SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Culture and Society of South East Asia

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
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.

Topics covered include:

  • practices of power and polity
  • ethnic identity crossings and transformations
  • violence, criminality, and the state
  • food sharing and kinship
  • local manifestations of global religions

The module is one of several regional ethnography modules offered by the Department of Anthropology (currently Culture and Society of: 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. Masters students in the Department of Anthropology are encouraged to study more than one regional ethnography module (albeit not normally two modules taught in the same term), to explore synergies across regions and gain a broader comparative understanding of the discipline.


  • Students enrol via the online Module Sign-Up system.
  • MA Area Studies students wishing to take this module as their ‘major’ will normally hold a degree or substantial part-degree in social anthropology or a closely related discipline. Area Studies students wishing to take this module as their ‘major’ must contact the module convenor for approval.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the course, students will:

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

This will form a base which will enable MA Anthropology students to write their dissertations (10,000 words) on a topic relating to South East Asia should they so wish. Skills in reading and contextualizing works on South East Asia are readily transferable to other regional studies.

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