ign orance 651
two-page spreads, or end up as insets. In this way, cartographic convenience reinforces
a hierarchical spatial awareness, highlighting certain areas of the globe and pushing
others into the shadows.
For example, anyone interested in finding fairly detailed modern maps showing
the region covering Burma, Northeast India, Bangladesh, and neighbouring parts
of China knows that these do not exis t. This is a region that is always a victim of
cartographic surgery. Maps of Southeast Asia may not even include the northe rn and
western parts of Burma, let alone the neighbouring areas of India and Bangladesh.
And maps of South A sia not infrequently pres ent Northeast India (and sometime s
Bangladesh) as an inconvenient outlier that is relegated to an inset. Odd b its of Tibet
and Yunnan may show up in far corners merely because of the need to fill up the
rectangular shape of the map.
This is an example of a region that routinely is sliced into pieces by makers of
regional maps, a treatment never meted out to `heartlands' such as Java or the Ganges
valley. It is not farfetched to argue that c artographic per ipheralisation is indicative of
marginal status of an area in area studies, not just in term s of physical distance to
some imagined area core, but also in terms of perceived relevance to the mai n con-
ce rns and problematiques that animate the study of the area
in this case Southeast
Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and East Asia, four major areas that supposedly meet
here (see figure 1).
(1 1)
In other words, this region, like others, is largely excluded from
the `area imagi nation'. Such regions are subsu med under the scholarly rubric of an
`area' only to be ignored, othered, made illegible.
In works on Southeast Asia the maps are not infrequently trimmed to exclude the apparently
irrelevant northern reaches of Bur ma. This tendency is particularly noticeable in maps of `modern'
Southeast Asia. As Southeast Asianists turn from early history to the c olonial and postcolonial
periods, they appear to become less i nclusive and to gravitate towards a `littoral' persuasio n (see,
for example, maps in Pluvier, 1974; Rigg and Scott, 1992; Tate, 1971; 1979; Williams, 1976).
(1 1)
Compare with the map in Lewis and Wigen (1997, page 187).
Scott (1998) explores the relationship between power, knowledge, and `legibility' for states
the idea of legibility can be applied to other structured g roups of observers, such as area specialists.
Figu re 1. Asia and its areas.
652 W van Schendel
It may be useful to highlight the irrelevance of this region to area studies
and the
absurdity of area studies for this region
by considering the case of four settlements in
the eastern Himalayas, each some 50 km from the other. Arbitrary decisions made
in far-off s tudies and c onference rooms have allocated them to four di fferent world
areas: Gohaling is in Yunnan (`East Asia'), Sakongdan in Burma (`Southeast A sia'),
Dong is in India (`South Asia'), and Zayu
is in Tibet (`Central Asia'). They are
represented by four dots in figu re 1. The assumption that the more meaningful links
of these places are with faraway `area cores' rather than with each other is rather
preposterous, and the claim of area studies to be mindful of the unity of people's
`shared ideas, related lifeways, and long-standing cultural ties' comes a cropper here.
There is of course nothing specific about Southeast Asian studies in this respect. The
very structure of area studies leads to the peripheralisation of certain regions and certain
types of knowledge. In the next section, I explore the problem for a nameless region
stretching across four current academic areas. Let us give it the name of Zomia.
Why Zom ia is not an area
According to the physical-space criterion used to support and legitimate area
studies, Zomia certainly qualifies (see figure 2). Its `shared ideas, related lifeways, and
long-standing cultural ties' are manifold. They include language affinities (for example,
Tibeto-Burman languages), religious commonalities (for example, community religions
and, among the universalistic religions, Buddhism and Christianity), cultural traits (for
example, kinship systems, ethnic scatter zones), ancient trade networks, and ecological
This is derived from zomi, a term for highlander in a number of Chin ^ Mizo ^ Kuki languages
spoken in Burma, India, and Bangladesh. Linguists classify these languages as b elonging to the very
large family of Tibeto-Burman languages spoken all over Zomia [Kashmir, North India, Nepal,
Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, Northeast India, the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Bangladesh), Burma, Yunnan,
and Sichuan (China), Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam]. Not unexpectedly, in view of the academic
compartmentalisation of this vast region, ``with few exceptions these languages are very inadequately
described in the scholarly literature ... the chaotic situation which currently exists concerning the
mutual relations and affinities among those languages is hardly surprising'' (Shapiro and Schiffman,
1983, page 115; compare with
Figure 2. An area of no concern: `Zomia'.
Geographies of kn owing, geographies of ign orance 653
conditions (for example, mountain agriculture).
In the past, Zomia was a centre of
state formation (for example, the Nanzhao kingdom in Yunnan, Tibetan states, the Ahom
kingdom in Assam), but today its prime political characteristic is that it is relegated to the
margins of ten valley-dominated states with which it has antagonistic relationships.
(1 5)
Even though it does not have a pleasing (sub)continental shape, Zomia could have been
defined as a distinct geographical region, an object of study, a world area.
But Zomia does not qualify as an area at all if we consider the symbolic-space
criterion proposed by Tadiar. It has not been worked up into ``a theoretical problem-
ati que ... offering new sets of questions and methodologies''. On the contrar y, it has
declined steeply as a theory-generating locus. For exam ple, in the field of anthro-
pology, Zo mia was i m portant up to the mid-20th century. It produ ced influential
studies, such as those by Edmund Leach, F K Lehman, and Chr istoph von Fu
Haimendorf, in which the links between kinship, political structure, ethnic identity,
and ecology were theorised. Such studies could have formed the basis for an unfold-
in g `theoretical problematique', comparable perhaps to what developed in Andean
studies in the second half of the 20th century. If seas can inspire scholars to construct
Braudelian regional worlds, why not the world's largest mountain ranges? But
this did not happen. Instead, excellent studies of various parts of Zomia continued
to be done, but these did not address an audien ce of fellow `Zomianists', not did they
have the ambition to build up a Zomia p erspe ctive that could offer new sets of
questions and m ethodologies to the social sciences (for some rec ent work on this
region see, for example, Atwill, 2000; Chiranan Prasertkul, 1990; Hill, 1998; Jonsson,
1999; Michaud, 2000; van Schendel et al, 2000; van Spengen, 2000; Walker, 1999;
Wijeyeward ene, 1990). These studies were written either for disciplinary colleagues
who knew little about the region, or for more parochial groups of specia lists of,
say, Yunnan, Northeast India, or Tibet. If specialists of the four academic `areas'
between which Zomia was divided showed an i nterest, this was merely an unexpected
In other words, Zomia also failed to qualify as an in stitutional space. No strong
transnational scholarly lineages, circles of referencing, or structures of authority and
patronage developed around Zomia. Unlike `Southeast Asia', or other areas that made
it academically, `Zomia', like other would-be areas, lacked an institutionally grounded
network for protecting, promoting, and validating area expertise. There appear to have
been three main reasons for this.
First, the geopolitics of the Cold War mitigated against the construction of a `Zomi a'
be cause this region straddled the communist and capitalist spheres of influence. Unlike
other areas, whose case for research funding in the North could be presented politically
If th is comes across as an odd assortment of characteristics, it is good to realise that the traits
usually presented to define an area tend to be an ``unacknowledged jumbling of physiographical,
cultural, and political categories'' (Lewis and Wigen, 1997, page 197). In this regard, a claim for
`Zomia' on the basis of the criteria mentioned above is no more farfetched than that for th e Middle
East, based on ``a `crossroads' location, aridity, oil wealth, Islamic culture, Arabic language, early
contributions to civilization, and a recent history of ferocious strife'' (Wheeler and Kostbade, 1993,
page 196); for a critical review, see Lewis and Wigen (1997, page 197, compare page 195).
(1 5)
The only exception is Bhutan, in which state power formally lies with a Zomia elite, but this
elite is heavily controlled by the state elite of India. The ten states are China, Vietnam, Laos,
Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal.
Within Southeast Asia studies, an attempt is currently under way to make the case for a
`montagnard [mountain dwellers] domain'. In their review of the literature, McKinnon and
Michaud (2000, page 2) show that there are studies for single cases but hardly any which address
``more than on e mountain society of the [Mainland Southeast Asian] Massif and giv[e] the latter
the status of a coherent supra-national spatial and social unit.''
654 W van Schendel
as either `knowing your enemy' or `guiding young nations toward democracy', Z omi a
was a confusing region, and politically not a sufficiently threateni ng one to merit a
great deal of attention.
Second, Zomia did not cover important states but only politically marginal
regions of states. Th is was a severe handicap because area studies, for all their
culturalist language, are firmly statist in their orientation. A ll succ essful areas have
been constructed on the basis of groups of mid-20th-century states, or even on
alliances of such states.
State borders are conventionally used to demarcate
the outer boundaries of each area.
Most area spe cialists think in terms of
nation-states and identify with the state level and par ticular state-bounded societies
(compare, Reynolds and McVey, 1998). To the outside world they present themselves
as Indonesianists rather th an, say, insular Southeast Asianists or Kalimantanists.
The languages taught to budding area sp ecialists at Norther n universities are the
`national' languages of states.
The state level not only takes priority in conceptual
terms but is also inescapable in terms of funding, institutional visibility, and inter-
national networking. This is an important reason why Zomia, an area without
independent state s, never stood a chance.
To make things worse, in the second half of the 20th century much of Zomia
resisted the projects of nationbuilding and statemaking of the states to which it
belonged. In these projects, uplanders were often excluded from discourses of citizen-
ship, and cast in the roles of non nationals, alien elements, or poachers of the state's
forestry resources who could b e redeeme d only by assimilating to the lowland `ma in-
stream' (see Jonsson, 1998). All over Zomi a, states implemented policies of population
relocation, prevention of hill agriculture, land registration, logging, wildlife protection,
dam building, watershed protection, and education in national languages, which led to
new forms of competition and tension. Such forms of `development' did not a ct as an
antipolitics machine (Fergu son, 1990). O n the contrary, Zomia became characterised
by a high incidence of regionalist and separatist movements, `nonstate spaces', and
discursive battles around concepts such as `tr ibe' and `indigenous people' (Scott, 2000).
Some of the se movements were picked up by the world media (which turned Tibet,
(1 7)
Many Southeast Asianists tacitly limited their scope to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast
Asian Nations) countries (which for decades excluded Laos, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, and East
Timor), as did South Asianists later with the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional
Cooperation) countries. Areas with `insufficient statehood' have difficulty establishing themselves
as scholarly areas
for example, `Central Asia', which could not emerge as an area until it
developed independ ent statehood in the form of the post-Soviet states of the region.
Often there are curious inconsistencies. Tarling's (1961, page xi) definition of the area seemed
straightforwardly statist: ``The term `Southeast Asia' is used to describe a group of states which lie
between the great land masses of India and China''. But, when it came to the list of territories, he
included not only eight states, but also the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (which belong to India).
The ambitious and successful SEASSI (Southeas t Asian Studies Summer Institute) language-
teaching programme in the USA is a good example. Here, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Lao, Khmer, Thai,
Indonesian, and Burmese are taught; these are all state languages. In addition, out of hund reds of
nonstate languages in Southea st Asia, two can be learned here: Hmong and Javanese. Most South
Asian area studies cannot match this richness. They tend to concentrate on two state languages of
the region, Hindi and Urdu (but do not offer the state languages of Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan,
Sri Lanka, or the Maldives), and two `classical' languages, Sanskrit and Tamil.
The low level of Zomia's `state visibility' is also reflected in the longtime absence of any state
alliances across the region. There were no ASEANs, SEATOs, or SAARCs. It was not till the 1980s
that the first state- sponsored initiatives materialised, for example, ICIMOD (The International
Centre for Integrated Mountain Development), launched in 1983 and concerned with networking
across Zomia. Its initial focus on the Hindu Kush, in the Himalayan region, has gradually been
widened through the Asia-Pacific Mountain Network (see
Geographies of kn owing, geographies of ign orance 655
Kash mir, and the Golde n Triangle into household names), but most remain largely
unknown even to area spe cialists.
For example, the average South Asianist would be
hard-pressed to give an info rmed analysis of the dozens of highly active autonomy
movements in Assam and other northeastern states of India, some of them over fifty
years old.
As a result of this antagonistic relationship and the weakness of state control
over large areas of Zomia, several of these states have severely restricted the ingress
of outsiders.
In this way, state marginality also mitigated against a blossoming of
Zomia area studies. Area sp ecialists who had worked freely in the region in the 1940s
and 1950s found it increasingly difficult to get access for themselves and their students in
more recent decades. Although these restrictions were not uniform and now appear to b e
lessening in most parts of Zomia, this history of difficult access, state surveillance, and
physical danger has proved a setback to the study of the region.
Third, Zomia lacked the support of two influential university-based groups that were
instrume ntal in building up academic area studies i n the North. O ne g roup consisted
of `colonial expe rts'
intellectuals in charge of erstwhile training cours es for colonial
officials, as well as their trainees
who were looking for new roles at the end of the
colonial era. Many of them sought to reinve nt thems elves as area-sensitive development
sp ecialists, and th ey strongly suppo rted the repackaging of their knowledge and skills
in the form of area studies. The other group was that of `civilisational specialists',
scholars who studied non-Wester n `civilisations', especially through their textual
legacies, and were known as Indologists, Islamologists, Sinologists, or, more gener-
ally, Or ientalists. These experts were keen to make sure that any new area studies
were built around the civilisati onal constructs to which they devoted themselves. In
the case of `South Asia' and the `Middle East', colonial experts and civilisational
specialists partook in almost equal measure in the creation of their `area', whereas in
the case of `East Asia' the civilisational sp ecialists dominated, and in that of `South-
east Asia' the colonial experts dominated. Southeast Asianists were acutely aware
that civilisational sp ecialists gave indispensable prestige to an `area' and they were
keen to point out that, even though few civilisational specialists considered their
`area' to be one of the world's great civilisations, ``the cultural traditions of Southeast
Asia are too rich and too dyn am ic to be afterthoughts i n fi eld s devoted to the `great'
traditions of the world'' (Keyes, 1992, page 18).
And unlike, for example, South
Asia, Southeast Asia remained a weakly constructed area be cause it did not develop
strong local roots:
``Southeast Asia is not, generally sp eaking, a domain meaningful for study in
countries within the regi on, where national histories are of primary concern, and
Some area specialists have followed what Wolters (1999, pages 160 ^ 162), in an interesting piece
of self-criticism, calls the ``conceit of the lowland's elite'' and the ``lowlanders' prejudice'' regarding
the uplands, which are perceived as d istant, isolated hinterlands with a lowly status in th e world
For example, India retains the colonial `Inner Line Regulation' that bars the entry into North-
east India (that is, the states of Assam, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Ar unachal Pradesh, Tripura, Mizoram,
Manipur, and Nagaland) of not only foreign nationals but also nonlocal In dians, including
researchers (see Chakraborty, 1995; Robb, 1997).
Southeast Asianists have sought to explain why their region was a latecomer among world
areas. Anderson (1998, pages 4 ^ 5) gives four reasons for this: the absence of a historic hegemonic
power, religious heterogeneity, a segmented history of imperialism; and a position as being most
remote from imperial centres. In the region, he suggests, a sense of unity was formed by three
factors: Japanese occupation during World War 2, the armed fight against imperialism, and the
Cold War experience, in which Southeast Asia was the most unstable region for the USA, which
feared communist takeovers here.
656 W van Schendel
has been mostly a Euro-Japanese construct'' (Reynolds, 1995, page 420; compare
Tarling, 1999, page xviii).
But Zomia was more disadvantaged than that. It was an inland region that had
be en at the margins, or even beyond the effective scope, of an external influence that
animated lively debates in South Asian and Southeast Asian studies: maritime Euro-
pe an colonial conquest. Zomia lacked a strong lobby of colonial exp erts. Also it had
not developed a powerful civilisational persona in Northern universities, because it
also lay at the margins or b eyond the `civilisational' impac t of India, China, and Islam.
And therefore it had very few civilisational specialists to fend for it.
As a result of these three handicaps
political ambiguity, absenc e of strong centres
of state formation, and insufficient scholarly clout
prospective Zomianists lost out in
the scramble for the area after World War 2. They were unable to create a n iche for
themselves and for the social relations and networks that they studied. As their regio n
was quartered and they were prevented from intellectually reproducing them selves, the
production of knowledge about this region slowed down and the new area dispensation
defined their work as less consequential. Fifty years later, these handicaps persist, even
though the geopolitical visibility of Zomia changed somewhat with the emergence of
large-scale heroin production in the area, the discovery of mineral resourc es, tourism,
and a new concern with environm ental and indigenous issues. But these changes were
not e nough to undo Zomia's marginal place in the hierarchy of knowledge, or to revive
knowledge production, let alone give support to v iable claims to areahood.
The scale of area studies
The example of Zomia shows that the area studies that developed during the Cold
War were not quite what they appeared to be: joint enterpr ises by practitioners of the
social sciences and the humanities to advance thoroughly grounded comprehensive
knowledge of the different regions of the world. They were both mo re and less. As
expressions of a particular geography of power, they were instruments to naturalise the
geopolitical arrangements of the day. As expressions of certain academic interests
and disciplines, they were instrume nts in institutional strategies with regard to
funds, s tudents, jobs, and pres tige. And they contributed to a certain ghettoisation of
cr itical insights as area studies tended toward the guild model. Area spec ialists were
rewarded for `kn owing their proper place': training in area studies centres, recognising
differences within the larger context of their area's unity, offering their findings to area-
focused seminars and journals, and d evoting their careers to the study of their area of
training, without necessarily keeping abreast of intellectual developments next door.
The p owerful geographic imagery of area studies emphasised contiguity or physical
closeness in social analysis and suggested a certai n homoge neity across each area that
could be p rojected back into time. This rhetoric, freely used to legitimate area studies,
was rarely put to the test. A fundamental problem is that area studies have produced
many `subregional experts' (to use a term employed by Wolters, 1999, page 213) but
More recently, Anderson put it like this: ``As a meaningful imaginary, [Southeast Asia] has had
a very short life, shorter than my own. Not surprisingly, its naming c ame from outside, and even
today very few among the almost 500 million souls inhabiting its roughly 1,750,000 square miles of
land (to say n othing of water), ever think of themselves as `Southeast As ians''' (1998, page 3).
In recent years, prominent Southeast A sianists have repeatedly portrayed their field as weak-
ened, relatively invisible and academically marginalised. It is good to keep a sense of perspective
here. When Southeast Asianists describe their region as ``the most insubstantial of world areas'',
they obviously do not have regions such as Zomia o r Central Asia in mind. Similarly, when they
worry about a th reatening ``gene ration gap'' in Southeast Asian studies, it is sobering to compare
this with the veritable ``generational chasm'' which has opened up in the study of Zomia (Weighi ng
the Balance 2000, pages 13, 14, 16 ).
Geographies of kn owing, geographies of ign orance 657
remarkably few true area spec ialis ts: scholars with a thorough grasp of the entire area
of their choice. Instead, certain well-researched subregions and theme s inevitably came
to be portrayed as somehow embodying the essence of the area, and therefore capable
of being presented as partes pro toto. In this way, area studies were a great boost to the
study of these subregions and themes but did little for others, effectively making these
less visible. A s an imagery, then, th e area was much more meani ngful to certain
conc erns, comparisons, and interests than to others.
Today, the important issues no longer seem to be the search for the cultural
grammar of Southeast Asia, the essence of Islamic civilisation, or the spirit of East
Asia. Such essentialist queries do not sit easily with the fascination with hybridity,
transnationalism, and global transformation that has animated so many recent
research projects. Geographical compar tmentalisation has becom e a drawba ck. Calls
can be heard to overcome the ``contiguity fetish of prevailing region al schemes'' and to:
``visualize discontinuous `regions' that might take the spatial form of lattices, archi-
p elagos, hollow rings, or patchworks ... the friction of distance is much less than
it used to be; capital flows a s much a s human m igrations can rapidly create and
re- create profound connecti ons between distant plac es. A s a result, some of the
most powerful sociospatial aggregations of our day simply cannot be mapped as
single, bounded territories ... . The geograp hy of social life in the late twentieth
century has outgrown n ot only the contours of the postwar world map, but also the
very conventions by which we represent spatial patterns in image and text'' (Lewis
and Wigen, 1997, pages 190, 200).
In other words, what is being advocated is ``a decisive shift away from what we may
call `trait' geographies to what we could call `process' geographies'', which retain the
heuristic impulse behind imagining areas but treat them as contingent and variable
artifacts (Appadurai, 2000, page 7). This conc e rn to rethink the spatiality of social life
can benefit from rec ent contributions that criticise the social sciences for their wide-
spread practice of treating space as ``self-evident, unproblematic, and unrequiring of
theory'', and of seeing ``history as the indep endent variable, the actor, and geography
as the dep endent
the ground on which events `take place', the field within which
hi story unfolds (Smith, 1992, pages 61, 63).
Rejecting spatial c ategories as ontologically g iven
as static, timeless containers of
historicity (Brenner, 1999, page 46)
theorists in human g eography are in the process
of developing a theory of geographical scale.
They emphasise that the different
scales, or levels of spatial representation, that we use in our social analyses
example, local, national, regional, global
are in no way pregiven but are socially
constructed and should be understood as ``temporary stand-offs in a perpetual
transformative ... socio-spatial power struggle'' (Swyngedouw, 1997, page 169).
One of these concerns was to construct an area identity in addition to, or in opposition to, the
national identities strongly being promoted during the same period (for Southeast Asia, see
Emmerson, 1984, page 21). Both nationalists and area specialists used history as a powerful tool
in this endeavour. Hence a book title such as The History of Southea st Asia comes across as equally
programmatic as, say, that miracle of invention, 500 0 Years of Pakistan. The endeavour of area
studies over the last half-century is perhaps best summe d up in another book title, In Search of
Southeast Asia: A Modern History.
An important source of inspiration for this approach is the work of Lefebvre (especially 1976 ^ 78;
1991). For an overview, see Marston (2000).
``These s truggles change the importance and role of ce rtain geographic al scales, reassert the
importance of others, and sometimes create entirely new significant scales, but
most impo r-
these scale redefinitions alter and express changes in the geometry of social power by
strengthe ning power and control of s ome while disempowering others'' (Swyngedouw, 1997,
page 169).
658 W van Schendel
Asserting that scales are always provisional geographical resolutions of power struggles,
they invite us to consider how these are h istorically produced, stabilised, and trans-
Clearly, scalar configurations
or `scalar fixes' (Smith, 1995)
can be quite
long-lived, and they can be come so stabilised as `scaffoldi ngs' of certain forms of p ower
and control that we experience them as natural and permanent. But they are always
As we have seen, the `world region' or `area' i s a relatively new scale, at least as
a spatial representation that is imagined to be a compo nent of a continuous grid
spanning the globe. It is also a contested one. The constru ctionist approach to scale
outlined above can help in studying more systematically what geometries of power
went into the `rescaling' th at produced the configuration of area studies after World
War 2. At the same time, this endeavour may help to broaden the theory of
geographical scale in three ways.
First, although it is re cognised that ``geographical scales are produced, contested,
and transformed through an immense range of sociopolitical and discursive processes,
strategies, and struggles that cannot be derived from any single en compassing
dynamic'' (Brenner, 1998, page 461), theorists of scale have so far focused their
atten tion overwhelmingly on the role of capitalist production and t he state in the
construction of scale.
The construction of area studies, however, appears to have
occurred relatively indep endently of the agency of capital, labour, and the state. For
this reason, the construction of area studies may provide a good case for exploring
the significance, in processes of rescaling, of sociocultural and discursive factors in
addition to socioeconomic ones.
Second, theorists of scale have s tudi ed certain scales m ore than others. The urban,
national, and global scales have received most attention, with recent contributions
calling attention to the household and the body. But the scales between the national
and the global remain underexposed, and here th e scale of world regions is a useful
field of further inquiry.
And third, the theory of the social construction of sc ale is still strongly North
Atlantic and urban in flavour. It deals with high ly industrialised (`core') societies and
takes its case studies from Europe and North America, that is, from only one or two
`world regions'. Such selectivity may be read as a particul ar example of the `politics of
scale' to the extent that it conveys implicitly that it is industrial capitalism, powerful
bureaucratic states, and `Western' constructions of scale that matter m ost (fo r a rare
exception, see Kelly, 1997). This is exac tly what many practitioners of area studies have
long ques tioned. It is essential fo r a theory of scale to take into account the many ways
in which politics of scale emanating from various parts of the world have shaped our
contemporary condition. A s an e ra of Euro ^ US imagining of the world's regio ns
comes to an end,
``actors in different regions now have elaborate interests and capabilities in con-
structing world pictures whose very i nteraction affects global processes. Thus the
world may consist of regions (seen processually), but regions also imagine their
own worlds'' (Appadurai, 2000, page 10).
What is needed, then, is a new sociospatial lexicon to enable us adequately to analyse
these developments (Lewis and Wigen, 1997, page 192). The geographical metaphors of
As Howitt (1998) argues, it is crucial to understand scale as relation, and not merely in terms of
its size and level.
For a schematic history of scalar fixes since the late 19th century, see Brenner (1998).
For a first attempt to incor porate social reproduc tion and consumption, see Marston (2000).
Kelly asserts that in the Philippin es such alternative imaginations of the global do exist,
although largely beyond the bounds of institutional politics (1997, page 169).
Geographies of kn owing, geographies of ign orance 659
area studies have been used to visualise and naturalise particular social spaces as well as a
particular scale of analysis. An important question is how such metaphorical spaces relate
to material space . To what extent ha ve they resulted in a methodological territorialism
that analyses spatial forms and scales as being self-enclosed and territorially bounded
geographical units (Brenner, 1999, pages 45 ^ 46)? What geographies of knowing have
resulted from area studies? And what geographies of ignorance?
In this paper, I have noted that area specialists have been quite unconcerned with
what their metaphors make invisible. I have done so by invoking a material space (Zomia)
that has been rendered peripheral by the emergence of strong communities of area
specialists of South, Central, East, and Southeast Asia.
(3 3)
Wi thout doubt, the question
of invisibility can best be approached from Southeast Asian studies because these have
produced such an introspective, soul-searching literature about themselves
by compari-
son, other area studies are much more complacent.
But even Southeast Asianists are
little concerned with exploring how their geographical metaphor determines how they
visualise space and what they cannot see. There are, to my knowledge, no spirited debates
about the effects of privileging `heartlands', the precise demarcation of the area, the
delimitation of its farthest reaches, or the need to explore and encompass its margins.
On the contrary, the debonair way in which foundational texts treat such matters suggests
perhaps that precise demarcation is considered to be both pedestrian and pedantic. But it
may be worthwhile to take the geographical intent of area studies more seriously and
consider other perspectives that may turn areas `inside out' [to use a term employed, in a
somewhat different fashion, by Wyatt (1997)]. An examination of the geographical notion
of distance may be particularly helpful in opening up new lines of research.
Distant places
The idea of remoteness was of course import ant in the creation of area studies as these
were faraway places that needed to be understood better in the worl d centres of power.
Distance was both a physical reality and a cultural metaphor, and area studies offered
geographies of long-distance knowing. Half a century later, technologies of communi-
cation have changed the picture. Distanc e is no longe r quite the tyrant it once was, and
an acute awareness of the shrinking of the world has spread widely, if unevenly, around
the globe. This i s true not only between regions of the world but also within them
[for the tremendous shortening of travel times in the Burma ^ China borderland since
the mid-1980s, see Porter (1995, pages 36 ^ 40)]. Much is being written about the ways
in which new technologie s of transport, media, and digital networking forge new
communities both locally and globally and how these can b e studied adequately only
by looking at networks that are not contained within the bordered territories of states
and areas. D istance is no longe r understood pr imarily in geographical and cultural
terms. It is increasingly seen as a social attribute: certain groups of people have better
access to technologies to overcome distance than others.
Area studies and thei r problematiques are ill suited to deal with human relations
spilling over area boundaries, and we have to devise more adequate perspe ctives to
encompas s these. Although globalisation studies emph asise the growth of worldwide
networks (new media, capital flows, diasporas, international organisations, the `global
This per ipheralisation is less prominent among area sp ecialists con cer ned with the archae-
olog y and early history of Asia but becomes more so among specialists with an interest in recent
history and the contemporary p er iod. Jonsson (1998) argus that the invisibility of uplanders in
Southeast Asian studies has also resulted from trends in anthropological theorising that privilege
ruler s and peasants as p olitical and economic prot agonists.
Debates on the usefulness of the constructio n of particular areas occasionally do flare up, for
example, the brief alt ercation on the Mediterranean b etween Pina-Cabral (1989) and Gilmore
(1990), or Ascherson's (1995) portrait of the Black Sea.
660 W van Schendel
city'), there are many other bo rder crossings that need to be understood. It is a m istake
to assu me that the most revealing c rossings are those between the West and the rest.
Understandings of global linkages need to emerge fo rcefully form dire c t exchanges
between scholars studying different parts of the `South'.
A major task in the restructuring of the world academy in the early 21st century is
the building up of institutions that allow academics trained in the study of a particu lar
area to overcome such boundaries and to communicate mo re meaningfully a cross them
at all levels: the production of theoreti cal knowledge, thematic fo cus, methodology,
empir ical skills. We need academic versions of the strategy of ``jumping scales'' (Smith,
1992, page 60), whi ch allows us ``to circumvent o r dism antle historically entrenched
forms of ter ritorial organization and their associated scalar morphologies'' (Brenner,
1999, page 62).
Crossing regional border s
Area specialists regularly assert the need for `border crossings', in order to highlight
interregional linkages rather than regional identities, but it is rare for these calls to be
translated into lasting institutional arrangements that make for innovative cross-regional
collaboration (for example, Volkman, 1998). Academic centres of area studies can be
remarkably inhospitable places for specialists of other areas, and cross-regional collab-
oration is almost never high on their agenda. Collaboration in the form of cross-regional
projects does occur however, for example, between Southeast Asia and East Asia and
between Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim.
Such geographies of cross-regional
knowing are much weaker, or even absent, between spe cialists of Southeast Asia and
Central Asia, or Southeast Asia and South Asia.
(3 7)
Two themes appear to be especially useful in initiating meaningful academic col-
laboration on interregional linkages. Both have to do with perspectives on sp ace,
distance, and mobility
with the conc eptual maps we use to order social li fe. The first
is borderlands, the second is flows of objects, p eop l e, and ideas.
The outer reaches of `areas' are less well known be cause most research has been
concentrated on problematiques dealing with what are perceived to be heartlands
and centres of power and change.
Today, as social scientists are distancing them-
selves from the spatial framewo rk that Eric Wolf once dubbed ``a world of sociocultural
billiard balls'' and are taking cognizan ce of the processual nature of all geographies of
social life, such `heartlands' and `centres' look inc reasingly contrived [(Wolf, 1982,
In the pursuit of politics of scale, groups of people often jump scales by organising at a more
global scale, but jumping scales may also lead to mobil isation at a more local scale (compare Cox,
For example, the Thai ^ Yunnan Project set up at the Australian National University in 1987, or
the research programme `International Social Organization in East and Southeast Asia: Qiaoxiang
ties in the 20th century', initiated by the International Institute of Asian Studies in The Netherlands
in 1997.
In this respect, academics appear to be well behind the political times. Take, for example, state-to-
state networks, which long seemed to fit the regional mode but increasingly reach across area borders
to form multistate economic-production and trade networks (growth triangles, quadrangles) and
multistate infrastructures (Asian Highway, Trans Asian Railway, reopening of the Stillwell Road
from Assam to Yunnan). These are examples of a whole range of distances between the `local'
and the `global' that need to be explored both conceptually and empirically. See Sobhan (1999;
2000) on the BBIMN (Bhutan, Bangladesh India, Myanmar, Nepal) growth zone and cross-regional
transport, and Carter (1999) on the China ^ Burma growth zone.
In this sense, area borderlands are as remote to an area specialists as `unadministered areas'
were to colonial officials (see Means, 20 00).
Geographies of kn owing, geographies of ign orance 661
page 17; for an analysis of the fragme ntation of an industrial heartland in the USA, see
Smith and Dennis (1997)]. And as political power is seen more in terms of everyday
social practices than as primarily e mbodied in the institutions and processes of fo rmal
politics, conventional ways of studying states, nations, and societies are under
A burgeoning literature on international borderlands suggests that much
can be learned about centres of power by looking at their pe ripheries. Many issues
that currently hold the attention of social scientists
transnationalism, citizenship and
othering, ethnic accommodation, hybridity, the interpretation of scales and regu latory
practices, underground econom ies, and international conflict
have always been inte-
gral to borderland milieus (Baud and van Schendel, 1997; Do nnan and Wilson, 1999;
nez, 1994).
In social science research, the longstandi ng tendency has been to view named units
(states, societies, and cultures) as separate and distinct, each with its own internal
structure and external boundaries. Late-20th-century thinking in terms of separate
`areas' has followed that example. But areas are even less like billiard balls than states
are. The focusing of more research on what area specialists have learned to think of as
the borderlands of their area may help to overcome what their g eography of knowing
has obscured and marginalised: the many intercon nections between these dynamic
bundles of relationships. Current attempts at refashioning area studies are beginning
to pi ck up on th is. They present the borderlands between areas a s ``interstitial zones''
that function ``almost like hybrid regions in their own right'' (Lewis and Wigen, 1997,
pages 188, 203).
A promising way of developing a historically more complete and theoretically richer
sense of the interconnections between areas is to start from objects and people in
transnational (or `transareal') movement. We are aware of the enormous importan ce
of transnational mobility b ut still lack the concepts, theories, and measures to study
them adequately. Even something as straightforward as the size of these flows is often
unknown, e spe cially the size of those commodities that are declared illicit by some, or
all, states. To give just one example, the world trade in illegal drugs has been guessti-
mated at anywhere between $500 and $1000 billion a year, that is, roughly the same
size as the combined GNP of all the states of Southeast A sia.
If we add to thi s other
illicit flows (traffic in small arms, undocumented labour, nuclear materials, animals,
human organs, works of art, and so on), as well as the flows that show up as world
trade in national and international acc ounting, we may begin to get a sense of the role
of flows in the creation of proce ss geographies.
As these flows move through localities, contributing to their rise and fall, they
interact w ith states and nonstate organisations. The resultant patterns of interaction
are complex and change over time. States may outlaw certain flows, giving rise to
subversive ec onomies, or they may e ncourage them, giving rise to state ^ nonstate
alliances. Flows may suddenly change course as a resul t of events such as war,
economic crisis, or collapsing consumer demand. In any case, transnational flows,
and the net works, movements, enterpr ises, and organisations that promote them,
weave in and out of the arenas that area specialists have created for themselves.
As McVey (1978, page 3) noted, historians have turned their attention to ``the lower levels of
society both as intrins ically significant arenas of experience and as essential base-points for under-
standing social change''. This attention can be extended by focusing more system atically on arenas
of experience away from the area heartlands as currently defined.
The United Nations Conference on Global Organised Crime (1994) put forward the estimate of
about $500 billion a year but other reputable estimates put the correct figure at t wice that amount.
The GNP of all of Southeast Asia in the same period has bee n estimated at around $700 billion.
662 W van Schendel
Mapping these flows can only be done properly by engaging the expertise of specialists
of more than one area, but, on the other hand, area specialists need to develop a new
sociospatial lexicon in order to communicate effectively with each other regarding
The study of area borderlands sometimes overlaps with that of transnational flows,
and it may be particularly rewarding to focus fresh inquiries on th is meeting ground. In
the case of the northern borderlands of Southeast Asia, new research c an build on
some earlier efforts, mainly concentrated on the region where Yunnan and `mainland
Southeast As ia' meet (for example, Vorasakdi Mahatdhanobol, 1998; Wijeyewardene,
1993). One approach that has been developed here is that of analysing flows at borders
in terms of a politics of mobility
a meeting of regulatory practices used to initiate and
control mobility and i nterconnection. As Andrew Walker demonstrates i n a recent
study of traders on the Mekong River, it is territorial states that meet at borders but
the regulation of transnational flows is not jus t the domain of states. Nonstate actors
are active participants in a politics of mobility that may encourage or hamper flows of
goods and people across state (and `area') borders (Walker, 199 9).
By contrast, the northwestern borderlands have been neglected by students of both
South Asia and Southeast Asia, and are now among the least known regions in the world.
And yet, considerable transnational flows pass through here. Most have been prohibited by
one or more of the states concerned, and are therefore at least partly underground. Among
the most visible are small arms and explosives, heroin and the chemicals needed to
produce it, and labour migrants, guerrilleros, and refugees.
(41 )
The ways in which states
interact with these flo ws
by large-scale militarisation, transmigration programmes, crop
substitution, taxation, and so on
and the ways in which these flows interact with states
by percolating through their bureaucracies, forging links with state power holders and
influencing their policies
are often most visible in border regions.
Clearly, `state' and `area' are too limiting as scales if we wi sh to analyse transna-
tional flows. In addition to the fact that flows do not respect the se scales, struggles
over the regulation of flows are continually influencing scales, changing their relative
importance, or creating entirely new ones (compare, Swynge douw, 1997, page 169).
Such `proces s geographies' in the making can be observed well at borders. Take the
flow of small arms across the borderland of South and Southeast Asia. The borderland
itself is associated with numerous arm e d rebellions, an d they, and the state armies
opposing them, use assault rifles, submachine guns, and rocket launchers produced
in the United States, Russia, Israel, or Belgium.
But ar ms are also used to protect
illicit flows of heroin and many other commodities as they pass the border on their
way to far-flung markets. Social scientists have little information about arms flows in
Decades of insurgency in northwestern Burma, northeastern India, and southeastern Bangladesh
have made the region a longstanding arms market with major supply routes through Thailand, China,
and the Bay of Bengal (via Bangladeshi ports). Heroin from the Golden Triangle is used to supply a
rapidly expanding consumer market in South Asia. In recent years, many heroin refineries have been
moved from the Thai ^ Burma border (Shan State) to the India ^ Burma ^ Bangladesh borders (Chin
State), and South Asian ports and airports are now increasingly being used to ship heroin to
European markets. Population movements in the region are quite large: millions of Bangladeshis
have moved illegally into northeastern India in search of work and land, refugees and labour migrants
from Burma have moved to India and Bangladesh (and, further afield, Rohingyas from Burma
now form large communities in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Gulf). And insurgents from all
countries in the region habitually move across borders, hiding from security forces, swapping money
or drugs for arms, and establishing alliances with foreign powers.
Insurgent groups along the border between `Southeast Asia' and `South Asia' include Arakanese,
Jumma, Chin, Meithe i, Naga, and several othe r groups fighting for regional autono my or
independe nc e from India, Burma, and Bangladesh.
Geographies of kn owing, geographies of ign orance 663
the region, and we know even less about how these reshape regulatory practices at
borders, or rescale states in this regio n. The westward flow of small arms through
mainland Southeast Asia is documented to some extent (Pasuk Phongpaichit et al,
1998, pages 127 ^ 154), and, in a recent world survey of small arm s, Bangladesh was
identified a s an important small arms depot for South As ia and Southeast Asia:
``Bangladesh is a major transit p oint for arms in the region. Small arms come across
to Bangladesh from Afghanistan and Pakistan o n the one si de, and from Thailand ,
Singapore, Myanmar, and Cambodia on the other. From the re, the weapons
usually go north to rebels in India's north-east or south to the LTTE [in Sri Lanka]
(Small Arms Survey 2001, page 182).
But the use of the state, or indeed the `area', as the scale of analysis for flows hardly
helps to encompass the relevant relationships. It is in particular localities of the
Bangladesh borderland that these transfers oc cur, and it m ay be more helpful if we
focus on `regimes of regulation', the regulatory practices that create these localities. For
example, the insignificant border town of Teknaf and the nearby fishi ng port of Cox's
Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh have developed into a major node in a transnational
network of arm s dealing. They receive arms and ammunition from Burma and from
overseas, and route them to d estinations in India, B angladesh, and beyond. W hat
politics of mobility, and what regulatory practices, h ave combined to single out the se
two localities? What new geometries of social power e manate from them, and how do
these contribute to processes of rescaling, empowering some and disempowering
others? These are the types of ques tions that may lead u s to answers about process
geographies in the making.
Lattices, arch ipe lagos, hollow ri ngs, and patchworks?
If we are indeed moving from trait geographies to process geographies in which regions
may take unfamil iar spatial forms
lattices, archipelagos, hollow rings, patchworks
we must consider what future there is for the study of conventional areas such as
`Southeast Asia'. In response to the challenge of global perspe ctives, a rethinking of
`regional' systems of knowing is under way. The social spaces imagined by area studies
and the scale of area studies are being reexamined as the spatialisation of social theory
enters a new, uncharted terrain. The more we become aware of the ways in which
contemporary li fe eludes conventional assumptions of territorially shared ideas and
lifeways, the more such assumptions are also being challenged for the pa st. And the
more we re alise how social forces from `marginal' spa ces can resist, and even rear-
range, established power structures, the more we must relinquish the heartl andism and
state-centredness inherent in the practice of area studies.
Clearly, area studies are not going to be abandoned. There is no doubt that the strong
academic communities built around area studies will continue to produce high-quality
knowledge about area problematiques. But who will find these problematiques relevant?
Will future scholars regard them as expressions of some passe
traitism, or perhaps as
forms of an early-21st-century Orientalism? Surely, the strength of area studies is their
insistence on the specificity of spatial configurations. But their weakness is the imposi-
tion of spatial boundaries that make no sense except possibly from a heartland point of
view. In order to overcome the resulting geographies of ignorance, we need to study
spatial configurations from other perspectives as well. As the scalar fix established after
World War 2 is being transformed, the world is being reterritorialised and it is necessary
to reimagine emergent spatial configurations between the national and the global. The
suggestions made in this paper point to three possible alternatives.
LTTE is Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the secessionist organisation fighting for a Ta mil
homeland in northern and eastern Sri Lanka.
664 W van Schendel
First th ere i s the construction of regions crosscutting the conve ntional ones. This
approach is innovative insofar as it br i ngs together spaces and social practices that are
now academically marginal and partitioned. But this approach is also likely to repli-
cate th e distortions of area studies by creating new heartlands and margins, as well as
communities of scholars who tend to stay within their new arenas. A second option is
to look fo r spatial configurations that are not compact territories. The study of border-
lands provides us with a worldwide honeycomb of contiguous material sp aces with very
distinct social configurations but no particu lar heartlan d. This combination of spatial
specificity and global coverage makes borderlands a world region of a differe nt kind,
and studying it properly requires the involvement of scholars of all conventional
`areas'. The third option goes further. Transnational flows do form spatial con figura-
tions but thei r architecture is more ephemeral: it changes, sometimes rapidly, in size,
compactness, and complexity.
The study of these flows, especially the ones driven underground by state prohibi-
tion, is notori ously difficult, even if anchored to specific p oints in space or time. It
is here that area expertise is absolutely indispensable for `flow studies': it can provide
the study of flows with a thorough grounding in spe cific spaces and times. In turn, the
study of p rocess geographies (and the regulatory practices that consolidate and dis-
solve the m) will help area specialists to jump scale, to break out of the chrysalis of the
area dispensation which oc curred after World War 2, and to develop new concepts of
regional space.
Meanwhile, back in Shillong, you have finished your lunch
cooked by an illegal
immigrant from Nepal and served on plates smuggled in from China. Take a Hindi
newspaper from the counter and read about assault rifles coming in from Bangladesh,
the price of Burmese rubies, a woman from Shillong who made good in Canada, and
last month's drug deaths. The song on the radio has stopped and an announcement is
made about the celebration of India's Republic Day. Two young women at the next
table snigger and dig into their Thai noodles. You walk out into the sun, wondering
about spaces, scales, and flows.
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... Dimensi ruang sosial orang-orang di Hulu Sembakung secara kosmopolit dimediasi oleh ritus pertukaran yang merakit gugusan antar kampung di Hulu Sembakung. Sejalan dengan van Schendel (2002) dimensi kosmopolit pada lanskap Asia Tenggara justru tercipta pada wilayah dengan struktur morfologi sulit-diibaratkan sebagai zomiakarena tidak mudah dikendalikan oleh pusat kekuasaan. Akan tetapi, kehadiran negara pasca kolonial memaksa dimensi kosmopolit orang-orang Hulu Sembakung berada paradoks ruang berbeda. ...
... ). Tidak jarang dalam kegiatan penentuan batas okupasi kolonial, apalagi pada wilayah yang berada kondisi marjinal seperti zomia (van Schendel, 2002), dilakukan secara arbitrer di atas citra geografis peta.Dominasi spasial negara selalu berusaha mengendalikan eksistensi ruang kosmopolit zomia di perbatasan negara. Untuk itu, menjadi penting menciptakan pengalaman keruangan oleh negara di perbatasan yang mengarahkan pada pusat kekuasaan. ...
Full-text available
Ritus Pertukaran Tempayan dalam kaidah pemberian Mauss menjadi formasi simbolik yang merakit gugusan pemukiman lintas batas di Hulu Sembakung sebagai kesatuan ruang sosial kohesif. Secara presisten, dimensi ruang sosial diwujudkan dalam setiap tahapan daur hidup masyarakat Hulu Sembakung melalui ritus pertukaran tempayan. Persoalan hadir ketika rezim spasial negara pasca kolonial mengintai ruang kosmopolit masyarakat di Hulu Sembakung. Riset ini bertujuan menyajikan etnografi mengenai ritus pertukaran di Hulu Sembakung, bagaimana aktivitas ini dapat membentuk ruang sosial masyarakat secara lintas batas negara serta bagaimana regulasi spasial dan pengintaian negara menciptakan ruang paradoks bagi penduduk di Hulu Sembakung ketika menjalankan ritus pertukaran tempayan melintas batas. Temuan lapangan menunjukan bahwa orang-orang di Hulu Sembakung merupakan aktor cerdik yang tidak serta merta tunduk pada kekuasaan negara. Sebagai manusia perbatasan, mereka menjalankan perannya sebagai manusia-manusia yang tidak dapat diperintah bahkan mampu menciptakan aturan sendiri. Ritual pertukaran tempayan tidak hanya menjadi formasi simbolik yang merakit dimensi ruang sosial masyarakat Hulu Sembakung secara lintas batas. Ritus melintas batas bahkan menjadi poros yang mengendalikan pusat kekuasaan negara.
... The unsettled worlding(s) 101 political existence such as Willem van Schendel's (Schendel 2005) and later James Scott's hypothesis of Zomia (Scott 2009), as a large anarchic highlands zone and a specific way of life. The Caucasus is another example of this model disrupted by the waves of colonization and imposed control. ...
... The unsettled worlding(s) 101 political existence such as Willem van Schendel's (Schendel 2005) and later James Scott's hypothesis of Zomia (Scott 2009), as a large anarchic highlands zone and a specific way of life. The Caucasus is another example of this model disrupted by the waves of colonization and imposed control. ...
Conversion to Christianity among Southeast Asian highland minorities has been recurrently interpreted as a way of joining a valorised religion that distinguishes converts from often-Buddhist ruling majorities and sometimes as a means of adopting a ‘modern’ way of life. Neither of these explanations, however, seems to appropriately describe the situation of Bunong highlanders who turned to Christianity in Cambodia’s capital in the early 1970s. Under the pro-American regime of Lon Nol (1970–75), these spirit-practising inhabitants of the margins were brought to Phnom Penh to enrol in the national army. Khmer majority preachers visited them and led them to integrate themselves into the Khmer Evangelical Church. As light is shed on the astonishing trajectories of these Bunong recruits, it becomes possible to reflect upon what ‘entering Christianity’ meant for them. They were few in number, but the particularities of their experiences highlight the importance of an unprejudiced approach to Southeast Asian highlanders’ conversions.
This article analyses the significance of kinship and ethnic networks in the migration of the Kuki people from the Indo-Myanmar borderland to Singapore. In addition to facilitating the dissemination of information and the formation of collective decisions, kinship and ethnic networks are crucial in fostering a sense of community and belonging in the new destination. The article investigates the church’s function among Singapore’s Kuki population. It argues that religion deconstructs ‘otherness’ that came about when colonial rulers split the Kukis into two separate countries (India and Myanmar). The church serves as a powerful symbol of Kuki identity since it facilitates efforts for ethnic unification and allows them to revive the sense of ethnic solidarity lost for decades.
Imposed geography in the form of cartographic mapping and boundary lines is part of the state-making and production of ‘legible’ subjects throughout the world. As a result of such impositions, there have been constant claims and contestations of space, nation and citizenship among the borderland communities. Such claims and contestations have sustained and reinforced connections and mobility of the borderland communities across the border. Such cross-border connections and mobility are found very commonly even among the borderland communities of Northeast India. With huge borderlands, Northeast India has diverse borderland communities that maintain close ethnic ties across artificial and imposed boundaries. Based on fieldwork conducted both in India and Myanmar, the present article centres on the Konyak Nagas and Khiamniungan Nagas living on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar boundary and looks at how these borderland communities constantly negotiate with the imposed border and sustain their relationship across the border. The article delves into the question of how such imposed geography has resulted in the contestation of space, nation and citizenship among the borderland communities which points toward new layers of complicacy defying the very rationale of a hard border.
Patchwork States argues that the subnational politics of conflict and competition in South Asian countries have roots in the history of uneven state formation under colonial rule. Colonial India contained a complex landscape of different governance arrangements and state-society relations. After independence, postcolonial governments revised colonial governance institutions, but only with partial success. The book argues that contemporary India and Pakistan can be usefully understood as patchwork states, with enduring differences in state capacity and state-society relations within their national territories. The complex nature of territorial governance in these countries shapes patterns of political violence, including riots and rebellions, as well as variations in electoral competition and development across the political geography of the Indian subcontinent. By bridging past and present, this book can transform our understanding of both the legacies of colonial rule and the historical roots of violent politics, in South Asia and beyond.