From the Director

Ritu Birla

The Asian Institute Director’s Message and Programming Priorities

At the Asian Institute, our research and teaching delve into Asian sites to open new ways of imagining, investigating and intervening in contemporary global processes and their genealogies. As such, the Asian Institute is about more than Asia. Our work informs a robust study of global affairs, for it begins with an understanding that the global consists of many worlds: many configurations of universal projects such as democracy, human rights, and economic stability, and many configurations of universal problems such as poverty, violence and lack of access to education and critical literacy.

Rather than assume that we know to what “Asia” refers, and what problems it harbours, Asian Institute faculty and students begin by asking: what does “Asia” mean in the world today? We may (and should) ask similar questions about “Africa,” “Europe,” “Latin America,” the “Middle East” and of course “North America,” among others. There are many ways to imagine these categories. To ask the question is to open a project of inhabiting context and so challenging ourselves to engage in the messiness of translation before leaping headfirst into problem-solving. It also means pushing the boundaries of the comparative study of civilizations.

In our most conventional understanding, “Asia” refers to territorial regions mapped geographically as East, North, South and Southeast Asia, encompassing almost two-thirds of the world’s population, divided into distinct nation-states and forms of governance, but also evincing porous borders across societies, cultures and economies. At the same time, the term “Asia” today also operates as a kind of shorthand for deeply palpable transformations in global political economy and geopolitics, and so for our very imagination of the globe itself. In the twenty-first century, Mumbai and Shanghai, Singapore and Seoul are as much ‘centres’ of global markets as New York or London used to be. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, launched in 2013, challenges the established authority of the International Monetary Fund and history of global economic governance back to the World War II order of Bretton Woods (1944) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947). The labour of the Bangladeshi or Chinese factory worker lives with us in North America in our everyday commodities, from hardware to high fashion. The accelerated circulation of information enabled by digital technologies maps new markets, new financial centres and peripheries, new currencies and cultural currents. Human migration, caused by war, extreme poverty and climate change moves at a slower pace, transgressing, remapping and complicating these virtual itineraries.

At the AI, we approach this contemporary metamorphosis of global space and time through the prism of “Asia.” We approach Asia in two broad ways: first, we unpack it as an idea or imagined scene for the staging of everything from the exotic to the despotic and the yogic ascetic, from ancient ritual to the hi-tech future. Second, we engage it as a spatial name or encryption for a range of situated subjectivities and living, breathing practices—gendered and racialized—that strongly define contemporary challenges. Asian Institute faculty engage both approaches by deploying deep expert knowledge on worlds that exist both inside and outside the traditional geographic boundaries of Asia.

Seeking to identify new parameters for global analysis, the Asian Institute supports a wide range of research and teaching within three broad programming priorities. First, we foster new conversations across Asia to investigate under-researched trajectories of people, power, ideas and institutions within Asia and through Asia to multiple sites, rather than just across East and West. Our position in Canada and especially amid the globalized communities of Toronto, fuels this project. Our sub-units and teaching programs actively build it. The Asian Institute houses a network of conversations and research across the Dr. David Chu Program in Asia-Pacific Studies and our Contemporary Asian Studies undergraduate program; the Centre for the Study for Korea; the Centre for South Asian Studies and its undergraduate minor program as well as its Collaborative MA and PhD programs; the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies; the Master’s Program in Asia-Pacific Studies and the East Asia Seminar Series. In this way, we move beyond the long-established academic model of “area studies” or the often inward-looking study of distinct regions and areas in themselves.

At the same time, we robustly recognize our intellectual inheritance. Our faculty affiliates, over 100 strong, deploy the rigour of the area studies methods in which they have been trained. Nevertheless, the AI community challenges the presuppositions and genealogies of these knowledge-formations, cultivating a new critical area studies. Traditional “area studies” emerged from a Cold War geopolitics that saw non-western regions as strategic objects of study and laboratories for modernization. As an academic formation, it reminds us that our work at the university and in the classroom deeply influences the organization of states, the management and care of bodies, and the very registers through which human survival, prosperity, contentment are measured. As such, Asian Institute projects are informed by the conviction that we cannot divorce our policy-relevant empirical methods—quantitative data sets, ethnography, archival research, the analysis of media and information circulation—from attention to the very formation, institutionalization and consolidation of knowledge on Asia itself.

The rich texture of Asian Institute expertise, which is grounded in deep local knowledge on social, political and economic life, both official and informal, as well as an immersion in vernacular languages, structures our second broad programming priority: to configure novel conversations across the humanities and social sciences. Indeed, since its inception, the Asian Institute has been a unique space at the University for convening such exchange across disciplines and methods. Our faculty and curricula have sought to bring social sciences methods to problems palpably conveyed by the humanities: suffering, injustice, the ability to speak and be heard.

The Asian Institute’s third broad programming priority builds on our special place as an arena where social scientists speak not only to each other across qualitative and policy-oriented agendas, but are also informed by humanities research. Supplementing this established agenda, the Asian Institute community now challenges itself to work in the other direction: to bring humanities methods, most especially an attention to the potency of the imagination, to challenges posed by the social sciences such as financial meltdown, widening inequality, urbanization and innovation. In short, as scholars of living worlds long deemed exotic, we are keenly aware that we cannot separate policy implementation from the powers of imagination; that we must always be attentive to implications when proposing applications of knowledge.

We invite you to join us in deliberation and in adventure.

With best wishes,

Ritu Birla



Professor Ritu Birla

Richard Charles Lee Director of the Asian Institute
Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto

April 7, 2016

Former Directors of the Asian Institute

Fall 2015 Joseph Wong (Interim Director)
2014-2015 Joshua Barker
2005-2014 Joseph Wong
2007-2008 Tania Li, Acting Director
2001-2005 Michael Donnelly, Founding Director

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