Area Studies, Global Studies: American Trends

[Working paper, Hamburg, March 10, 2014]

This is a draft. Please do not cite or quote without prior consent of the author.

Through the lens of area studies in the US, I would like to contribute to assessing the issue in terms of the world vision in which they can be brought to bear, the scale or granularity that defines them, the agenda behind their promotion.

In my overview of the history or area studies in the US, I would like to go back to the early days of the young republic. The first half of the 19th century coincided with the rise of the nation-state throughout the western world. The majority approach throughout western Europe is commonly associated with the view developed in the late 18th century by Johann Gottfried Herder, especially in his Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind.

–          The notion that each culture gives shape to the life  of a people, so that each action in its life becomes a manifestation of this culture. The implication is that each (national) culture embodies a distinct entity, defined by language, nation, a territory whose borders should be as « natural » as possible.

–          The belief that culture drives a people’s identity, and is rooted in a historical narrative. Thus narrative is not just text, but includes material heritage, such as sacred texts and sites of remembrance[1]

–          Culture is bordered: one people’s culture can be divided from the cultures of neighboring peoples. For a book-length study of how this template was adapted throughout Europe, see Anne-Marie Thiesse, La création des identités nationales[2]

As Immanuel Wallerstein has shown[3], the romantic vision that collapses territorial units on nation-wide societies is contingent. The development of the Nation-state and of national identity is parallel with the organization of the social and human sciences into the categories (we call them “disciplines”) that are now standard.  As the scientific approach spread into the sciences of man, “scientists” now argued for universality, “that human behavior was a natural phenomenon like any other,” and as universal as any natural pheonomenon. On the contrary, “particularizers”, or humanists, would argue that human behavior resisted to uniformity.  Universalizers were more likely to work in dept. of economics, sociology and political science,  particularizers were more likely to work in departments of history or literature. The conflict between area studies and disciplines plays at various levels, and the rivalry, if there is rivalry, is of varying intensity.  Underlying this split, Wallerstein claims,  is the conceptual consensus that an individual society as “politico-cultural unit”  (whether state, nation or people) was the basic unit of analysis, and that its historical course led it to economic, social and political “development” in a basically convergent direction.

In other words, a comparative approach leads to developing universal laws out of diversity. Conversely, in the humanities, difference is assumed. The political behavior of peoples seems to indicate that the perception of differences between units of collective identity is unquestionable. This is not a problem if one lives in a society whose culture is perceived as more refined than any other–in fact, as the model society at teh time, marginalizing other people.

In the romantic view, very common in the early US, this view was consistent with the sense that the world revolved around world empires that rose, flourished, declined and died, to be replaced by other empires that inherited them. In the 18th century George Berkeley had illustrated this idea in a famous prophetic poem entitled “The Course of Empire”, underlining that “civilizations “ would replace each other, with the hegemonic center gradually displaced further west. As Egypt, Greece, Rome and Britain had had their day, now the time had come for America to hold sway over the world. “The course of Empire,” as Thomas Cole illustrated in a famous series of paintings, implied that it was the “Manifest destiny” of the United States to embody the status of world-empire. Before the Declaration of Independence, an ideology of manifest destiny could shape the search for identity of the new nation. Note that this inscription of America in world history would mean assuming control of an era, not an area.

As we shall see, this « age of empires » preceded the age of area studies, without completely disappearing from representations of the world order.

1.     American Studies

Before the US had accomplished their destiny, it was essential that they should develop the identity of their politico-cultural unit. Applying the Herderian template to the first post-colonial society raised difficulties. To begin with, although the US had declared their political independence, their borders were unstable and their population was still being enlarged with arrivals from a huge variety of geo-cultural areas. Second, throughout this century of national identity building, the cultural heritage of the Founding Fathers was largely common with that of the mother country, Great Britain. It is significant that some, like Thomas Jefferson, toyed with the idea that the new nation should adopt a different language, such as a variation of old Saxon, or even German. The pragmatic sense prevailed against theory, and after early worries that the Americans would find it difficult to weld into a national identity while sharing the heritage of the culture based on the English language, Daniel Webster decided to show that the American language was already splitting from British English anyway; it might soon be as different from it as French was from Italian, and therefore the issue of cultural independence was on the way of solving itself naturally.

Meanwhile, writers found ways to express national identity through the development of a distinct literary history. They may have been more self-conscious about their patriotic duties than their European counterparts, but it was very much on the minds of the writers of what came to be described as the American Renaissance that they had a pivotal responsibility in bringing about an awareness of common identity for a nation made up of a crucible of cultural heritages, within borders whose only limits would be “manifest destiny.”

The place of literature in a broad sense in the building of a national identity has always been large in the American imagination, and one of its latest evidence was the establishment of a collection of heritage texts, the “Library of America” Here is how they define themselves:

The Best in American Literature

The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher, is dedicated to publishing, and keeping in print, authoritative editions of America’s best and most significant writing.

Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as the « quasi-official national canon » of American literature, The Library of America each year adds new volumes collecting essential novels, stories, poetry, plays, essays, journalism, historical writing, speeches, and more.[4]

 I see in this approach the origin of a field of studies that is peculiar to the US academia, which they call “American Studies”. The discipline is not universally acknowledged, but it has an important association of scholars, the American Studies Association, and this is how they currently define their agenda:

What the ASA Does

The American Studies Association is the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history.

Chartered in 1951, the American Studies Association now has 5,000 individual members along with 2,200 library and other institutional subscribers.

* Together these members represent many fields of inquiry, such as history,  literature, religion, art and architecture, philosophy, music, science, folklore, ethnic studies, anthropology, material culture, museum studies, sociology, government, communications, education, library science, gender studies, popular culture, and others.

* They include persons concerned with American culture, such as teachers, researchers, and other professionals whose interests extend beyond their specialty; faculty and students associated with American Studies programs in universities, colleges and secondary schools; museum directors and librarians interested in all segments of American life; public officials and administrators concerned with the broadest aspects of education.

* They approach American culture from many directions but have in common the desire to view America as a whole rather than from the perspective of a single discipline.[5]

The diversity of the texts welcomed within the volumes of the series admittedly shows that there is a broad tolerance to the quality of writing that finds its way within this national canon. One could push this approach to an analysis of the texts included in academic text-books—in the “culture wars” that raged at the end of the last century, these comprehensive selections would often carefully include all the variety of cultures making up the contemporary population of the United States, including texts representative of native traditions that did not, and indeed, could not at the time, have the building of a national American culture as their horizon.

2.     From Subaltern Studies to Global Studies

As the current ASA agenda suggests, the approach is more comprehensive and analytic than centered and synthetic. Where American Renaissance thinkers were gathering the bricks of a common core American identity, our ASA scholars want to leave no stone unturned of the components of American diversity. American Studies serves as academic umbrella to all kinds of minority and subaltern studies as well as studies of popular cultural forms less dignified than canonic literature.

Which is where it can connect with objects common with some area studies. African American studies grew to include a transatlantic interest for all the cultures of the populations linked to the African diaspora, and evolved into Africana studies, Black studies, or Africology– the study of the histories, politics and cultures of peoples of African origin. Chicano/a studies, initially the study of the culture of an ethnic minority of Mexican seasonal, and then permanent immigrants in California, developed into Latino/a studies and often spawned an interest for Latin American studies. Thus through its subsidiary branches American Studies is paradoxically relevant to a development of area studies and global studies where American paradigms are extended beyond the US borders.

Whether this generalization of American paradigms tried out in the US is a new, intellectual and therefore cultural form of post-colonial colonization is open to discussion. The case of the development of Latin-American studies is particularly interesting—and of course relevant in our present approach for the IdA conference.[6]


After these insights on the development of the American Studies angle, it is interesting that common core curricula in undergraduate programs have proved much less parochial than their 19th century heritage might lead us to expect. Students in English at American universities are generally required to pay as much, or even more attention to the English classics, or to Classic literature for that matter, than to the American canon. You could argue that the mission of defining American identity sits more squarely on the existence of this trend of American studies.

« American Studies » are concerned with what constitutes the core of « American » identity from the vantage point of all cultural aspects, not just literature. It is area studies applied to the United States.

I want to argue that the “American studies” approach is important to keep in mind when studying the epistemology of area studies in the US academic context.


In 1952, issue 4.4 of the Bulletin International des Sciences Sociales, published under the aegis of UNESCO, devoted a series of papers to the development of the new field of area study in the US. An area study, the unsigned introduction explained, is a synthetic study of a region, and draws from several disciplinary approaches in order to determine its role in international life. In « Les ’Area Studies’ : problèmes de méthode », Jean B. Duroselle underline that major role of American foreign policy on the world stage:

Depuis quelques années, en liaison sans doute avec le développement rapide d’une politique extérieure américaine à l’échelle mondiale, de nombreux savants, travaillant généralement en équipes, ont mis en chantier des travaux dont le but est de faire connaître scientifiquement les problèmes que soulèvent certains territoires, États ou groupes d’États à la surface du globe. Peut-être y a-t-il là une réaction instinctive contre l’ignorance assez profonde des milieux diplomatiques américains, en période d’isolationnisme, à l’égard de tout ce qui ne concernait pas leur continent. Peut-être aussi, dans un pays où les études géographiques sont peu poussées — plusieurs grandes universités américaines n’ont pas une seule chaire de géographie — mais où l’enseignement des relations internationales atteint un niveau très élevé, l’élaboration d’area studies constitue-t-elle u n m o y e n spontané d’associer les considérations spatiales à l’examen des données politiques générales.

Duroselle starts from a basic definition :

A première vue, et en attendant une définition plus précise, une area study est l’étude scientifique d’une région présentant une certaine unité politico-sociale, dans but de connaître et d’expliquer sa place et son rôle dans la société internationale. Ce résultat ne peut être obtenu que par l’utilisation systématique de toutes les disciplines susceptibles de fournir des explications valables. (674)

 Clearly, area studies revolve around the development of international studies in the US. Duroselle devotes the second part of his study to discussing the units of area studies: the national dimension is self evident, but would area studies on dependant countries, or colonies, be relevant? Wouldn’t multinational regional studies be more adequate? In the third part of his paper, Duroselle wonders what disciplinary fields should be applied to are studies. To him, an area study should be led by a specialist in international relations, but three disciplines are essential: history, geography and sociology. Depending on the area, other disciplines might be relevant: anthropology, linguistics, literary studies, art, religious sciences, economic and social ideas….

This 60-year old collection of essays is an interesting introduction to the historiography of the notion of area studies, and shows how much it is linked to the cold war context. Knowing regional areas is clearly a means to control the world better—with improved technology, this ambition will lead to the secret mission of the NSA.


3.     Area Studies and the Disciplines

Area studies: suggests that beyond the nations that have access to full national identity and development, the human communities of other regions of the world are more loosely connected in larger groups, not completely identified with common languages, but content with features of kinship among their cultural creations. This was the case for Latin America: as Drake & Hilbink note, “Partly because of this mixing of peoples and cultures, claims of uniqueness or exceptionalism — e.g., Ecuador is so unusual that it can be understood only on its own terms and only by Ecuadoreans or by those deeply immersed in Ecuadorean culture — have been less common in Latin American studies than in studies of some other areas, such as the United States, China, Japan, India, etc.” (25)

Area studies still refer to the US center. As Szanton remarked,

… the fundamental role of Area Studies in the United States has been – and continues to be – to deparochialize US- and Euro-centric visions of the world in the core social science and humanities disciplines, among policy makers, and in the public at large. Within the US university, Area Studies scholarship attempts to document the existence, internal logic, and theoretical implications of the distinctive social and cultural values, expressions, structures, and dynamics that shape the societies and nations beyond Europe and the United States. The broad goals are twofold. One, to generate new knowledge and new forms of knowledge for their intrinsic and practical value. Two, and more reflexively, to historicize and contextualize – in effect, to de-naturalize – the formulations and universalizing tendencies of the US social science and humanities disciplines which continue to draw largely on US and European experience. When successful, Area Studies research and teaching demonstrates the limitations of fashioning analyses based largely on the particular and contingent histories, structures, power formations, and selective, and often idealized, narratives of « the West. » (3-4)

So the interest of areas studies, given the hegemonic position of the US, is to decenter paradigms that have  been proclaimed universal, although the “concepts, theories, models, analytic fashions” are “derived from European or US experience”. In this perspective area studies provide documentary fodder for more serious disciplines that apply to western contexts and whose claim is also universal.

This centering would have been further encouraged by a post-1989 sense that the western economic and social model is now universally accepted over the planet—in other words, the globalized world is flat. The capitalist world-economy and its mode of production has made any cultural difference in the  outlying areas essentially irrelevant, unless in developing an awareness to the cultural forces that might still temporarily delay the acceptance of the world economic order.

4.     Area Studies and the challenges of hybridity

As I showed earlier about the development of the American Studies movement, the traditional agenda of defining national identity through literature has long been questioned in the field of “literary history.” There is no reason to assume that the political and economic divisions of the worlds would necessarily be reflected in cultural production.  In Global Matters: The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies, Paul Jay outlined the historiography of literary history, from the romantic period in which the nation was the home for a signle literature and language, to the Arnoldian model in which the « best » literature embodies universal truths and upholds the universal condition of the human race as defined by the western christian tradition, to a contemporary engagement with the differences: regional spaces, transnational spaces, race, class, gender identities, border regions, diaspora, hybrid identities–which can lead to a celebration of diversity as the new best with insufficient critical attention.

Questioning the invention of regional identities has become a genuine field of study, critical regionalism, whose purpose is to put to light how regions are invented, or the new units that transcend regions, such as border studies, contact zones (Louise Pratt), borderland (Gloria Anzaldua), the Caribbean space (Edouard Glissant)  These transgressive areas are defined from case studies; the border region between USA and Mexico; the Cuban diaspora…

In a post 9/11 world, the interaction between area studies, cultural studies and global studies becomes more problematic, generating new forms of scientific intercourse to accommodate a changing meta-research community, while the need for government—or specifically for the US government– to understand regional patterns would seem to be satisfactorily served with nor recourse to scholars, relying instead on technology, like the advanced listening devices of the NSA.

In the academic field, as soon as global studies include area studies, either they just integrate the research units that have developed locally on the random interests of the local scholarly community, or they fall back on geographic no-nonsense divisions that the current crisis in Ukraine shows to be inadequate to make sense of regional tensions. Areas need to be redefined according to the dimension of human, social and economic experience one considers. Although for practical reasons it is impossible to specialize in too wide an area, means must be found to accommodate the tensions and flux between cultures. Area studies imply a political assumption that diversity is the positive force that allows the capitalist mode of production to overcome its crises.

Contrary to the Herderian template, cultural studies scholars have found that cultures are more likely to grow from the disruptive, transgressive margins of their communities—and this is where the American template of area studies can be replaced by the paradigm of cultural history. Cultural history tries to define spaces and processes of cultural exchange, and it is the fluxes of intercultural circulations that matter.

As this workshop focuses on conceptual shifts, it is important to point out a conceptual difference: area studies is not quite cultural area studies–the French aires culturelles. And Culture, as Damien Erhardt developed it in the December session of this workshop, may be various things–from art to social modes or representations and rituals.  From some perspectives the world may be seen as functioning along similar lines, area studies providing variations that force to revise and refine universal models. But cultural studies take into account what, despite secular and rational reasoning, leads people to behave differently. They may be wrong or irrational but these diverse behaviors are what keeps them busy, drives their desires, conditions their economic engagement. So the circualtion of these cultural representations makes the study of the new cultural areas fully relevant. In these cultural perspectives individuals are enmeshed in multiple, overlapping, multi-layered spaces of cultural identity, so that, as Laurence Whitehead suggested, different regional areas can be relevant at different levels of human activity and scientific theory.

[1] Kwame Anthony Appiah, « Whose Culture Is It ? » ( New York Review of Books, February 9, 2006) 38

[2] Anne-Marie Thiesse, La Création des identités nationales, Europe XVIIIe-XXe siècle. Seuil, 1999.

[3] Immanuel Wallerstein, “A World-System Perspective on the Social Sciences”, British Journal of Sociology 2010, 167-176.

[4], consulted March 2, 2014.

[5] « What the ASA Does » consulted December 9, 2013. URL :

[6] See Paul W. Drake and Lisa Hilbink, “Latin American Studies: Theory and Practice”, in Szanton, David L. (2002). The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines Location: Global, Area, and International Archive. Retrieved from:


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