Global Unrest Ushers in New Crises of Representation: Assessing the Present and Future of Area Studies

tunis_03292012_2The global wave of protests presently underway has ushered in a new crisis in the interdisciplinary field of area studies. The Arab Spring in particular has sounded an alarming wake-up call, leading many to challenge the relevance of modalities and methods currently employed within area studies. There is an existentialist quality underpinning this crisis, as scholars question how their personal subjectivities and academic training may be employed in a more constructive, responsible manner.

Although it is a relatively new field, this is not area studies’ first moment of crisis. As the United States rose to superpower status in the aftermath of World War II, area studies began to emerge as a field through which the government could cultivate regional “experts” to perform military and intelligence missions in areas deemed critical to Washington’s interests. Throughout the Cold War, dubious ties of many leading area studies scholars and departments with governmental and military agencies (ranging from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Defense) were exposed. Many resulting issues of transparency and ethics, in terms of the often-ambiguous relationship between politics and academics, remain unresolved today.

Following the events of September 2001, the area studies spotlight was redirected from Russian and Asian Studies to the fields of Middle Eastern and African Studies. The lines between academia and politics have since become ever more blurred. At the extreme, self-proclaimed, neo-conservative “experts” in the field of Middle Eastern Studies allied with the Bush administration to craft a rationale for invading Iraq. Almost nine years later, it is difficult to dispute that this instance of marriage between academic and political agendas has led to unfathomable suffering for the Iraqi people.

While some interdisciplinary fields have adopted uniform policies addressing the acceptance of funding and employment from governmental agencies, most area studies departments continue to receive considerable support from the United States government in various forms. Pedagogical and methodological repercussions of such funding, particularly in Middle Eastern Studies, are often overlooked. In coming years, area studies departments should more clearly delineate the appropriate boundaries between governmental and academic agendas. By adopting ethics codes and oversight mechanisms, area studies programs can better ensure that academic standards of ethics and integrity are not compromised by Washington’s political elites.

Area studies scholars are currently grappling to reformulate outdated modalities and approaches that emerged from colonial and wartime ideologies. Under the influence of “armchair anthropology,” the pioneers of area studies provided an allegedly disinterested description of their subject as a bounded object, frozen in time. By the mid- and late-nineteenth century, most area studies scholars moved toward adopting a more predictive approach in their research. In assuming the role of an objective “expert,” they attempted to forecast political, economic, and social trends within their respective region of focus.

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The predictive approach has proved futile in the Arab Spring, as most “experts” in the field of Middle Eastern studies were caught completely off guard by the outbreak of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Many scholars are consequently redirecting their focus away from formal power structures, such as state institutions and laws. They are also finding interstitial spaces of informal power, such as unofficial networks and associations, to be more instructive and relevant in the present era of socio-economic unrest. Many area studies scholars are adopting more participatory methods, seeking to actively involve “subjects” in the process of formulating research questions and conclusions, in order to enhance their understanding of dynamic processes of change currently underway.

The Arab Spring is certainly leading many scholars to re-conceptualize the ways in which they view and teach about the Middle Eastern region. As space and place no longer principally define interactions between people from different nations, religions, races, and other identity constructions, the nation-state boundaries that define a “region” can no longer guide academics’ notions of what is—or is not—pertinent to area studies subfields. In the Middle East, artificial borders imposed by Britain, France, and most recently, the settler-expansionist state of Israel, can no longer be conceived as delineating discrete units of analysis. Furthermore, globalization has led to the intensification of communication and movement across communities and borders, permitting a sort of closeness at a distance. The modern Middle East and other regions must be conceived as unbounded, fluid constructions in which ideas and products are constantly undergoing processes of exchange and transformation.

The ongoing Arab Spring is not only revolutionizing many individuals’ perceptions of their own agency to assert change, but also many scholars’ beliefs about the role they should strive to realize in academia. Area studies will likely undergo a complex process of contestation and reinvention for years to come. Should area studies fail to adequately address the above-mentioned challenges and other issues (which were omitted for the sake of brevity) the field’s prestige and utility may fade, similar to the legitimacy of aloof leaders around the world in the wake of the Arab Spring.


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Basma Guthrie is a Master’s degree candidate in Arab Studies at Georgetown University.