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Theories of Area Studies
Professor Kyu Young Lee
Development of Area Studies: Origin,
Lineages and Postwar Period as an
Academic Discipline
September 31, 2007 Sogang GSIS
by Jee Eun Chung,
Seo Jun Oh,
Kang Seung Hee
• I What is Area Studies?
• II History of Area Studies
• III Critiques on Area Studies
– Politically biased origin
– Limitation of theory making
– Ambiguous disciplinary position
– Globalization and disappearing areas
• IV Future Development
• V Conclusion
I. What is Area Study
• Area Study as Form of Translation: “an enterprise
seeking to know, analyze, and interpret foreign
• Lost in translation by ethnocentrism
– Goal of Area Study is to deparochialize US and EuroCentric hegemony in humanities and social science
– Area Studies specialist have been doing this by replacing
pre-existing US and Euro-centric theories with new kinds
of data, questions, and insights that are more sensitive to
cultural and historical context of locals.
I. What is Area Study
• Therefore, Area Study is cover term for:
1. Intensive language study
2. In-depth field research in local language
3. Focusing on local histories, materials, and interpretations
4. Testing elaborating, critiquing or developing grounded theories
based on detailed observation
– 5. Multidisciplinary conversations crossing the boundaries of
social sciences and humanities.
* * It is important to understand Area Studies as an
academic discipline in its historical context in which it
developed in dynamics of political, intellectual, and
institutional tensions especially in US universities.
II. History of Area Studies
• In the 18C - differentiation of generic interest in social inquiry
began to seem important.
• The differentiation on three principal cleavages.
• 1) past/present between “idiographic” history and the “nomothetic”
social sciences
• 2) West/non-West
• 3) State-market-civil society
• 1943 lack of “regional” experts was due to the second cleavage.
Since Traditional ethnography sought to reconstitute the timeless
patterns of the peoples prior to “culture contact” with the Western
World and Oriental studies focused on “high civilizations” which
were frozen historically.
• World War II The US Army conducted “area training
programs” of Foreign Area and Language Curricula
covering geography and anthropology
• The characteristic of Area Studies before Cold War is
well presented in the Robert B. Hall’s 1947 SSRC report
• “The war brought acceleration in and enthusiasm for
area studies…
• Nevertheless, much of the effect of the war was harmful
to a sound development of area studies, rather than
• However, the army experience did serve nonetheless as
a portent
• The army was reflecting the pragmatic concerns of the
extra-university sponsors. However, the training was not
very helpful since it lacked the contemporary dynamics
of areas
• Cold war
• The purpose of Area Studies during Cold War in
the U.S.
• - To promote Economic, political, and cultural
relations among nations
• - to understand the functioning of those that
already had communist regimes and to help
prevent other areas from “falling into the hands
of the communists”
• => By the end of 1945, the priorities had become
the Soviet Union and China
• => Area Studies, a discipline initiated by
• arguments for Area Studies
• geopolitical reason : The universities have an
obligation to the nation
• Area studies would repair the fact that the social
sciences “lack universality.”
• The Objectives of Area Study were those of all
social science, “namely the development of a
universal and general science of society and of
human behavior.”
– because, first of all area study calls for cooperation
among the various disciplines of the social sciences
– Teamwork is absolutely necessary since no single
person, or even science or discipline, is capable of
dealing with the complexities of the culture and
environment of an area
• However, there were challenges to the Area
– financial implications of overcoming campus
opposition to Area studies
– according to 1952, UNESCO’s International Social
Science Bulletin, Area Studies is less a contribution to
the “science of society” than to the pursuit of foreign
By the 1950s, however, area studies had become well
instituted in U,S, universities with the support coming
from major foundations ex. Rockefeller, Ford
Foundation, and numerous Fellowships, etc. The
Soviet Union, by launching the first Sputnik in 1957
prompted US government to pass the National
Defence Education Act which aided Area Studies
Centres in the U,S,
• According to Richard D. Lambert’s SSRC
Survey of 1973,
- Spectacular growth in Area Studies as seen in
the following
– broadening of curricular
– increase of numbers of programs, students,
specialists, courses, enrollment,
– Research has become theoretically and
methodologically more sophisticated
– many cross-disciplinary specializations are
developing largely in non-west context
– centers serving as a repository of expertise
– important recruitment source for the foreign affairs
– training of current employees
• 1970s The objectives of area studies, began confused
debate in the 1970s. There were also emergence of a
new form of “area studies”,
• Immanuel Wallerstein argues that they are variants of
area studies because
- they too tended to be multidisciplinary and
- their subject matter could neither be studied
ahistorically nor be studied by simple application of
universalizing social science.
• While the 1945-1970 area studies were top down
enterprise, the tide turned bottom up approach through
new studies like women’s studies.
• From 1980s and 1990s, there has been explosion of
new programs in a period of increasing financial
III. The Critiques of Area Studies
1. Politically biased Origin of Area Study
• During the WWII and Postwar period, area
specialists trained in Ivy League schools
became intelligent analysts in the Office of
Strategic Service (OSS) and helped train officers
for overseas commands and postwar occupation
III. The Critiques of Area Studies
• Area study for governmental needs, mainly
for expanding US hegemony on world politics.
– During the cold war period, US realized that in order to
assist economical development and political stability of
foreign countries as well as to expand the political
influence against Soviet Union, it is essential to have
culturally and historically contextualized knowledge of
that nations.
– Major source of funding for Area Study was governmental
agencies including CIA.
III. The Critiques of Area Studies
1. Was it a simple political effort to “Know your
2. Does Area Study is an institutionalized form of
discipline for generating knowledge for “national
3. With the collapse of Soviet Union and the end of
Cold War, is Area Study now obsolete?
- Curning’s Article
Boundary Displacement: Area Studies and
International Studies during and after the Cold War
(1) Area and international studies in the Early cold
The deeply involvement of the CIA and the FBI
in Area and international studies
FBI checks the credit records of academics,
monitors their lectures, and seeks out reliable
campus informants.
Take over a project which the CIA wanted done
to receive funding.
2) Area and international studies after the Cold war
->Area and international studies is out of control of
the CIA and the FBI. Instead, both studies are
under the Defense Intelligence College.
->focus on learning a variety of languages and
cultures and studying nations. And also, the
political economy becomes more important due
to globalization.
->Not only state funding but also foundation
Response to Critiques (Szanton)
– This kind of critique is inaccurate for at least last 40 year’s
history of discipline.
– From 1950’s private foundations such as Fulbright foundation
or Foreign Area Fellowship Program (FAFP) by Ford
Foundation have become major source of funding for Area
– Scholars benefited by these funds developed their study free
from governmental need or “national interest”, and in fact
triggered intellectual dissent against governmental policy
• e.g. Cuba, Latin America, Vietnamese war.
Response to Critiques (Szanton)
- Area Studies have broadened and took much more varied
intellectual and research agendas, debates, and trajectories.
• e.g. Katherine Gibson in Papua New Guinea
- Area Study is not the only discipline affected by political
• Michel Foucault: political power and generation of
knowledge are inevitably entwined.
• All the scholars in social science and humanistic
research are influenced by their own political position
and commitment.
III The Critiques of Area Studies
2. Limitations of Theory Building
– Area Study as “ideographic”, primarily concerned
with description, as opposed to the theory
building and generalizing character of social
– Views Area Studies as a source of data and
information, useful for developing more universal
theories in the disciplines with broader vision.
– Gordon’s Review
Gordon: Rethinking Area Studies, Once more
Response to the Critique (Szanton)
• There is no reason to believe that Area Study is
less theory-driven and contributed less to the
development of new theories in social sciences
and humanities.
- Drake and Hilbink: “data collection and theory
development are inextricably intertwined and interactive.
- Fact is always impregnated with theory and theory is
impregnated with observed experience so the fact
derived from the Area Study will be a combination of
fact and theory rather than a mere fact.
Response to the Critique (Szanton)
• What matters is not the presence or absence of
theory, but what kind of theory is being used.
– Although it could be more implicit and modest than
the ambitious theories in other disciplines in social
sciences, area study scholars elaborate, confirm, and
test the theories which could make sense to the
relationships among the elements of society, such as
a poem, a history, or a literature.
III Critiques of Area Studies
3. Ambiguous Position within the Discipline
– In the academic domain, disciplinary departments traditionally
have power to give tenure, promote research agendas and
curricula, and to decide what can be published or not.
• Departments become the unit of competition for the resources of the
– Traditionally, academic department and intellectual discipline are
mutually defining terms.
– But the multidisciplinary nature of Area Study makes the discipline
extremely difficult to find appropriate categories or subjects in the
department of social science and humanities.
• Timothy Mitchell: resulting tensions and contradiction have created
the “Crisis in the disciplines”.
Timothy Mitchell’s
Deterritorialization and Social Science
• Territorialization of Social Science from the onset of
20th Century
• From the Early 20C, universities began to be divided into
separate social science departments in the US.
• By late 20C, professionalization of the social sciences
took off including the claims to scientific authority that
could be built on exclusive territorial control of new
theoretical objects. But they also registered and
contributed to a broader political and intellectual change:
the nationalization of social knowledge.
• As professional political and academic knowledge came
to see the world as a series of nation-states, it also came
to imagine it to consist of series of discrete national
economies, societies, cultures, and histories.
• Deterritorialization and Social Science
• After World War II, in an attempt to develop the study of
non-Western areas in the US, territorial disciplines of
social science presented both a problem and an
• On one hand, the division of social analysis into the
separate study of the economy, political system, culture,
and society which had seemed more straightforward for
the study of the US did not always seem appropriate for
the study of the backward regions of the non-West.
• On the other hand, this problem paradoxically revealed
the new importance of area studies to the development
of the social science to integrate different disciplines to
be combined into what Talcott Parsons called “a total
structure of scientific knowledge.”
• The compartmentization of discipline led to the
territorialization of discipline
• The inability of culture, the state, the economy, or society
to survive as a distinct territories of social scientific
investigation – what one might call the deterritorialization
of the disciplines- reflects and interacts with another
deterritorialization, that of globalization.
• However, transnational forces and identities are said to
be one of the major factors placing the future of Area
Studies in question.
• Political science is in an unusual position. A dominant
coalition within the discipline seeks the intellectual
certainty and professional authority of a universal
knowledge of politics.
• Challenge to Area Studies
• The crisis of area studies is related to the
academic disciplines. Area studies scholars are
told to get back together with their disciplinary
partners and accepting their authority.
• Therefore, the future of area studies lies in their
ability to refuse the disciplinary claim to
universality and the particular place this claim
assigns to area.
• Since the 1970s, the disciplines gradually have
had to abandon the attempt to define
themselves by laying claim to academic
sovereignty over a particular area of social
• Significance of Area Studies
• provide the detailed knowledge of exotic
regions required to universalize the
science of politics.
• to this project of universalization was the
increased recognition of cultural relativity
or the acknowledgement of cultural
differences in the social sciences.
• serve as a testing ground for the
universalization of the social sciences.
Response to the Critique (Szanton)
• New forms of knowledge call for new structures of knowledge
– Direct challenge to traditional intellectual and organizational boundaries.
• Area study should demonstrate that there are important forms of
knowledge that require interdisciplinary collaboration which the
traditional disciplines are unlikely to produce on their own.
• Must maintain productive tension between discipline and area
– Area Study need disciplines for the concepts and methods which can
contribute to understand and translate another society or culture.
– Disciplines need Area Study specialists to challenge their US or Eurocentric assumption.
III Critiques of Area Studies
4. Globalization and disappearing locals.
• Globalization is diminishing the uniqueness of
dynamics of localities, erasing boundaries, and
forcing homogenization of localities, cultures,
and social and economic practices.
• Concern on specificity or peculiarity of local is
fading way.
Response to the Critique (Szanton)
• Area Study have to expand their unit of analysis
beyond the level of nation state and geographical
– Variety of transnational Diaspora and network is
emphasizing the importance of new social and cultural
formations cross-cutting previous nation state and area
• e.g. Al-Qaeda, transnational terrorist network
– More comparative and thematic research across areas
should be encouraged to help determine how different
and interconnected the areas really are.
IV. Future Development
1. Expand the interest to Diaspora
- stop focusing on nation state as primary actor and
unit of international analysis.
2. Collaboration with insiders is essential
for studying global and transnational
- Fieldwork based on the collaboration between
insiders and outsiders can provide much fuller and
analytically rich accounts of other societies.
*Case study by Katherine Gibsion
J-K Gibson Graham:
Area Studies After Post Culturalism
• Katherine Gibson’s (KG) fieldwork was designed as
a response to the Postculturalism.
– Postculturalism has tendency to distrust fieldwork,
seeing it as a form of colonization.
– Postculturalism put capitalism as an economic standard
for understanding all economic activities. Globalization
discourse performed the task of harnessing ecomonic
difference and specificity into capitalist hegemony.
• But this capitalocentric viewpoint strengthened the
euro-centrism by depriving economic autonomy of
everything that is not capitalism.
• Goal of KG’s fieldwork was to find new horizon
of Area Studies by deconstructing capitalism and
constructing the diverse economy in local
community of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
– Tried to examine non-capitalist, non-market activity
which was largely ignored from conventional
economic accounts.
• e.g. household and voluntary sector, gift economy
– Area Studies as a rich resource for the theorization,
observation, and enactment of economic difference.
• Mama Lus Fruit Scheme
– During the harvest, 14% of oil-palm bunch, which is
the major source of income in PNG, ends up as loose
– They could be an excellent source for oil palm mills
because of higher oil content.
– Mama Lus Fruit Scheme introduced mama card
which can remunerate women who engaged in
collecting loose fruits.
– Now 3200 women are engaged in this business and
those women are now claiming up to 26% of total
income generated by oil-palm production.
– Increased income was used for consumption items,
increased mobility, schooling fees, gambling, and gift
Interpreting Mama Lus Fruit
• Women involved in Mama Lus Fruit are selling products to capitalist
firm and satisfying consumption desires with their newfound income.
– Can be seen as capitalism pushing aside or subordinating other
practices and identities
• But women also use their extra income to support traditional gift
exchange that can sustain clan identity and cultivate community.
• PNG case study shows us that the knowledge in area grow the
economic benefits of both capital and small sector.
 It was focus toward difference (non-capitalist economy) rather
than dominance (capitalist economy) –
 As a result it reduced domestic violence and contributed to the
local welfare.
• Area Study is the disciplinary domain that has developed and
preserved fieldwork as a productive technology, and it has to be
appreciated for its potential generativity.
V. Conclusion
• What are the challenges to the area
• What could be the biggest challenges for
area studies among the four critiques
mentioned by Szanton?
• Why do we need area studies?