Fieldwork in Timor-Leste: review

FIELDWORK IN TIMOR-LESTE: Understanding Social Change through Practice | Edited by Maj Nygaard-Christensen and Angie Bexley

NIAS Studies in Asian Topics, no. 59. Copenhagen: NIAS Press; Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press [distributor], 2017. xv, 261 pp. (Graphs, maps, B&W photos.) US$27.00, paper. ISBN 978-87-7694-209-0.

Under Portuguese rule, Timor-Leste (East Timor) hosted numerous anthropological researchers. Indonesian forces then invaded in 1975, halting the decolonization process until 1999. This brutal time also created an “ethnographic gap” when outside researchers had little access. Since the restoration of independence, anthropologists and others have returned, birthing a new field of Timor-Leste studies. The field has advanced far enough that a book can be published about fieldwork in Timor-Leste. Edited by two recent PhD graduates with impressive records, the book is a much-needed reflection and important contribution to the study of Asia’s newest country.

The editors’ introduction notes the essentialist nature of efforts to define Timor-Leste, highlighting “how the nation has been socially produced, contrasted, and understood” by both insiders and outsiders (2). Approaches to studying Timor-Leste have moved from viewing it within the Australasian culture area, through studies of resistance and occupation emphasizing Timorese-Indonesian difference, to more recent depictions of a post-conflict state seen as a near-blank slate for international action. Timorese nationalist assertion has, perhaps in reaction, revived tradition and harnessed history in the pursuit of nation building. Each of the contributors—from anthropology, geography, history, and public policy—presents a well-conceived case study and reflection on their own fieldwork. Together, their chapters should prove influential, informing future researchers about their own methods and ethics.

Read the rest of the review at Pacific Affairs