Imad Alatas

It was January 2021 when I received the news of acceptance that I would be enrolling in the Sociology PhD program at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill. Back in 2017, the US was an idyllic destination that seemed elusive. I had just graduated with a bachelor’s and was contemplating my future career. I applied to the US in 2018 but didn’t get accepted by a university.

In the 2020 application round, UNC was the team that gave me a chance. They had a good program with scholars of high calibre. It was also important to me as an international student that UNC had academic engagements with the world beyond the US, evidenced by the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies and the Carolina Asia Centre. I had never been to the US prior, but I was familiar with the notion that academia is Eurocentric where theories and empirical works from the West are privileged. The West and the US should not be used interchangeably, although the US does connote a significant level of prestige when thinking about Western social science.

America doesn’t know the world

I set off for the US in August of 2021. The first person I met in North Carolina was Agus (not his real name), another international student at UNC sociology. Agus is two years my senior. He has more experience as an international student. He thinks more could be done to support international students, especially in terms of funding. I was a PhD freshman, blissfully ignorant of funding issues since I didn’t need to confront them yet. What I did need to confront was a new space. America really is a world of its own. There’s so much to see in the US. Travelling from North Carolina to California is as good as travelling to another country.

I could confidently say that Singapore and Malaysia do not feature in the cultural imagination of most Americans. If it does, chewing gum and Crazy Rich Asians might come to mind in Singapore’s case, which is what I found out when talking to a few American friends. The whole world knows America; America doesn’t know the whole world. A girl on our intramural soccer team asked if Singapore was near India. Well, they’re both in the same continent, but I don’t think that’s what she meant.

The lack of awareness about the rest of the world does not signal any (deliberate) ignorance, but points to the positioning of America, whether by America or others, as the cultural and intellectual centre of the modern age.

Bringing knowledge to the centre

America is often seen as the standard-bearer for sociology. This couldn’t be further from the truth after having gone through one year of coursework and several journal articles on American phenomena. There are reasons why the US is, and is seen as, the cream of the crop in terms of academic pursuits and the global production of knowledge. I won’t get into those reasons here. I am used to scholarship on the US, having been exposed to it throughout six years at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

At NUS, I wasn’t aware of the significance of studying mostly Western authors or reading articles mostly on Western societies during my first degree. I paid more attention to the Eurocentric nature of the social sciences during my Masters. Now, I’m living in the US, the country I read so much about. It wasn’t lost on me that I was a Malaysian going all the way to the US to study Malaysia. This pursuit of mine came with its own challenges.

One was how I would just justify Malaysia’s contribution to the global production of knowledge. Why is Malaysia important, and what can the world learn from Malaysia? Saying that Malaysia is a Muslim majority country in the Muslim world and religion is an important facet of social life is valid, but not enough. In my case, since I’m interested in gender and Islam, I would have to think about how my research can contribute to theoretical discussions on masculinity globally. This is what I learnt in a methods class during my second semester, when our professor asked me and the two other international students in the cohort how we would justify studying our respective countries to journal reviewers. She didn’t ask the eight American students. She didn’t need to; they didn’t need to justify.

I know what I signed up for when I got accepted into UNC, so this isn’t really a rant. I’ll admit I was self-conscious when presenting on Malaysia for a research project or assignment, wondering if my course mates would care about a country on the other side of the world. I am lucky though. I have course mates who really take an interest in what you’re researching on.

My task ahead

When it comes to job prospects in academia, having a PhD from a North American, and to a lesser extent, European institution will get you far. This also means publications in journals from these regions are highly sought after by prospective employers. The best sociology journal in the US is the American Sociological Review (ASR). Social Forces, based at UNC, is also highly ranked. Publications in journals such as these strengthen your CV while you’re applying for a post-doc or a lecturer position. Publishing a book during your PhD enhances your credentials, to say the least. There are efforts by journals such as ASR to develop a more international outlook in terms of paying attention to non-American case studies.

Yet, the fact remains that a Malaysian, Chinese, Nepali, Ugandan and so on would have to justify why their case study matters. My aim isn’t necessarily to publish in ASR, but at least any journal that Malaysian universities deem as reputable. Getting published in non-American journals is no less a significant feat, but it just might not be enough to build a career in academia and rise up the ranks.

Academia is an elite circle, comprised of other elite circles informed by geography, race, class, and gender. Nevertheless, I take pride in being one of the only two Southeast Asians in the department, representing the country I was born in, Malaysia, and the country I grew up in, Singapore. I have two choices during my PhD. One, walk around with a chip on my shoulder knowing that Malaysia is on the intellectual periphery. Two, do the best research and writing that I can and not be apologetic about my research. My task is to now reshape the centre by writing from the margins – the “elsewhere” as how
America would posit for the Global South.

Imad Alatas is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill.

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