CfP: Co-constitution of Class and Nature in Tropical Insular Southeast Asia


The Philippines is one of the most disaster afflicted countries in the world. Yet, despite yearly, ravaging typhoons, I never call home to Manila to find out if anyone I know has been affected. On the other hand, Filipino elite discourse casually represents “the masses” as not stewarding the environment, understanding it, or appreciating its beauty. These two positions of privilege are not unrelated.

That there are many, varied links between class and nature is obvious globally and makes sense intuitively, but how, from an originary standpoint, do they relate to one another? What do we learn of one through the other and what do we miss of one without attending to the other?

This edited volume project seeks to offer an analysis of the historical co-constitution of class and human relationships with the natural environment in tropical, insular Southeast Asia, bringing two inveterate literatures together within particularized, local histories. It seeks to examine how the formation of the tropical, archipelagic Southeast Asian elite classes (as a class, vis-à-vis other classes) in the modern era were grounded in the natural environment, and how the natural environment crucially shaped these local elite’s global subjectivity and materiality—the mental structures to their ways of being and the physical texture of their daily lives. Meanwhile, it also analyzes how relationships with the natural environment were constituted by class, focusing in particular on the formation of the elite classes. This approach—which starts from the perspective of nature instead of the human—revises our understanding of class. It builds on the central finding of cultural ecologists that cultural and social behavior was shaped by economic organization.[1] However, this edited volume moves away from such social-economic analysis towards intellectual, environmental, and social lenses on society. In this way, this project will develop a novel analytical framework that will engage geographers, urban studies experts, sociologists, and environmentalists as much as historians. By focusing on elites, this edited volume aims to refigure nature as the bedrock of modern power, while allowing nature to “speak back” within our histories of such traditional de-natured phenomena as class.

Environmental history up to this point has not systematically analyzed the issue of class; issues of colonialism have trumped those of class, instead of seeing them as distinct yet entangled categories. Historical accounts of Western elite understandings of the concept of nature and of conservation are common. Yet, they do not offer an explicit, systematic analysis of non-Western views or of relationships with nature through the lens of class generally. Many sociological accounts of class rest on material power, taste, and consumption; yet, even when they touch on nature as it relates to lifestyle they do not argue for nature itself as being generative of class. This project’s focus on the relationship between class and the environment in the Global South joins and diversifies a growing literature that thus far has largely centered on South Asia, the middle class, and links between environmental and socioeconomic injustice, focusing on the global poor and working classes, and will contribute to recent cross-disciplinary studies on the globalization of elites. It hopes to show that a return to a historicized nature as the ground for an intellectual socio-cultural history of class will clarify the truly relevant class distinctions for modern history—and the stark terms upon which our classed ecological future will be forged.

I am looking for chapter contributions to and collaborators for this edited volume project. Along the way, we contributors will form a working group to begin thinking across our separate sites, in order to develop our framework for understanding local natures as embedded in historicized class and class as embedded in historicized, local natures in Southeast Asian tropical island environments. This would result in a co-authored conclusion to our edited volume. An online workshop would be hosted to facilitate such thinking, potentially sponsored by the Toynbee Prize Foundation or a Southeast Asia research center or global history journal of our choosing.

For those interested in applying for the edited volume, please send an abstract of your chapter submission and a CV to the editor, Dr. Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz at:

[1] See, for example, John A. Larkin, Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 5.