Area Studies

in Article
Published on: 11 November 2016

S. Satish Kumar

S. Satish Kumar is teaching Assistant and Graduate student, Georgia University, U.S.A

What is Area Studies? The simplest possible understanding of this term would suggest an in-depth study of a specific area. This is not, however, like asking one what their ‘area’ of interest or research is. The ‘area’ in ‘Area Studies’ more often than not refers to an actual physical geographic area, but sometimes could also mean a more diffuse and less rigidly defined cultural area. What is so unique about this? What is so novel about the meticulous study of a region or a culture? People have been doing this for donkey’s years now. The Germans were obsessed with India and all things Indian visibly since the 1700s. In fact, one could go further back in time and hail the fragments that survive of Megasthenes’ works as the earliest manifestations of the ‘desire’ for Area Studies, second only to the Homeric accounts of Odysseus’ tryst with the Cyclopes. After all we do find described in Book Nine of Homer’s Odyssey with painstaking detail the lives of the Cyclopes as a people and their sense of community. Is that all Area Studies is then? A desire to study a specifically located other? If so, why then do we need Area Studies as a discipline, distinct from all other disciplines that seek to study the Other? This is more the case now than ever before. Nowadays everybody is studying the Other. Even disciplines that were otherwise defined rigidly and one might even say aggressively, now seek to study the Other. One could consider the case of English departments that now teach everything from Neruda to Tagore, in English translation of course. As a comparatist, at the risk of sounding biased, engaging with ‘Other’ literatures has been at the core of our literary scholarship, but that is something one might return to shortly.


Why as a comparatist must one be interested in Area Studies? Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her rather controversial work, Death of a Discipline, explores the possibility of a fruitful engagement between Comparative Literature and Area Studies, Comparative Literature, being the dying discipline that is discussed in the book. Spivak’s book offers clear and useful insights into the origins of Area Studies as a discipline. She links the rise of this discipline in the United States directly to the Cold War and the atmosphere of suspicion that this period fostered. The Cold War was unique in the sense that it was not a conventional war—the kind where countries went to ‘war’ against each other. It can be described as the period following World War II of covert and overt hostility and tensions between the Western Bloc comprising the United States and its NATO allies and the Eastern Bloc comprising the erstwhile Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw pact. There was a simmering panic throughout this period on either side that the other was attempting to consolidate more allies and thereby hold enough sway over the world to become a super-power. As Spivak points out, Area Studies was instituted in an attempt to secure U.S. power during the Cold War. She draws attention to the fact that federal grants and grants from large foundations, like the Ford Foundation, along with other measures, like amendments in the Defense Education Act of 1958, facilitated the establishing of Language and Area Studies Centers—especially between 1959 and 1968. Marcia Hermensen in her survey of the study of Islam in U.S. academe mentions a similar trend rising around the same time frame with the acquisition of ‘Critical Defense Languages’. As Hermensen mentions, a significant amount of time and resources were invested in the study of the languages of the Arab world, namely Arabic, Persian and Turkish, and also languages like Somali and Swahili. There was also a focus on the study of Asian languages like Chinese, Korean, Hindi and Urdu. This is not to be confused with the study of ‘Critical Languages’ or languages that are less likely to be institutionally taught and have fewer proficient speakers. Critical Defense Languages are languages that are crucial for defense and intelligence reasons and are promoted with the furtherance of these goals in mind. The National Security Education Program currently recognizes around 70 such languages. The question of the acquisition of defense languages has become a renewed concern post 9/11.


Area Studies in the U.S. has historically been tied to the Cold War impetus of creating a fund of knowledge about other cultures. This is not to be misunderstood as an altruistic desire for engaging the Other. Rather it was based on the need to consolidate power through attempts at gaining a clearer understanding of one’s friends and foes. In principle this was no different from all the various voyages sponsored by European countries during the Age of Discovery/Exploration. As Dorothy Figueira argues in her latest book, these explorations could be viewed as attempts at consolidating Christian power and alliances in the face of a possible Saracen threat. It is important to stress here that one is not criticizing either the impetus or the enterprise of Area Studies and the acquisition of defense languages, nor is one belittling the need for such enterprises. As Spivak rightly points out, enterprises such as these regardless of their agendas present a refreshing alternative to the much lamented Eurocentricity of disciplines like Comparative Literature in the U.S. The critique one is making is different—to be more precise it is from a different location. As Ipshita Chanda writes in her response to Spivak’s controversial work, ‘Can The Non-Western Comparatist Speak’, this is no doubt true, but only so for Comparative Literature in the U.S. Swapan Majumdar, like Chanda, makes a similar critique of the rising din of ‘Multicultural Studies’ in his essay, ‘Multiculturalism: Forced or Natural: A Comparative Literary Overview’, from the perspective not only of a comparatist but also that of Comparative Literature in India.


The history of Comparative Literature in the U.S., as Spivak tells us, was shaped by the European intellectuals who fled ‘totalitarian’ regimes in Europe and found their home in American academe. Comparative Literature offered such individuals a much desired space where they could escape the hegemony of not only political, but also perhaps cultural totalitarianism and fundamentalism. Comparative Literature in the U.S. came to be defined by the languages, literatures and theoretical vision these intellectuals brought to American academe. The historical context of scholarship in Comparative Literature within American academe has been, therefore, primarily Europhone and Eurocentric. This is not the case when one thinks of the practice of Comparative Literature in India or for that matter anywhere outside Europe and the United States. Therefore, while the splicing of Comparative Literature and Area Studies may be seen as remedial to the discipline’s lamentable Eurocentricity in the U.S., the same does not necessarily apply to Comparative Literature elsewhere. Comparative Literature, especially so in the case of India, cannot but be multicultural, multilingual and non-Eurocentric. All things that are very dear to Spivak’s vision of Comparative Literature. One needs to focus on three primary interrogatives, where, what and how. Comparative Literature located in the United States deals primarily with European and Europhone literatures, and that is understandable considering the discipline’s location in a context that easily facilitates such a study. A location in India does not necessarily mean one ignores Europe altogether. It simply means that one has at hand a vast body of languages and language literatures to work with. One does not need Area studies to ‘revive’ a dying Eurocentric Comparative Literature, because a location within Indian languages and literatures means that the discipline is not terminally Eurocentric.


This calls for the articulation of some methodological facts regarding the practice of Comparative Literature as a discipline. Comparative Literature is fundamentally multilingual, intercultural, interdisciplinary and interliterary. As a discipline it is uniquely adaptive and answers to the needs of the locations in which it is practised, but simultaneously works beyond the confines of these locations. One can see how this differs from the narrow focus of disciplines that deal in national literatures, languages and cultures. Spivak rightly points out that Area Studies is undeniably dependent on the Humanities. The difference, however, lies in the fact that Comparative Literature is undeniably located within the Humanities. Comparative Literature no doubt stands to gain from the stress Area Studies places on language training, but differs from it in its definitive commitment to research and scholarship in literature and the literary field. There is always the possibility of a dialogue. Comparative Literature continues to dialogue with not only ‘Other’ literatures and cultures but also with other disciplines. Therefore, one is not favorably disposed to approaches that call for folding one discipline into another, as Spivak proposes with Comparative Literature and Area Studies. One is rather more disposed to the idea of dialoguing as equals—retaining one’s individuality and allowing the Other to do the same.




Chanda, Ipshita. 2003. ‘Can the Non-Western Comparatist Speak?’ Literary Research 20:39–40.     


Figueira, Dorothy. 2015. The Hermeneutics of Suspicion: Cross-Cultural Encounters with India. London: Bloomsbury.


Hermensen, Marcia. 2012. ‘The Academic Studies of Sufism at American Universities’, in Observing the Observer: The State of Islamic Studies in American Universities, eds. Mumtaz Ahmad, Zahid Bukhari and Sulayman Nyang. Herndon: The International Institute of Islamic Thought.


Majumdar, Swapan. 2004. ‘Multiculturalism: Forced or Natural: A Comparative Literary Overview’. The Jadavpur Journal of Comparative Literature 41.


Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2003. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press.