All Blogs

The Limits of Area Studies: Studying Scholars of Asia

From 2015-2017, Ithaka S+R partnered with 29 researchers at 11 academic libraries in the U.S. to study the research activities and support needs of scholars in Asian Studies. Today we are excited to release the project’s capstone report, Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Asian Studies Scholars, which provides actionable findings for organizations, institutions, and professionals who support these research activities.  Our report is complemented by the local findings (see below) that have been made publically available by the collaborating institutions as companion publications.  Research collaborator Lijuan Xu also shares further about her experiences leveraging her results at Lafayette College in a blog post on our site.

The Asian Studies project is part our ongoing Research Support Services program to understand how to effectively structure research support in the 21st century. While the theme of how to best support interdisciplinary research has emerged in some of previous findings from this program (see, for example, the religious studies capstone report, and the Rethinking Liaison Programs for the Humanities issue brief), this project is unique because it pushes against the issue of disciplinary convergence and divergence from the vantage of area studies. When undertaking this project we especially wondered, what are the challenges and opportunities for researchers whose work is organized by an amorphous, often contested, politically-charged geographic concept? And, how can research support services be organized and delivered for scholars implicated by this complicated organizing logic?

Asian studies is a multidisciplinary field spanning philosophy, the arts, history, literature, the social sciences, and cultural studies. The geographic scope of Asian Studies is broad and varies widely from institution to institution, in some cases referring to one or more areas that may include East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, contested geographic areas (such as Tibet, Taiwan, Kashmir), and Asian diasporas. As Western institutions of higher education are expanding their scale of internationalization, Asian Studies is taking an even larger and more important role in transforming both the academic research agenda and the curricula in American universities today. The full report has further information about how Asian Studies was defined and delimited for the purposes of the project.

As our report highlights, many scholars have complicated relationships to Asian Studies as a concept and that has implications for how they conduct their research. The scholars who express reticence to place themselves at the center of Asian Studies reflect an unease caused by the predominant organizing logics of academia, where area studies are located at the periphery of the more traditional disciplines. Our report explores how scholars respond to this organizing logic by strategically aligning themselves with the more traditional disciplines, including the department they get their training in and where they choose to publish their research, all in order to prevent academic marginalization. In doing so, these scholars continue to experience what Carolyn Cartier characterizes in “Origins and Evolution of a Geographical Idea: The Macroregion in China” as the “the crisis of area studies,” emanating from debates on its role and function in the academy beginning in the 1990s, and has led to ongoing discussion among scholars of Asia (see for instance Bruce Cummings (1997) and Vicente L. Rafael (1994)).

While scholars may distance themselves from Asian Studies as an organizing concept, our report highlights the contradictory reality that Asian Studies scholars, by virtue of sharing a higher likelihood to conduct research in particular Asian countries and/or in collaboration with scholars located in those countries, have more similar material research experiences than with their colleagues who share their more traditional disciplinary affiliations. These support needs range from the complexity of traversing geopolitical boundaries to discover and access information, to working in a variety of non-Western languages, to navigating non-Western academic publishing.  While some university libraries have the resources to offer the very specialized research support to reflect this, the reality is that there is a fundamental mismatch between the granularity of support scholars conducting research in and on Asia require and what most U.S. institutions can generally provide. This is a regular theme in the work of IASC21, a group of librarians in international and area studies who began meeting semi-regularly in 2012.

In addition to providing concrete suggestions for how to support the various aspects  of Asian Studies’ scholars activities across their research lifecycles, the recommendations section of our report also attends to ongoing structural barriers of Asian Studies as a form of area studies. We do this because the organizing logics of the contemporary Western academy cannot be divorced from the material realities of research. As debates rage about the utility and future of academic disciplines as a way for organizing academic work, it has never been more pressing for those involved with research support to critically engage with the ways in which the academy thematically organizes the work that scholars do.

 


Local Reports and Research Teams

Arizona State University

Claremont Colleges

Harvard University

Indiana University

Lafayette College

University of Maryland

Trinity University

University of Colorado Boulder

University of California Los Angeles

University of Texas Austin

University of Washington


Works Cited

Cartier, Carolyn. “Origins and Evolution of a Geographical Idea: The Macroregion in China.” Modern China 28, no. 1. (2002): 79-142 .

Cumings, Bruce. “Boundary Displacement: Area Studies and International Studies During and After the Cold War.” Bulletin of Concerned Asia Scholars 29, no. 1 (1997): 6-26.

Rafael, Vicente L. “The Cultures of Area Studies in the United States.” Social Text, no. 41 (1994): 91-111.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Blog Posts