Southeast Asian studies faces multiple challenges, such as misgivings among its scholars regarding the field's geopolitical lineage, skepticism about the relevance of area studies in an era of globalization, and the rise of competing discipline-based approaches. But these challenges also provide the impetus for rethinking and broadening, especially through a closer engagement with disciplinary approaches and comparative studies. To this end, this paper highlights two possibilities: “transnational area studies” and “disciplinary regional studies.” Together, they attest to the “promise of comparisons.” Using examples such as the discourse on “Mediterranean analogy” in Southeast Asian historiography and the study of Southeast Asian regionalism by international relations scholars, this paper argues that comparisons need to go beyond analogies that do little more than serve as a self-vindicating “comfort zone” for the scholar. Also, comparisons can be enhanced by studying the processes and consequences of diffusion, not in the sense of establishing the universal validity of certain ideas and institutions, but of exploring their localization and contribution to diversity. Comparisons should not privilege an ideal type on the basis of which “others” are studied and judged. Citing the danger of Eurocentrism in comparing Southeast Asia with the Mediterranean, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the European Union, the paper argues that comparisons should recognize the significance of each case in terms of its own context. Such comparisons do not invoke a “spectre,” but offer the promise of broadening Southeast Asian studies to overcome the lingering doubts about the future of the field.
- Comparative method
- Disciplinary regional studies
- Southeast Asian studies
- Transnational area studies