Disciplinary identity of Area Studies (29 Nov 2004)

Date: 29 November, 2004
Location: CILT,
Event type: Conference

Programme | Abstracts | Event report

Past event summary

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Excellent papers and a refreshing lack of guff! Thanks for organising it.

- Conference attendee

Global forms of knowledge and their advocates will not generate the funding for area studies unless the necessity for area-specific knowledge is clearly and widely understood. But instead of building its own intellectual foundations in the university, the intellectual benefits of area studies have gone into the disciplines, including language teaching (Ludden 1998).

Area Studies courses are widely taught in UK Higher Education, and multidisciplinary Area Studies Associations continue to thrive yet practitioners generally see themselves primarily as historians, political scientists, geographers, linguists etc. and not as Area Studies specialists. This raises questions about the support provided by the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies.

The Area Studies Project involved six partner Subject Centres from the arts, humanities and social sciences. The nature of disciplinarity and notions of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity were soon identified both optimistically as opportunities or more pessimistically as threats to current disciplines.

This conference aims to discuss the nature of Area Studies and its value to its composite disciplines, its contribution to teaching and research and most importantly whether Area Studies itself is, or can become a discipline.


10.45 - 11.15 Coffee and registration


Session 1: Area Studies and its disciplines
Chair: Jonathan Gibson
11.15 - 11.45 Disciplines and Area Studies: Resolving tensions
Colin Brooks Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology
11.45 - 12.15 Development Studies and disciplines: Are some disciplines more important than others?
Balasubramanyam Chandramohan, Visiting lecturer, University of Luton
12.15 - 13.00 Lunch
  Session 2: The discipline and its Area Studies
Chair Alison Dickens
13.00 - 13.45 Area Studies: a new hope for regional geography?
John Canning, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies and Carl Griffin, School of Geography, University of Southampton
13.45 - 14.00 English, Area Studies and two types of interdisciplinarity
Jonathan Gibson, English Subject Centre
14.00 - 14.15 Tea
  Session 3: Area Studies in theory and practice
Chair: John Canning
14.15 - 14.45 In defence of the value and necessity of Area Studies in the Age of Globalisation
Kuo-cheng Huang, School of Politics, University of Nottingham
14.45 - 15.15 Coping with change: The evolution of the Journal of Area Studies
Jeremy Leaman, European Studies, University of Loughborough
15:15 - 15.45 Plenary
Chair Colin Brooks
15.45 Close


Disciplines and Area Studies: Resolving tensions

Colin Brooks, Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology

Discussions prompted by the LLAS Subject Centre have often referred to the tension for faculty practitioners between their disciplinary identity and their Area Studies interests.  The same tension - between disciplinary training and Area Studies interests - also exists among students.  This presentation suggests various ways in that tension can be resolved in a productive way for faculty practitioners and students alike.

Development Studies and Disciplines: Are some disciplines more important than others?

Balasubramanyam Chandramohan, Visiting lecturer, University of Luton

The growth of Development Studies as a discipline need a to be appreciated from two perspectives, one where the it takes the traditional discipline forming route(s) peer group consensus expressed in publications, university departments, courses, funding regime recognition etc and the other where it allows flexibility/innovation/ambiguity in the way the traditional subject areas of 18 th and 19 th century disciplines such as economics, history, politics, literature are combined in the contemporary context. My paper will focus on the second area, which is relatively more problematic of the two.

Area Studies: a new hope for regional geography?

John Canning, Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies and Carl Griffin, School of Geography, University of Southampton

The discipline of Geography has always had the study of place at its core, but courses in traditional' regional geography have been in decline since the 1960s, the approach having been derided as nothing more than travel writing'. What Area Studies can bring to undergraduate geographers to promote a better understanding of specific places? Does Area Studies offer a new hope for regional geography?

English, Area Studies and two types of interdisciplinarity

Jonathan Gibson, English Subject Centre

Degree courses in English literature are still predominantly structured by period. The popularity in recent research of issues of space and place, however, raises the prospect of new types of degree structure, based on space rather than (or as well as) time. This situation opens up new possibilities for interdisciplinarity in English and in its relationship to Area Studies.

In defence of the value and necessity of Area Studies in the Age of Globalisation

Kuo-cheng Huang, School of Politics, University of Nottingham

Is it necessary to have a theoretical justification for area studies? How has globalisation has given Area' new life. What is the contribution of area studies to global knowledge? What does Area Studies offer that traditional disciplines do not provide?

Coping with change: The evolution of the Journal of Area Studies

Jeremy Leaman, European Studies, University of Loughborough

The evolution of the Journal of Area Studies mirrors much of what has happened to the subject itself, notably in terms of public perceptions of Area Studies as a 'discipline', the institutional setting of Area Studies programmes in British higher education, the academic viability of those programmes and the 'marketability' of the label. It is a salutary tale, not without hope certainly, but one which confronts supporters of integrated, interdisciplinary and cross-national Area Studies with considerable food for thought. The paper examines the history of debates within the Journal concerning the theory and practice of Area Studies and suggests ways of buttressing a field of study where the dangers of erosion in Britain are more than apparent.

Further reading

Ludden, D. 1998. Area Studies in the Age of Globalisation

Ellis, R. J. 2004. Decentering Area Studies

Gibson, J. 2005. Two Types of Interdisciplinarity

Event report: Disciplinary identity of Area Studies

by John Canning

When the Area Studies Project was conceived in 2002, it was evident that a key issue in Area Studies was the matter of disciplinary identity, both of teaching staff and students. The end of the Area Studies seemed to be an ideal opportunity to revisit this issue of identity. The result was six papers that engaged strongly with the whole notion of Area Studies from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

Colin Brooks began the day with his discussion of the discipline. The interdisciplinary nature of Area Studies is often regarded as a matter of difficulty in relation to Area Studies degree programmes. However, Dr Brooks emphasised the importance of acknowledging that the discipline itself is a relatively new idea dating from the end of the nineteenth century. Students in earlier generations were introduced to notions of genre and many theorists defied the classic disciplinary identifications we would probably attempt to label them with today. Thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Fredrick Jackson Turner did not view themselves as exponents of political science or geography or history as we might categorise them in the twenty-first century. Area Studies works havoc with the primacy of the discipline- even in matters regarding the use of footnotes or the use of the first person in writing. Residence Abroad was identified a key defining point in the student experience that liberates students from these disciplinary boundaries.

Balasubramanyam Chandramohan spoke about the disciplines of Development Studies, an example of an interdisciplinary endeavour that is now widely regarded as a discipline, now having its own departments, RAE category and journals. However, not all disciplines have informed Development Studies equally with many continuing to see Development Studies as an extension of geography or economics. Dr Chandramohan talked about the BA in Post Colonial Studies that he has set up at the University of Luton. He has also set up a lunchtime forum where practitioners from a range of disciplines and area interests contribute ideas about development, both from contemporary and historical perspectives hence moving away from the perception of Development Studies and Post-Colonial Studies as being concerned with the third world. Discussions are also promoted through a peer reviewed online journal Imperium, which he edits.

John Canning and Carl Griffin's paper focused on the relation between Area Studies and the decline of regional concerns in the discipline of geography. A survey of geography students at the University of Southampton revealed that students in geography did not expect their studies of geography to equip them with in-depth knowledge of particular places. The decline of regional geography had a number of important consequences including a disengagement of geography with language learning, an elevated status for theory over empirical work and a lack of concern for furthering knowledge of particular places. Changes in the discipline of geography therefore represent opportunities of Area Studies programmes.

Jonathan Gibson examined Area Studies from a viewpoint of English literature. English as a discipline in the nineteenth century emerged as a softer' and perceived to be a less intellectually vigorous version of Classics. Traditionally English degrees have been concerned with dividing literature into time periods (for example courses in Victorian literature or Renaissance literature). However, there has been a movement towards a concern with space and place. For example there is a forthcoming conference on Ford Maddox and Englishness' and students at Queen Mary are able to study as course on Dickens' London', for which students keep a walking journal as part of the assessment. However, Dr Gibson disagreed with Ellis (2004) that English is essentially an Area Study, albeit a high culture one, instead taking the view that Area Studies should be one element of the study of English.

Keu-Cheng Huang, a postgraduate student in Politics and a member of the University of Nottingham's interdisciplinary Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, focused on the necessity of Area Studies in an age of globalisation. He challenged arguments about globalisation that claim that the nation-state is in decline. On the contrary the nation-state provides a space in which cultures develop differently for example religions such as Confucianism have developed in different ways in China, Japan and Korea within the context of the nation state and the nation-state continues to be of primary importance and localities do preserve their distinctiveness hence Area Studies is not jeopardised. Mr Huang was not concerned that people in Area Studies see themselves as geographers, political scientists etc it is most important that they promote the study of an area.

Jeremy Leaman presented an overview of the history of the Journal of Area Studies which began life in 1980 published in-house at Portsmouth Polytechnic (now the University of Portsmouth). A primary aim of the journal centred on the engagement of Modern Languages with the Social Sciences. The journal has undergone many changes in the past 24 years and, since 1999 has been published commercially, firstly as the Journal of European Area Studies then as the Journal of Contemporary European Studies. The word Area' was dropped from the title at the recommendation of the publisher, perhaps showing the extent to which Area Studies' is viewed as a confusing label. The interdisciplinary focus remains as strong as ever though not without scepticism from some social scientists from disciplines more concerned with certainty (for example Economics) against the approximating tendencies of other area studies. The editorial policy of promoting engagement between languages and social sciences is not as explicit as it once was, but the journal is not only a commercial success, but also an intellectual success attracting high quality submissions and having a high rejection rate.

In the plenary session, Colin Brooks led by commenting how much this area of the academic world depended on the commitment of individuals to influence the direction of disciplines. David Harvey and Nigel Thrift were cited as examples in geography and Lawrence Stone in history. Observing that these scholars are always on the move', it is interesting to note that we are told that students should aim to be like this.

There was further discussion about the issues of approximation, predictability and uncertainty surrounding Area Studies in a contemporary culture that values certainty, including certainty regarding learning outcomes and assessment.

The notion of crisis in Area Studies was also raised, with discussion not only about some recent departmental closures, but also about the availability of certain Area Studies including sub-national Area Studies, for example one can study Highland and Islands Studies at the UHI Millennium Institute, but not Home Counties Studies.

There was also a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of being an outsider or an insider to an area and whether in the practice of Area Studies one should be an outsider in order to bring a comparative perspective into Area Studies.

Topics not covered by the conference included a more in-depth examination of Residence Abroad, fieldwork and methodologies. Although these have been addressed in different ways by other Subject Centre events, there is clearly more scope to give more thought to their relationships with Area Studies (and courses outside Modern Languages) and their impact on the intellectual development of students.