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Westernization - Southeast Asia - Shaping Westernization In Southeast Asian Studies

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Scholarship has addressed the concept of Westernization in Southeast Asia indirectly through alternative themes and interests. That the early histories of Southeast Asia by colonial officials were actually the history of Westerners in Asia and their perspective on the region's culture reveals something about the idea of Westernization. As many early accounts describing this process were involved in the spreading of ideas, technology, or goods, their assessments tended to reflect their interests and their unfamiliarity with the region as a whole. One aspect of this approach was to view Southeast Asian history within the chronological and narrative framework of the West's own history, leading to judgments proclaiming the region's political, social, and technological levels to be inherently backward. It was believed that through colonial policies, Southeast Asia under European tutelage would be emancipated from itself, joining the civilized world by emulating it. Thus, early assessments by colonial officials saw the process of Westernization as the process through which traditional cultures could be made modern.

This view was shared to some degree by Southeast Asian observers as well. The emerging class of indigenous elites who were trained in Western schools began considering the idea that European culture had something to offer and could improve their situation. These groups began to speak in European languages, adopt European modes of dress, and evaluate the world through European conceptions of it. For many scholars following World War II, Westernization became viewed in terms of nationalism and its specific role in the process of constructing the nation-state. Histories were produced that deemphasized pre-European elements and themes in favor of more "modern" narratives that embraced the structures, ideas, and values of "Western" historical writing. As a result, nationalist histories supported the idea that Westernization and the formation of the nation were inevitable and inextricably linked. Ironically, colonial and nationalist historians envisioned Westernization and its role in history in much the same way.

In response to colonial and nationalist histories, attempts were made toward writing histories that promoted "Southeast Asian" perspectives, with the emphasis placed on alternative, locally defined categories upon which new narratives of regional history could be written. Scholars began to question the role and place of European influence on the superstructure of Southeast Asian beliefs. Many began to see Westernization as a "thin and flaking glaze" over more enduring ideas and institutions that had defined the region for centuries. With this shift in perspective, Westernization was perceived as having far less of an impact in Southeast Asia than previously held before, swinging the pendulum to the other side. Studies of anticolonial movements, economic systems, nationalism, rituals, and identity deemphasized the impact of Westernization in order to accentuate Southeast Asia's cultural integrity more clearly. As a result, the reappraisal of colonialism led to a different reading of Southeast Asia's Westernization. Where the colonial period might have previously represented a significant conjuncture in the region's long history, scholars now viewed more continuity with the precolonial past and its traditions.

With changes in the world of the early twenty-first century, and most notably in postcolonial scholarship, the shape of Westernization has once again taken a more prominent place in Southeast Asian studies. The realization that many of the categories once thought "Southeast Asian" were actually colonial constructions led to important reappraisals of European and U.S. influence in the region. This shift has thus reinserted the importance of European culture back into the mix that is Southeast Asian culture. Scholarship since the late 1990s has also shown that, in the last two centuries of the colonial encounter, the distinctions between "West" and "East" were much more ambiguous than once held; that identities of race, ethnicity, gender, and religion were openly contested; and that the nature of Westernization in relation to the idea of modernity has not only changed in terms of its receptiveness, but that it was also losing its distinctiveness as being derived from Europe. Popular culture from Japan, technological innovation from India, and cultural tourism have redefined the relationship between what is perceived as Western influence and what is not, while growing economic, political, and technological integration has moved the region much closer to its neighbors around the world.


Cooper, Frederick, and Ann Laura Stoler, eds. Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Dirks, Nicholas B., ed. Colonialism and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Lieberman, Victor. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Vol. 1: Integration on the Mainland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lieberman, Victor, ed. Beyond Binary Histories: Re-imagining Eurasia to c. 1830. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680, Vol. 1: The Lands below the Winds. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

——. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680, Vol. 2: Expansion and Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Reid, Anthony, ed. Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power, and Belief. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Steinberg, David Joel, ed. In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern History. Rev. ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Tarling, Nicholas. Southeast Asia: A Modern History. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 2: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Maitrii Aung-Thwin

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