Area Studies and Comparative Politics: Who Won the Area Studies Wars After All?

Back in the early 2000s, graduate students in political science often read about the so-called “area studies wars” of the 1990s (link, link, link, link, link). These were portrayed as a battle between country specialists who favored qualitative methods, on the one hand, and “rational choice theorists” who favored mathematical models of the social world, on the other. The general sense among the older generation of comparative politics specialists was that the hegemonic political science mainstream defeated area studies. Depending on one’s orientation to mainstream political science, this was seen as either a good thing (yay, science wins!) or a bad thing (boo, reality loses!).

Fast forward two decades. One doesn’t much hear about “rational choice theory” anymore. Mathematical theoretical models of comparative politics remain a small part of the subdiscipline.* And The Monkey Cage—formerly a blog, now run by a stellar team of political scientists for The Washington Post—provides rapid, high-quality commentary by political scientists on current events. There is nothing more current right now than the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Monkey Cage has published a couple of excellent pieces on the conflict:

Although what caught my eye was the shout-out to my colleague Bryn Rosenfeld, in reading the pieces linked here, I come to the position that perhaps the area studies wars had a rather different outcome than many PhD students of the 2000s were led to believe by their mentors who fought in the trenches.

The great result of a half century of intradisciplinary squabbles about the role of theory, research design, and quantitative data in studying politics around the world is that generally speaking, comparativists seem to have become eager consumers of country-specific knowledge, and eager participants in current debates about how our research informs public debates about important issues like, say, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the movement for abortion rights in Latin America, or the future of the European Union, or democratic backsliding and citizenship around the world.

It is not hard to find political scientists studying comparative and international politics who are doing public-facing work on these and other issues. What’s more, and once again generally speaking, public-facing work is viewed by tenure committees and the discipline more generally as self-evidently valuable. Public-facing work and public engagement cannot replace peer-reviewed scholarship. But it’s not a distraction, nor an indulgence, to write for The Monkey Cage or to contribute to contemporary policy debates.

A hypothetical world in which area studies had defeated the highfalutin theorists in gaining control of the subdiscipline would look awfully similar to this world we live in right now.

One might push this argument even further. As Director of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program, a Title VI National Resource Center, I have the privilege of engaging with country, region, and area specialists from across the humanities and social sciences who share a common interest in at least one part of one country within Southeast Asia. I have learned that political scientists have developed a practice of public-facing scholarship that responds very nicely to the argument of previous generations of area specialists, that area studies insights are absolutely essential for making social science research relevant to current events. Other disciplines, in various ways, have difficulty embracing public-facing area-focused scholarship. And others have their own contested relationships with area studies too—especially the critical social sciences and humanities. In the words of one colleague who is not a political scientist, the “death of area studies” (their term) occurred years ago!

I’ll close by dutifully rehearsing all the necessary caveats. There is a lot of internal critique of country-specific research in comparative politics right now as technically sophisticated but substantively vacuous. I’ve made such arguments myself (PDF). And political scientists must reckon with how quantitative empirical scholarship has displaced qualitative empirical scholarship in comparative politics. Much is lost in this shift. And one must never forget the colonial, imperial, Cold War, mercantilist, and national security roots of area studies as practiced and institutionalized for hundreds of years, not only in the United States but anywhere where area studies centers or programs exist.**

But here’s the thing: most comparativists I know are pretty receptive to these points, willing them to take them on board even if they are unwilling to abandon area studies altogether in response. Area studies lives on today in political science, and it’s getting exactly the public attention that previous generations would have hoped for. Who would have believed it?!?


* Statistical models of empirical phenomena, of course, are ubiquitous in comparative politics. But as many people my generation find ourselves patiently explaining to our colleagues from different disciplines, statistics is not the same as rational choice theory.

** This is a strong claim! But I challenge anyone to name an example of a successful area studies institution—anywhere in the world—without any connection to colonialism, imperialism, mercantilism, or national security.