The importance of situating work within deeper historical contexts

This month we published Statehood, Scale and Hierarchy: History, Language and Identity in Indonesia by Lauren Zentz. In this post Lauren reveals the surprising inspiration behind the book.

A month or so ago, after I’d completed this book and actually had time to let my thoughts wander again, I flashed back to the first time that I appreciated history. I was on my first study abroad trip as a college student in 2001 in Avignon, France, sitting in a 13th century building that had become our class building. In the upstairs library I picked up a historical linguistic book on the history of European languages dating all the way back to Roman times. Throughout high school I had developed a great disdain for learning history, as the histories taught in US high schools are not only entirely suspect but they are also incredibly boring, and usually ‘taught’ by a rotating stream of sports coaches (at least in my high school). But this dusty book that I found in this 13th century building in France transported me to a Rome that actually had people (not just Caesars), who walked, and talked, and yelled at politicians, and had relationships and were humans, just like us some millennia later.

I’d never related this experience to the current project at hand – a book about contemporary language in Indonesia – until I sat down that day and reflected on the obsession I’d had with historicizing the Indonesian context as I wrote this book. This need to historicize most certainly had links with current researchers’ calls for the addition of more history to our work; but I’d like to also think that I was driven to do so by that one experience I had so long ago, when I learned that history was where we could see living people exercising agency – and having it exercised over them – in their contexts over long periods of time.

Statehood, Scale and Hierarchy: History, Language and Identity in Indonesia is clearly a book for graduate students and professionals in the fields of Sociolinguistics, Linguistic Anthropology, Applied Linguistics, and Indonesian studies in general. I hope that readers will take away from this book the importance of situating our work within deeper historical contexts. Part of this importance for me comes from the desire to explain that Indonesia’s current historical context is not the way it is simply because of the development of the nation-state in reaction to European colonialism. Many of Indonesia’s current sociolinguistic facts are due to human currents and power dynamics that have been going on for far longer and in far more complex ways than only colonial and post-colonial states can answer for. I have attempted to situate contemporary Java and my college student participants in such a deep history, as individuals conditioned not only by their contemporary subjectivities in Indonesian statehood under globalization, but also as historically situated subjects whose linguistic practices reflect a deep and complicated history of life on Java over centuries.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Race and Ethnicity in English Language Teaching by Christopher Joseph Jenks.