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How can Asian Encounters help expose blind spots in sociological research?
September 22, 2020 - 22:09
By Lisa Eklund, Department of Sociology, Lund University
During its 27th biannual conference, the Nordic Sociological Association (NSA) hosted the panel discussion Asian Encounters – Exposing or creating blind spots? Building on the theme of the conference – Exploring blind spots, the panel discussed the drawbacks and merits of studying Asia, as well as encounters between Asia and the Nordic countries.
The background of how the theme of the panel came about is that when looking around, it became obvious that there were relatively few sociologists in the Nordic countries who engaged in the study of Asia. Rather, it seemed, that sociology in the Nordic countries has, at least until recently, been largely focused on the national level, formulating research agendas within the framework of the nation state, and comparative research has mostly involved Nordic and European cross-national studies. This is rather different from several other disciplines in the social sciences, such as anthropology, gender studies, geography and political science, which have quite long traditions of also engaging in research on Asia, as well as doing comparative research between Europe and Asia and other countries.
Still, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the rise of (some parts of) Asia cannot be ignored in the study of social change neither globally nor locally, even in the Nordic countries, with an increasing presence of Asian immigrants, Asian companies setting up their businesses and buying property etc. Moreover, our shops are mostly filled with Asian goods, and many jobs have been relocated to Asia, with huge implications for labour markets in the Nordic countries.
Moreover, it is becoming increasingly popular to watch Bollywood and Kong-fu movies, to practice judo, taekwondo, yoga, taiqi, and Thai-style kick-boxing. More and more people in the Nordic countries revert to Chinese and Tibetan medicine, and go to Thai massage. Fengshui is a well-known set of principles for decorating and planning living spaces, and Asian food culture is making headway into private homes, fast food shops and up-market restaurants alike. And spiritual movements inspired by Buddhism, Daoism and Zen shape and spur new lifestyles and forms of associations. The list of how practices originating in the “East” get adopted and filtered into practices in the “West” is long.
So, whereas there has been a tendency to understand social change in Asia as driven partly by Westernisation, does not all of this mean that there is also an Easterisation of the West? And if so, what bearings does that have on individuals, groups and our societies at large? Or are we better off giving up on the idea that we are so very different, and reject Orientalism or reversed Orientalism once and for all?
Indeed there are global processes affecting all of our societies. For example, China is ageing at a fast rate and will soon have as high a proportion of older persons as the Nordic countries, generating enormous challenges with regards to pension and care. Work is becoming more flexible and insecure across the globe, creating unemployment, inequalities and in particular youth unemployment is prevalent in both Asia and Europe. Processes of commodification, consumerism and our careless use of natural resources also seem to unite us rather than make us different, even though of course, the ways in which this manifests itself differs between regions, countries and subgroups. Would we become cleverer if we dug into our various societies to study different social process and practices, and then contrast and compare, to learn from one another, both theoretically and methodologically? Is that a way of negotiating and compensating for blind spots inherent in scientific work?
Our research funding organisations seem to think so. Several Nordic research funding organisations have recently called for research that involves Asia. For example, The Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare (former FAS, now FORTE) has made funding available for research on India and China and The Swedish Research Council (VR) has called for research programmes on China, promoting comparative perspectives. There are as such research funding opportunities for sociological research to broaden research agendas to also include Asian countries.
With the purpose of spurring interest and also provide some hands-on insights and experiences informing and inspiring more research on Asia the panel discussed: What can we learn from Asia and what can Asia learn from us? Can the study of Asia reveal insights about our own societies and vice versa? Or do we by applying “Western” theory in the study of Asian societies create blind spots and thereby fail to understand social change in those societies?
The panel, which has been sponsored by the Swedish South Asian Studies Network (SASNET), consists of four prominent members:
- Hilda Roemer Christensen, Associate Professor, Head of the co-ordination for Gender Studies, Copenhagen University
- Ravinder Kaur, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
- Cecilia Milwertz, Senior researcher, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies
- Wang Feng, Professor, Fudan University and University of California, Irvine