Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Area Studies, Asian Studies, and the Pacific Basin

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Area Studies, Asian Studies, and the Pacific Basin

Article excerpt

Much has been said of the shortcomings, and even demise, of area studies in the face of globalization, university budget cuts, and criticisms from a range of commentators. But the multidisciplinary study of specific countries and regions remains alive and well. Area-studies scholars approach the world in terms of peoples, places, and things--prioritizing proper nouns--as opposed to discipline-driven studies that may treat proper nouns as variables, or critical scholars whose esoterics may confuse more than they explain. While originating in post--WW II American foreign policy and demise of colonialism, area studies have evolved to develop our understanding of other societies, hopefully showing that they are not totally "others" after all. Studying other areas of the world allows for reflection back on one's own society, offering valuable sites for mutual learning and helping to create sensitive global citizens.

This is not to say that area studies are without flaws. Scholars interested in learning places have been known to serve political power and to fetishize "their" areas; in studying the 'other', they are sometimes "driven by the desire to either destroy or marry it" (Harootunian and Miyoshi 2002, 5). Policymakers and social scientists, on the other hand, may look down upon the obscure and insular nature of area scholarship. Perhaps the most important criticisms of area studies relate to the tendency to treat countries or regions as natural, reifying regional constructs and occluding interactions. This is increasingly problematic as globalization marches on, accelerating interactions and exchanges between people and places. As globalization calls into question the relevance of the state, areas that are largely built upon collections of nation-states have become less stable. In light of the admitted shortcomings of area studies, but also its strengths, what are some ways to improve the field?

This paper suggests that some of the shortcomings associated with research, teaching, and learning in area studies can be mitigated by playing with scale. It delineates three ways to denaturalize constructed borders and acknowledge transnational flows: inter-area studies (border crossings), trans-area studies (new areas that cross traditional ones), and meta-area studies (regions of regions). I argue that, in terms of pedagogy, the latter option is particularly useful. This is because inter-area and trans-area studies are best learned after traditional regions have already been constructed; one cannot cross or redraw a border unless there is a border in the first place. Studying meta-areas is different, representing an early step for undergraduate education that can help insulate learners against treating areas as isolated units. This paper makes a case for one such meta-area--the Pacific Basin--conceived of as a region of regions to help introduce first-year undergraduate audiences to Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. By learning about world areas under a broad umbrella, students are equipped early on to acknowledge interactions and common challenges in a globalized world.

The first part of this paper lays out many important features and flaws of area studies, especially Asian Studies. Then I move on to introduce three responses, emphasizing meta-area studies as a way to help undergraduates understand traditional area studies within broader worlds. Finally, the Pacific Basin is introduced as one such meta-area. In response to one potential criticism of meta-area studies, that they are too expansive to be of much use, I describe how the Pacific Basin is taught to first-year students at Soka University of America, a liberal arts university in Southern California with an ethnically diverse student population.


Area studies entail the intensive multidisciplinary study of a single country or world region. Scholars typically divide the globe into Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas (North, Central, and South, as well as the Caribbean), Oceania, and Asia (Central, South, Southeast, and East). …

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