Beyond Asian literacy: understanding what makes us the same

They way we research Asia has been misguided. Flickr/-AroFarMeR-

Australia desperately needs to invest more on research into Asia if we’re to better understand a part of the world so vital for our future economic prosperity. But not only do we need more research, we need to re-examine the way research is being done.

The “Asia literacy model”, where researchers focus heavily on the language, culture and history of Asian nations, is driving our teaching and research on Asia but it has passed its use-by-date. It’s time for a new strategy.

Narrow focus

“Asia literacy” is driven by the idea that understanding the distinctive cultural and civilisational foundations of Australia’s trading partners – which can be Japan, Indonesia, China, or India depending on the flavour of the era – is key to better engagement with the region.

This thinking is behind new university centres for research in this area, such the recent establishment of ANU’s China Institute LINK. It appears again and again in the reports and mission statements of such centres. But the Asia literacy model places a large emphasis on language and culture, inevitably making us focus too narrowly on our differences rather than what Australia has in common with Asia.

Shared challenges

The mainspring of this current emphasis on Asia literacy – though it seems we are always “discovering” Asia – is the political program. Politicians are repeatedly trying to show how they are modernising our economy by better engaging with Asia. But how relevant is this notion of Asia literacy to building Australian research capacity on the region?

To talk about Asian engagement is a bit like debating tariff protection. The Australian economy has moved on: there is no question that Australia is enmeshed within the region. Similarly, the growth of Asian migration over the past two or three decades has significantly increased the proficiency of Asian language capacity in this country.

The Asia literacy model seeks to be literate about a region “out there” rather than generate an in-depth knowledge of a common set of problems pertaining to the region as a whole.

There are governance challenges, such as the issues of climate change or financial governance, that confront all of us in the region. There is no doubt we need to focus more on confronting and dealing with these common sets of issues, to focus on the transnational rather than the national.

Of course, it is still important to understand these issues in particular contexts, we still need to understand the specificities of countries within our region. But the larger problem here is that Asia literacy relies on a particular set of assumptions about the mainsprings of social and political change that can no longer serve as guideposts for research policy.

What’s common, not different

Changing social and political circumstances have made the Asia literacy model ineffective and redundant in dealing with contemporary developments in Asia. The Asia literacy model shunts off the analysis of common trends, problems, and processes by granting centre stage to the understanding of the distinctiveness of cultural arrangements.

Hence, it has a strong flavour of “methodological nationalism” that seeks to understand “countries” as a whole in terms of their distinctive characteristics, ignoring the broader commonalities of trends and problems across the region.

We need an approach that combines an understanding of the specific political and social contexts that characterise the region alongside larger global and regional processes. This in turn implies greater focus on theories and concepts associated with the social sciences.

Research on Asia in the social sciences has been languishing and the problem is as much with the Asia literacy model as it is with the funding.

A new strategy

We should replace our Asia literacy strategy, with a Problem Oriented Research Strategy (PORS), moulding research around key issues, problems, and puzzles of social, economic, and political transformations pertaining to the region as a whole. These problems are rooted in tangible real world problems, and contribute to the theoretical development of social science and humanities disciplines.

This new research strategy emphasises problems and broad themes rather than the cultural and linguistic specificities of the region. It recognises some of the key issues of our time – inequality, climate change, and financial governance – all of which have similar trans-national roots, but with an understanding of specific political and social contexts.

It is an approach that enables a move towards more solid partnership-oriented research projects with academic organisations and professional groups within the region. Our major social science organisations have failed to recognise the importance of these research partnerships with the region.

Australia needs to invest in research on the region. But this is insufficient if we fail to think rigorously about the problems, disciplines, and the skills we need to enhance research capacity. We need to move beyond the shibboleths of the Asia literacy model that has driven our teaching and research on Asia.

This article is based on a policy brief on research capacity on Asia, found here.