Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Geography and Area Studies Interface from the Second World War to the Cold War

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Geography and Area Studies Interface from the Second World War to the Cold War

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Disciplinary geography's history represents an important source for contemporary debates over the status of geographical knowledge across the social sciences. This article argues for a reorientation of geography's history by examining its interface with the development of area studies in the United States. It investigates the epistemological and institutional transformations that occurred in the decades before and after the Second World War as the regional concept transmuted into area studies. The article finds that although geography's regional concept shaped the spatial constructions of area studies, the latter's imaginative geographies fixed the regional concept along geopolitical visions of the nation-state and Cold War regional blocs that continue to occlude social scientific attempts to redraw the borders of the world. Keywords: Area studies, Geographic thought, Geopolitics, Region, War.


The two decades before and after the Second World War fundamentally transformed the discipline of geography. With wartime demand for geographic knowledge of the world, there came the rise of regional geography, which succumbed to the quantification of geography during the Cold War. Here, the focus is on a related but neglected aspect of this history. The crisis within geography during this period in which the regional concept came to be reconfigured was accompanied by the diffusion of geographic concepts within the formation of Cold War area studies, an interdisciplinary held that brought together the social sciences and humanities as never before. The underlying geographies of area studies rested on a division of the world into both national and greater regional units: Soviet studies, African studies, Middle Eastern studies, South Asian studies, and the like. The dynamic between geography's regional concept and area studies has recently reemerged in terms of the epistemological divides between both fields. This article contributes to these debates by returning to the conceptions of space that informed geography and area studies from the Second World War to the Cold War.

The shift from "region" to "area" marginalized geography during this period, as area studies adopted a simplistic vision of global space. Area studies dispensed with geography's long-standing debates over the demarcation of space and partitioned global space through an isomorphism of language, culture, and a political-economic hierarchy of the first, second, and third worlds. Meanwhile, geography--whose dynamic conception of space traced the myriad connections and divisions of social, natural, and political phenomena across the earth's surface--avoided altogether the politics of decolonization that ultimately found its way into area studies. The contemporary impasse between area studies and geography originated in this historical interface.

This analysis of geography's role in shaping area studies looks at disciplinary debates over the regional concept and reports on the status of the social sciences from the Second World War to the opening decades of the Cold War. Building on recent appraisals of geography's place in the nexus between knowledge production, statecraft, and the military, here the aim is to bring historical perspectives to the current status of geography (Moring 2010; Smith 2003). This historical perspective is crucial, because geography in the United States continues to rehearse the broad strokes that characterized the time period under consideration--from concerns over geography's relevancy in the social sciences, higher education, and public debate, to the very constructions of space that guide research.

The article proceeds by first exposing the fundamental role of geographical thought in shaping area studies, though the latter excluded the former's interest in the dynamics between nature, society, and politics. We turn next to the Second World War's programs, which acted as the prime catalyst for area studies. …

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