Current Trends in Economic History of Southeast Asia

By Lindblad, J. Thomas | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Current Trends in Economic History of Southeast Asia


Lindblad, J. Thomas, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


New winds are blowing in the writing of the economic history of Southeast Asia. The traditional Eurocentric perspective of the colonial economy is gradually giving way to a more Asian perspective stressing similarities and mutual links within the region itself. The issue of Western expansion now appears less vital than long-run economic developments in the Asian economies. Political power struggles in colonial relationships are squeezed aside and replaced by a more quantification and an increasing appreciation of dynamic change that does not readily fit into the model of Western-style modernization.(1) The aim of this article is to discuss some positions and directions that have come to the fore in the economic history of Southeast Asia in recent years. Without claiming to offer a full coverage of the field, it is believed that trends thus identified may suggest, at least in part, the future course of Southeast Asian economic history.

Three questions are raised in this contribution. First, what are, broadly speaking, the types of topics attracting attention in today's Southeast Asian economic history? Tentative indications are inferred from a quick glance at articles published and books reviewed in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies during the last twelve years. The second question shifts the emphasis from historiography to methodology focusing on new perspectives adopted in the analysis of Southeast Asian economic history, in particular the comparative intra-Asian perspective. The third and final question refers to new interpretations arising from current research findings. This is illustrated by looking more closely at the specific topic of economic expansion during the late-colonial era, in particular the early twentieth century.

A number of limitations of this survey should be noted. Economic history is conceived in a rather conventional fashion excluding for instance numismatic analysis of archaeological finds, socio-economic studies heavily geared towards sociological applications and current economic affairs. In addition this survey is virtually confined to research results presented in English. A fuller account should obviously include publications in other European languages, Japanese and the vernacular languages of Southeast Asia.

Options of Economic History

The Journal of Southeast Asian Studies is unique on account of the wide definition of its coverage lacking restrictions with respect to specific countries or carefully delimitated fields of study. The combination of such a wide coverage with a strong emphasis on history makes this journal singularly well suited to serve as a basis for identifying current trends in Southeast Asian historiography. This in turn rests upon the assumption that editorial policy responds to changing fashion in the market as reflected in, amongst others, manuscripts submitted for publication and books sent in to be reviewed. An example of such a response is the separate section of reviews, included since 1990, pertaining to publications in regional languages.

The present survey covers twelve years, i.e. the issues that appeared in the period 1982-93. All full-size scientific articles were classified into five broad categories: economic history, social history, political history, cultural history and other.(2) Articles on economic history were then ranked by time period, country and theme. In addition, a sample of books on economic history was drawn from the reviews in the twelve volumes of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies under study. The titles in the sample were also classified by theme.(3) This procedure enables us both to assess the prominence of economic history as a separate subject, i.e. relative to other fields of study, and to identify the most favoured kinds of topics. The survey of articles embraces 182 items, of which thirty are on economic history, whereas the sample of books from reviews includes sixty titles.

Economic history has occupied a remarkably stable position among articles appearing since 1982 in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. …

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