Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 4, September 2000

Aat Vervoorn

Re Orient Change in Asian Societies

Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998.
xxiv, 328 pp. paperback.
ISBN: 0 19 554014

reviewed by Stephen Dobbs

Aat Vervoorn's Re orient Change in Asian Societies considers a number of important issues and reactions associated with globalisation in contemporary Asia. In what seems a rather daunting task, the author's stated aims are to describe and assess the 'major issues' (p. ix) facing Asian societies at the end of the twentieth century and to use Asian societies as an 'exercise in thinking about societies in general' (p. ix). The author intends the book to be a practical and interdisciplinary study with informed discussion of the issues, borrowing whatever is useful from a range of academic fields to direct the debate. Of course any work that attempts such breadth of scope is invariably, and rightly, open to criticism on the grounds that it cannot possibly deal adequately with the vast Asian region-to say nothing of 'societies in general.' The author acknowledges this and makes no claim beyond the title to be able to deal with every country in Asia. Rather he focuses on those countries that highlight in a 'vivid and informative' (p. xii) manner the study's themes. Certainly this rather relaxed approach to geo-political and academic boundaries seems suited to the author's thematic and issues based approach. Vervoorn argues that the challenges and change brought about by globalisation can only be understood when examined in a range of political and social contexts.

The early chapters set the framework for the study and provide some historical background for what is to follow. Chapter one discusses what the author sees as shaping and opposing trends in contemporary Asian societies-globalisation and insulation. The discussion in chapter two is of concepts relating to how societies function with the emphasis on Asia. Here the author examines a range of issues including culture, ethnicity, religion, social organization, law and morality urging the reader to see beyond any sense of 'solidity and stability' (p. 20) these terms conjure up. Instead he suggests they be seen as complex processes that interact to produce the reality we experience. Chapters three through eleven focus on the 'issues' thrown up by globalisation that are central to this study. It is here that the scope of what Vervoorn has undertaken becomes clear. These nine chapters deal with everything from human rights, minorities, family, work as well as economic change, urbanisation, mass media and the production of scientific knowledge and technology.

All these issues are ones in which debate about change in contemporary society is most closely linked to the whole question of globalisation both in Asia and the rest of the world. Vervoorn's examination of economic, social and political change as a result of global influences is well integrated and each of the major topics covered seems to link effectively with the study as a whole and the sub themes that run through it. The book's thematic approach to the region is reinforced in the chapter structure. Analysis of the region's rapid economic growth and ensuing social change is appropriately followed by discussion of demographic transformation in the region. The study then moves to examine the impact of economic development, population growth and urbanisation on the environment in Asia. Individuals are not lost in this study or entirely pushed aside to make room for discussion of the 'big issues.' Chapters eight and nine take a more personal look at change in the region, focussing on families and how they have and are adapting to the changing circumstances of the times. The closely related question of work patterns and changes in the way people earn a living is also dealt with.

The diversity and variety of the Asian region coupled with the notion that change is ongoing and inevitable is central to this study. The author rightly highlights the complexity of many of the central issues of the study and the need to place in historical and cultural context any discussion of them.

The impact of change with respect to gender is not neglected by Vervoorn although it is by no means a focus or major theme. Throughout the book the changing status and role of women in Asian societies is touched on in the context of discussing key areas of change such as economic development, education and the family. Much of the material here and the author's conclusions are not really all that new. Primarily, women are seen to have reaped a mixed bag of outcomes from the forces of globalisation. In some instances, their position with respect to rights and treatment has improved and in others the impact of change has been to worsen their situation vis a vis society.

This study will be of value to anyone with an interest in contemporary Asian societies and society more generally. One imagines it will find a place on the reading lists of many academic courses on the region as well as those concerned with societal change and globalisation. Its interdisciplinary approach and the absence of a 'grand theory' make it a refreshing and stimulating study. The author's challenge to the reader to reorient her/himself intellectually and to see 'change as the only reality' (p. 277) is a valid one in the context of an increasingly linked yet complex world.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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