U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Area Studies and the Problems of Global Histories (Guest Post)

[Editorial note: This essay is the third in a series of posts examining a recent student-sponsored forum on intellectual history held last week at Stanford University. You can find the previous two posts here and here.]

Area Studies and the Problems of Global Histories

by Ruben Flores

Portrayals of academic area studies centers in the U.S. that have arisen in the debate concerning Stanford University’s decision to deny tenure to historian Aishwary Kumar have perplexed me. In one, Stanford literature scholar Robert Harrison describes the centers as “nationalist” rather than concerned with communication across nations. In another, Matthew Linton argues that the centers have proven unable to craft global education models or to create “independent theoretical concepts without grounding in a single discipline.” One comes away from these pieces convinced that area studies centers are parochial in their intellectual labor and thus ill-suited to the study of a noncontext-based intellectual history, by which Harrison means an intellectual history that is attuned to flows of ideas across contexts rather than their production in any one.

Here I offer two objections to these pieces. First, they misrepresent the intellectual labor taking place within area studies centers, which is not only comparative and attuned to cross-national communication but is also intellectually innovative. Second, they rest on a distinction between area studies centers and the disciplines that is not sui generis but instead part of a structural problem created by the disciplines themselves. Whatever absence of innovation exists is not the fault of area studies, I argue, but the fault of structural inertia within history departments and other disciplinary units.

I note one caveat from the onset. It is not clear in either of the two pieces which moment in the history of the area studies centers is the target of attack. Linton begins with the problems of World War I area studies centers, moves to mid-century ones, then argues that the work of “more recent” centers has been limited by attention to specific locations rather than to flows of ideas. It is difficult to respond to academic critique that argues so universally about one-hundred years of scholarship, but I do note that this willingness to compress time and geography into a minute statement of failure is emblematic of how scholars avoid the more complex histories of Latin American Studies, Asian Studies, or East European Studies centers in the US academy. With this caveat in mind, let us turn to the relationship between area studies and global histories that have come in for criticism.

Linton objects that area studies centers have not discovered the key to integrating area knowledge into a global whole, but this hardly seems enough to indict area studies as academic failures. Linton argues that the centers have failed to define the geographic parameters of regions across the globe, yet how do such disagreements about geographic boundaries within area studies differ substantially from debates within history departments about global cartography? Perhaps area studies centers have struggled to analytically unite the societies of the globe through concepts such as “borderlands” or ideological fulcrum points like communism, as Linton also argues, but does such difficulty mean that area study centers have not advanced scholarship on borderlands, communism, or other important concepts that help scholars to better understand integration across global regions? Linton’s criticisms mask what area studies centers continue to do exceedingly well in the face of their challenges: design courses of study and research for undergraduate and graduate students alike that demand a synthesis of history, philosophy, geography, and political science as the starting point for an understanding of the relationship of the US to other regions in the world. “Organicism” is the word that Morton White once used to describe such work many years ago, and it remains vitally important today in a world of war and migration.[1]

Linton’s related claim that area studies centers do not innovate new frameworks of interpretation but merely apply ones innovated in the disciplines seems hardly defensible to me. The literature scholar and intellectual historian Ignacio Sánchez Prado has recently coined the term “naciones intelectuales” to describe the discourses that Mexican humanists created across the 20th century to challenge the political hegemony of the Mexican state and the cultural hegemony of England, France, and the U.S.[2] Such an innovative concept not only shows American scholars what the growth of the American Empire has meant culturally for the nations of Latin America. But in making the point, Sánchez Prado also shows how Latin American intellectuals have theorized Mexico’s relationship to classical Greece and Rome, the Spanish Empire, and 20th-century European modernism. Raúl Coronado has marginalized the French and English Enlightenments in 19th-century Texas in favor of Spanish Enlightenment thought through the creation of an international discourse of political rights that stretched from Madrid to the Caribbean to Texas.[3] In doing so, he has reshaped the study of US history, literature, and political theory by exploding narrower frameworks of analysis in favor of global circuits of ideas. I could go on with additional examples that show how new theoretical frameworks have helped us to reconceptualize the relationship of Latin America to Europe and North America, but the work of these two thinkers suffices to show how the vitality of thought that is routinely traded within Latin American area studies has helped us to rework the history and effects of U.S civilization.

The true tragedy of the characterizations by Harrison and Linton is that they perpetuate the belief that the weaknesses of the area study centers can be separated from the structural weaknesses of the disciplinary units themselves. They cannot. Area studies centers do not control their own faculty lines or hiring decisions. Instead, they are amalgams arranged by courtesy appointments from disciplines that retain the ultimate control for the flow of scholars that come into their departments. This structural arrangement has enormous consequences for the area studies centers. It means that the disciplines themselves, and not the area studies centers, are the units that hire scholars and decide tenure cases. If subsequent intellectual problems follow in area studies, such shortcomings are as much the failure of the disciplinary units that made the hires in the first place as they are of the area study centers that did not. Such a structural arrangement also produces a conflict between disciplines that demand distinct forms of intellectual labor and interdisciplinary units that use broader forms of work in their everyday analysis.

This structural problem is exacerbated by the fact that few departments of U.S. history insist that their graduate students and faculty integrate foreign-language work into their tenure portfolios. This is a devastating structural impediment to global histories. It means that U.S. historians cannot integrate philosophy, literature, sociology, or religion conducted in a language like Spanish into their work, because Americanists have no reading basis on which to evaluate such intellectual labor. Consider the fact that intellectual historians routinely use Herman Melville, William James, and Robert Park as part of their inquiry into the history of American ideas, but that similar ideas produced by Jorge Cuesta, Luis Villoro, and Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán cannot be evaluated because Americans cannot read the original work in Spanish that reflects the presence of a discourse across nations. Tenure committees are ill-prepared to evaluate such work, meanwhile. How would a committee of Americanists evaluate a tenure portfolio partially based on the humanism of Alfonso Reyes or the pragmatism of Moisés Sáenz? Poorly in most cases, and skeptically without the intervention of philosophers capable of translating ideas for an American audience and academic Spanish into academic English.

This failure to read the foreign languages also means that Americanists are often incapable of judging the worth of new ideas that wash over and routinely innovate the intellectual substance of the area studies centers. My aim is not to chastise Americanists. It is to show that area studies centers routinely help to innovate new ideas that history departments are structurally ill-equipped to appreciate. That Sánchez Prado and Coronado in my examples above are literary theorists might suggest to some that these scholars developed their innovative ideas in the Spanish and English departments where their tenure lines are housed. But it is impossible to call their work merely “nationalistic,” and it is impossible to separate the innovations in their work from the dialogues in Latin American Studies centers that they were engaged in as they wrote their books or from their analysis of the original Spanish texts that they incorporated into their evaluations.

Area studies centers are under financial attack from the US government as Title VI programming continues to be cut and from state legislatures concerned with producing more graduates in the professions. Within our universities, they are dominated politically by disciplinary units that find it hard to take intellectual chances and are structurally ill-prepared to evaluate scholarship that has been produced in other languages. If there is, indeed, a problem of “academic globalism,” as Linton maintains, or a problem of nationalist scholarship, as Harrison argues, this is not the fault of area studies centers. It is the problem of disciplines that refuse to transform their own structures yet find it easy to blame the interdisciplinary units when they do not do that work for them.


[1] Morton White Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism (New York: Viking Press, 1949).

[2] Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado Naciones intelectuales: Las fundaciones de la modernidad literaria mexicana, 1917-1959 (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2009).

[3] Raúl Coronado A World Not to Come : A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013).

Ruben Flores is associate professor of American Studies and courtesy professor of history at the University of Kansas. He is former associate director of KU’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Flores is the author of Backroads Pragmatists: Mexico’s Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014), which analyses the political effects in Mexico and the U.S. of the discourse in pragmatism conducted across the two nations in the middle of the twentieth century.

5 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Ruben, thanks much for this contribution.

    The context of how academic life is structured at the social/organizational level is *so* important in shaping the “purely ideational.” Only in particular contexts can people make the case that context is of minor importance!

    A few of our readers independently suggested that we do some posts on this student-sponsored forum, because of the topic, the fact that Stanford students are asking this question and/or championing one view of its answer, the fact that our intellectual history conference is headed to Stanford in the fall, the fact that the Western Culture stuff keeps coming up, etc, etc. It’s in our territory, as it were.

    That said, it’s important to note that most of the discussion on the panel about what intellectual history is or needs to be was coming from non-historians, though they seemed to be in general agreement with the views that Kumar expressed. There are perfectly understandable reasons why other members of the history department might not participate in that panel — reasons having to do with departmental decorum, academic politics, etc. In the Q&A, when Harrison asked Paul Robinson, who was in the audience, if he wanted to weigh in as an intellectual historian, he politely declined.

    I can’t imagine that the Stanford history department as a collective is entirely thrilled that we (and others) are discussing a roundtable on intellectual history that was convened due to a tenure denial case — no doubt views on the whole situation are divided, but as a matter of decorum and professional comity (not to mention professional self-preservation), those views aren’t ever going to be discussed in public.

    That’s one of the things that makes the 1980s battle over Western Civ / the canon so noteworthy — it was a moment when academic politics, usually handled with decorum behind closed doors, broke out into the open and got a little rough (rough for academics, anyhow). That suspension, under stress, of the customs of academic discourse is one measure of the significance of the conflict.

    And of course one of the reasons that academic politics went public in the 1980s was because of student involvement and student activism — partly because students are not conditioned to observe the same rules of decorum as their professors (a fact that was much discussed by dismayed faculty and scolding administrators during the 1980s debates). The student activism around this tenure case, including the sponsored forum, is a contemporary example of the kind of action that has had significant consequences in the past.

    At the same time, students are always operating on particularly partial information. The students in this case seem to be making the connection between Kumar’s approach to intellectual history and the university’s decision to deny him tenure — but there is no way to know if/how those things are related.

    Even if they’re not related, the students’ belief that they are, coupled with their decision to sponsor a forum on intellectual history that featured one intellectual historian and two literary scholars and drew an overflow crowd — that’s significant enough, I think, to merit some discussion here.

    Anyway, thanks again for this really important critique.

    • Hi L.D.
      Thanks for this message and for the posts that S-USIH has published on the matter of the area studies centers. I thought for a second that I should add a last paragraph to my post indicating that none of my words were targeted at the specific case of the Stanford tenure decision. We cannot know what the tenure decision was based on and it was not my intent to weigh in on what happened. Primarily I was concerned to defend the intellectual merits of the area study centers and to inquire about their relationship to the disciplines.

      I am not sure that we have to be too concerned about the Stanford history department’s opinion of our forum. Tenure decisions are not taken lightly and departments go with their best assessments and move on. They might even appreciate the added attention given to intellectual history. It has a long pedigree on the coast and perhaps the students and faculty have raised some additional questions that others will consider in the future.

      Has anyone thought to have a panel at the next conference on the matter of global intellectual history? Everyone will be aware of the tenure decision anyhow, and it seems possible to discuss intellectual history without being disrespectful to the Stanford faculty. Just a thought.

      • Ruben, thanks.

        No, I didn’t mean to imply that any of us were commenting on the case itself — no possible way to so knowledgeably, and no desire to do so even if we could, I expect. But it’s part of the “context” that may have informed the composition of this panel we are commenting on — one intellectual historian and two literary scholars defined intellectual history in a particular way that might have gone differently with different issues/concerns prompting the inquiry in the first place.

        As to plans for the Stanford conference — I have no idea what is on the program, but I’m sure it will be wonderful. I’m working on the 2017 conference for Dallas.

  2. Ruben,

    Thanks for your thought-provoking response.

    I actually don’t think we’re far apart on area studies’ value. The reason I wrote the post was because I was surprised that globalist scholars still used area studies as the predominant competing frame of reference. I agree that it is difficult to disentangle area studies’ failures with those of its disciplines. Undoubtedly, disciplinary stubbornness played a role in splintering the interdisciplinary aspirations of area studies in the 1970s and 1980s. Area studies also bears some of the blame for its struggles, however. At the training level, it was never able to overcome the problem of integration – teaching graduate students area expertise and disciplinary knowledge within a reasonable number of years. As a result, “area experts” either emerged from area programs as disciplinary experts (usually in history or political science) with some language and area expertise or as area experts with limited disciplinary training. In terms of research, with the important exceptions of a few area centers at Washington, Columbia, and Michigan, a truly collaborative interdisciplinary research framework was never developed. Scholars at places like Harvard’s Center for East Asian Studies brought together researchers from diverse disciplines and housed them under one roof, but actual cooperation was limited.

    My second criticism about area studies’ lack of innovative frameworks does not represent my own views about area studies, but instead a commonly held view about area experts among disciplinary experts. Area experts as “spelunkers for facts,” as they were called by Bruce Cummings, was a view that began in the late 1950s (as far as I can tell). I believe it was a criticism begun by social scientists frustrated by the preponderance of historians working in area studies, particularly leadership positions. Social scientists did not believe area studies was quick enough to adopt new theories from the disciplines. Ultimately, this culminated in the rise of rational choice theory in the social sciences, which was sharply critical of area studies as a threat to its universalist aspirations. That rational choice theory found a warm reception among the neoliberal politicians (I include Reagan and Clinton under this category) that began deep budget cuts to area studies is no coincidence.

    My final comment is about the intellectual labor produced at area centers. It was and continues to be extremely valuable. Looking at the inclusion of non-Western areas in American university curricula in the 1930s versus today, it is obvious area studies’ pedagogical impact. In fact, as I remarked to Tim Lacy in my response to his comment, part of area studies’ decline may have been because they succeeded too well, at least in terms of Asian studies. The Association of Asian Studies has thousands of members, most of whom are employed in department organized by discipline. Academic scholarship on the history and politics of Asia, particularly on China, South Asia, and Southeast Asia is more vibrant than ever. This is a legacy of area studies.

    Yet, as the university globalizes it seems like area programs will gradually be assimilated into the disciplinary structure of the university or be housed in new “global” or “international” studies programs. This would follow the pattern of SSRC/ACLS restructuring in the 1990s. Area studies’ integration would likely have positive and negative consequences. More communication between area specialists would create new opportunities for collaborative research as well as larger planetary (to use Kumar’s term) narratives. It will also erase of some the problem with lack of language and foreign area training in the disciplines (though the problem of integration will still persist). At the same time, I fear that this will lead to an erosion of area specialists control over their own labor and further intrusion of a neoliberal approach to scholarship whereby the uniqueness of areas will be erased in the name of openness and universals.

    I enjoyed your rebuttal a great deal and hope we can continue discussion about these issues further.

  3. Hi Matthew,
    Thanks very much for writing and I wish you the best of success with your continuing research. I have a very deep interest in the history of the disciplines and the interdisciplinary units and for that reason was captivated by the discussion that ensued at Stanford and at S-USIH.

    One of the perennial themes in the history of the area study centers and the interdisciplinary units like American Studies (some places call it an area study center while others do not) is the definition of successful collaboration across the disciplines. I am not sure that an answer to this has ever had a stable philosophical formulation even if it has had some successful institutional models. The very first article I assign to grad students is Henry Nash Smith’s “Can ‘American Studies’ Develop a Method?” He didn’t know what successful collaboration would look like. He just had questions that none of the disciplines could answer, and so he set out to develop his own methods. Maybe one way to approach the matter of successful collaboration is to focus on what remains unasked, rather than focusing all of our attention on figuring out what successful interdisciplinarity looks like a priori. I suppose it gets more difficult when we try to mediate between humanistic scholarship and social scientific scholarship, too, both of which have claims to collaboration across the disciplines. For their own part, the humanists thought that it was the social scientists who were too slow to adopt the methods of the literature, philosophy, art, and history departments, so it does seem like there is some room here for a wider set of questions to develop out of the competing but parallel versions of the work that many had been discussing. We might throw out funding and tenure pressures over time into the mix, too. Back in the 50s one could work for 10 years on a book. Not so today, a challenge that places even more pressure on scholars who are trying new approaches.

    There is a good distinction to be drawn between the changing philosophical understandings of the disciplines as they developed after 1900 and the development of the area study centers at mid-century. I like Morton White and H. Stuart Hughes because they focus so much energy on the transformation from the formalism of the 19th century to the antiformalism of the 20th. (And a shout out to Andrew Hartman for talking about this in A War for the Soul of America.) Their discussions of “organicism” helped us to see the tighter relationships between the disciplines and opened a philosophical road that helped us see how the disciplines could begin to overlap and complement one another. But how we get from this earlier moment described by White et al to the mid-century debates about the relationship of the disciplines to one another in the area studies centers seems to still need a lot of work. I think more intellectual labor here could help us to better understand how the various strains of collaborative work came into contact with one another across time.

    Finally, let me only add that I was not trying to weigh in on the Stanford decision in particular and that I felt Harrison’s sympathy for Kumar and for international circuits of exchange. Like you, then, I was startled by his criticism of area studies. There are many different centers, though, of course, and what is happening in one may not be happening in another, and perhaps with further exchanges we might better understand what he meant.

    I wish you my best on your continuing work and look forward to more, absolutely! Thank you for your message. All of my best.

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