South Asian Studies: A Review of Trends and Problems

  • Author: Seunghee Lee
  • Affiliation: 8th Research Intern at SNUAC /  Dept. of Indian Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

[Review of Asia Review : Article Review]
Lee, Ji Eun(2011). South Asian Studies: A Review of Trends and Problems. Asia Review Vol.1, No.1

“Have a seat, comrade.”
Myung Zun did not move.
“Where are you heading to?”
“To a neutral country.”
A neutral country. Somewhere no one knows who I am. Streets where I can walk all day without ever running into anyone.
No one knows who I am and they do not even try to get to know me.
What now? I got on this ship to become a new person in an unknown country. (…) Tagore, the Indian ship sails its way across the ocean to a neutral country.
『Gwangjang』 In-hun Choi

The first encounter with India from the Korean general public was probably through In-hun Choi’s 『Gwangjang』. One can find interesting passages if one reads the book slowly. The author states that it is an unknown place so the readers have no means to get to know India. They say however, that time changes everything. India was an unfamiliar country back in the 60s, but its status has risen through globalization, capitalism, and technological advancements.
「South Asian Studies: A Review of Trends and Problems」 acknowledges the heightened status of India and the importance of the Southeastern region while retracing the research on India·Southeast Asia conducted in Korea. Southeast Asia encompasses India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, Bhutan, and Afghanistan and it has been identified as an important regional subject in Korea since the 70s where the research subject expanded from India to Southeast Asia. Korea’s Southeast Asia research started out in the 1960-70s research on Buddhism using secondary sources focusing on the religious and philosophical areas and it expanded to socio-political areas in the 1980s which was facilitated by the establishment of the first Indian language department in an university in 1972. The research spread to all parts of social sciences in the 1990s and a more systematic and comprehensive research on Southeast Asia and the region’s language, history, politics, economy, and society started with the inauguration of the Indian research center in Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in 1995. Research since the 1990s is classified as a social sciences discipline and also as a regional study. The possibility of the complementary convergence of these two classification was debated as the former emphasizes on the universal aspects and the latter emphasizes on the specificity of the region.
This article ruminates on the past tracks of the academia by summarizing Korea’s Southeast Asia research and by examining the quantitative and qualitative changes. By acknowledging the current status of Southeast Asia research, this will serve as a basis for guiding future research. However, the limitations section deserves more thoughts. First, the article did not underscore that the perspective and methodology of past research were grounded in Western orientalism. This is a major limitation because without independent perspectives or methodology, Southeast Asia research in Korea cannot be free from Western influences. Secondly, the article did not criticize the bias in Southeast Asia research as an academic discipline. Academic disciplines in the social sciences are mostly analytical and uses scientific methodology to establish causal relations and laws. However, knowledge fragmentation may result as it becomes subordinate to regional studies. Regional studies researchers should always be cautious of partial understandings. Holistic approach in the humanities research towards the distinctiveness of the region should overcome research based on examples in academic disciplines. Lastly, the article does not articulate that the studies only concentrate on India despite the awareness of the Southeast Asia as a region. It should however be admitted that the central culture of Southeast Asia is Indian and that this region as a whole is significantly under Indian cultural influences. Nevertheless, a major limitation in Southeast Asia research is that such inclination to India hinders any further discussions on Southeast Asia. It should be stressed that it is important to gain knowledge that goes beyond national boundaries.
Current Southeast Asia research is approaching its climax. This differs from the 90s need for regional studies or the boost by India’s New Economic Policy in 1991. The rise of China and global reorganization raise great expectations for Southeast Asia. The importance of Southeast Asia research will continue to be elevated as it is related to realistic understandings and knowledge of the potential foreign areas is essential for our survival. It is needed to follow the steps outlined in the article to retrace on the history of Southeast Asia research to reexamine our attitudes and perspectives, and further recognize the limitations outlined above and act on them to build Southeast Asia research as an instructive and desirable regional studies discipline in the long term.


Seunghee Lee
Dept. of Indian Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies