We have recently come across a really interesting article written by Vicente L. Rafael entitled “The Cultures of Area Studies in the United States”. As students of European studies, we found this piece interesting because it was simply a critical case study on regional studies focusing on the Asian Studies, done within USA. Before going any further into the article we think it’s really important to get a grasp on the author to have better understanding on his point of view.
As we find it on Wikipedia, Mr. Vicente L. Rafael is a professor of history at the University of Washington. He received his Ph.D. in history at Cornell University in 1984 and a B.A. in history and philosophy from Ateneo de Manila University in 1977. Mr. Rafael has researched and taught on Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, comparative colonialism, mainly of Spain and the United States, and comparative nationalism. The author, in this particular piece that we are examining is critical towards the accuracy of regional studies and argues that regional studies are biased and their aim is to create information that will serve to national purposes. Another point he makes is that regional studies may be inadequate to understand cross regional relations and interactions of different regions because their narrow focus. Regional studies according to Vincente may skip to examine the areas between regions that may have “hybrid” attributes because regional studies tend to divide the world leaving some areas in between that may be skipped while focusing on regional studies.
He supports his arguments by examining the concept of region. According to him there is a lot of ambiguity and little consensus about the meaning of the word “region” as far as Europe is concerned, while in East Asia there is similarly a long and unsettled history of debating just what exactly counts as “regional”. A “region” is something that can alternately or simultaneously appear in various guises: politically as an administrative unit, culturally as an ethnic enclave or linguistic community, economically as zones of production and exchange. In any and all cases, the regional only comes into view comparatively: vertically related to that which seeks to maintain and subsume it, such as the metropole or the supranational authority; and horizontally in a relation of complementarity and conflict with other regions.
The author is exploring the nature of the relationship between area studies and “the disciplines”, which, to our understanding, are other subjects of social sciences and humanities. The case of South Asian studies that the author presents might be universal when it comes to a general discussion, and thus we will try to apply the same rules to the “European” area “studies”.
We will raise the same questions for the European studies. Should they be a mere supplement to another field of study that a person is proficient in? On the one hand, such a combination would create a highly valuable professional able to perform within his/her field in the country of study. On the other hand, it is certainly an advantage for a researcher to engage onto interdisciplinary, or focus on a certain aspect and connect it to the field of area studies.
As far as European studies are concerned, most of the programs/research in this field has been closely connected with political science. However, interdisciplinary is gaining more and more popularity and support in the academics and research. We believe that in the case of a more interdisciplinary approach to area studies, the assumption mentioned by the author is gaining more importance: be a professional in one certain area but have a wide and deep understanding of the general processes happening in the entire area of European studies. What is more, European studies as such are as difficult to define as Europe itself. A focus can be brought to any particular element, from national languages to cultures, history of a country or a region or the current political affairs. All in all, European studies are a specific type of area studies. Having encompassed a great variety of languages, cultures, and other elements, it resembles in its nature the South Asian studies in the U.S, as described in the article. However, the conditions of research on European studies are quite different, since we can say that these area studies are young and widely dynamic – for example, only decades ago European studies started to include regions which were hidden behind the Iron Curtain before.
So in these times that everything is globalizing and it’s all about seeing the bigger picture, are we all missing the bigger picture by looking at regions? In today’s interconnected world order is that possible to come into unbiased, scientific conclusion with inductive method? Or one shall must see the world as a whole and examine it like that in order to not to have a better understanding of it?
What if we are all missing the forest and bigger picture while stuck on the trees?
Alisa, Olgu and Paula