chapter  8
33 Pages

Geographical Worldview

Where is Zomia? You will not find it on any ordinary map, but Willem van Schendel thought that you should. Scholars tend to divide the Asian continent into several geographical and cultural areas, such as East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. There is nothing natural about such divisions, though, and they render a finite number of discrete “areas” that presume non-existent geographical and cultural similarities while erasing important differences. Scholars then gather around these presumed areas, forming professional groups of “area studies,” like East Asian Studies, etc. Van Schendel proposed that Zomia (see Figure 8.1) qualified as an “area” because of its shared topographical features (largely a mountainous region) as well as its “language affinities,” “religious commonalities” (tribal religions along with Buddhism and Christianity), “cultural traits” including kinship systems and ethnic distribution, “ancient trade networks, and eco - logical conditions” (2002: 653). Nevertheless, van Schendel accepted that Zomia has not been recognized as an “area” and further noticed that an

Association of American Geographers (, founded 1904 American Geographical Society (, founded 1851 Royal Geographical Society (, founded 1830 Geographical Association (, founded 1893

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“area” is more than a place; it is also “a site of knowledge production” and “a career machine” (649). Regional studies like Southeast Asian Studies, he argued, “use a geographical metaphor to legitimate the production of specific types of knowledge. This knowledge is structured geographically as well as according to academic disciplines” (650), manifested, for instance, in academic journals like Journal of Southeast Asian Studies or South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies. More, like the main social sciences themselves, area studies perpetuate the current division of areas by recruiting individuals into careers like being a “Southeast Asianist” or “East Asianist.” “As expressions of certain academic interests and disciplines,” van Schendel wrote, areas and area studies are

instruments in institutional strategies with regard to funds, students, jobs, and prestige. And they contributed to a certain ghettoization of critical insights as area studies tended toward the guild model. Area specialists were rewarded for “knowing their proper place”: training in area studies centers, recognizing differences within the larger context of

their area’s unity, offering their findings to area-focused seminars and journals, and devoting their careers to the study of their area of training, without necessarily keeping abreast of intellectual developments next door.