Thoughts on Culture and the Area in the Age of Globalization: Will Southeast Asian Studies Keep their Legitimacy?

Will globalization remove the legitimacy of area studies? I argue not.

With globalization getting stronger and stronger, the area seems to be becoming less and less relevant. Cultural practices cross borders and boundaries faster and knowledge of them is less bound to a given place. In Southeast Asian Studies we deal with potentially any given event or fact in our area of interest. Our legitimation for doing so, though, lies with the notion that the different culture determines practices in Southeast Asia to be different from, say, in Europe.

Previously area studies have been under attack from universalists and strong supporters of the disciplines. Universalists argued that given equal economic conditions, practices would equal each other from area to area. They thus basically ignored culture as an essential factor to be taken into account in people's life. Given this lack in their critique, it could be countered quite easily.

A second critique was based on the idea, that area studies scholars were using disciplinary means, e.g. in research methods or theories they applied. As scholars from the given discipline would always be more knowledgeable about these means, area studies scholars would be left with language skills as their only advantage. The consequence of this idea would be a removal of scientific aims from the area studies and their transformation to a kind of "translator education plus". Area studies 'scholars' would then work in teams with people from the disciplines only, in a role of rather passive support instead of actively pursuing research on their own. (Kujiper 2000)

This critique is harder to refute, but will probably remain a subject of discussion and not more. Enough people seem to still see an essential need for specialized research only on a given country or culturally defined area.

Ever increasing globalization may plausibly be seen as a huge threat to Southeast Asian Studies. After all, the demise of a distinct culture bound to Southeast Asia would leave us, again, without a real legitimation for our work.

In this text I reflect on the substance of the claim that globalization made the area an increasinly irrelevant category for the creation of culture. This reflection is a preliminary one. It is based on readings on the nature of globalization, the effect of media on society and transnationalism.

I begin my discussion with an analysis of globalization of markets and the claim, that it was an essentially new development. In doing so I focus on the structure of markets and information distribution in a globalized world. I largely exclude the Internet in this first part of the text, as it offers important, different implications to the future of the area than the developments described in this part.

In the second section of the text I first offer a brief, incomplete definition of culture. I then discuss the relevance of the area in the past and present. Only in the third part of the text do I consider the Internet, before finally coming to the conclusion that the area will remain very relevant in the creation of culture. Some adjustments in the concepts and legitimation of Southeast Asian Studies may be necessary, but it is unlikely to lose its legitimacy.

What is Globalization and Is It All That New?

I will start this section by trying to give a most general definition of globalization. Globalization describes the development of an ever more globally integrated economy and life facilitated by the emergence of more effective transportation and communication technology (and "neoliberal" ideology and policy). Everyday examples are imported goods in the supermarket and the possibility for everybody with access to the Internet to connect with anybody else, provided the partner-in-communication also has access to the Internet.

While the speed and scale of globalization in recent times is certainly unprecedented, an increasing speed in transportation, faster methods of communication and an integration of regional economies have been around for a long time. On a basic level: horse-riding is faster than walking; before the invention of script, communication had to done person-to-person (maybe using other people as media), and trade routes spanning at least from China to Ancient Rome have been hinted at archaeological findings and written records. On a cultural level, consider the spread of the different religions in earlier times as an effect of an early sort of globalization. Globalization is not all that new - and earlier area studies scholars had to deal it, too. Even if it was probably never as strong and far-reaching with a less extreme form of it.

The structure of the globalized world has been described as a network of "global cities", regional centers, which are linked to a hinterland made up of rural areas directly connected to the world market through the "global city" and farther away, lower tier, cities. These lower tier cities have their own hinterland, connected to the world market through their regional center and then the "global city" Saskia Sassen, Global Cities. In this network of regions, the urban centers draw in professionals (and reproductive laborers serving these), like lawyers and stock market brokers, who engage in the exchange of goods or help facilitate it. Goods, information, and people - at least in theory - freely flow between the "global cities". The hinterland on the other hand primarily fulfills the function of a place of actual production of goods.

This framework also extends to the basic structure of information: knowledge and information is primarily centered on the urban centers of the network and reaches the hinterland through them. This point will become important in my later discussion on the creation of culture and the effect of globalization on it.

Again, the extent to which this network exists is unprecedented, less and less areas remain outside of it, and the geographical location of the "global city" is increasingly irrelevant, but there are stark similarities to previous structures. It is also important to note that this system depends on the asymmetries and concentration in power created through a market economy - and that it is focused on the free flow of goods primarily. In the next subsection I discuss the active freedom and reach of movement and communication of people in the global economy.

Class and Globalization

An argument for the disruptive extent of today's developments is certainly the accessibility of the 'means of globalization' (transport, communication technology) to a considerably number of people, comprising not only elites. A historical comparison is helpful in understanding this.

Historical ruling classes have been described as essentially transnational (or trans-state before the emergence of nation states, trans-regional on a lower level), while common people had no or little direct access to information from far away.

Take for example colonial elites and the common people in the hinterland, mostly peasants, in colonial times and areas. Colonial elites often had to travel to a few urban centers to get the necessary education for fulfilling their role in the bureaucracy. In these urban centers they had to communicate, often in some language that was not their native tongue. They met with elite students from other parts of the colony, which had different customs and practices. Through this, they developed a new form of identity and culture distinct from that of their region and their social class in their home region only. Towards the end of the colonial age, more and more had the chance to receive higher education in the country ruling them - where they were again confronted with a very different culture and not rarely organized in communities of upper-class countrymen, which nevertheless used the language and vocabulary of the colonial rulers.

The commoners on the other hand had no or little access to knowledge about what was happening in other areas of the colonial empire or the country of the colonial rulers. Much less was a considerable number of them able to travel to those areas. Their focus lay mostly with their own village, area or region. Influences from the outside were not many, often censored, and to be consumed in a rather passive manner. By this I mean: people could actively take them up, reinterpret them, but they had little chance to communicate their innovation to the outside and take an active role in the supra-regional, colonial, or global discourse. Nevertheless, their central point of identification (a term used bare a better one; I mean a set area to which people feel themselves belonging as well as in whose discourse they feel they are actively participating) remained a regional one at most.

A somewhat different development did take place with the introduction of large-scale, mass education. In different colonies, different areas, this process took different forms. While the U.S.-Americans introduced schools for the masses in the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies saw that combined with large number of schools organized by different political groups (most notably the Islamic organizations, the feminist movement, and the communist movement). This difference led to different foci in social science education - and different points of identification. US-led, top-down education in the Philippines started with US-American teachers, used US-American textbooks, brought the English language to a large number of people. Thus, the point of historical identification for many common Filipinos, and parts of the elite, in the early 20th century moved from the regional and maybe the national level to these and the US. Contrastingly, education for common people in the Dutch East Indies was more diverse - and the political streams' schools brought nationalist history to the people. This means the point of identification, the imagined area of discourse was not The Netherlands and also these colonies, but The Dutch East Indies as a distinct category.1

Nationalism carrying the notion of equality of citizens further strengthened the actual or at least perceived belonging to a given, trans-regional discourse. Similarly, the development of the telegraph, then radio and television strengthened a national level discourse more directly reaching the majority of people. On the other hand, this discourse was largely to be consumed, not to be actively participated in.

Again, at the time, education and the spread of modern media was not spotless. Many areas in both colonies remained cut off from them and the described developments apply more the closer one gets to developed areas. Far off in the mountains it is unlikely to apply - in the immediate hinterland of the colonial capitals it is much more likely to. The described developments are nevertheless notable for reaching a much larger group of people and, in the case of nationalism, instilling in them the idea, that they, too, had a right to active participation in a larger scale discourse.

Truly active participation in national level discourse was still very limited though. It was only possible with either a certain level of wealth or further education - as most often at least this was necessary to become, say, a journalist - or organized, large scale efforts. Active participation can thus be described as a class issue. Money, educational attainments, et cetera determined an individual's role in the discourse - to different degrees (re-)producer or consumer of opinion.
On the other hand this model did not take all active participation from the masses. Through large scale, organized efforts, such as strikes or uprisings, they could make their voices heard. Banding together could reduce their disadvantage vis-à-vis the elites. This is to be said to not ignore their actual possibilities, but it is also to be noted that it associated much higher risks and demands with active participation for the less well-off. An educated, well-off person could just write an opinion paper in the vocabulary of the national level discourse, while a poor person had to risk their job and often their life and spend a large amount of effort and time in organizing others, supportive of the same position, to participate in it actively.

Today, international travel is increasingly cheap and accessible to a growing number of people. Labor gets imported and exported on a global scale. Nevertheless a large number of people, those too poor to afford e.g. a plane ticket, remains excluded from actively participating in these developments, e.g. by experiencing another culture by directly visiting places around the globe.

Using the "global cities" framework, I have so far largely disregarded the existence of the Internet in this text. The Internet offers opportunities for a more decentralized communication - and thus builds a more decentralized infrastructure for the creation of identity and culture. In the next section I try to offer a short definition of culture, and a discussion of the importance of the area to the creation of culture. I then proceed with taking the Internet into account.


In this section of the text I aim to give a brief and general definition of culture. For the purposes of this text I will ignore meta-level considerations. This means I will limit myself to discussing culture as it potentially may be for an individual in a society[1], not as a concept anthropologists and theoreticians have developed to describe the practices of a society (see e.g. Kluckhohn 1959 as cited by Geertz 1973). I will provide a definition of culture pertaining to individuals primarily.
The societal level to culture is partly embedded in this definition of an individual's culture, as society can most certainly be described as a community made up of a number of individuals. More information on the definition of society I adopt for the purposes of this text can be found in footnote 1.

I base my definition of culture on the basis of the very rough definition provided by Benkler [2006], which is in turn informed by Jürgen Habermas' notion of culture. Benkler and Habermas define culture, to sum up, as background information enabling an individual to give meaning to different aspects of the world surrounding him or her. This background information is in turn determined by a number of factors.

A non-exclusive list of these factors may be the following:

  1. Customs and practices an individual is tought by relatives and peers
  2. Customs and practices as transported through 'the media'
  3. Economic factors constraining an individual's ability to engage in certain acts, receive information, and spread information
  4. Legal frameworks constraining an individual's ability to engage in certain acts, receive information, and spread information
  5. Customs and practices as adapted and developed on by an individual's or a group's creativity and negotiated in whichever discursive space(s) the actor, group or individual, has access to

Through these and other factors, an individual is embedded within society or societies. Navigating through these different constraints, the individual then finds own ways to identify meaning in what exists and happens around him or her, say, an own identity or own identities and an own interpretation of something like an individual, personal culture.

Additionally, it is to be noted that the given constraints affect culture in different ways. Legal frameworks build somewhat of a superimposed context in which all other areas are embedded to a certain extent. Economic factors, on a more abstract level, similarly affect all other spheres influencing the individual and the society or societies in which it is embedded. Media, and individual or collective agency can in turn affect the other spheres in some cases. All the given factors are closely intertwined, but have different actors representing them and different levels of access to an individual's formation of identity and a personal interpretation of culture and.
If one is to follow such a framework of understanding culture, it is relatively simple to argue, that something like, e.g., an "Indonesian culture" existed, without contradicting the existence of a distinct "Javanese culture" and a distinct "Yogyakarta culture", etc.

To allow for the existence of these different yet linked cultures - and thus the historical legitimacy of Southeast Asian Studies - while accepting every individual's possibility to create his or her own distinct culture and identity to some extend, I propose understanding these cultures as collective similarities of a majority of those people inhabiting the area. If all or almost all people in Yogyakarta, say, eat with spoon and fork, then eating with spoon and fork will be part of Yogyakarta culture. If the same applied to a large majority of Indonesians, it would simultaneously be Indonesian culture.

As parents and peers teach newcomers to the community (e.g. children born into it) their practices, concepts, and customs, the culture gets reinforced. New practices on the other hand - able to either change only the individual's practices or the overall culture in case they are very successful and become common to the majority of the respective set of people - can get introduced into the respective group of people by direct contact with other peoples, e.g. travel of parts of the collective to areas with different practices, by media consumption, e.g. someone seeing different practices exhibited on a TV show, or be created from within the community by human creativity.

Just knowing about the possibility of the new practices, concepts, customs will not make people adopt them yet though. Just knowing about the existence of a different culture does not yet dissolve or even change a culture. Different reasons for adopting new practices, concepts, or customs may then include the ineffective of old practice etc. in a changing context, social prestige gained through the adoption of the new practices and more.

This is where legal frameworks and a group's economic situation become most important to consider: in the unlikely case spoons and forks were forbidden from being used in an area, people there would need to adopt a different practice on a large scale. Thus, cultural practices would be very likely to change. Similarly, if the economic situation was to worsen extremely and people would have to sell their spoons and forks, they would need to adopt a different practice of eating.

These quite extreme examples displayed the role of legal frameworks and economic situation in possible changes in culture. More often the opposite is the case: legal frameworks and economic situation hindering change in culture. An example in the case of legal frameworks would be the position a society holds vis-à-vis homosexuality. Using the Philippines as an example, homosexuality is accepted by probably a majority of people. Nevertheless, homosexuals are not rarely mocked. One reason cited is that it is not "normal". Not normal does not need to mean that, to achieve full acceptance without mocking commentary, a majority of the people would need to become homosexual. It does however mean that homosexuals would not need to be seen as essentially different anymore. Different, yes - but not essentially different to the extent of it resulting in different rights etc. If gay marriage is not legalized, and it is currently not in the Philippines, this means that the law supports a view of people of different sexual orientation as essentially different. Thus law reproduces given cultural restrictions and hinders possibilities for a change.

Economic factors may similarly hinder a change in culture. For this the previous example may suffice in reversed form. If a large majority of a group was to eat with their hands while having been taught that this was unhygienic, ineffective, or otherwise undesirable, they would still use their hands. If the economic situation of these people were then to change, giving them access to other means of food consumption, they would most likely change their habits in one way or another (probably choosing from one of the different modes of food consumption already apparent to them from education, media consumption or direct exchange with somebody, who follows different practices).

Now, if one adopts as open a definition of culture as this, why would Philippine Studies be more relevant than, say, "Studies on Model Railroad Enthusiasts"? Why does one category, the one linked to a certain geographical location, get funding and recognition while the other one, directly based on people's interest does much less?
The answer lies in the mentioned restrictions and the structure of economic markets and information in the world until quite recently (which, as also noted above, is not too different from the notion of a globalized world as determined by "global cities" and their hinterlands). On the one hand, legal frameworks and to a rather large extent economic conditions of the majority of people in an area where and are determined by the area they live in.

Most notably, this concerns areas in terms of administrative units, not necessarily geographical location. Hawai'i is far from the mainland USA, but the GDP per capita of Hawai'i (USD 48,914 in 2014 (BEA)) is a bit above the USA-wide average (42,070 in 2011 (BEA 2012)). In contrast Hawai'i's GDP per capita is about 30 times higher than that of Kiribati (1,509.5 from 2011 to 2015), which is much closer to Hawai'i in terms of geographical distances. In the case of Southeast Asia, take for example Singapore (56,284.6 from 2011 to 2015) and Indonesia (3,491.9 from 2011 to 2015) or the Philippines (2,872.5 from 2011 to 2015) (Worldbank).2 A structure of markets and information following roughly the "global cities" framework makes for the existence of inner-regional differences which are apparently determined also by geography. Hence the differences between most rural areas in the Philippines and Manila, between Manila overall and Makati, and between all of those and Singapore.

This means legal and economic factors are heterogeneous within a country, but more homogeneous than on all of planet Earth. Similarly, they are heterogeneous within a city or village, but more homogeneous than in the country overall. Thus incentives for people to adopt certain practices, concepts, etc. are more homogeneous within a given area.

Family and peers, which have a chance to make a lasting influence on one's customs, have been bound to be in direct contact and thus in the same geographical area as the one to adopt a practice. This means that, as long as the Internet is not considered, the probably most major part making for the reinforcement of cultural practices, concepts, etc. is deeply linked to one's area. In how far the Internet may or may not change something in this matter will be discussed in the next section.
Finally, media are to be considered as a factor giving people inspiration to push for changes in their culture. Only considering traditional media (e.g. newspapers, books, television, radio), these are again strongly affected by area. There are local newspapers, and national-level newspapers for people to read. If a store offers more than these, e.g. newspapers from another country, these are almost certainly outnumbered by the local or national-level ones. Also, the existence of a large number of languages determines that much of the foreign newspapers will not be understood by a given individual.

Thus there are or have been distinct discursive spheres from city to city with some difference, from nation to nation with much more difference. Regions and nations as a category determine the array of options an individual knows of without having to (re-)invent them. More or less consistent cultural spheres have been supported by the structure of the media.

The Internet again offers a challenge to the existence of more or less consistent discursive spheres. The next section will offer a discussion of the extent to which it not only influences a common person's access to 'the media' but also constitutes a challenge to the relevance of the area in creating more or less consistent cultures.

Decentralized Globalization of Information and the Creation of Culture

For most of this text I have adopted the "global cities" framework as a basic theory of how a globalized world functions. I have consciously excluded the internet as factor so far though3 As pointed out above, transportation now and transportation and information before are accessible to only a comparatively small group of the overall population worldwide. Until a really cheap transportation technology that is available to all or almost all people and transports one to other people at as good as no time loss (twelve or more hours from Frankfurt to Jakarta are still a considerable time, even if completely minor compared to several month the same journey might have taken in the 19th century), and as long as there are national borders, this will likely remain so. These restrictions have given the area or different levels of area a great significance for culture.

The Internet on the other hand has become cheap enough to be available to an estimated 3.2 billion people (ITU 2015). It offers access to information from all over the globe to its users, both by media outlets and other individual users. Whereas some, and indeed more and more, governments restrict access to information on the Internet, this is commonly not excessive enough to shut out all information which comes from outside of the country.

Thus the Internet might at first sight have the potential to create a truly global discursive sphere and level off cultural differences strongly, maybe to the point of irrelevance. Giving the matter longer consideration, previous language barriers largely persist. Similarly legal and economic constraints persist. Cultural practices learned by imitation from those around an individual as a baby and toddler will still be largely dependend on the location of the individual and who it is they are surrounded with. The Internet does indeed change these constraints partly. In the following I will discuss the influence of the Internet on some of these constraints first before discussing social organization, and thus the development of discursive spheres in which culture can be easily exchanged.

Language barriers will certainly persist in the near future. Two developments help leveling these off to some extent, but not to the point of erasing the barriers altogether. First to mention and probably quite unrelated to the Internet is the rise of the English language to something resembling a global lingua franca for an increasingly large part of those not completely disadvantaged.4 Second and partially related to this development is the motivation the Internet can give to people for learning foreign languages. Research has been shown that people from different language and cultural backgrounds who meet online as part of "communities of interest" gain motivation to learn each other's language from this [Thorne et al. 2009]. As English, as more and more of a lingua franca, can enable people to meet in global communities of interest and then gain that motivation, it may result in much more people being not only bi-lingual (or tri-lingual in case their regional language ), but much more multi-lingual. Thus they could partake in or at least consume culture from another language area directly via the Internet and then spread their thus gained knowledge in translation to those in their area.

Interestingly, the argument has been put forward that in some cases English does indeed serve rather as an enabler for an international or global community of interest to build than communities of interest for English language native speakers. In the case of scanlation, the practice of scanning, image editing, translating, and then publishing manga via the Internet, Fabbretti [2014] describes this role of the English language - yet international - community. On the other hand, there are mostly smaller communities translating into the different other languages (c.f. Ratti [2013]). These 'national language level' groups often do not use the original language version as a basis for their translation, but retranslate from English.

This very limited example hints at a structure of how cultural products, incorporating cultural practices, etc., can be carried over the language barriers using different mediators. First, information is brought from one source discursive sphere or culture to the international level. Then it is brought to the different discursive spheres or cultures defined by the different other language. Despite the potential for such forms of mediated cultural exchange, they will not dissolve language barriers either.
To sum up, language barriers will most likely persist. Different effects of the Internet do indeed lower them, but not to the point of erasure.

Second, there are family and peer networks from the same, which can already be discussed at this place. Contrastingly, peer networks can potentially be entirely or mostly virtual, a potential that will be discussed later. Family networks are bound to a certain area by preexisting cultural notions of "the family being together" as the ideal form of family life. Globalization and a higher availability of sufficiently efficient means of transportations constitute a challenge to this ideal - a challenge again very apparent in the case of the Philippines.

The Philippines are one of the main exporters of labor in the world. Currently, about ten percent of the population are abroad (Commission on Overseas Filipinos 2013). This means that many, probably most Filipinos have some family member or acquaintance who went abroad. On the other hand, the emphasis on family remains strong among most Filipinos.

Important for the purposes of this section are the strategies migrant workers adopt to communicate with children, who remain in the Philippines. Unfortunately much of the most relevant literature is not up to date with technological developments, as it was still written in the age of GSM phones and SMS. 5 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) parents are described as making heavy use of phone calls, letters and SMS to keep in touch with their children and be a part of their life. Aguilar et al. [2009] describe the situation of a mother working overseas demanding her family to keep the phone on, loudspeakers turned on, while the children go on with their everyday duties at home.

Today, better Internet connections and software have expanded the possibilities of parents working overseas much. A more recent report from national geographic mentions an OFW mother making use of Facebook for video chats [Gorney 2014]. Thus, children are enabled to experience their kins' practices, concept, culture almost directly.6 Similarly, modern technology enables OFWs to keep in touch with each other either directly or using their home community as a central medium distributing information about other migrants from the same community among OFWs as described by Aguilar et al. [2009]. Thus it further enables transnational modes of being, say, reminds them of their 'home culture' while they can still experience life in another area and culture.

Social Organization on the Internet and 'the Media'

In this subsection I discuss the influence of the Internet on the ways people can participate in the public discourse using the Internet. My description of social organization on the Internet, outside of one-to-one communication, is based on the concept of commons-based peer production put forward by Yochai Benkler. I will herein limit myself to summarizing the analysis of the matter put forward in Benkler [2006].

Benkler describes what he calls the "networked information economy" as constituted of a much higher nodes of publication than before. Anybody with access to the Internet can publish on it, the question is only if anybody will read, watch, or otherwise consume what they publish. Theoretically, every other user of the Internet would be enabled to consume what the given user published, but as there is simply too large a number of published opinions, no single user can read them all.
As Benkler points out using primarily the example of the blogosphere, a system has developed to handle this threat of an information overload by making use of links. Users with similar interests and similar topics read each others blogs, to stick with the example of the blogosphere. If one user is particularly active and creates contents deemed noteworthy by many other users of similar interests, his or her blog will be read and subsequently referred to (by use of links) by more users than average. Thus, a number of core blogs, or websites in more general terms, develop.

Since the creator of this popular blog or website shares similar interests with the website's users, he or her also consumes part of the content published by the users of the blog. By linking or directly publishing their contents on his or her website, the owner of a core website can serve as a amplifier qua filter of relevant information.
While linking primarily within a common interest group, users also link to blogs and websites associated with a related interest. The example Benkler [2006; 256-258] provides is that of left-winged and right-winged blogs (presumably from the USA; based on a study by Adamic and Glance), which link mostly within their respective sphere of political leaning, but link to ten percent to blogs of the opposite political leaning - with a rising percentage for more important blogs.

Thus again a pattern is created in which there is a hierarchy of belonging and discursive spaces with a decreasing level of homogeniety (from a bottom-up perspective). People of a distinct stream of leftist political thought are more likely to discuss with each other and consume and produce similar contents. Overall, users with a political leaning towards the left will be more diverse, but still still more homogeneous as a group than all people with a pronounced interest in politics. This group again will most likely share more similarities among itself than with a group of biochemistry enthusiasts.

This pattern closely resembles the organization of discursive spheres and culture I outlined above. The main difference between the given possibilities for the creation of public spheres is that in the one discussed so far in this subsection, the area is replaced with a community of interest. Another crucial one is certainly an individual's possibility to be in a sizeable number of communities of interest, while being only able to be in one area.

Will the community of interest then replace the area completely? In the following and last section of this text I seek to give an answer to this question based on the ideas outlined above.

Conclusion: The Relevance of the Area

The Internet certainly leads to a wider spread of knowledge about different customs, practices, concepts, say, cultures. By spreading this knowledge, it gives people a wider array of options to choose from and can certainly lead to a change in culture. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the area will lose its relevance as a result of this.

The Area as a Community of Interest

First, there are the above-mentioned factors of education by imitation and language barriers which hinder this scenario from unfolding. Education by imitation is likely to remain mostly linked with people, say, kin and close acquaintances of these, who come from a relatively homogenous cultural background, at one point determined by an area and later at least linked to it. Thus a form of belonging to this area is likely to develop.[7]

Similarly, language barriers function on the level function irrespective of a person's location as long as there is the Internet. A person who cannot speak Indonesian will be able to access Indonesian newspapers and discussion forums. The same person will however have no access to the information in these for a lack of language proficiency. In reverse, this means that to participate in Indonesian level discourse, one does not need to be in Indonesia anymore. Knowing the language suffices, provided one has Internet access.

Thus I propose a partial redefinition of the area: in terms of culture and discursive spheres, areas are turning into a community of interest. This redefinition allows for the continued existence of the area as a marker for discursive spheres and culture while being removed from its previously geographical meaning. By removing geographical restrictions it allows the children of migrant and migrants, who may have a different passport, upbringing, and location, but still speak the necessary language, take part in the given discursive sphere and identify as belonging to a group to be counted as a relevant member. Within this framework though, areas probably constitute the most important unit.7

Further Arguments for the Persistence of the Area as a Relevant Measure
In the previous section I argued in favor of partly removing the geographical meaning from 'area'. My call is only for a partial removal, as two of the above-mentioned, major factors in cultural change or the absence thereof remain largely bound by nation states and other administrative bodies.

Legal frameworks and economic conditions remain largely determined by government policies and administration. In the case of of policy this is most obvious: national governments, as representatives of their nation state, are, at least in theory, souvereign. Thus they are responsible for deciding on and enforcing the majority of the legal framework(s) surroundings the citizens of a given country.8

The economic situation of the inhabitants of a given region is similarly dependent on the area. On the one hand, governments determine education policy (say, the creation of human capital). On the other hand, natural resources have a geographically determined location. Governments of the different administrative levels, but first of all national ones, further determine citizens' economic conditions by the quality of their economic policy and their decisions on the distribution of wealth.
International bodies like the ICC in The Hague and international treaties can limit these powers. Similarly, central collaborative groups of nation states like ASEAN and the EU are conceptualized to do so to create yet higher level bodies than nation states. These efforts have had some success in moving power away from the nation state, but the nation state remained sovereign in both cases (and in both cases there would also be or is the problem of creating a common discursive sphere without a common language in terms of the creation, reproduction and adaption of culture towards a more homogenous one)

Thus the very existence and power of nation states (and other administrative units) currently determines that people, who e.g. share a common citizenship or place of residency will affected by rather similar the same policies and laws and, in case of the majority of the people, more or less similar economic conditions. These, again, determine that the affected people will face rather similar incentives or restrictions from adopting certain practices and concepts, say, changing culture.
This further increases the likeliness of a persistent relevance of the area in the creation of culture.

Final Remarks

In this text I argue that the area will remain relevant to the creation of culture. That distinct cultural lines will still largely be determined by the area, be it in the form of the area as a geographical category or simply as a notion, which is more or less loosely associated to the geographical category. Thus, I argue that Southeast Asian Studies and other area studies are unlikely to lose their legitimacy in the near future - at least at the hand of the effects of technological innovation and globalization on culture.

In stark opposite, technological innovation and globalization offer new areas of research to area studies scholars. The possibility for a person to belong to a culture while being far away from the geographical location associated with it and the realization thereof give us reasons to research these individuals.
On the other hands and despite the relatively conservative analysis I have provided on the effect of technological innovation and globalization on the area as a major constitutive space in the creation of culture, the extreme changes brought by globalization and the Internet in particular are not to be ignored. I have argued for the persistence of the area as an important factor - this is not to mean however, that the changes within the more or less consistent cultural spheres determined by the areas will not be great. It is exactly these changes, which offer exciting new fields of research to area studies scholars.

What effect does overseas migration of more than ten million Filipinos to an extremely wide array of places have on the consciousness of the migrants and their kin? Which parts of their host culture do they adapt and bring back to the Philippines, and which do they reject, or adopt because they are forced to and then discard upon returning to the Philippines? And why? How does policy react to this major issue? And how do businesses and media react it?

In the case of the Internet, the array of new or newly relevant questions may be even larger, considering that the Internet and the different modes of communication that have been developed on it are options users can choose from and adapt themselves. Why do people from one area prefer certain modes of communication over others? In which ways do people from this area adopt and adapt the newly available mode of communication? Inhowfar do language barriers differentiate discursive spheres in practice, and in how far can the restrictions set up by language barriers be mitigated?

Many of these questions have been researched on. Theories have been developed to answer some of these questions. Others remain largely under-researched. Certain is however, that the ever growing body of research in search of answers to these questions suggests, that the answers remain far from being found.



The term society is obviously a fuzzy term, too. It is dealt with in later parts of this text. In short, I adopt a discussion of society here as

  1. a community of shared practices and concepts
  2. a community sharing a common discursive sphere

This definition is questionable in itself, but it offers an important perspective on societies: that a person can be in a number of different societies at a time without having to be transnational. The concept of society adopted here is closely linked with identity.

Intersectional theory describes a person's role in society and the person's identity as a result of their position along different "axes of power" (there are different terms for this, but I will stick with this much used one). Using an example from the founding time of intersectional theory, a black woman will not be posited in society only by her being female or by her being black. She will be posited as a black woman. She is thus located along two distinct "axes of power". Each position is surrounded by different discoursive processes and carries different meanings in society. For the given black woman as an individual, it is however not just her position along these two "axes of power" that is of importance. It is instead the mix of the two. Her position in society cannot be understood on the basis of only one of the two, but indeed only through their interplay.

Transnationalism theory in turn describes (modern) migrants as embedded both in the culture and society of their host country and of their country of origin [Schiller et al. 1995]. Hence, transnationalism theory already displays the possibility of an individual belonging to two or more societies. From a Southeast Asianists perspective, I argue that the reduction of society to national levels is a stark simplification - while still holding much truth.

This becomes strongly apparent in the case of the Philippines, where there are rather openly distinct media spheres, on the discourse level, while there is a rather uniform legal sphere, on the practices-and-concepts level, throughout much of the country (excluding large parts of Mindanao). Whereas most important national level newspapers are English language ones (and apparently quite Manila-centered), there are regional newspapers using the regional languages. Educated people may read both, while those with a low level of English language proficiency are more bound to regional newspapers if any.

On the other hand, both groups are bound by more or less the same, mostly national laws and regional culture. Thus they are engaged in two intertwined yet distinct discursive spheres, arguably societies.

For a discussion on the interplay of transnationalism theory and intersectional theory, see my unpublished "Filipinos in Urban Indonesia" (available upon request).


The Worldbank offers very different data from other sources. For example, see the IMF's data on Indonesia and the Philippines. Nevertheless, the data should be sufficient for comparison purposes.


I have also excluded the advances already brought forward by earlier cellphone-related technologies. As the effects of these will likely be seen as comparatively minor to the ones of the Internet in hindsight, I will restrict myself to mentioning them here.


The late Benedict Anderson made reference to English as a new "sacred language", implying that it was a lingua franca for the intelligentsia and the intelligentsia only. I am inclined to dispute this implication, but indeed the better educated are the forerunners in terms of English language proficiency - and the better educated are commonly those from more well-off families. For the purposes of this essay I will deal with English as a half-lingua franca, meaning that a substantial enough number of people speak it as a second language to enable communication between different groups while the number is still too small to enable equal communication in of the majority of people.


Fajardo [2011] is an example for more recent literature containing information on Filipino labor migrants' means of communication with their children. Unfortunately it also does not yet make strong reference to the Internet, as it deals primarily with seafarers who at least at that time had no access to the Internet during much of their journeys.


These children are commonly raised by a female relative, e.g. an older sister or an aunt. Obviously this selection of caretakers reinforces the self-perpetuation of culture. OFWs are on the other hand reported to regularly bring goods and practices associated with their host countries with them upon their returns (see e.g.: Aguilar [2014], Aguilar et al. [2009]).


"Determined by an area" is to say, that the area does not necessarily need to be the one a person immediately grows up in (or exclusively that). A rather intuitive example may be children of migrants growing up abroad, going to school in regular schools with the children of the majority population, but taught the ways of their parents' 'home culture'. In this case, a belonging to both cultures is likely to develop to a certain extent [de Dios 2014].


This argument closely resembles Campomanes' most notable call to change "Philippine Studies" into "Filipino Studies" in face of the Filipino diaspora. [Campomanes 2003]


In doing so, they clearly need to consider the influence of different actors, mostly on the same, national level scale or above, but the force actually executing a given action is commonly a national level one. Three main forces to quite directly restrict a governments power become apparent (besides the people). First there is the common problem of military forces with vested interests, which is rather common in Southeast Asia. In this case, at least the argument can be made, that the force actually acting in a country and enforcing some sort of rule - no matter in whose favor - is a national level one. Second there are multinational corporations to consider, which can have a decisive influence on the economic situation of the population or at least a set of politicians acting in their interests. Third, interventions by other countries or supra-national bodies are a considerable factor - think of the role of the CIA in the Philippines of the 1950s [Constantino & Constantino 1982].