25 NOVEMBER 2016

This panel is dedicated to the late Dr John Lawrence Scott Girling who passed away in late September 2015 and left a considerably large body of work on the political and social change of both developed and developing countries in terms of theoretical debates and empirical research. Below is a brief of his academic life and legacy.

While working with the British Foreign Office, John was dispatched to work with the now defunct South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) as the British representative in Bangkok. It was the place where he published his first book, in 1963, on Thailand: A Political, Social and Economic Analysis under the nom de plume of ‘D. Insor’ (literally meaning ‘pencil’) and became one of the experts on Thailand. In 1966, after joining the Department of International Relations, Australian National University, John published an extensive body of work on foreign policies and security issues in Southeast Asian countries, their relationship with the superpowers during the ‘Cold War’ era, the People’s War, ASEAN, and Human Rights in the Asia-Pacific. In 1981, he published his landmark work on Thailand: Society and Politics which is still, according to a high-profile Thai academic, ‘one of the best books about Thailand.’

From the mid-1980s, John’s academic interests broadened to include development theories and debates on the ‘grand theories’ of capital and power with application to developing countries, especially Thailand. After his retirement in Toulouse, France, in early 1990s, his contributions were focused on theoretical debates on democracy, capitalism and corruption, social movements, political and social change.

While determining to assist those underprivileged and unfortunate, John strongly opposed the dogmatism of any development theories and ideas by having them counter-balanced with empirical research in a synthesized and even-handed manner. Without the evenhandedness of such balance, he argued, each hostile camp would ‘seek unprofitably to destroy the other’ while diverting ‘attention from the pressing problem of the relationship between theory and content.’

As Thailand’s democracy is at a crossroads, contributions on any aspects of John Girling’s work and life are most welcome, including (but not limited to) the following themes:

  1. Thailand’s political and social change

    In the mid-1970s, John noted that ‘Thailand cannot return to the old ‘accepted’ system because the consensus on which it was based has been lost. It is to be hoped that a new consensus can still be created…; otherwise a harsher conflict than has yet appeared will surely take its place.’ What are factors contributing to Thailand’s creating and nurturing such a new consensus? Is there any hard evidence to support this trend?
  2. Strengths and weaknesses of the bureaucratic polity in modernising societies

    John used the concept of the ‘bureaucratic polity’ to examine how and why political decisions were or have been made in ASEAN societies rather than political parties, interest groups or mass movement. The latest political development in Thailand and potential conflicts in South China Sea might prompt some academics to re-examine the concept and its practice in relations not only to national politics and economy but also security issues.
  3. Social movements and symbolic power

    By using France, a modernised society, as his case study, John examined its trial of democracy through the ideas of Alain Touraine (‘social movements’) and Pierre Bourdieu (‘symbolic power’). Rather than emphasising conflict between radicalism and reformism, he saw them both as complementary: each needing the other to be effective. Would his idea be applicable to current situations in Thailand? If so, how?
  4. Emotion and reason in political and social change

    In 2006, John published his last book which is about ways to understand human behaviour in economy, politics and society. His premise is that emotionally-charged beliefs play a vital role in contemporary society. Yet the rational tradition of the social sciences does not provide a satisfactory explanation of what is undoubtedly and ‘extraordinary’ state of affairs. What is your view on his comments? How would the social sciences be improved to enhance its explanatory power in understanding human motivation and behaviour in social change?

Abstract of 300 words are expected by Friday 25 November 2016.
Contact: Dr Rapin Quinn, Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University via email at: