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Review: Social Science and Power in Indonesia

Review: Social Science and Power in Indonesia
Published: May 08, 2010

Ben Davis

Social Science and Power in Indonesia is a detailed account of the current state of the social sciences both within and outside academic circles. This pioneering work, which has a particular focus on the New Order period, incorporates the insights and critical reflections of 11 Indonesian social scientists.

In the preface, Hans Antlöv highlights the need to sever the close ties between Indonesian social sciences and government policy. The book does just that. It steps away from the traditional social science priorities of nation building, development and policy agenda setting to offer a realistic and contextualised assessment of the relationship between everyday power struggles and the development of the social sciences.

Each of the contributors takes a different approach to this exercise. Some, including Alexander Irwan, Ariel Heryanto, Asvi Warman Adam, and Hilmar Farid, offer alternative voices on the development of ideology in the social sciences. Others, including PM Laksono, Aris Ananta, Meuthia Ganie-Rochman, Rochman Achwan and Heru Nugroho, examine the practical elements and actors involved in the field.

Importantly, the book’s focus is not limited to an assessment of academics’ contributions to the social sciences. The chapter by Meuthia Ganie-Rochman and Rochman Achmad examines the role of NGOs as outside intellectuals in the New Order, concluding that they have been vital to the development of critical social science knowledge in a context where the contribution of academics to that project is quite limited. An analysis of the reasons for the limited contribution of academics is offered by Heru Nugroho, who writes of the challenges facing higher education institutions in Indonesia, where a lack of funding and the absence of a scholarly culture drive academics away from critical research towards consultancy and media reporting.

The strength of this book is its realistic assessment of the challenges facing the social sciences in Indonesia. But while the chapters do much to further our understanding of specific problems in the social sciences, they could be more introspective about the ways different actors involved in the production of social science knowledge can be influenced by their context and by other actors who seek to produce social knowledge. Chapters tend to focus on a particular group of actors rather than examining the challenges they face in a more holistic way that takes account of links between actors. Perhaps even more importantly, the contributors themselves are not immune to the influence of their context. Although contributors highlight the challenges created by the dominant state ideology of the New Order period, and the broader ‘neoliberal agenda’, they tend to maintain an oppositional approach in which attempts to create social science knowledge are juxtaposed against the actions of a powerful and overbearing state.

However, this does not detract greatly from the book’s value. This addition to the social science literature on Indonesia provides a much-needed assessment of the current state of the field in Indonesia. Moreover, as it was first written in Indonesian and then translated to English, the book is accessible to a wide audience, including students of Indonesian studies, Indonesian social science academics and other social actors who are themselves involved in the struggle to develop critical social science knowledges both within and outside Indonesia.     

Vedi R. Hadiz and Daniel Dhakidae (eds) Social Science and Power in Indonesia Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), 2005.

Ben Davis (Beno_di_indo@yahoo.co.id) completed an Honours thesis on Indonesian NGO activism at the University of Sydney in 2007.


Inside Indonesia 100: Apr-Jun 2010

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