Area studies and social science knowledge

How do the social sciences complement the study of particular regions and cultures? How do the researches and theories of political science, sociology, or anthropology extend our understanding of China or Mexico?

There is one answer to this question that can be disposed of fairly quickly: many sociologists, economists, or political scientists are also specialists on China or Mexico. In this case the social scientist finds his/her empirical data in a particular place — and the research findings produced through this specialized inquiry is a substantive contribution to understanding of the particular region. In this sense the specialist is a contributor to the area studies literature on China or Mexico (or Latin America and East Asia).

But area studies is more than simply the accumulation of knowledge of a region based on several distinct disciplines. Somehow we think that area studies researchers need to be inter-disciplinary experts. The scholar of East Asia needs to be able to synthesize the best
available insights from a range of disciplines. When we ask, what are the important processes underway in China today, we want to have a response that incorporates observations and judgments that include sociology, popular culture, economic policy, demography, and urban change. So an area specialist is not primarily a discipline specialist — even though he/she normally has received primary training in one discipline or another. Instead, the area specialist is a specialist of the region, encompassing all its social and cultural aspects.

Put this way, are there any genuine area experts? There are some leading writers on China whose work is interdisciplinary in a meaningful way — Ezra Vogel, for example. And there are journalists who have developed broad and deep knowledge about Africa, Latin America, or East Asia. However, as a general rule, the deck is stacked against the “discipline-generalist, region-specialist” combination. This has partly to do with the discipline-based standards of rigor that define scholarly excellence; partly the sheer difficulty of mastering multiple areas of disciplinary knowledge; and partly with the epistemic value that we associate with detail and precision over breadth and lower resolution.

So if a real “area specialist” is likely to be a rare creature, what should we look for when we want knowledge of a region or area? The most promising answer is the inter-disciplinary working group and the inter-disciplinary scholarly association. A center for Chinese studies is likely to include experts across the social sciences and humanities; and they are all likely to acquire new perspectives through their cross-discipline interactions. And perhaps the best knowledge we can reach about a region and culture is the multithreaded fabric that emerges from the research seminars and writings emanating from the area-studies working group. Certainly organizations like the Asian Studies Association and the Middle Eastern Studies Association have proven their worth in bringing together a variety of disciplines and perspectives on their regions; and arguably, the scholars who participate in these associations have come to a broader perspective on their own particular areas of research.

So, once again, what is the relation between knowledge of a region and knowledge of a social science discipline? The area specialist needs to be informed by the best social science knowledge of the region. Second, he/she needs to be fluent with the best models and theories being developed in the social sciences, in order to be able to use these theories in explaining various patterns or developments in the region of interest. But, third, the area specialist should keep always in mind the cross-disciplinary nature of the subject matter. It is important not to be seduced by the power of the hammer, into thinking everything is a nail.

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