Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Indigenous Urbanism: Class, City and Society in Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Indigenous Urbanism: Class, City and Society in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

While Southeast Asia revolves around its cities, scholarship spins off into disciplines that ignore this fact. In a region that has known cities for two millennia, where even remote peoples have shaped themselves to or against urban rule, research goes on as if the city were an alien entity, easily factored out and best forgotten. So village studies represent these city-centred nations, and few wonder if the entrepreneurs and middle class who now explain so much might themselves be explained as urban. Our disciplines divide so deeply that no one addresses how the city organizes society and shapes the region.

My paper takes the city's centrality as a given and focuses on how urbanism works and what it means as a social and cultural order. Urbanism, Louis Wirth tells us, is "a way of life".(1) His now classic phrase suggests an inherited form but to him urbanism was less what the past bequeathed than what the present dictated. Urbanism was a response to urban conditions. Such conditions might be historical or cultural but to Wirth, an urban ecologist, the determining conditions were economic or functional. Today, a half century later, urban research has reduced itself to detailing material conditions - the demographic, economic or political facts - as if urbanism were a reflex of the market. Against this naive reductionism, I assume that urbanites are just as cultural and social as any group. Their pattern, urbanism, has a life of its own.

Understanding urbanism's privileged place requires a conceptual shift from our rural/urban dichotomy to Southeast Asia's city/society dyad. Splitting rural from urban distorts how the Southeast Asian city is at once a centre and the whole. In effect, city and society function as what Louis Dumont calls a hierarchical opposition.(2) Just as right and left are at once opposed (right vs. left), ranked (right is culturally superior to left) and presume a larger whole (the body) that the superior part represents (the right hand betokens the person), so too is the Southeast Asian city distinct from, superior to and yet representative of society.(3)

My paper starts broadly and works inward in three steps. The first section argues that urbanism is only one of several indigenous structural arrangements that "organize life". In this light the city is not an alien imposition but an indigenous construction. The second section takes up how this one arrangement has come to dominate the region. Urbanism, I argue, is a historical and cultural complex that grows by elaborating status distinctions that create meaning and structure society. As city life generates the distinctions that govern society, an urban autocracy arises. The final section looks at the modern era where today's new nations ideally supersede the city's well institutionalized dominance. Three complexes - the nation, the state and the middle class illustrate how earlier ideologies and institutions constrain present arrangements. My larger conclusion is that to understand the region we must study urbanism culturally, historically and comparatively.

Urbanism and Society

Southeast Asia's cities have always brought diverse peoples and societies together. Urbanism is neither the sum of this diversity nor its common denominator but a society of societies, a culture of cultures. It encapsulates difference much as written Chinese encompasses spoken diversity. By encapsulating, urbanism reifies lesser wholes - a people or village, an entourage or occupation - so that they become fixed parts of a still higher city-centred whole. In its simplest sense urbanism is just one of many indigenous relations of parts, and the fact of its great success does not change its nature.

Urbanism's nature - its function and meaning - arises from how it relates to society. As we shall see, urbanism is neither alien to society nor the antithesis of rural life but the essence of societal ordering. What gives urbanism its distinctive character is how it fits amid the region's other indigenous orders. …

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