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A research project lead by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer (responsible), Dr. Claudia Derichs, Karin Adelsberger, M.A., Patrick Raszelenberg, M.A. and Dr. Nora Sausmikat.


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The vantage point of the research project lead by by Prof. Dr. Thomas Heberer and Dr. Claudia Derichs was the question of the political dimension of the so-called “Asian crisis”. This “Asian crisis” is by now mostly overcome. Yet the fact remains that debates and discourses on processes of political reform and change in East and Southeast Asia are hardly realized and only marginally recognized in “the West”. This is all the more regrettable because this debate is highly diverse and bears a much stronger dynamic than commonly assumed in the Western discussion. In shaping the politics of change, ideas play an important role. However, this role of ideas in politics and policy-making has been somewhat neglected in the social sciences.

The following issues formed the cornerstones of our examination:

  • The diffusion and / or spill-over effects from the level of discourse into political practice (including networks and informal relationships between discourse actors and the state / the party);
  • Intellectuals as actors of modernization and the political elite as their counterpart: What is their mutual relationship? How do they interact (frequently, intellectuals and elite cooperate and agree on policy programs);
  • Are there “indigenous” elements that nurture the discourse? In this respect, we differentiated between four levels: (a) cultural, political and developmental claims of indigenousness; (b) delimitations from “Western” notions and their respective explanation; © synthetic arguments (combinations of Western and indigenous political patterns); (d) the question whether the claim of indigenousness (merely) serves the legtimation of certain national policies;
  • The internationalization of intellectual discourse leading to a convergence in the disposition vis-a-vis fundamental questions of humankind and issues of universal interest: Does the fact that intellectuals are part of a global discussion (and sometimes of international epistemic communities) influence their reflection and perception of the discourse “at home”?
  • Notions of comparability (and difference) of the sample states in the project: Where can we find similar – maybe seemingly similar – or different structures and patterns of argumentation?
  • Networking in discourses on democracy within the region – via NGOs, scholarly exchange, internet etc. This also touches an international dimension, because questions of globalization and global governance are connected to international discourses and the break-down of the former socialist systems and authoritarian regimes in the region (e.g. in Indonesia) has influenced the political discussion in East and Southeast Asia to a considerable extent.

These issues have been examined in case studies covering two authoritarian states (China, Vietnam), a multiethnic, formally democratic state with strong authoritarian features (Malaysia), and a democratic state with significantly parochial structures and patterns of behavior (Japan).

Theoretical Setting

Initially, the project was bound to analyse the role of discourses in the political process. The focus, however, shifted from discourse (as a promoter of political change) to ideas that generate and enhance this discourse. This was based on the understanding that the emergence of political change cannot be explored with an exclusive regard to mechanisms of societal interaction. Research on change has to include the ideas that generate certain features of political discourse. In the course of development where – in the case of China and Vietnam – processes of transition to a market-driven economy take place, the state cannot push its will through in a despotic manner. Rather than doing so, the state is urged to engage in a discourse with the knowledge community and the intellectuals in the society if it wants to strengthen its state capacity.

In a first step, we inspected various definitions of intellectuals and applied them to our research design. Five categories were identified to signify different, though frequently overlapping, discursive strategies: constructive, rectifying, transformatory and destructive. These strategies also apply to the way ideas are conveyed to the political public. However, it does not suffice to name and describe ideas. Rather than that, the reciprocal relationship of idea producers, idea carriers, and state actors has to be analysed. Furthermore, we have to look more closely at the behavior of the participants in a discourse as well as the impact of idea discourses (both being understood here as important segments of policy making). Ideas do not function on their own as promoters of political change and development. They always function within a given historical, economic, political and cultural framework – a framework which finds itself determined by particular interests and institutions.

Since no region-oriented theory relating to this research context was available at that point of time, we decided to work with a combination of different theoretical approaches such as “Western” theories of opportunity structures, network analyses, approaches based on social movement theory (e.g. resource mobilization theory), Boourdieu’s theory of social capital, Haas’ theory of epistemic communities, Mannheim’s theory of generations, or the historical and organizational institution theory. We chose the following parameters for the analysis of the diffusion of political ideas into political practice:

  • • political opportunity structures
  • openness or closeness of the political system
  • openness or closeness of the political system
  • immaterial resources (personal and intellectual resources, social capital, networking)
  • timing (issue- and time-related)
  • state learning (processes of adaption).

The research description in German language can be accessed here.