Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies: What’s the Difference?

By Truston Yu (Picture: Businesswest)

Ever since I began my research on Southeast Asia, there has been a lingering question that intrigued me: what is the difference between Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies? Having worked with various institutions on numerous projects relating to the Southeast Asian region, I believe I now have a more well-informed answer to this question. Though, in practice, there are large overlaps between them, the two have slightly different focuses, which will be examined in this article.

Southeast Asian Studies has a longer history than ASEAN Studies. Research on Southeast Asia, such as ethnographies and ecological surveys, can at least be dated back to the colonial period. Russel Wallace’s book The Malay Archipelago is one of the most famous pieces of literature of this nature; It chronicles a British naturalist’s scientific exploration over the other side of the Earth. The first institutionalized academic program, as Benedict Anderson recalls in his book The Spectre of Comparisons, would later be offered at Yale University in 1947. It was also around that time that the world established the current conception of what “Southeast Asia” consisted of. Before there could be an ASEAN Studies, however, there must have been an “ASEAN” to begin with. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations only came into existence following the Bangkok Declaration of 1967. Hence any notion of ASEAN Studies would only come into existence afterwards. Naturally, ASEAN Studies also looks at more contemporary topics rather than historical ones.

ASEAN Studies often carry official prerogatives. ASC UGM, for example, was established by the Directorate General of ASEAN Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia, in collaboration with the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences of Universitas Gadjah Mada. With a mission of “Bringing ASEAN Closer to you”, the Center organizes a wide array of events seeking to inform the wider public of regional issues. At any rate, the notion that ASEAN’s existence is desirable is taken as a given.

Most institutions that bear the name “ASEAN Studies” are found within the ASEAN region, such as the ASEAN Studies Centers at Chulalongkorn University and at Prince of Songkla University. Apart from that, institutions that carry the name “ASEAN” remain to be a minority compared to those of “Southeast Asia”.

The term “ASEAN Studies” itself implies a focus on this regional organization. ASEAN is composed of its member states, which also hints that this discipline would have a state-centric approach more or less. In certain aspects, the ASEAN Studies discipline can be described as rather rigid and narrow. Timor-Leste, for example, is a Southeast Asian country without ASEAN membership, and would often be left out of ASEAN Studies. On the contrary, Southeast Asia, has a wider and more fluid interpretation: it may include the study of religion, society, and even ecology.

In practice, however, there would be much overlap between the two fields. It ultimately depends on the institution in question. If their work covers Southeast Asian Studies in the context of contemporary politics and economy, it is more likely to overlap with ASEAN Studies. The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) Kyoto University, on the other hand, is renowned for its interdisciplinary study of the region, which features scientific and even medical research.

In some cases, ASEAN Studies may be seen as a branch of Southeast Asian Studies. At the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (originally named the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), for example, there is an ASEAN Studies Center, which is a unit set up alongside country studies programs such as Myanmar Studies and Indonesia Studies. Comparing it with other disciplines, a similar parallel would be the subtle distinction between European Studies and EU Studies; Perhaps we could even consider the two fields of Sinology and China Studies as a homologous pair.

Perhaps a criticism of Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies is that both fields may have a tendency of delving too much into the country-by-country distinction. Southeast Asia was divided into these boxes following the demarcation of colonial boundaries, which still restricts our thinking today. With an awareness of this potential problem, we may think out of the box to see the threads that transcend national borders.

Admittedly, the above characterizations are from a personal perspective, and the interpretation of what discipline entails is ultimately up to those who do research in it. It is up to each of us to decide what Southeast Asian Studies or ASEAN Studies mean, and what good scholarship in either field entails. That being said, hopefully, the above frameworks could serve as a paradigm for students of Southeast Asia to think about their academic goals.

Truston Yu is a research assistant at the University of Hong Kong. Their research interests include Southeast Asian Studies and ASEAN Studies. They could be reached at their e-mail:

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