For Love of Languages, Travel, and Fieldwork: A tribute to Benedict Anderson

Memo #357

By Apichai W. Shipper – apichai.shipper [at]

unnamedThere will never be another Ben Anderson but he has left a part of himself in all who knew him. He instilled in our DNA, among many other things, a love of languages and fieldwork. In an age where regressions and generalizable models sometimes seem to shunt careful fieldwork to the margins in some social science disciplines, Ben taught me the value and joy of mastering these two skills through mixing travel with creative activity rather than just orthodox classroom discussions.

Many scholars know of his unsurpassed language skills that greatly enhanced his critical analyses of the world. Just as important was how he mastered those languages – not only in classrooms and language labs, but also in the streets from talking with youth and eating local foods. Even at 79, he joyfully picked up a new and anti-establishment word, “ngeee,” from the streets of Bangkok. “Ngeee” has no meaning (like “blah”), but when spoken produces an unappealing sound that annoys the politically conservative Bangkok establishment. At his last public lecture on “Anarchism and Nationalism” in Jakarta a few days before he died, Ben was wearing a black t-shirt with “NGEEE!!!” printed in front. This was so…Ben, speaking intellectually about anarchy, while showing off his newly-designed, anti-establishment t-shirt.

I learned from Ben about fieldwork – that the destination and what we see are less important than how we get there and what we do in the field. I still remember my first fieldtrip with Ben in 1990 to Banaue, Philippines and experiencing first hand the “joys” of the path. Seeing the magnificent rice terraces, it turned out, was not quite as memorable as riding on the back of a pick-up truck with broken headlights, right next to armed men, wending our way up steep and impossibly narrow mountains roads in the pitch dark of the night. On the passenger side was a man sticking part of his body out of the window to shine a flashlight onto the road ahead for the driver. Sensing that I was unusually tensed, Ben whispered into my ear, “these men with guns [most likely NPA soldiers] aren’t the people that you should fear. And the driver has travelled on these roads a thousand times [and doesn’t really need to see the road].” I immediately felt at ease, as I loved and trusted Ben.

Ben died in the field, a place where he truly loved…

Apichai W. Shipper was a student of Ben Anderson at Cornell University (and beyond). He currently holds the Asia Regional Chair at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State and is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.

Benedict Anderson at his Freeville farmhouse, 1999 (Photo credit: Apichai Shipper).


Imagined Communities was originally published in 1983 by Verso Books. The book was reissued twice in 1991 and 2006 to include additional chapters (Credit: Verso Books).


  • Benedict Anderson, “Anarchism and Nationalism,” Public Lecture at Faculty of Humanities – University of Indonesia, December 10th, 2015.

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