International Institute for Asian Studies
Developing sustained collaborations
Submitted by Philippe Peycam on 3 March 2017 - 4:00pm

I was recently asked to reflect on IIAS’s collaborative and partnership philosophy. I take the opportunity of this tribune to elaborate on the subject, especially as my attention and that of many of my colleagues is currently focused on two ongoing major initiatives: our new humanistic pedagogical programme ‘Humanities Across Borders, Asia and Africa in the World’, and the tenth edition of ICAS in Chiang Mai next July.

I see academic collaborations and partnerships as primarily a civic effort that should be built around intellectual dialogues and interactions, involving different segments of knowledge in society in a closely connected world. Ideally, they should be framed around inclusive institutions and programmes that ought to act as bridges or facilitators with the capacity to focus on open methodological and intellectual perspectives, beyond the mere promotion of narrowly defined disciplinary projects or of individual or institutional trajectories. The adventure and success of IIAS as a local-global connector has comforted me in the idea that there is a need for a kind of civic-minded institution that is not only capable of countering a trend towards fragmentation and marginalization currently affecting humanistic scholarship (under the prevailing neo-liberal model). The need is also to critically address contemporary-related issues to be framed in their historical and geographical ecologies, through interdisciplinary, local-global collaborative engagements. Such institutions should ideally draw from trans-regional networks of scholars and organizations from both the South and the North. An inclusive intercultural platform is a good alternative to an academic tradition built on the definition of segmented knowledge ‘areas’, with the risk of confinement of ‘studies’ in narrow epistemological boundaries.

IIAS stands as an academic ‘public service’ born during a still recent era in Europe when notions of public good and solidarity stood above those of outright competition between institutions and people(s). It aims to serve as a bridge between different intellectual and cultural traditions and between what are deemed ‘high knowledges’ and more ‘popular’ or ‘vernacular’ ones. Closely connected to a historic academic institution, the University of Leiden, yet operating autonomously from it, IIAS concomitantly supports research, teaching and social policy engagements in ways that transcend disciplinary, institutionally or geographically segmented ‘area studies’.

IIAS operates a number of initiatives under each of its inter-disciplinary thematic clusters (‘Heritage and Culture’, ‘Urbanization’, ‘Asia in the World’): a double-degree program in critical heritage, the multi-sector platform Urban Knowledge Network Asia (UKNA), the facilitation of inclusive Africa-Asia and Latin-America ‘axes of knowledge’, and the new Mellonsupported trans-regional pedagogical initiative, ‘Humanities Across Borders’. Each of these initiatives seeks to experiment with new dialogical forms with outcomes not restricted to the quantifiable delivery of publications or taught courses, but rather, to the incubation of organically framed academic ‘deliverables’ likely to take shape in consonance with local contexts and needs.

To do so, the Institute supports a range of signature methodological ‘services’, each aimed at a broadly defined Asia Studies community: the widely (and freely) disseminated resource periodical ‘The Newsletter’ (50,000 readers); the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) with its multi-format activities, its five-language book prizes and its global governance; the Institute’s Summer/Winter in situ masterclasses – a model also applied to IIAS’s local-policy applied events. The synergies built between IIAS’s multiple activities contribute to its programmatic coherence. They explain the rather considerable global role IIAS commands in relation to its actual size (16 staff members only).

Beyond the organizational setting, building lasting partnerships and collaborations requires a sense of an overarching purpose. In its operations, the Institute is often asked to facilitate interactions between academic and intellectual communities, particularly in societies where formal higher education is neither as established nor institutionalized as in ‘northern’ regions, but where unexploited forms of creative intellectual, artistic and pedagogical agencies often thrive outside universities. IIAS’s role as a civic academic facilitator allows it to support a collective strategy, for instance for the development of a local museum (Eastern Nusa Tengara, 2012; Delhi, 2016), or for the revitalization of an urban area (Taipei, 2012; Yangon, Macau, 2014), or a cultural and social tradition (Pingyao, 2015).

Our institute operates in and beyond traditional academic circles, involving different actors as co-producers of knowledge: artists, urban planners, architects, craftsmen /women and other practitioners of ‘embodied knowledge’. It also seeks a sustained dialogue with hard scientists, policy makers, public intellectuals, civic actors and other ‘social educators’. The extended humanistic pedagogy supported by the ‘Humanities Across Borders’ new programme or the civil society-sensitive ICAS events, in Africa, Latin America and soon at the upcoming ICAS 10 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, are expressions of the Institute’s versatility as a truly global platform for Connected Knowledge.