A Manifesto (of sorts) for Area StudiesSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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The debate over the place of area studies - interdisciplinary expertise in the histories, cultures and institutions of a world region - in American academia has gained a new lease on life in the last several years.
The debate is anchored in the perennial contest between partisans of "nomothetic" approaches (which seek abstract or universal laws) and "idiographic" approaches (which seek concrete knowledge of unique phenomena). But what has ignited it in recent years is, in large part, the Cold War's end.
Shortly after World War II, there was substantial foundational and governmental support for the creation of area studies expertise. By the 1970s funding opportunities and institutional developments in area studies had achieved remarkable results, substantially altering the ethnocentrism of many social science and history departments. The University of Michigan was one among several elite universities to integrate the disciplines and area studies expertise in its research and teaching.
This funding was substantially motivated by the Cold War's anxieties. And the Cold War's end has brought many drastic transformations, the most important of which from the point of view of area studies is new research opportunities in places formerly forbidden. New terrains for ethnography and new archives have transformed disciplines, and researchers without contextual expertise can conduct collaborative research on any topic they wish in many societies once off-limits. Learning about postcommunist societies is not constrained in the same ways as learning about communist-led ones. This change has encouraged many foundations to question the value of area studies, and to recommend an approach that is "global," rather than regionally bounded in its imagination and questions.
Along with the shifting priorities of foundations, the state's fiscal problems have the potential to drastically alter the financial base for area studies. Government cutbacks have not specifically targeted area studies, which do not account for a very large portion of the federal allocation for research and higher education. But as expenditures are scaled back across the board, and with the Cold War link between area studies and national security removed, it will take political figures with a long-term vision and attention to detail to preserve funding. Unfortunately, the public debate over area studies has tended to provide government or foundation decision-makers with choices that bifurcate, rather than enhance, our global vision.
The debate proceeds in American academia as most turf wars in scholarship do: with little reflexivity and with great generalizations based on limited data. This paper, too, draws on "limited data," as it is based on my own experiences as a director of an area studies center - the Center for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) at the University of Michigan - and as a member of various national "area studies" committees for the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). My own limitations as an area specialist are also reflected in this piece, for my observations are based primarily on what I see among those who work in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But I also hope to shift the debate by focusing less on who is right than on what enables the debate to proceed in the first place, by suggesting the specific institutional conditions and intellectual strategies that seem to animate it. Naturally, I also hope to suggest how the debate is misspecified, and how area studies can be part of the solution rather than the scapegoat.
What's the Matter with Area Studies?
Some are arguing that area studies is passé, atheoretical, methodologically unsophisticated, and unnecessary in a global community which allows indigenous scholars of various places to collaborate without need of any mediating/meddling area specialist. In place of area studies, there should be more comparative research, driven by major theoretical questions, anchored by rigorous methodological approaches, and defined by disciplinary practices.
Political science is where most of this angst lies. Although historians and literary scholars are as central to area studies as political scientists, the difficulty of separating theory from deep contextual knowledge in their fields means that these disciplines are not constituted in such a way as to enable the debate. One cannot be a good literary scholar or historian without also being an area specialist of sorts; one cannot be accomplished within one's discipline without simultaneously realizing the area studies mandate of knowing a region in its vernacular.
The internal constitution and history of political science, by contrast, demands the debate. Comparative politics was once the area specialist's home; theory was there, but grand theory was mostly reserved for those who were in the subdiscipline of political theory. Methodologists were often associated with behaviorists, and they were typically specialists in American electoral studies and its kin. International relations was frequently the mediator - often grounded in some area studies, but also operating in a universe of its own theory and paradigms. In this context, rational choice theory has been revolutionary. It could cut across the specializations, and pick on its deepest nemesis: those who argue that context not only shapes the decisions of actors, but forms the very subjects who provide the agency of rational choice models.
A crude sketch? Maybe. Perhaps I would be less crude if I characterized my own discipline, sociology. Although the great works of classical sociology were often comparative and historical, most American sociologists after World War II focused on American society, first, and societies relatively "accessible" to American scholars, like Western Europe and Latin America, a distant second. When they were international, sociologists often kept area studies at arm's length given that ascendance within the discipline hung much more heavily on claims to methodological rigor than on cultivation of broad theoretical, historical, or cultural sensibilities.
Over the last two decades, sociology has rediscovered itself as it has become more international. Given the historic and cultural turns in sociology, growing numbers of internationally-oriented sociologists are also acquiring the "area specialist" label. Alongside that change, and especially among more senior scholars who began their work as American specialists, the internationalization of American sociology has come through collaboration with scholars abroad. A common practice is to replicate studies done in the U.S., to see how generalizeable U.S.-spun theories are beyond this country's borders. This kind of collaboration is also extremely appealing for many colleagues abroad. Collaboration with U.S. scholars provides relatively large resources, opportunities for international travel, and access to prestigious publications and centers.
The opportunity for collaboration faces all the social sciences, not just sociology and political science. This opportunity is not entirely new, but the collapse of communism has generated astounding interest, while the collapse of state budgets for research and faculty salaries in countries once ruled by communists has made the collaborative model absolutely essential for researchers' daily survival, if not also for scholarly growth. These pressures and opportunities have fostered an alliance among specialists - both U.S. and foreign - who claim expertise about their own societies. American area studies specialists - i.e. those who know a society other than the U.S. in a deeper way than translations and questionnaires allow - are at risk before this alliance.
Not all area studies specialists are at risk. Indeed, the partners of American researchers are themselves area specialists; at least they are conversant in the language and manners of their American partners. Hence, the alliance often depends on the capabilities of the American's partner to fuse the horizons of understanding. Of course the Americans also provide some fusion materials: they often have the material resources and the theories which, for development, need new raw materials to expand their theoretical capital. And this situation produces the dangerous syndrome of data for dollars, where collaboration is contract, and intellectual exchange is based more on the gentle refinement of the American predisposition than on the collaborative elaboration of theory or methods.
We can ask how social science can develop when the terms of the conversation are structured so unequally. Part of the problem is that interpretations are skewed when the peculiarities of the case are explained in terms of their departure from the generalized understanding that began in America. More fundamentally, however, the questions for inquiry abroad are themselves generated outside of context. Of course, for the challengers to area studies, this circumstance is a virtue. They argue that instead of asking questions that are peculiar to a particular region, global research should be based on the fundamental questions of the discipline. The very notion of fundamental questions, however, sidesteps the fact that the discipline itself has been formed by particular people in particular places. In this sense, the local knowledge cultures which underlie our disciplining of area studies are left unscrutinized, as if their own constitution is unproblematic. But if we are to challenge area studies, the very grounding of scholarship within particular areas also needs to be challenged. Not only should area studies be disciplined, but disciplines should be regioned, i.e. understood as a product of that world region's history.
Unless resources are sufficiently egalitarian so that G-7 scholars don't define the centrality of questions, the prestige of publications and the hegemony of languages, the dilemmas of homosocial reproduction problematized in the corporation over 20 years ago will continue to plague global scholarship. Theoretical innovation, empirical discovery, and methodological refinement will most likely be recognized if they only depart slightly and recognizably from what reigns in the scholarship of the world system's core.
Area studies, on the other hand, is not able to ignore this problematic relationship between America and its various "Others." Indeed, the value placed on knowing the language, history and culture of another region means that the alterity to America is in fundamental ways privileged, and the American area specialist must always suspect that she lacks something before her indigenous counterpart. But rather than see this lack as an inadequacy, we should see it as offering a profound alternative to most of the dialogues going on in international collaboration.
Within area studies, the presumption of intellectual centering in the West cannot be sustained, even if the material resources enabling collaboration are often there. The search for questions, for theory, and for intellectual engagement requires greater effort from the American engaged in area studies than occurs in other forms of international collaboration. In many ways, this reminds me of the more profound discussions about multiculturalism. Charles Taylor, for instance, points out that the judgement of other cultures and their artistic achievements requires a deep immersion in the standards and epistemologies of those cultures. By the same token, how can we recognize expertise and theoretical innovation in our partners without our deep immersion in their own knowledge cultures? In short, area studies offers an alternative hermeneutic, one with different kinds of power relations, and different theoretical and methodological opportunities, which are harder to translate into contextless social science. Of course area studies has its problems. First, it should not be defined by sanctifying the viewpoints or culture of those it studies. For instance, those who say that a Ukrainian or Russian way must be developed before collaboration can proceed only help to bury the scholarly case for area studies. Too, those who justify area studies by appealing to a culture's intrinsic worth and consequent value to scholarship may be right, but those arguments rarely help in a contest with others making similar claims before administrators whose concern is to cut expenses and make their universities more prestigious.
Second, as my American-educated colleagues from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe lament, many American-born area specialists are not as theoretically or methodologically accomplished as some of their counterparts who focus on the U.S.. At the same time, it is very hard for the American-born academic to match the native sensibility of a person born in the region she studies. Consequently, the increase in numbers of diaspora intellectuals trained within the G-7 system of higher education has also helped undermine the reigning area studies problematic. They, like the American-centered academic, operate within a matrix that helps to diminish the value of learning another culture deeply. They see that academic mobility in the social sciences cannot be achieved if one is a specialist on Hungary or Russia, but can be achieved if one specializes in urban hierarchies or modes of decision-making. Deep knowledge of their original culture is backgrounded before theory and methods, and treated as an inherited, rather than achieved, value. Before the American expert, her partner abroad, and the diaspora intellectual, a trinity of incredible intellectual power, those who would aspire to learn deeply about a culture other than their own can only appear anachronistic. They could never match the power of these alliances, or the insight provided by those who are, in the words of some, "hybrid" intellectuals.
What Does Area Studies Have to Offer?
There would be no contest, in fact, if area studies specialists did not themselves control some resources, allocated by universities, foundations, and federal budgets, from which some in the trinity are excluded. But instead of seeking to expand the pie for international studies by drawing on resources now controlled by those without any interest in studies beyond the U.S., some have argued that global studies should replace the area studies problematic. As I rehearse these challenges, however, I see a greater, rather than lesser, need for the effect of area studies, if one transformed.
First, the imperative to understand other societies in the vernacular has not changed; indeed, with greater globalization, the need for such a capacity has grown. Language training ought to be central to our pedagogical mission. Otherwise, globalization will be accompanied only by deep immersion, as one area specialist has put it, in the "airport cultures" where English is supreme and the wish to serve hides the transformations of local cultures that enable the smooth encounter.
Second, we need to think more about how we treat the languages we encourage. German, French, and Spanish are not the same as Chinese, Russian, and Japanese, which are not the same as Polish and Korean, which are not the same as Albanian, Uzbek, and Yoruba. Can we consider ourselves a nation of accomplished global scholarship if we do not provide opportunities for training in the languages of the world, especially those unlikely to be supported by state mandates, corporate needs, and diaspora investments? Area studies traditionally has done much to support the least privileged languages; with the elevation of the local in globalization, we need to redouble our nation's efforts to provide access to such languages.
These two points about language training, however, do not answer the trinity's challenge. Above all, area studies must cultivate its theoretical and methodological insight through scholarship, in order to justify its continued development in terms other than state needs and the cultivation of Americans. It must justify its pedagogical mission in scholarly terms.
What Is to Be Done?
The first challenge from the trinity is that area studies is too narrow, and must become more comparative. I agree. Most obviously, this can be accomplished by area studies centers and scholars working together. The University of Michigan's Program for the Comparative Study of Social Transformations has been one such site where specialists on different regions engage one another on a plane of theory that seeks to understand the mutual implication of social and intellectual change. Also, the increasing collaboration among area studies centers, most obviously necessary today in East Central Europe and Central Asia, has been mandated by the transformations of the regions themselves.
Area specialists should also show some skepticism towards the invocation of comparison. Too often comparison simply means many data points across the globe, without care for the comparability of those points in the search for statistically meaningful relationships among variables or for effective tools of intervention. Area specialists can take inspiration from Marc Bloch, who argued that the most meaningful comparisons are those which are maximally similar and consequentially different in only a few respects. Comparative study might very well be more meaningful within regions than across them.
There are, however, important questions to be answered across regions. CREES, for instance, has developed a substantial collaborative project in Estonia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, in order to discover where and how similar narratives linking identity to social issues across these radically different civilizational contexts are constructed. This major project would not have been undertaken had the Ford Foundation not renewed its interest in cultivating expertise in non-Russian parts of the former Soviet Union. And the project could not have developed without collaboration with scholars from these regions and without area specialists working together to theorize the different levels on which the comparison can proceed.
In short, area studies scholarship should cultivate its comparative potential by developing methodologies and theoretical projects which take advantage of knowing the vernacular. Comparative social science must be at the core of area studies. But equally important, area studies scholarship must challenge the dominant questions of the discipline with the central questions of the vernacular. That challenge takes a measure of theoretical sophistication occasionally undervalued in area studies scholarship. One way to cultivate that theoretical sophistication is through the larger problematic called cultural studies.
Cultural studies is a dangerous term, especially after the flap at Social Text. In addition, many sociologists see cultural studies as undercutting sociology's raison d'etre, while many of my East European colleagues are alienated by its leftist resonances. But many within CREES have found that this problematic offers something fundamentally important to area studies: it provides the theoretical ground for the alliance between humanities and social sciences that previous conceptions of theory and research have denied, and offers a set of theoretical issues that cannot be addressed adequately without cultural theory's cultivation.
Cultural studies has many incarnations, but the one we have found most useful is the study of cultural productions, social relations and their mutual influence. In this sense high culture (from literature to opera), transition culture (from the work of indigenous entrepreneurs to those Western consultants who advise them), political culture (from communist to nationalist and democratic), and folk culture (rehearsed for both national television and local consumption), can be brought within the same space of scholarly gaze. The study of identities in these cultural productions offers a way to meet the challenge of one of the most powerful critiques of common comparative scholarship - the homogenization of identities into such categories as "consumer," "citizen," "entrepreneur," which does not recognize a much more varied set of cultural landscapes. Indeed, the interrogation of identity formation might just be where the theoretical ambition of area studies should mobilize. Instead of asking questions that are distant from the concerns of their opponents, area specialists can engage the foundation of the nomothetic vision by showing why context matters in the formation of their contenders' subjects and problematics.
Finally, if the study of identity formation rests only at the door of comparative social science and familiar cultural studies, it is unlikely to realize its theoretical potential and develop the vision area studies needs. Indeed, one of the central challenges before area studies is to engage the international systems of expertise that are now redefining global studies.
CREES initially addressed this challenge by providing opportunities for joint degrees with professional schools in law, public policy, business and environmental studies. But in order to make these degrees meaningful for its students, it has had to move beyond the juxtaposition of requirements and work with students to redefine how their conjunctural degrees transform the practices of the profession and the vision of area competence. We have sought to clarify the effects of various forms of professional expertise in the region, as well as the effect the encounter with our region has had on the knowledge bases of the professions. One means has been the invitation of indigenous scholars to assess "global" approaches to professional matters, and of transnational actors with training in the region to assess the significance of area expertise. Another has been the fostering of research projects that interrogate the cultural formation not only of actors "over there" but of those in the transnational circuit who are constituting the transition culture which establishes the criteria for assessing the adequacy of governments, policy, and global scholarship.
The recent debates over area studies emplot the following identities: the alliance between disciplinary scholars at home and abroad, with diaspora intellectuals occasionally mediating, against the "area specialist" who lacks the theoretical vision or methodological rigor to rise to the challenge of globalization. Area specialists deny the charges of mediocrity, and claim that they are already doing what is called for. I believe this position cedes too much ground if area studies is to be strengthened and global studies genuinely enhanced. Instead, area studies needs to take the lead in globalization's challenge to scholarship by working in three main directions:
a) redefining comparative social science by working with smaller units within regions, and by developing cross-regional comparisons that problematize the nature of the case and center the use of the vernacular for recognizing identities and issues;
b) articulating new central theoretical problems, away from acontextual relationships among variables, toward the elucidation of meaningful cultural formations, especially in the investigation of the relationship between various cultural productions and the social relations which animate them;
c) engaging new intellectual encounters, especially by interrogating how various bodies of global expertise meet more localized knowledge cultures, and how each are tranformed by the meeting.
These three projects require area studies grounding, but they also are comparative, methodologically self-conscious, theoretically ambitious and epistemologically daring. Of course, these are not the only kinds of scholarship to be done. The academy should be premised on the pluralization of inquiry, not its containment. But periods of institutional transition require a core vision around which scholarship can be reconstructed. In many places, that core vision does not include area studies, and I think that is a real mistake.
Ideas are not the only things that matter. The development of area studies requires material support. The University of Michigan, the Ford Foundation, and the federal government (through its Higher Education Act of 1965 in Title VI and Title VIII) have enabled CREES to pursue these innovations in teaching and research. I expect this support to continue if the commitment to global education remains central to our national purpose of preparing students for the opportunities and challenges ahead. We will not be able to meet the challenge if global studies and area studies are presented as alternatives in a contest over limited resources. And we might even exceed our expectations if we can develop the scholarly encounters that are open to fresh intellectual explorations and transformations.
I wrote this essay before attending the SSRC/ACLS meeting, Launching the New International Program on April 4-5, 1997. Scholars from across the world and from the U.S. met to discuss key intellectual issues around a "global" scholarly community and its audience(s), new forms for producing intellectual capital, and the relationship between global and local research. I came away from this meeting with a number of impressions: a) SSRC and ACLS are struggling openly with these broad intellectual problems; b) they are not able to support area studies like they once did; c) they presume that area studies expertise is essential to their mission; d) area studies can be central to defining the new international program by tackling the global problematic from the perspective of the vernaculars. The time is wide open for innovation, but requires that other institutions provide the bedrock support for the combination of imagination and expertise.
For a sketch about how we got where we are, see Immanuel Wallerstein, "The Unintended Consequences of Cold War Area Studies," The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual HIstory of the Postwar Years, ed. Andre Schiffrin (New York, 1997) 195-232.
Of course there are important exceptions. See, for instance, "The Internationalization of Scholarship: Report on the Fall 1994 CAO Retreat," ACLS Newsletter, vol. 4, no.3 (1995); Jacob Heilbrunn, "The News from Everywhere: Does Global Thinking Threaten Area Studies?" Lingua Franca, vol.6, no.4 (May/June, 1996): 49-56; Ken Prewitt, "Presidential Items," Items - Social Science Research Council, vol.50, no.1 (March 1996); 15-18 and vol.50, no.2/3 (June/September, 1996): 31-40.
For more infromation, see the website http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/crees/fsugrant/.