Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Area Studies: The challenges

Area studies as an intellectual focus of scholarship, especially for those areas of the world enmeshed in longstanding conflicts, like the Middle East that the well-known blogger-scholar Juan Cole specializes in or Burma studies presents many challenges.

First of all, one must really approach area studies through one of the established disciplines such as history, political science, sociology, anthropology, or religious studies. Area studies departments themselves are usually virtual departments with no real faculty of their own. The area studies field exerts an influence on what is researched and published, comparisons between mainland and insular Southeast Asia being more common than comparisons with Yunnan or India, for instance, even though the later comparisons may be more germane. Ultimately, the topics and methodologies of research and the forum for publicaiton and peer review will discipline specific. History used to be the most important discipline in area studies but history's influence has been diluted by the post-WWII rise of the social sciences.

If you are European or Japanese or Australian or American scholar and you are writing the history of Southeast Asia, you face many challenges (or constraints if you want to phrase the challenge negatively, which I'd rather not do).

Someone writing the history of a given area of the world, who is not a member of this modern nation state, or ethnic group, must:

1. Maintain objectivity.

Increasingly difficult to do as subjects become politically polarized and academia questions the very idea of objective truth in postmodernism. Nonetheless, journalism and Wikipedia provide models.

2. Represent the interests of the area they are studying in a fair manner to the modern nation state they are a member of (without letting this advocacy reduce their historical scholarship to mere presentism).

3. Remain a loyal, yet critical, citizen of their nation state.

Imperative #2 can sometimes lead one to forget that everyone, including oneself is a citizen of some nation state, and that being a citizen of this state requires loyalty and even laying down one's life to defend it in times of war. These loyalties could obviously pose quite a dilemna sometimes.

I was struck by Juan Cole's Library of Americana Translation Project today. This is the right way to go. An area studies specialist will be familiar with the ways that America's history might be relevant to the area they specialize in, and will also know how to make its presentation politically sensitive.

I have taught in universities overseas for a long time, and while I was teaching and supervising, have been criticized by British and Australians for textbooks, that I didn't even choose, that had extensive references to American culture in them, usually pop culture though, so I have taken extraordinary pains to make my teaching material culturally neutral, but I have also realized that being too zealous in this regard can be viewed by some Americans as being anti-American which is hardly my belief or stance at all. I love my country and I am quite proud of its economic and political institutions, but having lived abroad for a long time, I feel that they are not always suitable in other cultures that differ from the west in important underlying ways.

Translation in the other direction from the area studied to English is not valued nearly enough by academia which valorizes secondary interpretations more. This is really a shame because translations would allow people in the west to familiarize themselves with cultures that are quite alien from theirs for themselves and make their own judgements about them.

3. Making their research relevant to the present.

Direct analogies between current events and the past are often deceiving, deceiving enough to have been labelled the presentist fallacy.

By addressing higher level intellectual categories that are relevant to both the present and the past, such as the notions of "state formation," "state collapse," "just war," or "endemic warfare" to name just a few, a more careful and exact analogies between the present and the past can be made.