The ANU Southeast Asia Institute Research Seminar Series is a recurring seminar series that showcases the work of scholars within the ANU working on political, social and cultural issues in Southeast Asia, with the goal of encouraging greater exchange, collaboration and networking amongst the research community.

Can area studies compare?

That is the question. Or put another way, did area studies ever have comparative promise? And if they did, do they still have it, or can they recover it? My answer is that they did, they might, and if they don’t, then they can.

In this talk I explain why I think so, by revisiting the work of Benedict Anderson; and specifically, his essay on the logic of seriality in The Spectre of Comparisons (1998). There, he opposes two types of seriality, one unbound, the other bound. I locate in this opposition the rudiments of a method for comparative inquiry. I refer to this method, after Anderson, as unbound comparison. The logic of unbound comparison rests in its locus: the somewhere that is its area. I contrast this logic with that of bound comparison. The latter I associate with some modes of disciplinary inquiry that insist it is possible and necessary to begin inquiry nowhere; something that is not only practically impossible but also from an area studies standpoint, illogical.

In closing, I address the question of what unbound comparison does that bound comparison does not, and what area studies have the wherewithal to do better, in my view, than other modes of inquiry.


Nick Cheesman is Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University. This talk is based on a paper written while visiting the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, which was published as ‘Unbound Comparison’ in Erica Simmons and Nick Rush Smith, eds, Rethinking Comparison (Cambridge University Press).

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Event Speakers

Nick Cheesman

Associate Professor Nick Cheesman

Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Social Change, Australian National University