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Modern Asian Studies publishes cutting-edge research articles on the history, social anthropology, sociology, political science, and cultures of modern Asia. Covering all the regions of Asia, including Maritime Asia, and their interconnections, the journal particularly welcomes articles which deploy interdisciplinary and comparative research methods. Since its inception in 1967, Modern Asian Studies has specialized in the publication of longer monographic essays whose theoretical claims are supported by rich empirical data. It also carries substantial synoptic review essays which summarize and critique the current state of a field of study, and it publishes special issues, forums, and roundtable discussions which explore topical themes in depth and from a number of perspectives.
The launching of this journal of Modern Asian Studies, on the initiative of the Hayter Asian Centres in co-operation with the School of Oriental and African Studies, provides a good opportunity to review the progress being made in these studies in the universities of the United Kingdom. We have nearly reached the half-way stage of a ten-year programme of development which was put forward in the Hayter Committee Report of 1961, and are approaching the new quinquennium in which what has already been started should be consolidated and the new pattern for the future established.
The term modernity refers to a socio-historical transformative process which has its roots in the Western European experience from at least the 16th Century, marking a contrast to the medieval period. Implicit in this definition of modernity is the notion of historical progress that is based on a unilinear unfolding of time and experience whereby the Western mode of time and being is the norm against which all other experiences are judged. In recent years, this classical understanding of modernity has come under increasing critique with multiple formulations of the modern in the world that do not conform to the Western experience. The multiple formulations of modernity suggest that modernity is not necessarily only a Western phenomenon but that there are a variety of forms and meanings of the modern.
In parallel to these developments, the conceptualization of modernity has undergone radical changes. More recently, the idea that a rethinking of modernity can be positioned within or outside the West has increasingly given way to a conceptualization of modernity within the simultaneous processes of the global and the local and/or the East and the West. Traditional distinctions between the West and the non-West and the unfolding logic of modernity have been complicated. This paper explores displacements opened up by recent rethinking about both Western and non-Western experiences of the modern that provide ways out of the East-West binary and its associated unequal relations in the conceptualization of modernity.
I will take up two sets of debates on modernity to make my point. First, I identify recent studies that have reconceptualized modernity from the margins—both within as well as outside the West—in order to unsettle the centre-periphery hierarchy and locate equal force to knowledge and practices of non-Western contexts in constituting the modern condition. Second, I discuss how the recent reconceptualization of modernity poses a challenge to understanding the modern imaginaries and transformations in Southeast Asian societies in autonomous terms rather than resorting to invidious or derivative distinctions from that of the West.