SAS research profile

Leiden University has recently defined current research profile areas; these 11 areas form the core of research of Leiden University. The Leiden faculty of Humanities is involved in four research profile areas. In three of these LIAS staff are (potentially) involved.

Leiden University has recently defined current research profile areas; these 11 areas form the core of research of Leiden University. The Leiden faculty of Humanities is involved in four research profile areas. In three of these LIAS staff are (potentially) involved:


1. Asian modernities and traditions

East, South and Southeast Asia constitute a dynamic and important region in today’s world, containing some of the world’s most vibrant economies, the most rapidly developing states and the most challenging political ideas, as well as being home – or second home in the case of Islam – to several world religions and civilisations.

Asia especially lends itself to multidisciplinary Area Studies, which combine disciplinary expertise with expertise in particular linguistic and cultural traditions. Moreover, the current global prominence of East Asia and the rapidly developing economies of South and Southeast Asia render both Asia as a whole and its sub-areas a key case for the study of the impact of modernity. Investigation into the interaction between modernity and tradition demands cross-regional, multidisciplinary co-operation, and cross-fertilisation of the humanities, the social sciences, and religious and legal studies. All these specialisms converge in the research area ‘Asian Traditions and Modernities’.

With one of the longest-standing traditions in the world in the study of Asian linguistics, art, history, anthropology and law, and its concomitant library resources, Leiden University is eminently equipped for this task. It is one of the major centres in Europe for the study of Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and South Asian languages, cultures and sub-cultures, religions, policies and law systems, and as such is thoroughly embedded in international organisations. For instance, the Van Vollenhoven Institute for Law, Governance and Development has expert groups working on Indonesian and Chinese law and governance, and Indonesia has been a focus area in Leiden Anthropology for a long time. In 2007 the Modern East Asia Research Centre (MEARC) was established, focusing on ideas and institutions in modern East Asia. The School of Asian Studies in the Faculty of Humanities helps bring together the various regions into a more coherent unit, which contributes to inter-faculty co-operation. In addition, Leiden is home to national research centres, such as the KITLV(Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies).

Co-ordinated by the faculty of Humanities

2. Global interaction of people, culture and power through the ages

In recent decades, the concept of ‘globalisation’ has gained prominence in both the humanities and the social sciences. The awareness that all parts of the world are inter-connected and influence one another as a result of  exchanges of people, goods and ideas, has led to new insights and lines of research. How has this process developed over time, starting with the origins of man (out of Africa?), and to what extent is the current stage of globalisation different from previous stages? What have been the effects of these global contacts, both now and in the past, and the role of unequal power relations?

A lively debate has developed within and between various disciplines on the question of whether, and to what extent, globalisation leads to convergence in the area of consumption, ideas, economic growth and culture as a whole, or whether developments are diverging. Leiden archaeologists, historians, scholars of religion, and anthropologists have built a long research tradition in the area of what is now known as global history, which shows that already long before the post-1492 Columbian Exchange, the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa were connected in many ways and thus had started to form a ‘worldwide web’. This was extended and intensified after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas which put European maritime nations in an advantageous position to strengthen their ties with other parts of the world. Leiden has a high level of expertise in these areas, both with respect to ‘European expansion’ and to civilisations and networks in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Because of this global web which intensified rapidly from the sixteenth century, not only were goods and ideas exchanged on a much wider scale, but also people. Migration processes are an important component in the globalisation process. Attention to migration, both coerced and free, has ultimately generated much expertise about the effects of globalisation on societies in which migrants from a different cultural background settle, as well as on sending societies.

Co-ordinators from the faculty of Humanities:
Leo Lucassen, Professor of Social History Petra Sijpesteijn, Professor of Arabic Language and Culture

3. Language diversity in the world

First, some statistics. There are six thousand languages spoken worldwide, of which two-thirds have yet to be described. As many as 96% of the world population speak just 4% of all languages. A quarter of the world’s languages are spoken by groups of less than 1,000 people. Almost all these groups live in the most vulnerable areas of the world. Of all languages, 50 to 90% will probably die out in the course of the current century.

These are primarily languages which have not yet been documented. With their extinction, complete knowledge systems and cultures will be lost. And with the extinction of each as yet undescribed language the understanding of the phenomenon of language diminishes. Conversely, every description of a new language expands the linguist’s laboratory. The impact of research in descriptive linguistics is directly visible in theoretical linguistics, the branch of linguistics which studies the structure of language and language as a characteristic of human cognition. Theories have to be tested, not only on English or German, but on as many languages as possible. All languages that are spoken or that have handed down texts together constitute the laboratory in which linguists conduct their research: they allow them to distill proto-languages, and discover how languages develop, how they converge or diverge, and how they resemble one another or differ. Linguists also study how language is produced or perceived in the brain and what can go wrong, how children acquire language, which phenomena and structures are universal and which are specific to particular languages or language groups.

This research field, based in the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL), brings together descriptive, historical and theoretical linguistics, as well as psycho- and neurolinguistics. Nowhere else in Europe is such a broad range of languages studied. The Centre combines unique expertise in the field of Africa, Indian America, South and Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania, East Asia and Siberia, and Eurasia and Europe. LUCL researchers also participate in the interdisciplinary Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, where they co-operate with psychologists, biologists and medical researchers.

Co-ordinators from the faculty of Humanities:
Lisa Cheng, Professor of Theoretical Linguistics Alexander Lubotsky, Professor of Indo-European Languages Maarten Mous, Professor of African Linguistics

Last Modified: 25-03-2014