Comparing Cultures of Education in Asia: Anthropological and Ethnographic Perspectives

Conference: AAS-in-Asia2020 (AAS-in-Asia2020)
Title: Comparing Cultures of Education in Asia: Anthropological and Ethnographic Perspectives
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Zachary Howlett, Yale-NUS College, National University of Singapore, Singapore (organizer, presenter, chair)
Kristina Göransson, Lund University, Sweden (presenter, discussant)
Chun-Yi Sum, University of Rochester, United States (presenter)
Tomoko Tokunaga, University of Tsukuba, Japan (presenter)
Yoonhee Kang, Seoul National University, South Korea (presenter)


Across Asia growing social inequality is leading to rising educational competition. As social mobility becomes increasingly difficult, anxious parents pursue diverse strategies to groom their children for success. This rising fever pitch of educational competition and meritocratic credentialism raises burning questions about access to education, the meaning of merit, and the politics of cultural belonging. This panel employs fine-grained, intimate ethnography to provide an anthropological perspective on these questions. Moving beyond a tendency in recent anthropological scholarship to consider countries in isolation, the authors take an unabashedly comparative perspective. Identifying cultural commonalities as well as differences, their research projects span Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, and China as well as the U.S. Important dimensions of analysis include gender, ethnicity, class, citizenship, generation, and ability. Individual papers analyze the breakneck efforts of parents to secure educational advantages for their children, the pained search of university students for “real virtue,” the emotional burden of students with stigmatized disabilities, the efforts of immigrant children to create cultural belonging, and the contradictions between the ideals of meritocracy and the realities of social inequality. Key questions include the following: What is education and who is it for? What should education do and how do we achieve this ideal? Do educational systems reproduce inequality? Is education a tool for social control by hegemonic groups? How can we understand the emotional and moral dimensions of educational work and merit? By addressing these questions ethnographically and comparatively, this panel contributes much-needed in-depth contextual knowledge to contemporary debates about education in Asia and beyond.