The Problem with Area Studies

Flags representing European nations.
OLGA LEDNICHENKO/Creative Commons
Flags representing European nations.

 

The development of humanity is written in the obsessive quest to define “the Other.” Anthropology muses over questions of the savage, history measures hierarchies of backwardness, peace and conflict studies traces notions of human nature, cultural studies searches for fundamental difference. The threads of these distinct but related fields stitch together understandings of our patchwork planet and those who inhabit it.

In the aftermath of World War II, “area studies,” as we now understand the field, ascended to its spacious room — filled with oriental rugs, wooden masks and tea chests — in the ivory towers of academia. Faced with the specter of communism and the instabilities emerging from the decolonization of the larger part of the world, the United States injected funds and focus into this the study of “areas” in hopes of dominating — or at least coming to terms with — a cluttered and complex world order. Cast as a threat to “national security,” global diversity was essentialized into measurable categories — East Asia, Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Near East, Oceania, and so on and so forth. In these “areas,” it was believed that universal macro trends (i.e. globalization, capitalism, nationalism) could be studied, translated and deployed to produce histories, cultures, and civilizations.

Much like the world it seeks to represent, the field of area studies remains in constant fluctuation. After last week’s announcement that UC Berkeley’s International and Area Studies, or IAS, department will be consolidating the development studies, peace and conflict studies, Asian studies, Latin American studies and Middle Eastern studies majors into one global studies major, this spirit of change is very much alive and well in UC Berkeley. While the political economy major will stand alone because of its distinctly different theoretical roots, the other majors will no longer be autonomous.

Global studies will integrate all previously-offered IAS majors into a streamlined program that allows for specialization in field (development, peace and conflict, and global humanities and cultures), discipline (i.e. economics, human rights), and area (i.e. South Asia). This maintains prior levels of diversity while bringing students together with added emphasis on critical, interdisciplinary thinking. But alumni responses to March 3’s news article regarding the transition reflected dismay over the “loss” of beloved majors and fears that the political agenda of the “right-wing administration” is attempting to silence these communities.

In the aftermath of World War II, “area studies,” as we now understand the field, ascended to its spacious room — filled with oriental rugs, wooden masks and tea chests — in the ivory towers of academia. Faced with the specter of communism and the instabilities emerging from the decolonization of the larger part of the world, the United States injected funds and focus into this the study of “areas” in hopes of dominating — or at least coming to terms with — a cluttered and complex world order.

For reasons not entirely apart from those expressed in the responses to the announcement, I too was concerned and incensed over the “loss” of my development studies major. At UC Berkeley, we identify strongly with our fields of study. Whether we acknowledge it or not, they shape our daily lives in myriad ways and, in turn, shape who we are and how we relate to others. After several discussions with faculty and students, though, I am convinced that this transition is a necessary and important move for the future of area studies at UC Berkeley. The prevailing question that arose in all interviews was not whether this was a good decision, but rather: “How will we approach Global Studies at UC Berkeley?”

Settling fears and squelching rumours in an engaging town hall discussion Thursday, IAS director Max Auffhammer led students and alumni through the changes. He described it not as a response to growing concerns over budget cuts and financial hardship within the system or a threat to current declared or intended majors, but as a move that has been in the works for a few years now. “We really took an inventory and looked at what is being done in this international area studies — global studies space in different programs,” he said.

The co-chair of the development studies major Gillian Hart explained, “We don’t just want to replicate (existing programs). We want to be attentive to their experiences but also craft something that works for us.” Adding to this, she said, “We also noticed that in 2009 when the (tuition) fees went up sharply, enrollments (in the development studies major) dropped, although enrollments in the (development studies) courses went up. Streamlining (development studies) was clearly important. It just seems to me much more coherent.”

Associate director of IAS Alan Karas echoed these ideas, explaining that the streamlining includes the assimilation of related courses, a programwide emphasis on area specificity, language proficiency and critical thinking and expansion into new realms in the humanities. He emphasized that key leaders such as Gillian Hart, Michael Watts, Clare Talwalker and Darren Zook will guide the campus into this new era of global studies. “Now this makes sense, this is very Berkeley. This is what we do.” He spoke of strong support across departments and from Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, himself an area specialist, saying, “The response has generally been quite positive.”

A distinguished member of IAS since 1995, Karras outlined ongoing re-evaluation of current capacities, explaining: “We actually do global studies (at UC Berkeley), but we are in this little corner of the campus here so you probably know people that didn’t know about these majors when they got here.” I was one of those students. With vivid recollection of my misguided desires to reach for the ever-elusive Haas acceptance, I realize now that I had no idea what I was looking for through the rose-tinted lenses, lost in my romanticized preconceptions of what it meant to be collegiate. That all changed within a week of lecture in the “Introduction to Development” course, which I took off a passing suggestion from a CalSO leader. Had I really known what the development studies program offered before I arrived in California, I probably would have come to UC Berkeley because of it and possibly made my decision sooner.

On the topic of what to call the new major, Hart said, “A big issue for a long time is that people think (development studies) is child development. So, you know, do we call it international development studies or do we call it global development studies? I actually much prefer global development studies because international to me presupposes pre-given national units and for all the reasons we talk about in postcolonial geographies, that’s problematic. Whereas, what global does is it opens it up to questioning where these nations came from in the first place.”

This sentiment challenges us to criticize definitions that we normally accept outright. The shifting literature of area studies has recently begun to emphasize the influence of local understandings and practices on global systems and processes and vice-versa. Think of it as an interdisciplinary and nonbinary approach to global studies. Without prompting, Auffhammer echoed similar sentiments: “Many global programs just focus on the global and don’t require you to get any sort of expertise in a specific region. So you understand flows of goods and capital and services across international or national boundaries, but you don’t develop any sort of local knowledge about one specific region in the world that would hopefully match your language expertise.”

Herein lies the problem with area studies. The built and natural world, the core entity that it seeks to understand, is in constant flux at levels that often outpace the production of new knowledge. A restructuring of perspective such as the one we are seeing in the IAS is what we need —  it’s what the country needs, it’s what the world needs.

Addressing the central question — “How will we approach Global Studies at Berkeley?” — Auffhammer continued,  “What we are going to design is a global studies program that marries the global and the local while taking very seriously our history of interdisciplinarity that marries the humanities with the social sciences.” He later referenced an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, of which he says “sort of lamented the lack of area studies training in the undergrad population across the country. Where do the people that become ambassadors and people working for the State Department come from? I’m hoping that many of those people will come from (UC Berkeley).” So rather than criticizing these moves as a “loss” of those abstract components of our identity that we graft from our majors, we should be thinking about how this union will create new space for exchange within and across disciplines when studying the many modes of interaction with our world.

Herein lies the problem with area studies. The built and natural world, the core entity that it seeks to understand, is in constant flux at levels that often outpace the production of new knowledge. A restructuring of perspective such as the one we are seeing in the IAS is what we need —  it’s what the country needs, it’s what the world needs. This need is reinforced in every corner of social media, every onerous presidential debate, every fear-mongering cable news diatribe and every international panel on global crises. Many leaders of our world are operating with myopic worldviews that privilege their agenda over global cooperation, not realizing our planet is a closed-loop system. In the face of problems as omnipotent as climate change and environmental variability, we are quite literally “all in this together.”  

Let us move beyond dropping dynamic people, cultures and civilizations like categorizable refuse into static “area” bins. Let us practice what we preach and address globalization as if it truly is the inevitable epoch that our prophets and commercial cannons predict it will be. Pushing the limits of what is thinkable, interdisciplinary undergraduate education — rooted in strong critical focus — may be our best shot at imagining a more cooperative humanity that tolerates and incorporates diversity rather than rejecting it as systematically “other.” In the spirit of  the new major, we need a collective approach to global studies that embodies and breathes this sentiment, one that stops pitting state against state and begins to appreciate how we are all operating — for better or for worse — in and through one another.

 

Contact Conner Smith as [email protected]