Book Review: Poli-Sci in SEA

Erik Kuhonta, Dan Slater, Tuong Vu (editors), Southeast Asia in Political Science: Theory, Region, and Qualitative Analysis (2008)

Here’s a short review I wrote for on a new book called Southeast Asia in Political Science. It’s a useful corrective to the overly qualitative, country-specific nature of Southeast Asian Studies. In addition to my comments below, I also wish the book had included a chapter discussing the literature (or lack thereof) of law and courts in the region. Here it is:
This is a much needed corrective to the Southeast Asian Studies literature. As the authors argue, Southeast Asia has much to offer the political science discipline. The region’s natural diversity makes it a great laboratory for testing theories. However, Southeast Asia has been markedly absent in the political science debates over “big question” theories. Much of the Southeast Asia literature stands accused of focusing on individual countries in-depth, but not engaging the theoretical debates or utilization of cross-country comparative studies.

Southeast Asia in Political Science serves both as a defense of the field and a clarion call for a more active engagement between Southeast Asia and political science. The articles, written by some of the brightest young minds in the field, review the literature and highlight its contributions to political theory – as well as where it falls short. They generally take an unabashedly qualitative approach, but also stress the need for this approach to engage more explicitly in hypothesis elaboration or testing. 
I hope I don’t sound too immodest in saying this, but this book preaches exactly what I have said privately to colleagues for years, and I’m glad to see so many prominent Southeast Asianists recognizing the problems. As much as I love Southeast Asia, it has certainly been punching below its weight. If political science actually is to be a “science,” questions of methodology are going to keep coming up. 
The individual articles are all well-written and the authors know their fields. The one critique I have with the book comes rather from what it fails to address. As anybody who works with Southeast Asia knows, comparative studies are particularly difficult in this region. Unlike Latin America, Western Europe, and the Middle East, etc., there is no lingua franca or common history. It is a huge investment to learn enough even about one country, much less two or three. The same diversity that makes it an ideal laboratory for comparative research, as the authors allege, also makes it difficult to control variables. Moreover, data is often hard to come by and inaccessible. I would like to have seen more explicit discussion of these challenges and how to overcome them. For the young Southeast Asia scholars like myself, that might mean addressing whether it is worth investing in one, two, or any languages? How many countries can researchers can reasonably expertise in before spreading oneself too thin? In addition to the theoretical questions, these questions need to be addressed in order to situate Southeast Asia scholars more firmly within political science.

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