Race Thinking and the Sciences in French Colonial Vietnam

The following post was written by Sawako Sonoyama.  I am constantly amazed by the sheer number of events our students have access to.  We will feature more posts soon from some students that have been working on their capstone projects.


SIPA offers a variety of activities that help equip students with the skills necessary for a successful career. During your two years here, you can be trained in specialized skills such as Monitoring & Evaluation, Conflict Resolution, and Crowdsourcing from experts in the field, while being deeply embedded with the appropriate professional networks. SIPA, however, is not only about acquiring skills and networking, but has rigorous academic caliber as well.

During your two years away from the professional world, you will have the opportunity to be a student again. This is the time to once again bury your selves under thousands of pages of readings, tackle intellectual debates with your colleagues, and absorb pure knowledge from prominent guest speakers in the field of your academic choice.

For example, I attended a talk titled “Race Thinking and the Sciences in French Colonial Vietnam” by Mitch Aso. Aso is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, focusing on environmental change and human health on the rubber plantations of southern Vietnam. His talk focused on how race was created through colonialism via biopolitical mechanisms such as agriculture and medicine. Through rubber production in Vietnam, certain ethnic groups were categorized as being barbaric laborers, even when a mix of ethnicities within Vietnam was conducting the same agricultural practices.

In reaction to the malaria outbreak in Southeast Asia, the colonizers labeled certain ethnicities to be carriers of the disease and attempted to segregate those people. Aso illustrated concrete examples on how the concept of race is extremely complex; it can be created through political and calculative avenues. Racial identity is never concretely defined. The conversation also expanded to the concept of modernity and whether these new agricultural and medical practices actually modernized the indigenous people’s lives. A constant debate amongst anthropologists and philosophers surrounds the exact timing and definition of modernity. Was the western influence that detrimental to revolutionizing the lives of the indigenous communities?

The concept of identity and modernity may be quite abstract and academic to be applied on daily affairs in international relations, however, a solid understanding of such notions are undoubtedly helpful. As an Economic and Political Development concentrator, even though I may never fully understand the philosophy behind how identity shifts when different countries interact with one another, but having some understanding will improve my development practices. In fact, in current development practices, there is still not enough research or analysis being done with regards to the local context or how that will be affected by the development intervention planned. Considering a non-practical and academic mindset may be necessary in thinking about how we conduct these operations.

Going to such talks reminded me of the holistic approach SIPA offers – a combination of rigorous academic research and effective hands-on practice.