The DORISEA Network

The competence network "dynamics of religion in Southeast Asia" (DORISEA) is a research network funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and coordinated by the Departement of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Göttingen. Scientists from the Universities of Göttingen, Hamburg, Münster, Heidelberg and Berlin (Humboldt University) are involved in several projects that investigate the relationship between religion and modernity in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia is a region particularly marked by a complex coexistence and cooperation among different cultures and religions. Religions here have developed a rich dynamic and play a prime role in shaping modernization processes. It can be observed that religion in Southeast Asia is not declining, but rather it is intensifying. The competence network’s research will focus on three dimensions of religious dynamics, namely religious practices, the politicization of religion and the clash of moral systems.

Through its global and regional ties Southeast Asia is taking on a new image; politically through the strengthening of the ASEAN alliance and economically through ASEAN and China’s goal of creating the world’s largest free trade zone within the next decade. Yet the expected changes have not only affected the economic sphere. Indeed, the particular religious dynamics in many of the region’s countries can hardly be ignored. This phenomenon is not new; it is instead a constant feature of Southeast Asian modernity.

The DORISEA competence network brings the context of ‘religion’ and ‘modernity’ to the centre stage and applies it to Southeast Asia. As such, DORISEA mobilizes regional scientific expertise against the background of two definitive traits of the region, namely: 1) a plurality of religions and ethnicities. In a global comparison Southeast Asia is unique in the sense that there exists a density and complexity of different cultures and religions that co-exist simultaneously. Diverse ethnic religions interact with world religions, all of the latter – with the exception of Judaism – are represented in the region. And 2) In Southeast Asia religion is not an antithesis to modernity, but instead is involved in a complex interaction with it.

This context implies a series of far-reaching social, political, and economic changes that consequently result in not only new aspirations and ways of acting, but also in new constraints and fears. These are most commonly articulated in religious practices and ways of expression, or, in extreme cases, in acts of religiously motivated violence. Religions become politicized and Southeast Asia makes no exception. There are abundant examples of politicized religion, such as Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia but also in Christianity (i.e. Vietnam, East Timor, the Philippines) and Buddhism (i.e. Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia).


With backgrounds in cultural anthropology, sociology, history, religious and linguistic sciences, the scientists of the DORISEA competence network dedicate themselves to investigating the linkages between the individual sub-projects by addressing specific questions. While the individual projects are either historical or contemporary in scope, all projects are related to one another regionally, methodologically, and theoretically. Taken together, the research displays regional diversity (Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, and the Philippines) and religious diversity (Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, ethnic religions and Confucianism).

So as to place the specific research results in the larger context, three dimensions of religious dynamics are outlined here:


1) Religious practices/ Practices of the religious

The sub-projects under this aspect turn their attention to religion as a system of communication. In their roles as symbols and systems of interpretation and interaction religions give rise to linguistic, performative, and medial discourses and practices such as ancestor/spirit cults and multi-religious rituals. Religious practices are not independent of modern practices (i.e. bureaucracy, healthcare, education, handling mass media, etc.) or of conceptions of modernity (such as the development of values regarding justice and health, for example). Therefore, these sub-projects aim to demonstrate the interrelatedness between religious practices and conceptions of modernity.

PD Dr. Michael Dickhardt
The social placing of religion and spirituality in Vietnam in the context of Asian modernity

Prof. Dr. Annette Hornbacher
Adat and Agama? Persistence and revitalization of local religious traditions in Indonesia

Dr. Volker Gottowik
Adat and Agama? Multi-religious rituals in central Indonesia

Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky
The Lao Sangha and modernity: a Buddhist archive in Luang Prabang

Bounleuth Sengsoulin, MA
The Lao Sangha and modernity: A Buddhist archive in Luang Prabang

Khamvone Boulyaphonh, MA
The Lao Sangha and modernity: A Buddhist archive in Luang Prabang


2) The politicisation of religion

Individual sub-projects under this aspect investigate the relationship between politics and religion in modern Southeast Asia. How can the relationship between politics, religion and social morality be understood? How is religion reflected on in the absence of a norm of secularization - and what socio-cultural effects does this have?

Prof. Dr. Vincent Houben
Politicisation of religion and Malaysian modernity

Olivia Killias (doctoral candidate)
Politicisation of religion and Malaysian modernity

Prof. Dr. Boike Rehbein
Socio-cultural differentiation, the politics of language and religion in Laos

Michael Kleinod (doctoral candidate)
Construction and integration of the periphery: ecotourism in Laos as seen from the regulation of societal relations to nature

Dr. Michael Prager
Politicized Islam in Indonesia: Between "Scripturalism" and "Neo-Sufism"


3) Clash of moral systems

Sub-projects under this aspect examine historical and contemporary examples of clashes between moral systems and loyalties. The spread of Western modernity has put into question local cosmologies, value systems, and interpretations of man, nature, and history. Categories of "good" and "evil," standard rules of conduct, community cohesion, and gender relations as well relationships with one’s ancestors are being renegotiated.

Prof. Dr. Thomas Engelbert
Nationality policy and proselytisation in the Tay Nguyen highlands

Prof. Dr. Guido Sprenger
Ritual dynamics in the highlands of Southeast Asia

Eva Sevenig, M.A.
Ritual dynamics in the highlands of Southeast Asia

PD Dr. Peter Bräunlein
Spirits and modernity

Prof. Dr. Andrea Lauser
Ancestral worship and pilgrimage in Vietnam


Apart from scientific research, the DORISEA competence network has set a goal to strengthen exchange with Southeast Asian institutions and scientists. It is envisioned that this close cooperation will secure DORISEA’s position as an organ for issues concerning Southeast Asia, with all research results and stimulating questions being discussed and - via this website – brought to a wider audience. Within the university realm seminars and, above all, language courses will be offered and accredited on an intraregional level. Furthermore, the study of Southeast Asia also raises questions about one’s self-positioning; indeed, the exceptional challenge of “recognizing ourselves in the mirror of a stranger” is only possible by studying foreign societies.


We request that all questions concerning the DORISEA competence network be sent to the following address:

BMBF Competence network: “Dynamics of religion in Southeast Asia” (DORISEA)
Georg-August Universität Göttingen
Institut für Ethnologie
Berliner Str. 28
37073 Göttingen
Tel. +49 551 39 20153


BMBF support code: 01UC1102A