A postmodern mandala? Moving beyond methodological nationalism
The colonial translation of the “nation-state logic” to Southeast Asia is commonly understood to have superseded what O.W. Wolters called the pre-colonial mandala model, in which power was exerted by a sort of central “sun king” whose gravitational pull weakened with distance and was overlapped by other spheres of power in a complex system of tributary relationships. The historian David Biggs has argued that, in accepting the undeniable importance of national sovereignty in contemporary political analyses of Southeast Asia, there has been too definitive a break with pre-existing understandings of power relations, which may prove useful to explaining the particularities of politics today. In political science, the translation of nationalism and sovereignty to Southeast Asia is reflected in an entrenched “methodological nationalism,” whereby the nation-state is frequently taken for granted as the central unit of analysis. Paying attention to the “margins” of society still implicitly assumes a national centre, for example. Historians of Vietnam, including Keith Taylor and Li Tana, have made significant advances in loosening the “stranglehold” of nationalist historiography. Anthropologists and geographers of cosmopolitanism and migration have also long questioned the analytical usefulness of bordered nation-states. Building on these insights, the article calls for a paradigm shift in political enquiry and playfully proposes the “post-modern mandala” as an alternative to methodological nationalism applied to Southeast Asia.
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