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Places and pedagogies: rethinking Area Studies through 'Postcolonial Displacements'

The project ‘Postcolonial Displacements’ has been running at Leiden University since 2015, funded by the (Leiden) Asian Modernities and Traditions fund (AMT), with an aim to re-imagine research and pedagogies around ‘other places’ – framed as ‘Area Studies’ in the university. Using the thematic of ‘displacement’, the project seeks to explore new entries into institutional and pedagogical negotiations at the university around subjects and scopes, interdisciplinarity, and theoretical orientations.

We, the project coordinators, Erik de Maaker (Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology), Sanjukta Sunderason (Leiden Institute for Area Studies, LIAS) and project research fellow, Sanderien Verstappen (LIAS/IIAS), have been working with approaches that are drawn from regionally rooted theories and knowledges – not to withdraw into provincialism, but instead to nurture wider transnational conversations. We have been addressing urgent themes that emerge from the various research sites in which we work, to then think from the specificities of these positions about conceptual, disciplinary, and methodological questions.

The conference Modalities of Displacement in South Asia, held in Leiden in June 2018 and the course Displacement and Development: Anthropological Perspectives on South Asia, running since Autumn 2017, are pilot projects for developing this thematic approach. The critical thematic of ‘Displacement’ makes us rethink the fixities and tenuousness of ‘place’ itself as a frame, raising questions about notions of place and loss, practice and labour, temporality and spectrality. The displacement of large numbers of people is a central feature of the rapid economic expansion that characterizes contemporary South Asia. Rooted in violent processes of state formation, including partition, militarization, and the repression of regional secessionist movements, South Asia’s modern polities are actively consolidating and incorporating erstwhile economically and politically marginal spaces. These processes of consolidation have been accompanied by religious nationalisms and ethnic identity politics that legitimize the ideological or even physical segregation of ‘others’, conjoining land struggles and development projects with socio-cultural contestations around home and belonging. To interrogate these complexities, the project stimulates conversations across disciplines and institutes to initiate new understandings about ‘displacement’ in its multiple vectors, modalities and possibilities. 

The conference was supported by the Asian Modernities and Traditions fund (AMT), the Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS), the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology (CA-DS), and the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) at Leiden University, the Netherlands.


Erik de Maaker, Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University.
Sanjukta Sunderason, Leiden Institute for Area Studies (LIAS).
Sanderien Verstappen, postdoctoral researcher in the Anthropology of Modern South Asia at Leiden University (LIAS), and fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), s.b.verstappen@hum.leidenuniv.nl

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