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Area studies are interdisciplinary fields of research and scholarship pertaining to particular geographical, national/federal, or cultural regions. The term exists primarily as a general description for what are, in the practice of scholarship, many heterogeneous fields of research, encompassing both the social sciences and the humanities. Typical area studies programs involve history, political science, sociology, cultural studies, languages, geography, literature, and related disciplines. In contrast to cultural studies, area studies often include diaspora and emigration from the area .
Interdisciplinary area studies became increasingly common in the United States and in Western scholarship after World War II. Before the war, American universities had just a few faculty who taught or conducted research on the non-Western world. Foreign area studies were virtually nonexistent. After the war, liberals and conservatives alike were concerned about the U.S. ability to respond effectively to perceived external threats from the Soviet Union and China and the emerging Cold War, as well as to the fall-out from the decolonization of Africa and Asia.
In this context, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York convened a series of meetings producing a broad consensus that to address this knowledge deficit, the U.S. must invest in international studies. Therefore, the foundations of the field are strongly rooted in America. Participants argued that a large brain trust of internationally-oriented political scientists and economists was an urgent national priority. There was a central tension, however, between those who felt strongly that, instead of applying Western models, social scientists should develop culturally and historically contextualized knowledge of various parts of the world by working closely with humanists, and those who thought social scientists should seek to develop overarching macrohistorial theories that could draw connections between patterns of change and development across different geographies. The former became area studies advocates, the latter proponents of modernization theory.
In 1950, the foundation established the prestigious Foreign Area Fellowship Program (FAFP), the first large-scale national competition in support of area studies training in the United States. From 1953 to 1966, it contributed $270 million to 34 universities for area and language studies. Also during this period, it poured millions of dollars into the committees run jointly by the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies for field development workshops, conferences, and publication programs. Eventually, the SSRC-ACLS joint committees would take over the administration of FAFP.
Other large and important programs followed Ford's—most notably, the National Defense Education Act of 1957, renamed the Higher Education Act in 1965, which allocated funding for some 125 university-based area studies units known as National Resource Center programs at U.S. universities, as well as for Foreign Language and Area Studies fellowships for graduate students.
Since their inception, area studies have been subject to critiques—including by area specialists themselves. Many of them alleged that because area studies were connected to the Cold War agendas of the CIA, the FBI, and other intelligence and military agencies, participating in such programs was tantamount to serving as an agent of the state. Some argue, that there is the notion that U.S concerns and research priorities will define the intellectual terrain of area studies. Others insisted, however, that once they were established on university campuses, area studies began to encompass a much broader and deeper intellectual agenda than the one foreseen by government agencies, thus not American centric.
Arguably, one of the greatest threats to the area studies project was the rise of rational choice theory in political science and economics. To paraphrase one of the most outspoken rational choice theory critics, Japan scholar Chalmers Johnson: Why do you need to know Japanese or anything about Japan's history and culture if the methods of rational choice will explain why Japanese politicians and bureaucrats do the things they do?
Following the demise of the Soviet Union, philanthropic foundations and scientific bureaucracies moved to attenuate their support for area studies, emphasizing instead interregional themes like "development and democracy." When the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies, which had long served as the national nexus for raising and administering funds for area studies, underwent their first major restructuring in thirty years, closing down their area committees, scholars interpreted this as a massive signal about the changing research environment.
Fields are defined differently from university to university, and from department to department, but common area-studies fields include:
Due to an increasing interest in studying translocal, transregional, transnational and transcontinental phenomena, a Potsdam based research network has recently coined the term "TransArea Studies" (POINTS – Potsdam International Network for TransArea Studies).
Other interdisciplinary research fields such as women's studies (also known as gender studies), disability studies, and ethnic studies (including African American studies, Asian American studies, Latino/a studies, and Native American studies) are not part of area studies but are sometimes included in discussion along with it.
Some entire institutions of higher education (tertiary education) are devoted solely to area studies such as School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London, or the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies in Japan. At the University of Oxford, St Antony's College specialises in area studies, and hosts a number of research centres covering various regions of the world. Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is the only institution with immense contribution towards popularising area studies in India. An institution which exclusively deals with Area Studies is the GIGA (German Institute of Global Area Studies) in Germany.
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