Emory Report

March 16, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 24

As scholars debate merits
of global and area studies,
Emory professors take note

How does the academy go about studying the world? In the post-war United States, the globe was chopped up into continents and geopolitical regions, and the field of area studies was born. But a "smaller" post-Cold War world is one in which shifting national borders and the many intersections of commerce, communication and ecology have scholars scrambling to find new ways to examine countries, regions and peoples. This broader focus suits "global studies" specialists, who attempt to look at the world through the prism of a single issue affecting many countries.

But scholars are not only concerned with what they study; how they study the world has been the subject of much debate as well. These discussions have been played out in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education, at the grant-making Social Science Research Council, the Ford Foundation and elsewhere. "There are some theories that seek for universal determinants of human behavior such as the fact that we are all calculating animals," explained Ivan Karp, director of the Center for International Studies. "It's called the rational choice theory, and as far as I can see, it's a dominant theory in political science these days."

When Robert Bates, president of the comparative-politics section of the American Political Science Association, made comments about area studies specialists in the section's newsletter last year, he set off quite a controversy since political science has always been a cornerstone of area studies programs. Many political scientists, he wrote, "see area specialists as having defected from the social sciences into the camp of the humanities [because of] their commitment to the study of history, languages and culture as well as their engagement with interpretivist approaches to scholarship."

Bates has since backed away from these views, reports Halle Professor for Global Learning Thomas Remington. A political scientist himself, Remington said scholars need to understand theory and method, but they also need to know well the countries or areas they are studying. "The challenge to understand both theory and context is the same as it's been for decades. One needs to know the context of actual places in order to understand the goals that actors have," he said.

The ensuing discussion has allowed institutions such as Emory to engage in a bit of creative thinking about the approaches faculty and students should take to global learning. For Karp it means thinking about the concept of globalization itself. "Globalization is a disorganized phenomenon; it's not the product of anyone's intentions," he said. "It also seems to be out of the reach of human control, which is why everyone's so focused on it.

"But there's no agreement about what 'global' means," he continued. "Think of it as an adjective, and then think about what it modifies. 'Global marketplace' might be something they talk about in the business school. Then think 'global economic system,' 'global environmental crisis' or 'global culture.'" But global may also mean we have to learn that in India there are more PhD candidates in English literature than there are professors of English literature in England itself, Karp added.

"It's a bit of a false distinction to say area vs. global," Remington thinks. "All are part of a place and part of the world [where] common forces are acting on us all." Both Remington and Karp are exploring these issues in detail through two programs. This semester Remington is leading a faculty seminar under the auspices of the Halle Institute in which 12 faculty of different disciplines are examining European institutions. "We are looking at what is going on and shaping issues in Europe in light of larger world issues," he explained.

Karp, who recently received a Ford Foundation "Crossing Boundaries: Revitalizing Area Studies" grant (Emory Report, Jan. 20), is hosting four speakers this semester who'll address topics relating to comparative industrialization and post-colonial nations. Afterwards, in follow-up sessions, faculty and students will discuss the topics and readings. "What we're trying to do is provide a forum for teasing out different problems and issues so that people can think more clearly about them," he said.

Despite the dispute over the two disciplines, global and area studies have afforded faculty the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary scholarship-a benefit disputed by few in the academy. But Karp sees room for improvement even there. "At Emory we tend to think of 'interdisciplinary' as something where we hire one person to do two jobs," he said. But global and area studies are "interdisciplinary areas in which their very complexity requires more scholarship. In this case, you need to hire six people to do one job."

-Stacey Jones

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