With the relaunch of CSSAAME the usual questions come up: What is regional comparison, and why focus on South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East? Comparison is at the heart of cultural analysis and needs some reflection. Comparison should not be seen primarily in terms of comparing societies or events, or institutional arrangements across societies, but as a reflection on our conceptual framework as well as on a history of interactions that have constituted our object of study. One can, for instance, say that one wants to study the secular governance of religious diversity in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East, but one has to bring to that a critical reflection on the fact that that kind of study often presupposes a certain understanding of religion as well as the central- ity and uniformity of secular state formation. Unfortunately, such critical reflection often leads to the argument that societies should be understood in their own terms and cannot be understood in Western terms. Nevertheless, in the case of an English language journal, “their own terms” have to be interpreted and translated in relation to the historical formation of Western social sciences. Moreover, such translation and interpretation are already part of a long history of interactions with the West. So, if one speaks about “religion” or “civil society” and “the state,” one has to confront a larger, mostly imperial history. Today, there is the added factor that this field of comparison has been widely democratized by modern media so that everyone is in a mediated touch with, and has views on, everyone else, mostly in a comparative sense.
Comparison, as I understand it, is thus not a relatively simple juxtaposition and comparison of two or more different societies but a complex reflection on the network of concepts that both underlie our study of society as well as the formation of those societies themselves. So, it is always a double act of reflection.
Religion is a good example of the conceptual complexity here, since it is precisely the emergence and application of this generic term as purportedly describing, but in fact producing, a distinctive social field that shows the value of comparison or, perhaps better, the need for comparative reflection. It shows the central importance of the interactions between Europe and its civilizational Others in understanding the emergence of this social field. What I am arguing for here is an approach in which the interactions between Europe and the former colonies in Asia and Africa are seen as central to the emergence of modernity in both colonial and European societies.
One can desire to provincialize Europe, but that very desire has to be expressed within the genealogy of European thought. Europe is an example of a region, and examining the difficulties to conceptualize it might be instructive. One might think of Europe as a space of interaction among ideas, people, and goods. Such a concept has to be dynamic, for sure, because it changes all the time. Greece is a reference point for European thought, but not for goods. Its inclusion in the European Union seems obvious at the level of thought, but less obvious as a contemporary economy. And, if it is a reference point for thought, why not include Turkey, the site of an important part of the Greek and Hellenic World? The opposition to the inclusion of Turkey into Europe is partly civilizational, or rather religious, and partly economic. In the discussions on the European constitution the question of civilization loomed large. Christian Democrats have pointed out that Europe was founded on a Christian civilization, while liberals and socialist have pointed at the secular-liberal foundations of Europe. Both arguments were also used against the inclusion of Muslim Turkey as a Member of the EU. The fact that there were already millions of Turks (as well as other Muslims) in Europe seemed to have no bearing on whether Europe was Christian or secular-liberal. The fact that Turkey has a secular state and a secularism that resembles most French laïcité also did not impact the discussion of the inclusion of Muslim Turkey. This civilizational debate shows the extent to which Muslims are defined as strangers in Europe. At the same time, one may wonder why Turkey is often not considered to be part of the Middle East.
An even more complex story is that of imperial expansion that has brought Spain to Latin America, Portugal to Brazil, England and France to North America, and ultimately Britain to Asia and Africa, Holland to South Africa and Indonesia, and France to Africa and Southeast Asia, to mention some of the connections. What to think of the spread of Christianity and Islam with their own centers and peripheries that confound regional boundaries that are conceptualized in terms of trading or language? Not to mention the networks of economic connectivity in which Japan, China, and the Asian Tigers become more and more the crucial nodal points for the rest of the world. All this is perhaps evident, but to understand what this means for regional studies requires some thought.
It is not immediately clear that today the connections between South Asia and Africa are more important than those between South Asia and China. In economic terms China is the largest trade partner of India, surpassing the United States. India and China are civilizational states that can be compared at the level of their entire societies, although, at another level, it might be more fruitful to compare Mumbai with Lagos than with Shanghai. In terms of religious connectivity Islam connects South Asia with Africa and the Middle East but obviously also with Indonesia and Malaysia. Korean Christianity is everywhere nowadays as are Korean soap operas and dancing styles. It is very hard in such a world to privilege one set of connectivity as the basis of the choice of regions to compare. So, in the end, it is what one wants to study that determines which regions one focuses on, but it is doubtful that regions can be determined at the outset as the basis of a journal.
Nevertheless, one does need a focus and that focus is mostly based on institutional academic histories. Despite all obvious conceptual difficulties one does have African studies, and South Asian studies, just as there are European studies and American studies. A major determinant seems to be pedagogical, and the boundaries seem to be the product of language and history, political and cultural. One cannot build departments and journals that can deal with an endless variety of languages and histories. The disciplinary conceit of the dominant social sciences (economics, political science, and sociology) is that one can do without language and history and produce universally valid results based on statistically analyzed data sets. More and more, these social sciences want to connect to the natural sciences, focusing on the universality of the mind, of cognition, of bodily functions, with an increasing emphasis on evolution. Cultural anthropology is the one social science that largely escapes this fantasy, only to be marginalized as endless critique of universal knowledge from the fetishization of the local and specific. The humanities, also increasingly marginalized in the academy, similarly continue their pursuit of the specific. In passing one may ask why it is that at the time that anxieties about cultural difference are rampant in politics worldwide the study of religious and ethnic diversities is more and more forced to comply with forms of auditing that undermine its very existence. I am thinking here, for instance, of the focus on citation indices and the push to marginalize monographs and edited volumes that make it difficult to uphold the specific research and publication traditions in this field of scholarship. The expectation that the developmental trajectory of non-Western universities could be a solution to these problems needs to be examined with a wary eye, as my experience in teaching in India, Thailand, and China has taught me.
In short, one needs journals like CSSAAME, but much wisdom is required to steer clear of the restraints of regional comparison. The journal needs to be open to the quirky social and cultural trajectories of Manangis or Sindhis or Ismailis that do not confirm to any neatly drawn regional boundaries. It needs to be open to the expansion of China into the regions that are the focus of the journal. While one can easily see from an institutional perspective the advantages of having the journal based at Columbia University with an all-Columbia advisory board, it is as easy to see the incestuous possibilities of such an arrangement. One way to escape from that is to commission projects to outsiders that lead to special issues exemplifying combinatory possibilities that go beyond those actualized at Columbia. To give an example from my own recent experience, Encounters, a journal based and funded at Zayed University (UAE), published an issue I edited on religious networks in which work on China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, India, Malaysia, and Palestine was fruitfully brought together. In the end, it might be the capacity to think beyond the region that reinvigorates regional study.
© 2013 by Duke University Press