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Background on the Regional Unit for Social and Human Sciences in Asia-Pacific (RUSHSAP)

Over the past century, societies in the Asia-Pacific region have gone through unprecedented social, economic and political transformations. Following on from the dramatic changes to indigenous communities and political nations induced by colonization of Asia and the Pacific by European, and other powers, in the wake of World War II, the struggle for decolonisation resulted in many changes. These include the partition of India and the traumatic creation of the new states of Pakistan and then Bangladesh. The struggle for independence also contributed to the Indo-China war, which has had a devastating impact on the development of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It left disputes over national boundaries, such as in the case of East Timor, which became an independent nation in 2000. Kashmir is another example of how the issue of national boundaries in post-colonial Asia continues to create conflict today.

The break up of the former Soviet Union in 1990, and the re-alignment of the new republics of Central Asia, led to the expansion and further diversification of the Asia-Pacific region. The rapid growth of prosperity in Japan and subsequently in the “Tiger” economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and then Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, brought great social change. This was most notable in the growth of the middle class, a reduction in poverty levels, and a rapid increase in labour migration within the region. However the eruption of the so-called “Asian Crisis” in 1997 caused a massive decline in general social well-being and human security in Asia. All these changes have presented social and human scientists with a whole new set of issues to address.


In the Asia-Pacific region, post-colonial social science tended to focus upon the study and promotion of local and national history, culture and language, along with analysis of the social, cultural and economic effects of past oppression. But in the 1990s there is a trend towards more interdisciplinary approaches to issues of common interest and concern. There has been a movement in social science towards the examination of how contemporary regional, international and globalization processes affect individual nation states. Still however, most social science research is dominated by methodologies and paradigms of the West, with little reinforcement for those who attempt to represent indigenous belief systems and understandings of wisdom and knowledge.

The end of the Cold War created something of a crisis in social science. Scholarly criticism of new economic dogmas concerning globalization of free market forces tended to be dismissed as redundant Marxism, although as well-known social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein argues (1987), rational reform on the basis of liberal assumptions of continued economic growth is no longer sustainable. The end of the cold war also ended two centuries dominated by liberalism, which legitimated the nation-state, defined the parameters of both reform and revolution, and determined the relationships between developed and developing countries. Wallerstein contends the death of the liberal consensus means "the next twenty-five to fifty years will be a time of systemic disorder, disintegration, and acute political struggle about what kinds of new world-system(s) we shall construct."

 Predictions, like Wallerstein’s, of massive and potentially violent global change may have been dismissed by some during the boom years in many parts of Asia. But today they have a prophetic tone. Periods of near-zero or negative GDP growth in many Asian nations has been accompanied by a sudden reversal of the shared benefits of economic growth. In many countries unemployment rates doubled, labour market conditions deteriorated sharply and average incomes dropped. Following that economic growth has increased again, but people question the social progress, and concepts of what is happiness for society. What is a good life? Now more than ever, social science has a vital role to play in building a new and more equitable global future for all communities.