U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Areas of Concern: Intellectual History and the Challenges of Academic Globalism (Guest Post)

[Editorial note: this essay is the first of two thhree posts that will discuss the recent Stanford forum on intellectual history. The second post will run this afternoon and the link will be provided here. UPDATE 6/5/16 – 5:00 PM: We have received a third essay addressing this discussion — you can find that guest post here.]

Areas of Concern: Intellectual History and the Challenges of Academic Globalism

by Matthew D. Linton

On May 24, a public discussion of the oft-asked question “What is Intellectual History?” was held at Stanford University. The discussion was organized by students in response to the university’s decision not to grant associate history professor Aishwary Kumar tenure. For students and faculty supportive of Kumar’s tenure case, his work tracing planetary flows of political and moral ideas is essential to showing how concepts create global communities. The value of intellectual history is in its ability to move across space highlighting the “channels of communication” across nations and cultures. Intellectual history, for Kumar and others, is a potent tool for tracing the genealogy of how globalism was constructed and who has benefitted most from its creation.

While the centrality of ideas to the history of globalism should come as welcome news to most readers of this blog, the Stanford discussion highlights the challenges and shortcomings of another method – interdisciplinary area studies – in retaining its relevance in a university emphasizing global continuities instead of regional specificities. As Robert Harrison, a professor of Italian literature and contributor to the Stanford discussion eloquently stated, “Area studies falls short of the goal or idea of what has been called global education. We need a form of history that gets inside of those who do the thinking in a given society or culture.” Harrison’s comment raises two interconnected problems that the area studies method has struggled with since its inception in the early 20th century: 1) how to integrate diverse area studies into a single program of global education, and 2) if area studies can create independent theoretical concepts without grounding in a single discipline.

Area studies’ origins were pedagogical. As David C. Engerman has shown, though area studies received lavish funding and attention from historians for its wartime utility, its designed purpose was to broaden American secondary education to include more of the (particularly non-Western) world.[1] After World War I, internationalist progressives recognized that the United States was primed for a larger role in global affairs, but were alarmed to find educated Americans were uninformed about most of the world. The creation and employment of area experts knowledgeable about Latin America, Asia, and Africa expanded the geographical footprint of university general education curricula beyond an exclusively Western paradigm.

A problem that emerged almost immediately was how to knit area specialties together into a global whole. Area scholars and their administrative allies were never able to solve this problem. Experiments ranged from an intra-area approach to pedagogy which focused on borderlands between designated areas (Mongolia as intra-area between East Asia and Eurasia for example) and, during the Cold War, using ideological commonality to frame intra-area discussions (communism as a way of connecting Europe and Asia for example). This problem hindered research as well as education, with debates about the parameters of areas frequently contested. The Association of Asian Studies, for example, did not include South Asia or Middle East experts until 1958 and only then after acrimonious debate among East Asianists.

The problem of ideas in area studies has been relatively more recent, but no less significant. Within certain area studies, like China studies, intellectual histories proliferated. These were national histories, however, and prone to many of the same problems that haunted American intellectual historians of the mid-20th century: too much emphasis on elites, marginalization of women and ethnic minorities, and confinement of ideas to national paradigms. Furthermore, area studies were dominated by what Kumar has termed “contextualism:” letting locations define and limit ideas. Ideas removed from their area contexts were anathema to the entire area studies project, which sought to broaden American education through expanding its geographical footprint..

The problem of contextualism in area studies was not limited to the content of scholarly studies, but extended to interpretive frameworks as well. Beginning in the mid-1960s, social scientists trained in political science and economics emerged as vocal critics of area studies’ inability to generate innovate theoretical frameworks.[2] Instead, area studies borrowed theories from its constituent disciplines and applied them to area contexts. East Asia specialist Chalmers Johnson compared area specialists to “Bantu miners” providing the raw material for disciplinary specialists to analyze and assess.[3] While Johnson’s comparison was meant to imply that area scholars provided a necessary service to the academic community, it also insinuated that area specialists were intellectually inferior to their disciplinary colleagues who molded the “stuff’ of area studies into theoretically-rigorous scholarship.

The edited volume Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies (2002) both entombs area studies and argues that its ghost haunts university discussions of globalization at places like Stanford. Its editors, H.D. Harootunian and Masao Miyoshi, argue that area studies was the product of 20th century liberal attempts to account for the non-Western world without disrupting the west-centric privileging of most university departments and, as a result, has no future in a globalizing American university.[4] Area studies, encumbered by its origins as a model of how the United States viewed the world, failed to provide a truly global education. Intellectual history unbounded, at least in theory, from a Western worldview is better equipped to not only realize, but transcend area studies’ original mission to construct a geographically inclusive pedagogy, by building a method examining the non-national flow of ideas, not cultural tokenism. Whether or not intellectual history is up to this challenge depends on its ability to learn from area studies’ failures and, as Kumar suggested, construct an inclusive history of the flow of ideas inside, outside, and between areas, nations, and cultural groups.


[1] David C. Engerman, “The Pedagogical Purposes of Interdisciplinary Social Science: A View From Area Studies in the United States,” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 51, No. 1 (Winter 2015): 78-92.

[2] This lack of theorizing was not totally unintentional. Some area specialists in the 1940s viewed their method as an applied science and were content to leave abstract theorizing to adjacent disciplines.

[3] Chalmers Johnson, “Political Science and East Asian Area Studies,” World Politics 26, No. 4 (Jul., 1974): 560-575.

[4] H.D. Harootunian and Masao Miyoshi (eds.), Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): 14-15.

Matthew D. Linton is a doctoral candidate in history at Brandeis University. His dissertation, Understanding the Mighty Empire: Chinese Area Studies and the Construction of Liberal Consensus, traces the development of university China studies and its relationship to the New Deal-style liberal politics between 1930 and 1980. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @linton_matt.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Matt: Thanks so much for this post. It touches on subjects that hover around the edge of my current book mss on “great books cosmopolitanism.”

    I just at a conference in Madison (2nd Peking University-University of Wisconsin Workshop on Higher Education: Liberal Education in Asia and America: Purposes, Practices, and Policies.” At this conference “area studies” appeared in two of papers presented. I was interested to hear of “area studies” roots in WWII and Cold War-era efforts by Westerners to understand the languages and cultures of geographically strategic areas. It seems that “area studies” have been haunted by those specific roots in terms of integration with the rest of the “life of the mind” in universities (i.e. dealing with universals, if not global ideas). Their knowledge was for cutting, not knitting, to paraphrase Foucault. Because the interest was geopolitical, there was little incentive by faculty and sponsors to integrate, unless an geopolitical interest beyond stabilization (or later detente) arose. It’s clear that one “idea” that has arisen is a renewed, post-Cold War interest in economic globalization.

    I think the new concern by cosmopolitan U.S.-based universities to produce “global citizens” has at least provided an impetus to knit “area studies” together into a patchwork quilt. The question, in my mind, is whether these universities truly seek cosmopolitan-style citizens or just economically-adept global citizens. – TL

    • Tim,

      Thanks for the comment. I think different parts of the university want to create different types of graduates. Creating economically-adept global citizens is important to university admissions departments looking to use their graduates’ success in the international marketplace as a way to woo the “best and brightest” new students to campus and get fat donations from those economically successful graduates. I also think university administrations – as well as faculty – want to produce cosmopolitan citizens because it creates an international brand attractive to wealthy foreign students and with possible financial assistance from foreign businesses and governments. Korean and Japanese area studies at major American universities, for example, receive sizable direct investment from the South Korean and Japanese governments because they want their countries’ wealth and power to be on display at prestigious American universities.

      I am working on a dissertation chapter examining the decline of Chinese studies in the United States during the 1970s. I am still working through whether it’s decline signified area studies’ failure or its success. On the one hand, its decline owed to large-scale decreases in funding during the Nixon years and put many young scholars in a difficult economic and political position (sound familiar!). On the other hand, area studies’ progressive mission to insert international perspectives into the humanities and social sciences had been largely achieved by the 1970s. China specialists were employed in most history and political science departments at R1 universities by 1970 and other China scholars were teaching in literature, economics, anthropology, and sociology as well. Was area studies a victim of its own success, its inability to adapt to a changing university climate, or austerity in the humanities and social sciences during the 1970s? I’m still trying to sort it out, but all three seem to have played at least some part.

  2. Matt, thanks for this post. I especially want to thank you for giving some context (!) to the words “context” and “contextualism” as they were being used by discussants in that forum. I am a historian of ideas, I am a historian of thought — maybe on a good day I could say that I do the “cultural history of thought,” as Dan Wickberg has called it — and I am an intellectual historian — and I was just cringing listening to the panel, especially the non-historians on it, talking about how understanding context gets in the way of paying attention to ideas in themselves, or for their own sake.

    So what you’ve written here helps a bit in reminding us that “context” and “contextualism” in addition to being part of our plain speech toolkit are also technical terms — and it could well be the case that I might be in more agreement with how Harrison, Berman and Kumar were critiquing “contextualism” understood in a technical sense. But one of the pitfalls of interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary conversations is that sometimes everyone can be using the same word but not really meaning the same thing by it, and it was a little difficult to know who was meaning what.

    So thanks much for this.

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