Revitalizing Area Studies

I have a new piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “How to Make Area Studies Relevant Again.” (I did not choose the title.) The motivating observation is that area studies has always had a close relationship with US national interests, and working within that model is the best way to protect and revitalize area studies.

Here is another way to think about my proposal.

Many of us would enjoy the opportunity to advise a promising PhD student who is going to become the world’s leading expert on, say, contemporary Thai or Malaysian politics. That would mean not only great language training, but also serious, extended interview-based fieldwork, probably mostly in the capital but also with an eye towards the regions as well. It would also require real interdisciplinary training. (By this I mean something more than a safari or a gamelan class, but rather a complex appreciation of culture, history, art, music, language, etc.)

Many who value area studies are quick to note, however, that developing that kind of in-depth expertise about one particular country is incompatible with the incentives from the academic job market in the United States. As a result, faculty do not push graduate students to do this.

That’s not a criticism of political science, or of academia more generally—and this is where I depart from most defenders of area studies, who usually lament that the disciplines have destroyed area studies. It’s just a statement of fact. The skill sets required to know the ins and outs of national politics at a truly sophisticated level, and to make important theoretical and empirical contributions to political science, may not much overlap. And to the extent that you believe that it is appropriate for political scientists to train country experts, the result is a missed opportunity for producing relevant area studies that is grounded in a discipline. As I wrote,

some PhD students develop this kind of expertise, but it is not part of the job description for an emerging scholar in either the social sciences or the humanities, and so these skills are seldom prized and rarely nurtured.

The solution I propose starts with the incentives of students and faculty and works from there. The basic idea is that the federal government should create what I call a Critical Area Studies Scholarship Program that trains students who want to work in the policy world to become area studies experts while also earning PhDs in political science or another academic discipline. Under this scheme, students can follow their interests to become country experts regardless of whatever costs that might have from the perspective of the academic job market. They also would get the disciplinary theoretical and methodological training that I think is so important. (You can read my defense of disciplinary research in area studies here.) And there is no dilution of the disciplines’ own interests in training the next generation of scholars.

If you care about area studies that is relevant and engaged—and the recent Avey and Desch survey of policymakers reminds us that they value area studies more than anything else that social science produces—then this would be the best of both worlds.