Teaching social sciences in area studies programmes

Author: John Gaffney


Discusses the origins of different area studies programmes (e.g. of American studies, Russian studies, European studies). Defines the relationship of area studies to social sciences. Assesses the current situation of, and logistical challenges to, social science teaching in area studies. Gives pointers to future developments.

Table of contents


The inclusion of the social sciences in area studies programmes presents a series of challenges while, in many cases, offering programme coherence where there was none before. In some ways, the social sciences: sociology, economics, and particularly politics or political science, have brought the notion of 'discipline' itself to area studies (history straddles the border between social science and humanities; for the purposes of appraisal and analysis here, I will refer to history specifically when appropriate, but generally have treated it as in the humanities).

When appraising area studies programmes, we obviously need to look at the areas studied, and their own specific and often differing relations to the social sciences. The relationship between area studies and social science was conditioned by the context in which it emerged, as well as by the ways in which area studies have been taught, marketed, and in many cases by the 2000s, the ways in which the crises facing them have been managed, for better or worse. Area studies developed from the 1960s onwards, particularly in the 'plateglass' universities (such as Sussex, Warwick, York, Kent, East Anglia), later the 'technological' universities (Surrey, Aston, Bradford, Salford and others), and the polytechnics (now the 'new' universities; Portsmouth, Wolverhampton, Manchester Metropolitan, for example), and later still across the range of universities.

Area studies, area studied

American Studies is perhaps the best illustration from this age of plenty. In many cases, American Studies was so significant that it comprised a whole 'school' within a university, rather than just a programme or department. As such, its scope meant that the 'problem' of how much or which social science was taught or should be taught did not really arise, as choice grew from abundance rather than from need. Given the scale of American Studies (usually North American) in UK universities, the question of the correct mix of literature, history, social science, and cultural studies, has rarely needed to be addressed: American Studies was truly multidisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary. Having said this, it is also true that some of the more important branches within American studies programmes has been literature and history, and later modern cultural studies.

Russian Studies, in theory comparable with American Studies in type (history, literature), range, scale and scope, has not fared as well in recruiting students over the last thirty years, in spite of a phenomenal richness in literature, history, and politics and political philosophy. It has been revived somewhat by greater interest in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War, and now, of course, includes the countries of the former Soviet Union. It has also been maintained by a postgraduate and research interest which has remained strong (especially as regards those areas of Russian/East/Central European Studies which fall into the social sciences, at, for example the University of London, and Birmingham). One of the factors distinguishing Russian Studies from American, of course, is the language involved, and the problems this creates for both attracting students and organising degree programmes. Languages do not fall within the brief of this essay, but this issue impacts significantly on the nature and disciplinary integrity of area studies programmes. We shall come back to this point below.

Latin American or South American Studies has sometimes been part of American Studies overall (and is sometimes linked to Spanish/Iberian Studies). Reflecting its recent history of revolutions, coups d'etat, and its political and economic relationship to the United States, Latin American Studies has developed along more unequivocally social scientific lines. In terms of Latin America generally, or specific countries such as Chile, Argentina, or the countries of central America, UK programmes are strongly focused upon politics, economics, political economy, and are often in a close relationship with politics and international relations departments, particularly, more recently, as regards 'transitology' (i.e. the movement of regimes from authoritarian to democratic). It is worth pointing out here that this emphasis has not effaced the study of Spanish and Latin American literature - a humanities/social science tension which has indeed developed in perhaps the most successful, yet problematic area studies effort in the UK, namely, European Studies.

Before examining European Studies, we should also mention in passing, African Studies which has thrived at interdisciplinary universities such as Sussex (both in social sciences and in literary studies, particularly post-colonial literature). (South-East) Asian Studies has followed much more the Latin American pattern (politics, economics). Chinese Studies, as vast as American or Russian Studies in scope, spans the full social science/humanities spectrum. Irish (Scottish, Welsh) Studies has been revived and is maintained through the process of constitutional devolution. There is also a Scandinavian Studies presence in the UK. French and German Studies have to date been the biggest component of area studies. These have emerged from languages and from literary studies (we shall look at these below, as they have been part of the development of European Studies). German still has a major social science presence in the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham.

European studies

European Studies has three historical sources, each significant for the study of social science in its programmes, and each contributing to both the richness and the difficulties of the teaching of the subject area.

The first is akin to the American Studies model. In the 1960s, universities offered an opportunity to farsighted individuals to redefine academic study. As regards Europe, there was a recognition that the study of European 'civilisation' could encompass a wealth of disciplines (history, politics, business, philosophy etc), as well as an extremely wide-ranging subject focus (from Aristotle to Italian unification, from Mozart to the study of French cartoon books). The organisation of teaching was such that the social sciences were integrated quite easily. This interdisciplinary approach revolutionised academic programmes, pointing to the synergies and interdependencies of, for example, political economy and the history of European correctional culture, so that writers such as Foucault (or Gramsci, Levi-Strauss, Geertz, Lacan, Habermas…) began to inform a range of disciplines and subject areas, thus enhancing synergies between disciplines. The whole project began to slow from the early 1970s as economic, and later educational and demographic factors began adversely to affect the scope for interdisciplinary innovations.

The second historical source of European Studies resulted in part from the opposite of the above, namely, the waves of restructuring and amalgamations of courses, departments, and occasionally universities. It did provide, and still does, the possibility of making virtues of necessities. We can distinguish two types of response to this wave of 'negative restructuring', both of which impacted significantly upon the teaching of the social sciences in area studies. The first was that 'European Studies' in many areas resulted from the forcing together of disparate and isolated subject areas (and often members of staff) as a solution to the problem of locating the lone geographer/philosopher/classicist/Russianist etc, left over after the rest of the department went in with, for example, environmental sciences. The solution: European Studies. Often this worked, sometimes not. As regards social sciences and history, these quite often lent coherence and theoretical frameworks to unevenness and disparity. The second were the developments within languages programmes, particularly 'modern' language programmes, especially, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Over the last twenty years, these subjects have seen a move away from the study of literature, both at secondary and higher education levels, and a real decline in demand for degrees in literature; some departments have faced closure.

The technological universities and some of the former polytechnics led the way in responding to these challenges by developing degree programmes of French Studies or German Studies etc, with a far greater emphasis upon, say, French business, society, politics, and so on - in a word, the social sciences. The decline in fortunes of these programmes too - as a result of fewer students doing language A levels has created, of necessity, further synergies between these programmes, in some cases enhancing European Studies itself, as French Studies, for example, interacts further with German Studies, as student numbers continue to fall. The overall results of these developments have been mixed in terms of intellectual success. These programmes, whether they maintained their French Studies or Italian Studies base, or else moved into collaboration or amalgamation with European Studies programmes, have had to provide the disciplines of the social sciences on their courses (politics, economics etc). This has provided employment for young academics in these areas, although it is true to say that the best have often, given the opportunity, moved on into politics or economics departments, creating occasional though repeated crises within language or European Studies departments. Part of the problem is that, in spite of changes in student outlook and expertise, the aptitudes of the social scientist are often lacking in many of these students, so that the demands and standards of social science teaching in European Studies courses are often below those of equivalent modules in mainstream social science departments. This is compounded by the timeframes involved - some programmes are, as we suggest, too restrictive; others try to cram too much in. Resolving this tension is one of the major problems facing programme organisers. Having said this, the 'year abroad' on a languages or European Studies programme can often be turned to enormous advantage if students can attain places in prestigious European business schools, or departments of politics, or obtain work placements in, for example, the European Commission, European Parliament or the UN. These students subsequently achieve great success on the job market given their invaluable experience of major political institutions, as well as expertise in languages other than English (essential to the current and future success of this dimension of European Studies is dedicated Year Abroad placement staff). The social science base of some of these degree programmes has also been strengthened by particular degree combinations, e.g. Languages and Business Studies, French and Politics, French, German and European Studies, and so on.

One of the major factors in this whole area of social sciences and languages, and which again brings both advantages and disadvantages, is the question of the target languages involved. Some of the most successful programmes (Surrey, Aston) have as their hallmark the teaching of the language-based degree programme or parts of the programme in the target language. This offers real advantages, but it raises a series of issues within the programmes themselves, particularly as regards major 'disciplines' such as social sciences. Many first year language students' linguistic competence and performance are not as strong at entry as they used to be, and this can mean that the teaching of quite difficult topics - Introduction to the German Economy, for example - becomes a (poor) language exercise rather than comparable to a module on an economics degree. There are ways of responding to these problems e.g. mixing English and German in lectures/seminars and forms of assessment. This can go some way to solving the issues, although with modularization (and the need to open modules up to several degree programmes where language expertise may not exist), and declining student numbers in these areas, definitive solutions have still not been found, although in general it is the case that the evolution of language and area studies programmes towards a more rigorous scientific base has been a success.

The third historical source, and the one which brought with it many of the political, constitutional, and economic changes within European Studies programmes has been the creation of several university programmes in which European Studies became synonymous with European Union Studies. One of the great advantages of this development, again largely the province of the innovative technological universities (Loughborough, Aston, Surrey, Bath, Bradford) has been the major imposition of social science expertise into European Studies programmes. It also brought academia in the UK far closer than before to the overall and long-term developments within the young European Union. An irony, given the UK's relative Euroscepticism, was that UK academics have led the way in EU Studies for thirty years, and many of the most prestigious EU scholars are UK-based. For years, in France and Germany, for example, European Studies was just a sub-unit of Law programmes, with all the top international research conferences disproportionately represented by the British (and Irish). This EU presence also brought European Studies departments into much greater synergies with research funding bodies, and networks of scholars.

There have been two negative aspects to this development of EU Studies within European Studies. First, EU Studies has occasionally resembled the cuckoo in the nest, that is to say, has, until recently, pushed other aspects of European Studies out of the frame (comparative politics, political philosophy…) with its emphasis upon post-war, and post-Treaty of Rome Europe; and upon the specific developments of the EU countries, tended towards the exclusion of the study of non-EU countries. This has changed through a deepening intellectual and theoretical investigation of Europe as a political and cultural phenomenon; and more and more significantly, the dramatic changes in the post-1989 period which have transformed the study of both the ever-changing EU and Europe generally, to include all of Europe, no longer just Western Europe, from (at least) the Atlantic to the Urals. This whole development to include Eastern Europe has not only revived European Studies, it has also revived (even created in some cases) the study of the countries to the East of the former Iron Curtain, while creating enormous impetus for new approaches to the range of studies such as political parties, party systems, political leadership, political culture, and so on. This has also meant that the tendency in former EU Studies towards often dull, empirical, descriptive approaches to the structure and function of the EU Commission, for example, have now found their proper place within a framework for the true study of contemporary European civilisation.

Related to this, and the second casualty of the dominance of EU Studies, was the partial eclipse of the 'softer' side of the social sciences and humanities: cultural studies, and its relationship to a rich seam of interest in Europe: comparative literature, music, art, youth culture, film, and so on. Once again, there have been very positive developments in these areas recently, even though many of them have arisen from more worrying reasons i.e. departments and programmes being forced together in an effort to cope with and respond positively to the decline in student numbers.

Logistical problems

Some social science approaches integrate quite well into area studies programmes: the social, the political, the cultural. Others, economics and mathematics-based approaches remain problematic. In some European Studies programmes, for example, in order to respond to the developing national trend towards benchmark provision, programme convenors have asserted more and more the need for particular social science modules such as statistics, and a range of research methods, both qualitative and quantitative. This can cause real problems in staffing (but offer real advantages to specialists in these fields, since appointing in these specialisms is difficult even for mainstream politics departments). Here programme organisers often need to go outside their own departments, to sociology and business studies departments to seek provision of modules in these subjects. Modularization, with all its faults, can be helpful here as exchanging modules with other departments is something that can be planned for, and European Studies departments can anticipate modules that they can themselves offer to other departments. 'Languages for All' (ab initio or refresher courses) are one possibility, but have to be adopted intelligently if a European Studies department is not to find itself just a service language department. Another is to develop 'softer' social science-related modules such as European Cinema, an extremely popular area. Another option to integrate the social science requirements of European Studies degrees is to develop programmes with other departments where certain expertise lies, e.g. International Business and European Policy Studies; or European Studies and Sociology; Politics, French and European Studies, etc.

One issue that we alluded to above and which needs to be addressed is that some of the students who take these programmes may be ill-equipped in terms of their A-level training for the rigours of research methods or statistics courses (or even European History, European Social Thought etc). These weaknesses in student training before university need to be dealt with by the effective introduction of such demanding courses. Often, it is the courses such as Statistics, Quantitative Methods etc, which see the highest failure rate and lowest pass marks, particularly in Years 1 and 2, and therefore detract from the appeal of some courses, and lower morale. Having said this, however, it is quite clear that overall the integration of the social sciences into area studies programmes has been necessary, and on balance a real success.

Ways forward

  • Enhance and increase a wider social science presence, e.g. comparative politics, comparative political cultures.
  • Address the question of 'harder' social sciences, economics, statistics, etc, and how these should be integrated. To address the difficulties of provision of some social sciences in area studies programmes there is a possible need systematically to 'borrow' or buy in statistics, research methods, etc., teaching from other departments, even other universities.
  • However, 'softer' subjects such as history of ideas or political/social philosophy may also be problematic. Multi-staffed modules are one solution in the latter case: e.g. 'Themes in European Social Thought' where one/each member of staff chooses one topic. This approach, however, can create problems for staff timetabling, course co-ordination, student feedback, etc.
  • Departments/programmes need to be able to appoint staff in the light of the above, creating 'transferable skills' dispositions with relevant training or retraining within departments. This is particularly necessary, given that area studies programmes will always demand 'stretch'.
  • Area studies need to be promoted imaginatively in schools via liaison work and university publicity, while promoting, equally imaginatively, the social science and other disciplinary elements within these fields.
  • Skills of students (in languages, but also those who have A level training in history, economics, or geography, for example) need to be appraised. This also raises THE problem of 'mixed skills' at entry, and questions related to course aims.
  • Languages and language teaching need to be addressed. The linguistic standards of A level students on entry to language programmes are declining; so the relation to language teaching and to social science has to be addressed simultaneously.
  • The focus upon East/Central Europe needs to be enhanced and particular attention should be paid to the teaching of the languages involved (pehaps by dealing with this at a 'consortium' level).
  • Explore the notion of developing two main (but related) thrusts in fields such as European Studies with regard to the social sciences; one harder (economics, politics, etc), the other softer (politics again, sociology, cultural studies, discourse analysis).


The following bibliography is restricted to sources dealing with those areas of the social sciences that we discussed as being problematic for social science teaching in area studies programmes. As regards history, or else the politics in the European Union, or the history of European political thought, books abound. Several publishers such as OUP, Continuum, or Palgrave, have major series in these areas. One of the best ways to approach these sources is to log on to the web pages of the programmes advertised in various universities. Some of these are quite guarded in the information they publish but most are very informative, and it is becoming the norm to put on the web short course descriptions of programme modules and reading lists.

As regards statistics, methods, etc., I have referred to one publisher, Sage, which has an exhaustive series on this area - the following is an indicative sample:

Mark Balnaves, Peter Caputi, Introduction to Quantitative Research Methods (2001)
Arthur Berger, Media and Communication research (2000)
Robert Burns, Introduction to Research methods (2000)
David Byrne, Interpreting Quantitative Data (2002)
Peter Clough and Cathy Nutbrown, A Student's Guide to Methodology (2002)
David de Vaus, Analyzing Social Science Data (2002)
Frederick Coolidge, Statistics: A Gentle Introduction (2002)
Jane Fielding, Nigel Gilbert, Understanding Social Statistics (2000)
Uwe Flick, An Introduction to Qualitative research (2002)
Nigel Gilbert, Researching Social Life (2001)
Claire Hewson, Peter Yule, Dianna Laurent, Carl Vogel, Internet Research Methods (2002)
Alistair Kerr, Doing Statistics with SPSS (2002)
Ranjit Kumar, Research Methodology (1999)
Tim May, (ed.), Qualitative Research in Action (2002)
Peter Redman, Good Essay Writing (2001)
Neil Salkind, Statistics for People Who (Think They) Hate Statistics (2000)
Clive Seale, Researching Society and Culture (1998)

Related links

As for bibliography, so for weblinks, there are thousands. All European institutions, as well as all national governments and ministries, have websites. There are also country specific pages (e.g. http://www.well.ac.uk/cfol/index.asp - Contemporary France Online).

The following is indicative of the European Studies field generally:

Website of CESSDA - Council of European Social Science Data Archive

Website of Council for European Studies

Website of ECPR (European Consortium for Political Research)

Website of Euroguide

Website of European Media Resources

Website of European Research Papers online

Website of Eurotext - Resource bank of learning material for European studies (subscription only)

Website of EUSA (European Union Studies Assn)
http://www.eustudies.org nb: The EUSA Review of the US, Spring 2002 edition, lists 2 pages of relevant websites.

Website of Guide to European Funding Opportunites

Website of UACES - University Association for Contemporary European Studies

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