The new world of area studies

Spring 2007 Interaction

L.A. Cicero

Judith Goldstein, director of the Division of International, Comparitive and Area Studies, in Encina Commons, which she hopes can be the new home for all her division's programs and centers.

After World War II, U.S. scholars, lawmakers and diplomats agreed that knowledge about the rest of the world was essential if another such conflagration were to be avoided. Within a few years, the post-war desire for peace was overtaken by the Cold War, whose premise also called for Americans to take seriously the challenge of understanding the rest of the world. "We" needed to learn about "them."

As a result, in 1958, Title VI of the National Defense Education Act (renamed the Higher Education Act in 1965) provided funding for research and training in international and foreign language studies, and it has done so ever since.

In the private sector, meanwhile, after the death of Henry Ford in 1947, the Ford Foundation also underwent a dramatic shift toward international concerns, and in the following decades it plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into block grants for international research at leading universities, Stanford among them. Ford played a critical role in the development of what would become known as Area Studies.

David Laitin

"When I was an undergraduate [at Swarthmore]," said Stanford political scientist David Laitin, "the only course on Africa was 'The British Empire.'"

In response to that dearth, universities nationwide established centers and/or programs devoted to Africa, East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and Latin America. The criteria for determining that these were areas, though Europe and North America apparently were not, was problematic, as was the question of where to draw boundaries and why.

Nonetheless, social scientists and humanists at these centers studied cultures, languages, economic development, social movements and state formation. They were, veterans say, the first interdisciplinarians. As the former president of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Kenneth Prewitt, wrote in 1996, Area Studies was "the most successful, large-scale interdisciplinary project ever in the humanities and the social sciences." (The SSRC, created in 1923 by the Rockefeller Foundation, together with the American Council of Learned Societies ended up managing many of the Ford Foundation grants until the mid-1990s.)

The oldest of the Area Studies programs at Stanford are the Center for East Asian Studies and the Center for Latin American Studies, formed in the early 1960s, and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, founded in 1969.

Today those three plus a collection of other regional and religious concentrations are grouped together in the Division of International, Comparative and Area Studies (ICA) of the School of Humanities and Sciences. Depending on the center or program, they offer master's degrees, undergraduate honors, major and minor programs, post-docs, speakers series, and a physical and intellectual space for an array of Stanford and visiting scholars who share an interest in and love for a specific geographic area, however defined.

For, what is an area, anyway? If the commonality between, say, Argentina and Honduras appeared obvious to Latin Americanists in the 1960s, the same is not true today. Scholars are far more critical than they were about terms such as "culture" or "development." Explaining why a region should be studied as such is no longer easy. Lines on a map are not the most significant way of defining a region; where, exactly, does the "Middle East" begin or end? Which region does Central Asia belong to? Is a Texas county whose population is 90 percent immigrant any less "Latin" than the state across the Mexican border?

Disciplines and regions

Chief among the commonality of Argentina and Honduras, of course, was their language, and the language and literature scholars (along with anthropologists) early on took the lead role in Area Studies.

"The social scientists ignored Area Studies," remembered historian Herb Klein, director of Stanford's Center for Latin American Studies. "People complained that they didn't speak foreign languages; they just crunched numbers."

Stephen Haber
Stephen Haber

According to Stephen Haber, professor of political science and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, "at the extreme ends you had people who had models and data sets but who had never been to Mexico. Or, you had Area Studies people who didn't know which way a demand curve sloped. People who know both are rare. They can solve models AND they know about Thailand. That's not easy."

One Stanford scholar who does both (though not on Thailand) is sociologist Andrew Walder, an expert in the Chinese Cultural Revolution who is also a senior fellow at the Freeman-Spogli Institute (FSI). In his opinion, it might take more time to find people who work at both ends, but it's worth it.

"The problem with some scholars, both in the humanities and the social sciences, is that they're not interested in anything other than their country. That's a boring intellectual attitude, if you ask me. If you think your country is important, then you want non-specialists to know about it. You have to figure out how to talk to people who aren't specialists, who are theorists, and talk to them in their language."

In the years since Area Studies programs were established, universities have witnessed a transformation of the world economy, the so-called culture wars and fierce government cutbacks for research. When there was enough money to go around, there was room for differences. Today, after some 20 years of debate, not all of it civil, the social scientists (many of whom broadened out and learned languages) have become central to Area Studies.

Social scientists at Stanford are eager to occupy that difficult place Haber pointed to, expert in both their discipline and a region. Judith Goldstein, a political scientist and the director of ICA, says Area Studies was neglected for years.

"The deep knowledge lost out," she said, what with the social scientists crunching numbers and the humanists studying languages and cultures. "Now we need to use ICA as a resource to help departments hire people who can do both Area Studies and their discipline. We need to reintegrate Area Studies back into the social sciences."

Laitin, Goldstein's departmental colleague, shares that view.

"When I got here, research based on fieldwork was re-emerging," he said. "Up until then, we had no idea if our research models were working; we couldn't expand our theories. I said, this is the moment to rebuild Area Studies on a somewhat different foundation."

But, he added, they needed "to restock the social sciences" with people skilled in both their discipline and in regional studies.

Faculty billets

So ICA was given a small number of billets which, instead of going to departments, would be regional in nature and open to one of a series of competing departments. History, Sociology, Political Science, Economics and Anthropology would be asked if they were interested in hiring, say, a Middle Eastern scholar. If they were, each would announce an opening in their respective discipline, and the ICA standing committee on hiring reviewed all the candidates.

Their dossiers, said Laitin, the committee chairman, "are a joy to read."

"I've learned a great deal," he said, "seeing how different scholars are all asking, how do we know if things are typical or not? We all deal with the same sort of problems. It's really spectacular work."

Goldstein says ICA is "a resource to help departments hire people who can do both Area Studies and disciplines." It is not a hub-and-spokes arrangement, she insisted; "it's more like the grease that keeps the faculty going." Klein, too, part of the ICA leadership (he is in Santiago de Chile this quarter), sees the centers as "providing services to departments."

The hiring method, however, has its challenges. For one thing, it's very complicated, with money coming from private sources, FSI and Humanities and Sciences. Klein himself pointed out that "there's no free money," and that despite the line coming to them from above, departments might worry that it could be counted against their billet pool in the future. Some people have questioned its transparency. Members of the history department worried aloud that the complicated origin of the billets (among the dean, the donor, ICA and the department) could compromise the jobs in the long run. And not every Area Studies program wants a social scientist or a scholar of the contemporary world.

L.A. Cicero
Bielefeldt and HHDL
Carl Bielefeldt, director of the Center for Buddhist Studies, was on a panel in 2005 with the Dalai Lama.

"I don't need a sociologist who does East Asia," remarked Carl Bielefeldt, a professor of religious studies and director of the Buddhist Studies program, which belongs to ICA. "I need a traditional China scholar who reads old books."

What some people in ICA have been heard to refer to as "esoteric" is, to many people in the humanities, the essence of the matter, which is culture. Not all scholars, disciplinarians though they may be, share the same definition of "tools" or "area."

"The relevant divisions are not only geographic, they're cultural," said Bielefeldt. "East Asian Studies, for example, covers the Chinese cultural sphere, an area with shared traditions. There is significant resistance today to globalization based on multiple cultural traditions that need to be understood. Cultures are part of human resources. We must know how to incorporate the genius of cultures into our larger human understanding."

There also are differences within the social sciences, between those devoted to just one region or country and those who are more theory-driven and comparative.

"Some people are so defensive about disciplinary standards they don't want to look carefully at people who have the name of a country in their book title," said Walder.


All in one place

Today, there are few universities that have not once again identified the international arena as a priority, which might seem to make this the moment for bridging divides. The need for "global literacy," which the humanities naturally have a stake in, has become a commonplace as economies and markets become more interdependent and immigration patterns shift. Universities are also aware that their peers are investing heavily in the global game, and no one wants to be left behind.

Goldstein thinks all the regional and religious programs under the ICA umbrella should co-locate, ideally in Encina Commons. The connection among the groups is not apparent - Goldstein herself says there was "no rhyme or reason" in the creation of ICA, rather just a scooping up of available organizations in H&S - yet there is potential for collaboration, for stressing breadth rather than depth, she said. Rice cultivation or import substitution in one place probably is not that different someplace else.

As an example of seizing opportunities, ICA is planning to launch a series of multidisciplinary projects next year focusing on the Silk Road, in which students will study the transfer of goods, ideas, languages and people along the 5,000-mile route linking East Asia and the Mediterranean.

But here too, the regional specificity may get lost. "Globalization" cannot adequately address the past and present of, say, just Indonesia or just Kenya. Japanese historian Karen Wigen recalled the old Japanese studies center at the University of Michigan, where she earned her doctorate. "You entered that building, filled with tatami mats, and you'd say, 'this is about Japan,'" she said. But Michigan, along with Duke, Princeton, Chicago, Columbia and many other leading universities, over the past 20 years have grouped their Area Studies programs together.

"Judy [Goldstein] says us all being together would engender synergy," said Klein, sitting in his office on the second story of Bolivar House. "I don't buy it. I spent lots of time in that building at Columbia. Across the hall you can see the Chinese, and you see each other in the coffee room, but there's no joint anything."

But, he added, there is an enormous benefit for the students, because they can meet lots more people and find out about so many more activities.

"That makes for a lively intellectual center," he said. "But faculty will go their own way. We work with faculty in other universities anyway."

Wigen, who has a pronounced dedication to Area Studies - she teaches a graduate seminar called "Directions in Asian Studies" - came to Stanford with her husband, historical geographer Martin Lewis, precisely because of Stanford's support for interdisciplinarity.

At Duke, the two were part of a path-breaking project launched in response to the Ford Foundation's "Crossing Borders" initiative, which set as a goal "stimulating communication across a pair of formidable boundaries: the geographic borders of traditional area studies and the disciplinary borders between the social sciences and the humanities." The Duke project, called Oceans Connect, reconceptualized ocean basins as areas. Wigen believes the spatial framework itself, not just what goes on within it, must be an object of analysis because it is so obviously a construction. "The Pacific," after all, has not always been a logical unit of analysis.

A resilient corner

The problems facing Area Studies today are not new ones: a permanent shortage of funds, tension between the social sciences and the humanities, inadequate knowledge of languages (which Klein says is shifting thanks to the growing number of foreign graduate students here), disagreement over the adoption of multidisciplinary approaches and a struggle to make academic structures respond to international, political and demographic ones. Universities must also identify priorities in their global coverage.

But it appears to be a resilient corner of academia. It survived the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and harsh criticism from conservatives in the 1990s for not being sufficiently "balanced." While Title VI funding has plunged and major foundation support has ebbed, new donors appear at the university's doorstep interested in funding centers.

"Area Studies has been engaged in a long conversation, and it has undergone many permutations," Wigen said. It has its own journals, its own traditions, its own mission.

"Maybe Area Studies marginalizes some things," Bielefeldt said. "But until cultures are equally represented in the university, we need to foster these studies."


Programs and Centers in the Division of International, Comparative & Area Studies

  • Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies
  • Asian Religions and Cultures
  • Center for African Studies
  • Center for East Asian Studies
  • Center for Latin American Studies
  • Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies
  • Center for South Asia
  • France-Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Studies
  • International Policy Studies
  • International Relations
  • Mediterranean Studies Forum
  • Moghadam Program in Iranian Studies
  • Stanford Center for Buddhist Studies
  • Taube Center for Jewish Studies