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The IBP 2017 Dissertation Awards: a progress report

Since its inception in 1998 when the first International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) was held in Leiden (the Netherlands), ICAS has become the largest gathering of its kind in the world. ICAS 10, to be held in Chiang Mai (Thailand) from 20-23 July 2017, is expected to attract approximately 1500 scholars whose presentations will result in 300-350 panel sessions. Among the many academic attractions at ICAS is the ICAS Book Prize (IBP), which rewards not only the ‘Best Books’, but also the ‘Best Dissertations’ in Asian studies. The Awards and Accolades are given in the two categories of the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Winners of the two main Awards will receive a cash prize intended to facilitate their attendance at ICAS.

By the 15 October 2016 deadline, a total of 126 submissions from recent doctoral candidates at 95 universities in more than 20 countries had been accepted for the IBP Dissertation Awards (a handful were rejected for various reasons). Of these, there are 59 submissions in the Humanities and 67 in the Social Sciences, all of whose authors were awarded doctorates between June 2014 and June 2016 (with a certain latitude to allow for the processes involved). The Dissertation Judging Committee, overseen by ICAS Secretary Dr Paul van der Velde and myself, are currently compiling a ‘long list’ of 10 dissertations in each category. From this a ‘short list’ of three will be chosen, prior to the final selection of an Award Winner in each category. The winners will be announced at ICAS 10 in Chiang Mai. 

In addition to the main Awards, the judges will also grant Accolades in both disciplines for (1) Most Accessible and Captivating Work for the Non-specialist Reader; (2) Specialist Dissertation; and (3) Ground-breaking/Innovative Subject Matter. The Accolades draw attention to dissertations that, while not judged the best overall in their discipline, are non-the-less of considerable quality in important areas. Winners of these Accolades will also be announced in Chiang Mai.

The making of a winner

The question of what is an award-winning dissertation is of course a matter of interpretation by the judges. But clearly the best dissertations will have the primary merit of originality, along with scholastic qualities such as depth (and breadth) of research, evidence of intellectual quality, clear and sophisticated arguments, good organisation and presentation of evidence leading to significant conclusions liable to be of interest to the wider field, a consistent and properly considered theoretical and/or methodological framework, and of course it must include due acknow-ledgement of sources and proper presentation of bibliography, notes and associated scholastic apparatus. They will also have the minimum of typographical errors and the standard of writing and use of English language will be of a good standard. (Here we should note that just as the IBP Book Awards have been expanded to include languages beyond English, consideration is now being given to similar future expansion in the Dissertation Awards.)

Receiving a Dissertation Award or Accolade, and even to be included on the long and particularly the short lists, is an important career milestone for any young scholar. It gives a significant boost to their resume and perhaps most importantly, alerts academic publishers to the quality of their work. Many major academic publishers will be represented in Chiang Mai, and can be expected to give serious consideration to any publication proposal for which the submitter has received an IBP award/accolade.

The PhD pitch

ICAS 10 will also offer another opportunity for recent PhDs to promote their work. A ‘PhD pitch’ has been introduced at which they will have the opportunity to briefly describe the significance of their work to an audience of interested scholars, publishers and even potential employers - who may question the candidates on their findings. This is intended to be a relatively informal chance for presenters to meet others interested in their field of enquiry.

Thematic trends

An interesting aspect of the submissions for the IBP Dissertation Awards are the insights they provide into wider trends in Asian studies, in particular the direction in which the field is heading. Of course the sample is comparatively small and there is no doubt that certain fields must be under-represented. There is, for example, only one submission in the field of language studies and very little in the environmental field. But what of the virtual absence of both grand narratives and grand theories? Does this imply a mistrust of such constructions or suggest increasing specialisation? Certainly it does not imply a lack of wider perspective or indicate insularity, for at least 25% of the submissions concern cross-cultural issues in some sense.

Issues of identity, however, seem more implicit than explicit, while ‘the body’ as an investigative subject seems less prominent than formerly. Political or organisational histories also seem less popular and, except in regard to early literary figures, there are only a handful of studies that reference the pre-medieval period. Indeed there is a strong historical emphasis on the colonial period. Studies of material culture are prominent and if art history is under-represented there are a number of studies of historical photography, which is clearly an emerging field of interest. Theatre and performance in the widest sense attracts attention, as do educational issues and to a lesser extent music and tourism. There appears to be a tendency towards trans-national rather than national studies, with migration and cultural encounters in various contexts a common field of enquiry. In gender studies there is a clear tendency towards occupationally-based research. 

Regional focuses are indicated by the fact that while around 25 submissions may be classified as focussing on more than one country, another 25 are concerned with India and 21 with China. Indonesia, with 10 and Japan with 8 are the next most popular areas, while there is just one thesis in each case relating to Macau, Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Thailand.

Moving with the times

What is also notable is that the form of a doctoral dissertation has lost the traditional boundaries of extensive text and relevant illustration. Many submissions incorporate video and other technological innovations of the last decades, once tentatively but now confidently deployed by a generation that has grown up with new tools of expression. That tendency, like ICAS itself, is likely to only grow.


Alex McKay, Chair of the Dissertation Reading Committee, IBP 2017, ICAS 10 (dungog@hotmail.com).

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