Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Maritime Response to the Crisis in Area Studies

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

A Maritime Response to the Crisis in Area Studies

Article excerpt

K[acute{A}]REN WIGEN

ABSTRACT. The area-studies model of global scholarship, based on dividing the world into a set number of large, quasi-continental regions, is under assault from a variety of intellectual and institutional forces. New, less rigid models of global scholarship are increasingly being called for by both scholars and funding agencies. One useful alternative, currently being explored at Duke University, reframes area studies around ocean and sea basins. Putting maritime interactions at the center of vision brings to light a set of historical regions that have largely remained invisible on the conventional map of the world. Keywords: area studies, metageography, oceans, world regions.

The area-studies enterprise has arguably been the most successful interdisciplinary project in American academic history. It has unquestionably internationalized U.S. intellectual life, facilitating a nascent movement beyond the parochial limitations of a national and, more broadly, a Western framework. At its best, the area-studies model has nurtured a global perspective, one in which every part of the world--or at least every world region--is considered in its own right. Owing largely to area-studies initiatives, the geographical scope of the U.S. academy is more global than that of any other nation.

Ironically, the discipline of geography has never figured prominently in those initiatives. On the contrary, it has often been virtually invisible. Among the twelve fields represented at the most recent meeting of the Association for Asian Studies--an umbrella organization that covers no fewer than four area-studies communities (those devoted to East, Southeast, South, and Central Asia)--geography was not even listed. (Philosophy, by contrast, was represented by twenty-six scholars, roughly 1 percent of the total participants.) This situation should be more than a little disturbing for practitioners of a discipline the original mandate of which was to span the earth in its entirety and the purview of which includes the delineation of regions--a process upon which the entire area-studies edifice rests.

But there is another reason for concern as well. Although area studies may have been successful in the past, its future is by no means secure. The entire enterprise is now under assault from a variety of intellectual movements and institutional forces (Shea 1997). Among other things, the resulting crisis has prompted sober reflection on the ways in which the area-studies complex has divided and studied the world. The Ford Foundation, a crucial funding source for language and area training, is currently engaged in a major effort to revitalize area studies, lest it be supplanted by a vague globalism" that avoids place-, culture-, and language-specificity. Central to this revitalization effort is the imagining of new geographies--new spatial frameworks that encourage alternative ways of seeing the world, in an effort to capture some of the elusive, emergent relationships and realities of our day.

The ongoing effort to critique and redraw the area-studies map presents a timely opportunity for geography. By engaging with this project, geographers may be able to offer more subtle and sophisticated ways of thinking about the world and its spatial contours than have hitherto been the norm. In the process, they may also revitalize geography itself. The discipline's failure to become invested in the original areastudies effort--and to sustain a tradition of global-level analysis more generally--has in some ways severed the field from its intellectual roots. By reembracing the global scale and by joining the effort to rethink the ways in which the world is divided and examined, geography may be able to begin reclaiming the central intellectual position it once enjoyed.

The following essays take a step in this direction by interrogating scholarly geographies and the ways in which international scholarship is pursued. …

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