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In Between the Sociology of Development and Southeast Asian Studies

Yasutoshi Yamada/Professor, Faculty of Global Management, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Sociology of Development, Sociology of Local Community, and Southeast Asian Studies

My research

Prior to becoming a university faculty member, I worked as a development consultant and expert in "development cooperation" and "international cooperation" for over 25 years.1,2 In addition to bilateral technical cooperation from the Japanese government, including the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), I also collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), an international NGO headquartered in Sweden, and local grassroots NGOs to be involved in international technical cooperation projects in various fields related to social development and livelihood improvement. As I focus on the sociology of development, I paid close attention to the factors and motivations that enabled diverse people involved in local communities to participate in project activities, and the foundations and social safety nets which enabled people to take risks in trying new things when working on these projects.

Social impact of development

One of the research themes of the sociology of development is understanding the social impact of development projects. Development projects usually have expected results and objectives within a certain period of time. To achieve these results and objectives, activities are carried out by investing assets such as human resources, materials, funds, and information. While development projects aim to achieve expected results and objectives, the projects may create unintended negative consequences or negative impacts when viewed from an indirect or medium- to long-term perspective. These negative outcomes and impacts often occur on certain vulnerable sections of the community or on certain socially disadvantaged groups. In order for a project to minimize unintended negative outcomes and negative impacts, and to sustain and spread the effects of the achieved results and objectives, it is necessary to clarify the social impact produced and the lessons learned.

Mechanisms of local society

Another theme of my research is to understand the mechanisms of local communities, which are often viewed as recipients of development. From the perspective of local communities, international cooperation projects are acts of social intervention, and local communities are on the receiving end of this intervention. Local communities are not static but dynamic in nature, and will therefore respond to such intervention. In such cases, I examine desirable responses by the local community in relation to the social impacts mentioned above.

As a foundation for considering desirable responses, understanding the local societal system is essential. The entities involved in the local society include not only the households where residents of all ages and genders continue to make living, but also the local government, markets, and various local organizations.3 Understanding the local societal system means ascertaining the existence of such entities, understanding the abilities and experiences of each entity, and analyzing the mechanisms of local community and the dynamics of cooperation based on the relationships among related people and organizations.4

Based on this understanding, it is best for the appropriate objectives, direction, and speed for development of the local community to be decided by the various people and organizations involved in the community, not just by those entities involved in the intervention. Such involvement will contribute to development with lasting effects for local communities.5 Accordingly, I also pay attention to social safety nets and mutual support mechanisms that allow members of the local community to recover from failures, such as those which occur when taking on new challenges that initially may not work out smoothly. In other words, such ideas are related to the theme of autonomy.

The field of area studies

In conjunction with these research themes, I have been involved with various societies in Southeast Asia such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, and Thailand. In particular, my connection with mainland Southeast Asia, including Thailand, has spanned over 30 years and continues to this day. In order to understand the countries of Southeast Asia and their local societies from a multitude of perspectives, I also place importance on area studies, which is an approach that examines communities from interdisciplinary perspectives such as history, political science, economics, sociology, and cultural anthropology.

The people of Southeast Asia are extremely diverse in terms of characteristics such as ethnicity, religion, race, and gender (social roles based on gender difference). Furthermore, political systems and economic mechanisms in the region cannot be simply lumped together. Of course, this is true of socialist countries, and even countries which appear to function through democracy or capitalism at first glance. The form of social transformation becomes even more complex when considering the diversity of people and the characteristics of the local societies.

Here, I will give an example related to the appropriate objectives, direction, and speed for development of the local community, as I mentioned earlier.

My example concerns members of the Khmu tribe who live in a village located in the mountainous region of northern Laos. These villagers first settled in the area about 60 years ago. Since then, they have been using about 50 meters of wooden gutters which they connected together to draw water from a water source on the mountainside. This system constitutes a communal water supply facility.6 The maintenance and management of this communal resource is based on the indigenous technique of connecting gutters made by hollowing out trees, which are passed down among the villagers for generations. Every three years, all of the villagers work together to rebuild the gutters. On the other hand, this village did not have enough rice to sufficiently feed its residents throughout the year. During times of rice shortage, villagers made ends meet by eating corn grown for self-sufficiency and gathering food from the forest. Due to this lifestyle, agreeing on how to secure a supply of water for daily life was an extremely high-priority need among the villagers when building consensus among the villagers regarding the important issue of deciding where to settle. In this way, as all the villagers defined water for daily life as an essential resource to sustain their lives, an agreement was reached to construct a water supply facility, and a norm was created for regular maintenance and management by all villagers.

Lessons learned from onsite

In this case, the decision on high-priority needs was not made in a way where a single decision, such as a majority vote, could cause a rift in the relationship between the residents. Instead, high-priority needs were clarified through a consensus-building process based on persistent and repeated discussions aimed at reaching a mutual understanding of the residents who have to continue to live in the area. In the process of building consensus without creating rifts among residents or excluding certain residents, we can see consideration for the living conditions of residents and their pride felt in living, that are not to exclude socially vulnerable residents, and we can also observe the public nature7 of consensus building in terms of openness. This process of reaching an agreement indicates the direction of concepts referred to as social safety net and social capital, backed by the consideration and pride of residents in their local communities.

For us, sincerely facing this form of consensus-building with an open public nature means how we earnestly work to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) while adhering to the principle of leaving no one behind. This also suggests that each of us can have an impact on the direction of development in our local communities. Furthermore, this case once again calls attention to the question of whether our local communities provide connections, roles, and places of belonging to people viewed as being socially vulnerable.8 In this way, my involvement with onsite research in Southeast Asia, a region which is full of diversity and complexity, has brought various suggestions and new perspectives to my research on the mechanisms of local communities and the dynamism of collaboration.


1 Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
2 Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA),
3 Ohama, Y., Participatory Local Social Development (PLSD) Theories and Practices: Construction of a New Theoretical Framework and Creation of Practical Methods, Fukuro Shuppan, 2007.
4 Shigetomi, S. and Okamoto, I. (eds.), Local Societies and Rural Development: Self-organization and Participatory Development in Asia, Edward Elgar, 2014.
5 Yamada. Y., "PLA as a Methodology", Project PLA (ed.), in (Second Edition) The Sequel: Introduction to Social Development--PLA: Development Through Resident-Led Learning and Behavior, International Development Journal, 2000.
6 Yamada. Y., "Community Management of Resources," Namae. A., et al. (eds.), in Community Management, Correspondence Course of Nihon Fukushi University, 2002.
7 Arendt. H. (translated by Hayao Shimizu), The Human Condition, Chikuma Gakugei Bunko, 1994.
8 Abe. A., A Society with No Place for the Disadvantaged: Poverty, Disparity, and Social Inclusion, Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, 2011.

Yasutoshi Yamada/Professor, Faculty of Global Management, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Sociology of Development, Sociology of Local Community, and Southeast Asian Studies

Yasutoshi Yamada was born in Tokyo. In 1988, he graduated from the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts, Drew University (United States). In 1991, he completed the Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Sociology and Rural Sociology, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (United States). In 2005, he finished Ph.D. program without dissertation in the Regional Center for Social Sciences and Sustainable Development at the Graduate School of Chiang Mai University (Thailand). After obtaining a variety of practical experience in “international cooperation” for over 25 years, he assumed his current position in 2019.

From the perspective of the sociology of development, he is researching themes such as the mechanisms of local societies in development and the relationships between foreign residents living in Japan and local societies.