SSRC Launches New Inter-Asian Initiative

Inaugural conference to be held in Dubai in 2008

In today's interconnected world, the notion of the "Far East" seems like a relic of an earlier era when countries were designated "near," or "far," or in the "middle," in relation to the vantage point of the supreme power of Europe.

But for Seteney Shami, a program director at the SSRC, "east" and "west" are not the only concepts that have lost their relevance. Nowadays, she argues, Asia should be seen as an interconnected formation stretching from the Middle East and North Africa through Eurasia and South Asia to East Asia.

Thinking of Asia in terms of such fluid boundaries seems to come naturally to Shami, who comes from Jordan originally. But can she persuade others to accept this viewpoint?

Building on the recent successes of scholars in bridging the traditional divides between their areas of knowledge, Shami has launched a new initiative called Inter-Asian Connections, which, she said, will break new ground by "challenging Asia scholars to broaden their conception of Asia even further through the inclusion of the Middle East and Eurasia."

Shami's initiative is part of a broader trend to study connections and flows across geographies, landscapes, and terrains in ways that call into question long-standing notions of "regions" or "areas." The challenge will be to show that by letting go of conventional framings of time and space to conceive of a larger Asia, scholars will be able to explain more about how the world works today.

Dubai in '08

With the help of Srirupa Roy, a Delhi-based SSRC consultant, Shami will kick off the new initiative with a conference entitled "Inter-Asian Connections," to be held in Dubai on February 21-24, 2008. The conference will showcase the latest academic research, as well as launch new work, on themes ranging from the historical connections among Asian countries, to trade and migration flows, to the impact of new media, such as satellite television and the Internet, on spreading cultural images and values across this geographical expanse.

Shami points out that simply by coming to Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, many conference participants will be stepping outside their comfort zone. Requiring them to travel to a place that they don't normally think of as Asia will help to "redirect their gaze in different ways," she said. "The Gulf countries such as the UAE are often on the margins of Middle East studies, and outside the purview of South Asian studies. But when we look at these countries within the Asian expanse, it becomes clear that they are in fact central locations. They are the very nodes through which a new Asia is being forged -- goods, people and ideas flow through, and get interconnected in, places like Dubai."

Lisa Anderson, a Middle Eastern studies specialist and current chair of the SSRC's board of directors, agreed. "Holding the meeting in Dubai will necessarily remind everyone of the historical connections, whether trade routes or mutual intellectual and cultural influences, which have shaped and reshaped notions of Asia for millennia," she said.  "It is an exciting opportunity to transcend the conventional frameworks of contemporary policy and academics to think again about what Asia has meant in the past, and may be in the future."

Although the inaugural conference of Inter-Asian Connections will feature the works of established and emerging scholars, Shami and Roy also hope to draw in the activists, policy makers, and journalists for whom these scholarly findings will have relevance. "Asia is today the focus of intense policy and media debate," Roy said, "but that debate needs to take a more comprehensive look at the way in which the region is transforming -- including the transformation of the notion of region itself."

Indeed, old habits of regionalism die hard in both media and policymaking circles, where Eurasia, for instance, remains interesting primarily for its post-communist transformation; the Middle East, for its Islamic radicalism; and the Far East (and now India), for its economic vibrancy. Rarely do journalists and policymakers consider the connections -- economic, political and social -- linking these various places.

New Focus for the SSRC

Since her arrival at the SSRC in 1999, Shami has been spearheading its efforts to take area studies in new directions. A trained anthropologist, she knows the difficulties of getting East Asianists to talk with, say, Middle Eastern specialists within a broader framework. She insists, however, that such cross-regional conversations are essential for understanding the issues that cut across, and connect, the region. "Once we get various area specialists in the same room talking to one another," she said, "we can begin to address transnational problems such as migration and mobility, urbanization, economic inequality, and the environment."

SSRC Executive Director Mary McDonnell, who trained as a Malaysia specialist, shares Shami's enthusiasm for this new approach. "When regional experts are encouraged to share their expertise, something interesting happens," McDonnell said. "We start to discern patterns and trends that transcend particular localities." She added that this "is why the SSRC sponsors so much comparative work."

Shami already has an impressive track record in running comparative projects. Since 1999, she has been directing the SSRC's Middle East and North Africa Program and in that capacity has been supporting international collaborative research focusing on MENA -- the region defined as Iran to Morocco. She also directs the SSRC's Eurasia Program and, in partnership with Russian history specialist Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University, has held two innovative workshops to encourage young scholars to cross regional divides. The first, which took place in 2004, explored the similarities and differences between their work and that being done on the Middle East, while the second, held last year, focused on connections with East Asia.

About the SSRC's Work on Asia:

The Social Science Research Council has run programs on Asia since 1949. Today, the Council continues to sponsor projects focused on East Asia, Eurasia, South Asia, Southeast Asia (particularly Vietnam), the Middle East and North Africa, under an initiative designed to take the Council's regional programs into a new generation of research and scholarship.

Quick Link:

Published on: Monday, August 20, 2007