I'm attending the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Toronto, and it's a good working example of a non-discipline that brings together a wide range of disciplines and topics. But what is it that creates an affinity among all these scholars? It's certainly not methodology. There are financial specialists in attendance alongside of experts on Ming-Qing funerary practices. And it's not topicality in any obvious sense. Rather, what brings these scholars together is a region of the world, encompassing a very wide range of cultures, languages, traditions, and functioning social systems. Some parts of that region are of immediate interest to almost everyone who reads a newspaper -- China's growth path and international intentions, for example. And other parts are obscure and little known -- the culture and politics of Kachin region in Burma, for example. In a practical sense it's not entirely clear what these many scholars gain from the annual convening in various cities in North America.
So why is there an Association of Asian Studies anyway, and why does it need an annual conference? There are of course many scholars passionately interested in Asia. But Asia is a large place with a long history. Is "Asia" a construct of a Eurocentric view of the world? Why should we assume that a single association can fruitfully serve this range of academic and regional interests?
One reason is proximity. If you are a historian of Indonesia or Burma, the history and politics of China are of deep importance to you. This is true historically, and it is true in the present. The policies of Ming China towards its southwestern periphery had major effects on the polities now sectioned as Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. And if you're interested in the environmental prospects for the Irrawaddy River basin, likewise you will be interested in China.
Another is methodological. It seems valuable on first principles for a China specialist trained in anthropology to have a stimulating exposure to a well-conducted study of evolving CCP policies. Social activity is always located in a large social and political context; so even the most localistic ethnographer can gain new ideas and questions by considering how the large context influences the local. It is useful for an historian of China to be exposed to subaltern histories of South Asia, since the perspectives of the subaltern school have little traction in the China field. It is useful for a scholar of the Congress Party of India to have a more engaging exposure to pre-colonial India.
Another practical function of the AAS annual meeting is its role in the job market for new PhDs in fields subsumed within Asian Studies. Mentors are introducing their students to other senior faculty at universities that may be hiring in Asian history, politics, or culture. And there are lots of presentations by late-stage graduate students and recent PhDs introducing their dissertation research to a broader audience. It is often very interesting work, following new topics and sometimes new methods. For example, I heard a paper by Ke Li on Friday describing her fieldwork in China observing the strategies pursued by rural women to gain divorce from unhappy marriages. (The deck is stacked against them.) This is a function that Andrew Abbott emphasizes in his discussions of disciplines and interdisciplinary; generally speaking, he is doubtful about the ability of interdisciplinary associations to help secure appointments for new PhDs. But this doesn't seem to be true of AAS.
A somewhat different take on Asian Studies is to view it as a loose amalgam of area fields that have greater coherence considered by themselves. The field of China studies, for example, is much more tightly integrated than Asian studies as a whole. China historians are usually familiar with the work of political scientists, anthropologists, and economists who are working on China, and the intellectual networks in this field seem substantially more integrative. And this seems to be true in the fields of Southeast Asian studies, South Asia studies, and Japan studies. So perhaps one answer to the questions above is to concede the point: Asian Studies is a fictional intellectual field, but China studies is not.
Does the AAS fulfill its promise of offering a broad and transdisciplinary exposure of ideas and methods? Some people I've talked to have felt that AAS needs to try to do a better job of bringing the social sciences into the program, and finding some ways of encouraging comparative research. AAS is very good on highlighting the particular, but some participants would like to see greater efforts at an integrative view as well. That said, I myself have always found AAS to be a particularly stimulating conference, and one that succeeds in creating suggestive links among varied approaches to the study of a diverse place.