SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Ethnography of South East Asia

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2020/2021
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 1

The course examines both the societies and cultures of Southeast Asia and the anthropology of Southeast Asia from two perspectives. Firstly, it looks at some of the reasons for treating Southeast Asia as a single ethnographic region. However, rather than simply trying to look for unities and commonalities among the region’s diverse and complex societies and cultures, it considers primarily concepts and analytical perspectives that have generated important debates in the ethnography of the region, and in anthropology in general, in relation to specific issues and processes. Such a focus is primarily provided by a consideration of key ethnographies dealing with a particular country and topic, which also have a wider comparative significance. 

The module is one of several regional ethnography modules offered by the Department of Anthropology (currently China, Japan, South Asia, South East Asia, Near & Middle East, West Africa, and East Africa). Each of these focuses on major cultural and social aspects, but varies in detail according to the characteristics of and scholarship on the region. These 0.5 unit regional ethnography modules are designed (in the second year) to be combined - according to student interest and module availability - with a second regional ethnography module taught in a different term to form a compulsory full unit of ethnography modules (e.g., Japan and China; South Asia and Southeast Asia; South Asia and East Africa), or (in the third year) to be taken as a free-standing option.

The grasp of theory, method and problem achieved in this module builds on the foundational skills in anthropology attained in the first year, and will enable students' progression, in their following year of study, to an Advanced Ethnographic Study with a focus on South East Asia or connections between South East Asia and other regions, and/or to an Independent Study Project.

Typical course outline:

  • Week 1. Southeast Asia and Regionalisation 1: Historical and Synchronic Approaches
  • Week 2. Power and Polity in Pre-Colonial Southeast Asia
  • Week 3. Identity Crossings and Transformations 1: Highlands and Lowlands
  • Week 4. Identity Crossings and Transformations 2: Migration and Conversion
  • Week 5. Violent Encounters 1: Headhunting and Sorcery
  • Week 6. (Reading week)
  • Week 7. Violent Encounters 2: Criminality and the State
  • Week 8. The House: Kinship, Siblingship, and the Person
  • Week 9. Local Ethnography of a Global Religion 1
  • Week 10. Local Ethnography of a Global Religion 2
  • Week 11. Southeast Asia and Regionalisation 2: The Textual Approach


  • Students enrol via the on-line Module Sign-Up system.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to: 

  • critically evaluate a range of theories and ethnographic source material relating to the societies and cultures of South East Asia
  • locate and use secondary sources relevant to selected topics
  • have a grasp of the key debates in the anthropology of South East Asia     

Developing regional expertise is a key component of the study of anthropology, and central to programmes across the school. The learning outcomes are designed to ensure that students develop a solid grounding in the anthropology of East Africa, refine their ability to critically engage diverse literatures and communicate their knowledge in a variety of ways. These processes of comprehension, analysis and communication are central to all anthropology programmes, as well as to the broader humanities and social sciences at SOAS.

Method of assessment

One piece of coursework (40%), written exam (50%), and tutorial participation (10%).

Suggested reading

  • Reid, A. 1988. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680. Vol 1. The Lands Below the Winds New Haven: Yale University Press.

  • Geertz, C. 1980. Negara. The Theatre-State in Nineteenth Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.#

  • Leach, E. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma. A Study of Kachin Social Structure. London: Athlone Press

  • Retsikas, K. 2012. Becoming – An Anthropological Approach to Understandings of the Person in Java. London: Anthem Press.

  • Rosaldo, M.Z. 1980. Knowledge and Passion: Ilongot Notions of Self and Social Life. New York: Cambridge University Press

  • Siegel, J. T. 1998. A New Criminal Type in Jakarta. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

  • Carsten, J. 1997. The Heat of the Hearth. The Process of Kinship in a Malay Fishing Community. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Tambiah, S. J. 1970. Buddhism and Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

  • Scott, J. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland South East Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules