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The LSE Taiwan in Comparative Perspective
Global Processes, Local Contexts

London School of Economics (LSE) is a social science school and does not encourage Area Studies. The question of how to run a Taiwan Research Programme (TRP) which can be adjusted to the LSE tradition of scholarship has always been a challenge. However, social scientific approaches to culture and society have always privileged context, and studies of Taiwan need to be understood contextually – although this raises the issue of if and when ‘context’ is to be treated as ‘natural’ or as ‘given’.

Area Studies approaches between the 1950s and 1980s took as a starting assumption that the Chinese context was natural for Taiwan. For example, Ahern and Gates in The Anthropology of Taiwanese Society (1981) claimed:

Taiwan is the only province of China that has not undergone the sweeping changes of a socialist revolution: Chinese life has greater continuity with the past there… Anthropologists have therefore gone to Taiwan to study what they could no longer study in other provinces. It was Taiwan’s representativeness, not its special qualities, that first attracted their interest (Ahern and Gates 1981: 8).

Taiwan was studied as an exemplary instance of Chinese culture and society, and thus as a window through which a pan-Chineseness could be brought into view. The idea that Taiwan might exceed its conventional description as ‘Chinese’ played a significant part in the growth of the TRP at LSE.

LSE TRP committee members contributed chapters to an edited volume entitled Re-Writing Culture in Taiwan(2009). In its ‘Introduction’, Tremlett (2009: 7) pointed out that the problem was not that anthropologists had not acknowledged the importance of contextualising their fieldwork data, but rather that they did not develop a theory of context. China, as a whole society, was uncritically assumed to be a ‘natural’ or ‘given’ context for the study of Taiwan. Indeed, without a developed theory of context, contextualisation appears to depend not so much on facts and evidence, but rather on the politically charged choices of the scholar and her or his historical location, and the tradition of scholarship to which she or he belongs. The context for Taiwan Studies is never natural, but is always rather a ‘construction’, and this facilitates points of departure for critical thought and the opening of new perspectives and understandings.

The London Taiwan Seminar was founded in 2000 by Stephan Feuchtwang and myself, and it has since 2003 been affiliated with the LSE and renamed as ‘Taiwan Research Programme’. Since the LSE’s founding in 1895, its core approach has been to understand globalisation in the settings of social science questions from the perspectives of various localities. As such, our studies of Taiwan at the LSE are not to be constrained to Taiwan’s geographic or political borders, but instead to be defined more by the frontiers of its role in global economy, global governance and regulations, and global civil society. We are seeking to provide new and innovative ways in Taiwan Studies and flows of people, issues, ideas and data which connect Taiwan with the rest of the global world.

The LSE TRP has since its establishment aimed to place on a broader global agenda those policy and research questions of enduring interest in the social sciences in a setting specific to Taiwan. As such, Taiwan Studies at the LSE champions an interest on a particular area of Taiwan for its intrinsic value, to explore the changes that are leading to Taiwan’s greater incorporation into global affairs, and the impact and influence that Taiwan is having onto the world.

In 2005, Stephan Feuchtwang and I further developed themes of Taiwan in comparative perspective. We reflected on how old comparative research based on typologies of particular ‘units’ had been shown to be unfruitful, and we therefore tried to release a plurality of perspectives, unbounded by any kind of ‘legitimising’ claim (e.g. that China and Taiwan are the same society and share a common culture) and also going beyond any standard and out-dated Area Studies paradigm straight-jacketed within set geographical boundaries.

Since 2006 we have therefore been running a Taiwan in Comparative Perspective (TICP) project. It contextualises processes of modernisation and globalisation through interdisciplinary, cross-societal and/or inter-cultural studies of significant social science questions that use Taiwan as a point of comparison. Actually, the TICP well engages with the LSE core approach on globalisation: globalising processes provide a framework for exploring a double contextualisation both in terms of local context to a specific place and the global context, and thus for studying comparatively and building dialogues.

The Taiwan in Comparative Perspective project has brought together individuals and expertise on Taiwan and its connected fields across the world to undertake cutting-edge research, to deliver seminars, and to participate in workshops and conferences at the LSE. It has offered a better understanding of the globalising processes in the local context of Taiwan from different disciplines as well as from various cultural and societal points of view, taking a hard look at a common theme or issue with a view from afar. It has thereby further fostered an intercultural and/or cross-societal dialogue and an exploration of globalisation with, as point of departure, local Taiwanese points of view on global themes or issues of enduring interest in the social sciences.

In addition, Taiwan in Comparative Perspective performs a movement from part to whole: analysis of or through Taiwan can serve as a suggestive catalyst for the consideration of issues of (more) global significance, often issues of particular concern and enduring interest in an increasingly inter-connected world. The LSE TICP seeks to use the study of Taiwan as a fulcrum for discussing theoretical and methodological questions, pertinent not only to study in/of Taiwan, but also to generate more general understandings or theories with potentially universal scope and applicability. One example of this type of research is my own research on the civic protests against the fourth Nuclear-power Station at Gong-liao in Taiwan, which links a local temple dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea, Mazu, to both Taiwanese party politics (i.e., the Chinese Nationalist Party versus the Democratic Progressive Party) and to global anti-nuclear power issues (Shih 2012).

In 2011, the LSE TICP and University College Dublin co-organised the first ever conference on Taiwan and Ireland in Comparative Perspective, entitled: ‘Small Islands, Big Issues’. Comparing Taiwan and Ireland may seem counter-intuitive, but the case for comparison rests not on any similarity or familiarities between Ireland and Taiwan but rather on the different ways in which comparable processes have unfolded in these different historical, political, economic and cultural contexts. A focus on human situations in both islands invites the application of discursive categories such as the dichotomies between the coloniser self and the colonised other; colonialism and decolonisation; empire and nationalism.

In the case of Ireland, it has been said that ‘If Ireland had never existed, the English would have invented it’ (Kiberd1995: 9). This is also the case in Taiwan; if Taiwan had never existed, the Chinese would have invented it. British colonial rule in Ireland created self-consciousness in the population of being ‘Other’ and of being subordinate. British rule prompted resentment and resistance, leading to Irish Independence in 1922. However, the situation has continued to be complicated; Ireland experienced partition, with the north of the island remaining a part of Britain. Having learned the lesson from Ireland, is it possible that one day the south of Taiwan might declare itself an independent country while the north becomes a part of China?

To recap, this comparative perspective enables us through different contexts to see Taiwan in global processes – by drawing forth new, unique and possibly odd implications that bear on what is being compared, and by directing our attention to other contexts which on their surface might appear to have no connection. This bi-focal comparative approach has its challenges, but at the same time it demands methodological and theoretical innovation as we seek to develop our knowledge not only of Taiwan by itself or as part of some essentialised cultural or societal area, but as an important site for the study of global processes of connection, disconnection, and reconnection, and the complexity of these transmissions. In short, the LSE Taiwan Research Programme has developed and dedicated its institutional profile to theorising Taiwan in comparative perspective.

Ahern, E. and Gates, H. (eds)(1981) The Anthropology of Taiwanese Society, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Kiberd, D. (1995) Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation, London: Jonathan Cape.
Shih, F.L. (2012) ‘Generating Power in Taiwan: Nuclear, Political, and Religious Power’, Culture and Religion, 13 (3): 253–313.
Tremlett, P.F. (2009) ‘Introduction: Re-writing Culture on Taiwan’, in F.-L. Shih, S. Thompson and P.F. Tremlett (eds) Re-writing Culture in Taiwan, London and New York: Routledge.

Dr Fang-long Shih is the founder of the LSE Research Programme on Taiwan in Comparative Perspective and also the editor of Journal Taiwan in Comparative Perspective.