Required reading or random browsing?

Some thoughts about creating a "canon" of important works to be read at the Department of SEAS at Goethe University Frankfurt

Over the last months we've had discussions about whether to create a list of required readings with the most important works of Southeast Asian studies (or what the faculty and students can agree upon to be that) for students of SEAS at Goethe University Frankfurt or not. This debate has so far been largely without any further consequences, also because there are two contrary positions which do not seem to come to agreeance in any form.

The group in favor of a "canonization" take their position primarily from the observation that there are extreme differences in terms of knowledge between the different students. Obviously, this is a result of the comparatively large size of the student body and the differences between students taking SEAS as their major and minor. Finally, it is certainly also a result of the sheer size and diversity of Southeast Asia and the possibility for a clear differentiation of interests along national lines (more on this later). Proponents of one argue that a canonization could at least help to bridge the gaps. Interesting, too, is the fact that these proponents are mostly students with a focus on Indonesia.

On the other hand there are two major counter-arguments: first, that it would quite simply be impossible to create a really balanced list of essential literature on Southeast Asia without it too long to be useful.

Second, there is a fear for an overdone streamlining. Southeast Asia is diverse, and the student body along with its interest is as well. Requiring people to read too deeply into the Philippines while their real interest lies with Vietnam will most likely be counterproductive - it frustrates them by not catering to their interests and takes their time. Also, should the list be more concise at the cost of balance, it may influence students' thoughts into one methodological/ideological/etc. direction, thus taking their free choice of means. If we value academic freedom, this is indeed a major point to consider.

In the following I will first provide some general thoughts about canonization and its implications, advantages and disadvantages to a field of study. After these, I will give some more information on the situation at the department of SEAS in Frankfurt, before finally giving a suggestion for what to do to maybe please both sides of the debate.

Implications of Canonization of a Field of Study

Canonization as a Yardstick

To discuss canonization of a field of study, it is useful to look at the way science evolves in general first. As a Southeast Asianist I may not be properly qualified to give an account of this, by I will try my best here.
Important conditions for and of the early developments of "modern science"1 were, surely among others,

  1. The invention of the printing press,
  2. The existence of a relatively small basis of reliable data,
  3. The small number of people in the position to participate in scientific endeavors.

The printing press effectively enabled the creation and wide dissemination of journals. Thus it created a comparatively sizable group of people who could engage in scientific conversations and also helped the information persist over longer periods of time. Thus the technological basis for modern science as a self-reflexive process was laid.

On the other hand, the overall small number of researchers/scientists and the still small body of reliable data meant that there was not yet a clear differentiation between as many different fields of study as there are today. E.g., overall anthropology (and to a smaller extend other fields of study) had to grow and diversify first and create large enough a body of data and text to enable the creation of the different area studies as derivatives of the different disciplines.

Arguing along the same lines and using the same parameters, canonization can be seen as a milestone: it becomes necessary once a field of study has become too large and diverse to be easily delved into by new students to be. Thus it shows the maturity of a subject as a legitimate, independent field of study.

Once a canon has been created, its immediate effect, that those participating in the (scientific) debate in a given field have a common ground to work on, has further effects. An example may be the development of a specific jargon: participants in the debate adopt specific words from texts within the canon, which would not usually be used by other people in the same sense. One has to have read the original work to fully understand those works using the terms it established. Only thanks to the canon, again, can everybody (who has worked though it) participate fully in the debate. Aside from thus enabling a high-level intellectual discourse, jargon also leads to a further differentiation of the given field of study from others - say, people who have not worked through the canon are much less likely to be able to engage in the debate. This again helps to create a distinct identity of the field of study in opposition to other fields of study or the general public.

Finally a specification of canon itself becomes necessary: of course, speaking in the dimensions of whole sciences, the existence of any spelled out and agreed upon canon is most unlikely. National level bodies may create something close by giving out awards for "best <insert field of study here> book of the year", but it is ultimately a bottom up process, where departments at universities develop lists of works regarded as essential.

Next, different schools of thought may develop (as a collective of independent researchers and different university departments) which share roughly the same canon. The given canon may then differ greatly from those of other schools of thought within the same field of study. This is to say that an enormous amount of different canons can exist on different levels of academia. Nevertheless, I think a general description of the process of canonization is worth being pursued. And that many of the general observations made above and in the following subsection can be transferred to the lower levels: down from a whole field of study to a school of thought to a university department to small buckets of people on the campus.2

Advantages and Disadvantages of Canonization

Above I made two claims: first, that a field of study operating with a more or less set canon is more effective. Second and closely related is the claim that this leads to an exclusion of a large number of potentially interested people.

The second argument is quite obviously not sufficient. Not only outsiders are kept out of the discussion but also dissenting voices. Not citing the canon or presenting views that are counter to or incomprehensible with the tools given through the canon can be a serious challenge.

Obviously, this creates a situation impeding academic freedom and, echoing the argument presented in the first paragraphs of this text, even the freedom of thought. Even from the most practical view this also means that canonization limits effectiveness on the long run (even though it gives a boost to effectiveness in short and medium terms). There is a danger of a field of study becoming too conservative and refuting correct, or more correct than the current mainstream, ideas.3

The Situation of Southeast Asian Studies in General and at the Department

The situation of Southeast Asian Studies in general and the situation at our department deserve special attention. First of all, there is the question of Southeast Asian Studies as a field, the category of "Southeast Asia" as anything more than a geographical one. This goes back to its diversity and the novelty of the category (especially as a distinct field of science).
Previously, there were courses at German universities with names such as "Austronesistik" (Austronesian Studies) and "Thaiistik" (Thai Studies), which referred to relatively clear cut cultural, national or linguistic units. Depending on whether the focus is to be laid on anthropology, political science, economy, etc. different ones of these make sense (e.g., Indonesian Studies makes little sense when talking about prehistory but very much when talking about contemporary Indonesia).

Contrastingly, "Southeast Asian Studies" is based on a super-unit. There are different reasons for moving on from the specific fields of study to this super-unit. First, there is too little money, say, too little interest among policy makers, to finance enough professorships for all the different countries in Southeast Asia. Economically speaking, this is a valid argument. Speaking in terms of progress in the pursuit of knowledge, it is not. Second, there is the possibility for comparative research, dealing with two or more of the given cultural/linguistic/national units. This may be valid argument, but it is questionable if one Southeast Asianist who also needs to learn about Malaysia will be as able to do a comparative study of Indonesia and the Philippines as a well as a Philippine/Filipino Studies scholar cooperating with an Indonesian Studies scholar would. Third is the existence of ASEAN, and other supra-national bodies - surely a valid argument. Finally, there is the simple argument that future employers will not know what "Austronesian" means, while Southeast Asia is a comprehensible unit. Again, an economic argument (at least this time also from the view of students and professors). A really valid reason from a knowledge-seeking point of view is that Southeast Asian Studies, if practiced true to its name, will create real universalists.

To sum up, the legitimation of Southeast Asian Studies is questionable.4 Trying to enforce a canon for a department of Southeast Asian Studies is likely to raise the question of legitimacy. Thus canonization, in more general cases or in more clearly definable and legitimize-able fields of study working towards a distinct identity, may in this case rather lead to a disintegration. Definitely, repeating again an argument made above, it holds the potential of promoting one sub-field (say, Indonesian Studies) over others. This would contradict the very name of the course though. If Southeast Asian Studies is named so - and not Indonesian Studies - it has the duty to also deal with the other countries of Southeast Asia.

A quite similar case can be made about disciplinary information vs. the interdisciplinary nature of Area Studies. If one favors a truly interdisciplinary course, a fixed canon holds considerable dangers.

Special to our department of Southeast Asian Studies is that it got ordered by the ministry of education of the State of Hesse, Germany, to specifically focus on Indonesia and Malaysia5. Students on the other hand demand diversity: they want to be free to focus on, say, Vietnam. Even internally the question of focus may be a challenge, as the students best organized are surely those focusing on Indonesia. In terms of numbers, I estimate, those with a focus in Indonesian Studies are maybe not much more than those wanting to focus on Vietnam. Interest in Thailand is also relatively wide spread and students can choose between Vietnamese and Thai as second Southeast Asian languages to learn.

The other seven to eight countries (quite often information on Malaysia is, e.g., mixed in with course on Indonesian culture) are generally less in focus. Interested students have taken the initiative in offering tutorials, and many courses provide a general overview on the situation in all the different Southeast Asian countries. This is nevertheless not enough to truly balance the curriculum. While this situation is a result of the Ministry's terms and constraints on our financial situation, it must still be pointed out that any such discrimination is surely a constraint on science and the general broadening of ordered knowledge. Before the necessary balance is created, canonization may come at the risk of perpetuating given imbalances and constraints also at the level of the department.

On the other hand there remains legitimate concern about the difference in levels among the student body. Questions like "Manina (sic!), kann man das essen?" ("Manina (sic!, the person meant Manila), is that edible?") are an extreme case, but showcase the need for teaching at least very basic facts on each different country.


As has been pointed out throughout this text, canonization holds one major advantage, short and mid-term effectiveness, while it has a number of considerable downsides. Given the problem - and more simply, that people at the department see the need to tackle the problem - of the huge discreprancies between levels of knowledge concerning the different areas within Southeast Asian within the student body.

A first, simple and preliminary conclusion can be drawn: a fixed canonization through a list of required reading is no option, but something close should be pursued.

I propose a very toned-down version of the idea of canonization: a simple document offering general tips for (new) students, which would also feature recommended books, such as general histories of the countries. Making the books just one matter among others, this would leave less of the importance that would otherwise be assigned to the matter. Also, making them pure recommendations offers the chance to create a longer and more comprehensive list while having people actually read, just as it takes away the gravest restrictions on freedom outlined above.

Making it simply an offer instead of a requirement obviously reduces its effectiveness and puts it at risk of falling fully into obscurity - but it is to be hoped that linking the recommended reading with other useful things will help popularize at least the consciousness of the existence of such a list (should it ever come into being). And should the student body choose to ignore it, there are little downsides to having such a list anyway.



Here I adopt a definition of "modern science" as scientific research making use of peer-review and the possibility for others to reenact the experiment. The aim of this modern science is the creation of ordered information.


It would be interesting to compare the development of canons in science to the spread of English as a lingua franca of the academia and their interrelation. Benedict Anderson calls this new importance of the English language the becoming of a new "sacred language" in the last, new chapters of his updated edition of Imagined Communities (Benedict Anderson. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Rise of Nationalism [3rd edition]. London: Verso). Especially considering his earlier reflections on "sacred languages", I think this comparison would be worthwhile.


I have yet to find the time to read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I am nevertheless sure that it bears much insight in this regard.


There are also more general criticisms of area studies in general, see for example Hans Kujiper's criticism.


I am not sure if the officially used term is both countries' names or "Indonesia and the Malay World", which would include Brunei, too.