Bassino, Jean-Pascal | Center for Southeast Asian Studies Kyoto University


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Interview with Jean-Pascal Bassino »

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon

What are your favorite things?

Family time
Although I also enjoy spending time with friends and colleagues, I have always been a very family-oriented person. I guess it is due to my background in the Mediterranean island I call home, a rather unusual place by contemporary European standards where the extended kinship network is still regarded as part of one’s identity.  

Hiking or walking in the countryside
I realize it is somehow odd to mention walking in the countryside in my personal profile, since I have been spending most of my life in cities, either mid-sized (Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier, Canberra, Lyon) or rather big (Rome and Tokyo). But I truly feel it is one of my favorite activities. I hike sometimes in the mountains, but, in general, I prefer taking time to stop here and there and observe the scenery. While in Kyoto, I enjoy walking on a daily basis along the Kamogawa River; it is a very nice substitute.

Although I have spent most of the last 20 years in various cities, living in apartments that had at best a small balcony, I enjoy planting and tending flowers and ornamental trees as well as edible plants and fruit trees. Before deciding to join academia, I seriously considered keeping the job I had as a high school teacher in a rural area. Sometimes, when I have to spend too much time for too long on administrative duties, I wonder if I made the right choice. Fortunately, I will be able to spend much more time gardening in the coming years.


Southeast Asia in the Great Divergence
(ca. 1600-1914)


Please tell us about your research.

For as long as I can remember, I have always been interested in the measurement and determinants of long-term changes in living standards. This topic has been the focus of most of my research. Even before studying economics at the university, I had the feeling that we tend to rely on indicators that do not necessarily capture human well-being. More importantly, most studies using purchasing power parity adjusted monetary income as a proxy for well-being tend to overlook the price to pay for experiencing an improvement. My initial perception was shaped by my understanding of changes in Europe since the 18th century or earlier. For more than 20 years, I have been also interested in the Japanese experience during the same period. My current research is aimed at investigating living standards in Southeast Asian societies from the early modern period to the initial phase of industrialization.


Can you share with us an episode about any influential people, things, and places you have encountered whilst doing your research.

In my project on early modern Southeast Asia, I am attempting to analyze what happened in societies and natural environments that do not exist anymore, or at least have drastically changed. Therefore, the places I have had the chance to visit in the region cannot inform my research very much. For the conceptualization of my current project, it has been most important to discuss in an informal manner over many years with researchers of several countries in various fields of social science and to read the work of many others who had been their mentors and other predecessors. The most influential of these researchers have been without doubt Professor Konosuke Odaka and his colleagues, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at an early stage in my academic carrier when visiting Hitotsubashi University under a three-month Japan Foundation fellowship. They invited me to get involved in their Asian Historical Statistics COE project and, shortly afterward, decided to set up a team whose task was to estimate Vietnam’s GDP from the late 19th century to the 1980s. After delivering a first version, we reached the conclusion that a much more extensive investigation was required. I did not realize initially how time consuming it would be and we decided I would work solo, as it would enable me to have a comprehensive view. It took me, on and off, more than a decade to complete the task. As I was under pressure to maintain a decent publication record to get promoted, and afterward to contribute to the research output of my research center, I had to diversify my portfolio to publish articles on other topics. I was able to work only for short periods on the revised version of this Vietnam project, which should finally come out next year. It has been one of the major experiences of my life.


How do you overcome the difficulties in putting together the results of your research into a research paper or book?

In general, I have from the onset a rather clear view of the way a research question could be framed. But in most cases, it takes me time to move to next step, as I must assemble information, often during a few years. Then, if I can dedicate at least one or two weeks without any distraction to the writing of the first draft of a research paper, I can prepare a first version. Initially, I tend to regard it as very close to a document that could be circulated as a working paper and presented in conferences. But even if I get positive feedback, I become more critical of this first draft after a few weeks or months. The major difficulty I have to overcome is therefore to find some additional time for the revision, and to reach the point where I will consider the amended version good enough for submission to a journal. At this point, when I face a bottleneck that is rather technical, I increasingly tend to invite a younger colleague to join me. It is time efficient and until now has always been quite a pleasant experience.


Do you have any must-have gear for field research and writing?

The most critical for me is to have time and peace in mind to concentrate. In some cases, I can work with just my laptop, although it is always better to use external displays, particularly when I have to read large volumes of digitized documents or when conducting quantitative analysis.


Do you have any essential reads (books) that you can recommend to younger people?

Rather than a list of essential books, I would suggest they should not hesitate to be very eclectic in their reading. In particular, I feel that many economists do not spend enough time reading books outside their field, although this remark would probably not apply to Japanese scholars. As for myself, I have always spent a large part of my working and leisure time reading books or articles, in economics, but also anthropology, history, political science, and even other fields in which I have very little expertise, such as genetics or agronomy. These studies were apparently unrelated to my research projects and I am aware that spending time with them certainly reduced my productivity to some extent. But quite often, I realize a few months later that a section of a book or an article apparently unrelated to the project I am conducting has been a source of inspiration, usually in a strange or unexpected way.


What is your ideal image of a researcher, and do you have any advice for those who aim to become researchers?

If I have to give pieces of advice, I restrict myself to two. The first and more important one is that researchers, junior or senior, should work on topics that they are interested in, rather than on what would be regarded as fashionable at a particular moment by non-academic decision makers pretending to determine the priority or is advisable in strategic terms to be recruited according to their peers (or supervisors). Encouraging researchers to focus on research questions they regard as particularly relevant is in my view the best way to ensure that, overall, their work will generate a return on investment, satisfying the social demand. It is also the surest manner to persuade them to maintain their productivity throughout their life cycle, as their intellectual curiosity would remain largely intact. My second advice is that, even if writing a monograph is not always highly regarded, particularly among economists (and perhaps also in other disciplines), it is worth considering such an option. It may be considered as an unwise publication strategy as the criteria for recruitment and promotion tend to be based exclusively on published articles. But with a risky strategy, the return could be high as well. It is a matter of risk aversion. I feel I have been too risk adverse, even if many of my colleagues have an opposite perception.


What are your future ambitions as a scholar?

My main academic ambition at this point is to remain actively researching until the end of my life. Although there are various research questions I would like to investigate, I realize that life is short and therefore I must set priorities. I am also aware that my ability to master new techniques, for instance in quantitative analysis, is likely to decline over time. In addition to publishing several articles, some of them corresponding to projects close to their final stage, I would like to dedicate more time to writing relatively concise monographs. After the completion of the volume presenting GDP estimates for Vietnam since 1880, my aim is to write a monograph on economic conditions in early modern Southeast Asia, using as much quantitative information as possible.

 (April 2024)

Jean-Pascal Bassino  is professor of economics at ENS Lyon (a French national graduate school), where he is in charge of the master programme in Asian studies. His earlier academic affiliations include the Australian National University in 2006-2007, the Maison Franco Japonaise (Nichifutsu Kaikan, Tokyo) in 2002-2005, and a visiting researcher position at the Institute of Economic Research of Hitotsubashi University, in 2018-2020 under a French CNRS research fellowship. He has been also visiting research for one or two-month periods at the Goethe Universität (Frankfurt), Chulalongkorn University, the London School of Economics and Università Roma Tre. His research interests are mainly related to the analysis of long-term changes in living standards and inequalities in East and Southeast Asia in international perspective. His representative publications include: Asia’s ‘little divergence’ in the twentieth century: evidence from PPP-based direct estimates of GDP per capita, 1913–69 (with P. van der Eng), Economic History Review, 2020 and Sustainable Development in South East Asia, 1700-1870, in S. Broadberry and K. Fukao (eds), The Cambridge Economic History of the Modern World, Vol. I, 1700-1870, 2021, 146-168. He is currently completing a monograph presenting estimates of national accounts for Vietnam since 1880 (to be published by the Toyo Keizai in a series edited by K. Odaka, O. Saito and K. Fukao).

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