3ème journée d’études: Joint Workshop GIGA- IdA (Institut des Amériques, Paris)

3ème journée d’études  “Conceptual Innovations  in Area Studies”  (10 March 14)

Coordinator: Bert Hoffmann (GIGA)

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Announcement on the GIGA website.

Workshop program (account of the proceedings follows)

Laurence Whitehead (Nuffield College, Oxford University): The Americas and the Myopia of Universalism? (abstract)

Arezki Cherfaoui (Université de Versailles Saint Quentin): Scientific Logic Confronted to Politics: New Approaches in Area Studies? (abstract)

Cynthia Ghorra-Gobin(CNRS): Comparatism and Area Studies: Redefining a Methodological Frame. – abstract

Mariana Llanos (GIGA): President-Court Relations in New Democracies. A Comparison of African and Latin American Cases. – abstract

Olaf Kaltmeier (Center for InterAmerican Studies, Universität Bielefeld) The Americas as Space of  Entanglements: Insights for Area Studies –  abstract

Nele Noesselt (GIGA): Processes of learning and adaption in Chinese governance

Jacques Pothier (Université de Versailles Saint Quentin): Area Studies, Global Studies: American Trends – abstract, complete working paper

Sabine Kurtenbach (GIGA): Global answers to local problems? Violence and violence control – abstract

Jan Wörlein (Université Paris Ouest – Nanterre): Area Studies and transnational scientific careers–shifting expectationsabstract

Bert Hoffmann (GIGA): Conceptual Innovations in Area Studies: Notes on the workshop day (“relatoría”–also included at the end of this post)


Summary of the workshop

This was the second leg of a discussion started at the Institut des Amériques on December 12, 2013.

Laurence Whitehead (abstract )started by raising the central issue of the tension between universalism (the assumption that our  essential object of study is all mankind) and area studies (the regional perspective). « If an American Studies perspective can be shown to add value, or improve understanding of important matters that would tend to disappear from view in a universalist account, how can such studies be conducted in order to maximize their payoff, and to minimize the risk of parochialism and overstatement of regional differences? »

Arezki Cherfaoui (abstract) proposed to historicize the development of social sciences that took the west as its primary material. The issue of the agents of the production of knowledge cannot be disregarded, involving as it does issues of power: defining universalism was the prerogative of the West, and the world tended to be divided into binary opposites (us vs. them). The challenge is to capture the new perspectives of a new world order. A major way to do it is to take into account the production and effect of knowledge: who produces it, to what end? Nele Noesselt, a scholar working on the Chinese practices of government, outlined the methodological questions raised by considering western-born paradigms of governance and the Chinese pattern of adapting and recreating within these paradigms.

Jacques Pothier (abstract, working paper) started with Immanuel Wallerstein’s assessment that while some social disciplines develop in a universalist frame, according to which all societies are going through comparable phases, in the humanities they thrive on the paradigm of separate cultural identities. The development of the field of « American Studies » within the US academia offers a case study of  the universalization of Western concepts to other areas, with the possible result of deconstructing the essentialism of area studies and showcasing a new universalism of hybridity. Olaf Kaltmeier ( abstract ) acknowledged the « totalitarian » dimension of area studies, in the evolution of post-national American studies into transnational American studies. The hemispheric imagination at the hands of the Westerners shows in the vision of Manifest Destiny as well as Bolivarism. He proposes to see the Americas as a « space of entanglement, »   where areas should be seen as spaces of interaction and various levels of transculturation that suggest an entangled methodology.

(On April 11 and 12, 2014, the Center for InterAmerican Studies at Bielefeld University arranged for an interdisciplinary workshop on “Entangled Spaces in the Americas” )

Cynthia Ghorra-Gobinabstract )insisted that the comparative perspective was essential in area studies–which still raised the question of the units being compared–whether the European scale of the nation-state was relevant. Are all areas comparable? are concepts necessarily transferable? How can dialogues between different epistemological traditions be compared? Mariana Llanos ( abstract ) provided a case study of comparison between Sub-Saharan African and Latin American areas, showing that not only court systems were different, but the level of formality and the quality of the primary material made comparisons difficult. Sabine Kurtenbach( abstract  ) works on the universal issue of violence and violence control, that she confronted to the monopolization of violence in  the Weberian state, from which American societies diverge to some extent–questioning the universality of the perception of violence.

Jan Wörlein ( abstract ) focused on national areas as areas of epistemological silent prejudice and claimed that different paradigms were acceptable in different national academic spheres.

Bert Hoffmann (GIGA): Concluding Remarks

  1. In academic discussions, area studies often see themselves at the defensive of the so-called systematic disciplines. However, these disciplines at times are not as “systematic” as they pretend to be. In political science there is a major sub-discipline that goes by the name of “comparative politics”. This actually is a rare species. Adam Przeworksi once characterized the dominant idea of comparative politics in the U.S. as “one where Americans go out and study other countries” (Przeworski 2003: 59). Whoever in the United States studies U.S. elections, social movements or health policy, does Political Science or Government. But who in the U.S. does research on Brazil’s elections, social movements or health policy, does Comparative Politics. Przeworski concludes: „Now, I ask myself: ‚What do Brazilians do when they study Brazil?‘”(ibid). Area Studies have always been about “the other”: There are no “German Studies” in Germany. But so are Comparative Politics, as Przeworski describes them: not systematically distinct, but about “the other”. The crucial difference is that area studies have a substantial tradition of critical self-reflection on this matter, the discipline rather not.
  2. Area studies often are confronted with the dictum that social science should be about “replacing proper names by variables” (Przeworski/Teune, 1970: The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry). However, area studies are intrinsically linked to proper names. In fact, no scholar does “area studies”; area studies scholars almost always are specific-area studies: Be it African Studies, Southeast Asian studies, post-Soviet studies or in whatever way the area is defined – area studies always are “proper name studies”.
  3. Social sciences often are called upon to learn from the logic of the so-called “exact” or natural sciences. In some way, this might be a good argument for area studies. Of course, there are valuable studies on, say, the generic logic of the respiratory system of mammals. But nobody would doubt the value of studying the “proper names”, that is, how the whale breathes or how air pollution affects the panda bear population. Just as area studies have no need to be on the defensive if they not only care for general theories of democratization but also how the struggles about democracy play out in Nepal or Nigeria. In eco-systems, it has become conventional wisdom that biological diversity is a high value, and that scholarship should seek to understand the breadth of this diversity, and not just the cash-crops and -cows of the dominant model of industrialized agriculture.  As to “socio-systems”, area studies have been much better at understanding and valuing social and academic variety than the mainstream of the disciplines.
  4. Of course, area studies scholars will work with “variables”, generic names, concepts, theories. But their contribution to theory-building on, say, the state, will come from analyzing and identifying the specifics of the, say Latin American state, or the Chinese state. And contrary to what some colleagues from the “disciplines” think, area studies is not only about applying and testing theories made up elsewhere, normally in the Western OECD countries. The empirical realities of the areas under study, as well as the debates of and with the colleagues from these regions, can lead to new concepts, generic names, and theories. Theorizing about remittances, for instance, was pioneered at such a remote place as the University of Tahiti, a place where remittances are a key pillar of the economy. Making concepts travel is not a one-way street from North to South.
  5. Area Studies have a long pedigree of approaching their object of study in a holistic way. With the ever-increasing specialization of modern academia, the disciplines and sub-disciplines tended to portray the broader and interdisciplinary area studies approaches as somehow pre-modern and not quite up to “rigorous” academia. Of course, no single scholar would pretend to be master of all trades in analyzing a certain regional unit in the same way as Tacitus wrote on the Germanic tribes, from the environment and climate they lived in to their economy and gender roles, political system and social norms. However, to understand complex phenomena, interdisciplinarity is needed more than ever. There is no single discipline that can explain climate change, or find ways out of its disastrous consequences. All through academia, new interdisciplinary research clusters are called for or promoted. The highly specialized disciplines often enough find it difficult to work together rather than side by side. Where synthesis is needed area studies have a unique vantage point in their long experience and, hopefully, mastership of organizing interdisciplinary scholarship.
  6. Conceptual innovations are needed. But we also need solid empirical research to live up to the promises of the innovation. Cross-area comparisons are an intellectually very attractive way to get beyond some of the limitations of single-area studies. But they also have to cope with new problems. Mariana Llanos presented a study that illustrated the potential benefits of cross-regional comparisons, but it also showed some of the pitfalls if such proposition is seriously taken to the ground. Similarly the turn to transnational flows and entanglements is promising proposed by Olaf Kaltmeier is promising but also here it will be a challenge to take the conceptual innovations to the testing  grounds of empirical studies. The proof is in the pudding, and all methodological and conceptual innovations will only be as good as the results they eventually produce.
  7. Refleting on the intellectual arguments for area studies, Jan Wörlein pointedly asked: “So why aren’t we winning?” It is true, area studies face an uphill battle in the ranking of academic journals and in scholarly evaluation processes where scholars from the systematic discipines dominate. However, they have solid demand going for them. For practitioners in politics, media and business area experts are among those social science scholars deemed most relevant, rather than the sophisticated model-builders that may thrive in the academic market-place. Moreover, at universities there is consistent high demand from the student side. While often ironically called “Backpacker B.A.” area studies not only attract many students but also, generally speaking, fare no worse in terms of job market perspectives for their graduates than political science or sociology or cultural studies proper. For university managers such demand-side considerations become more important. Maybe we are not “winning”, but area studies are not a species in danger of extinction. They are more solidly anchored in academia than we ourselves often tend to think. Let’s call it a draw.

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