Area studies and social science theories

image: The ruins of Bagan, Myanmar

Understanding a particular place seems to involve a very specific kind of knowledge and research. It involves understanding the unique combination of historical circumstances, social processes, cultural formations, and unique institutions that give rise to the current complex social reality. And yet it also involves an effort to understand and explain the developments that are observed — which implies some sort of appeal to social science theory.  For the past four decades this space has been occupied by “area studies” — Latin American studies, Asian studies, African studies.

Here is a nice 1998 paper by South Asian historian and former president of the Association for Asian Studies David Luddens on the epistemic foundations of area studies (link).  Here is how Luddens formulates the issue:

The production of area-specific knowledge about the world has no firm theoretical foundation. It seems to be an intellectual by-product of modern state territorialism and of those state-supported institutions of area studies which became prominent during the heyday of the nation state, in the decades between 1945 and 1990. Area studies in the university find their official justification in itself because they effectively serve disciplines, professions, business and national interests. The rationale for area studies for itself derives from the need to understand the diversity of human experience, which is increasingly embroiled in identity politics and debates about cultural pluralism. University administrators, legislators, and funding agencies now find the old rationale for area studies less compelling and institutional support for the production of area-specific knowledge depends more and more on its utility for academic globalization, as the university, like business and government, seeks to expand its operations around the world and to establish it own authority in global culture. Though scholars who produce area-specific knowledge are well endowed with talent and resources, they find it hard to adapt to this trend without sacrificing their old intellectual commitments, because they have such a weak theoretical justification for doing what they do. To sustain their enterprise, they need to theorize area-studies in relation to globalization. This is the first in a set of essays that work in that direction. It focuses on the institutional history of area studies in the long-term process of globalization. (1)

Here I’d like to focus on the relationship between area knowledge and disciplinary knowledge.

Area studies is in its nature an interdisciplinary assemblage, at two levels — institutional and individual. For example, centers for Latin American studies commonly involve political scientists, anthropologists, literary specialists, art historians, and sociologists, each bringing a specific body of knowledge and inquiry to the collective effort. But furthermore, each individual area specialist is expected to show some degree of interdisciplinary knowledge in his or her research. This is the value-added provided by a center: individuals come together and gain insight from colleagues in other disciplines.  It is commonly believed among area specialists that excessive focus on a single disciplinary perspective is likely to create a form of “aspect blindness” in the investigator — the economic historian of China overlooks the cultural forces at work, the political scientist who studies Latin American populism may fail to see the influence of religious traditions, and so forth.

How should area studies specialists and historians employ general social theories in attempting to understand particular social and historical examples? How, for example, is social science theory pertinent to explaining the historical experience of India or Burma?  In other words, how can we bring together the specific knowledge of area specialists and the more general knowledge of discipline-based social scientists?

Some theoretical frameworks — the study of social movements, analysis of land tenure relations, analysis of local political power practices, analysis of local political traditions — are plainly useful across studies of various societies. They offer good common questions — so long as we recall that there are very different answers to these questions in different places and times.  And they can provide suggestive ideas about the causal processes that may be underway in particular periods of social change.

One important goal of the use of social science theories is to help the researcher to arrive at descriptions of the particular institutions, traditions, mentalities, etc., through which various general factors are worked out — to mediate the particular and the general. Social science theories provide developed conceptual schemes and vocabularies in terms of which to analyze the concrete social phenomena. What is a revolution? How does it differ from a coup or a fall of government?  So social science theory is valuable as a source of ideas about how to organize and conceptualize the social given in a particular area.

Another critical contribution of the social sciences to area studies is the growing collection of common social mechanisms and processes that political scientists, sociologists, and economists have studied in detail. Social scientists aren’t able to provide comprehensive theories of society that can simply be “applied” to specific areas; there is no general theory of the state that would permit the Middle East specialist to understand and predict the behavior of the Syrian regime. But social scientists are able to identify mundane mid-level mechanisms that arise in politics, economies, and social movements; and these theories of specific mechanisms can be of great value to the area specialist. (This is a crucial contribution of Chuck Tilly’s work; for example, Tilly and Tarrow, Contentious Politics.)

Consider one particular example — the China area specialist who is trying to get a better understanding of changes in China’s economic structure between 1980 and 2000. Findings having to do with the mechanisms of rent-seeking and corruption will probably shed important light on the developments; the mechanism of “bureaucratic clientelism” will be helpful; and mechanisms of social movements and labor mobilization will prove helpful as well. In one sense China’s sudden economic transformation after the reforms of the early 1980s was sui generis. But it also consisted of a number of component processes that have been identified and studied in very different historical and cultural settings.  (Jean Oi’s State and Peasant in Contemporary China: The Political Economy of Village Government provides a good example.)

So there is an important sense in which the social sciences permit a basis for generalizing and explaining when we consider specific areas. But it is crucial to avoid the mistake of over-generalizing.

One such mistake is the idea that we can simply subsume a particular region’s experience under a comprehensive general theory. In particular, we should avoid stereotyped contrasts and models of change: traditional-modern; capitalist-feudal; stagnant-dynamic. Constructs such as “modernization theory” are unhelpful, because they import a raft of unspoken presuppositions, they are teleological, and they are formulated at too high a level. Area specialists are better served by meso-level theories of social mechanisms.  (Arturo Escobar offers a strong contemporary critique of modernization theory in Encountering Development.)

Another variety of faulty historical analysis is the intellectual error of Eurocentrism. It is critical that we not generalize from the experience of Western Europe in application to Asia or Africa.  Consider the example of Asian politics. The polity of pre-colonial India was highly pluralistic, with a very wide and heterogeneous set of social relations, forms of power, ethnic conflicts, economic forms, and political and quasi-political arrangements. China, by contrast, was a more uniform political order, with a visible unified state. And neither of these states is well understood if we simply import the apparatus of political theory developed out of study of the modern European state.  So there is great variety and originality in the political institutions of India, China, or Bali, and we cannot understand those institutions by simply attempting to find European analogies.  (Bin Wong makes these points very powerfully in China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience.)

So area scholars have to aim for a delicate balance, between concrete, local knowledge and the application of relevant findings from the social sciences.  But the social sciences certainly have a key role in understanding the institutions, mentalities, and behavior of particular places.

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Understanding Southeast Asia


Themes and issues from Southeast Asia crop up fairly frequently in UnderstandingSociety. Red shirt demonstrations in Thailand, ethnic conflict in Malaysia, corruption and repression in Burma — I think these are some of the more interesting social developments underway in the world today. And the resources needed for non-experts (like myself) to get a preliminary but factual understanding of these developments are now readily available on the web — blogs, international newspapers, twitter, and google provide a truly unprecedented ability for any of us to gain insight into distant social processes. (A recent widget on the iPhone and iPod Touch is a case in point: the World Newspapers application gives the user easy access to almost 4,000 newspapers in 100 countries.)

One blog that I’ve come to appreciate quite a bit on subjects having to do with Southeast Asia is the New Mandala, based at Australian National University. Andrew Walker is one of its founders and frequent contributors, and he and several other New Mandala contributors have recently published what promises to be a very interesting book. The book is titled Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia, and its focus can best be described in the contributors’ own words. Here are the opening paragraphs of a chapter on the orientation the contributors have taken on studying “Thai” identity:

This book provides a new approach to the study of community in the Tai world of mainland Southeast Asia.

Much of the current ethnographic work in the Tai world is constrained by a conceptual framework that associates community with tradition, locality and subsistence economy. This traditional community is commonly portrayed as being undermined by the modern forces of state incorporation, market penetration, globalisation and population mobility.

In this volume, we take a very different view. We challenge the widely held view that community is a traditional social form that is undermined by modernity. Using case studies from Thailand, Laos, Burma and China, we explore the active creation of ‘modern community’ in contexts of economic and political transformation. Our aim is to liberate community from its stereotypical association with traditional village solidarity and to demonstrate that communal sentiments of belonging retain their salience in the modern world of occupational mobility, globalised consumerism and national development.

Our focus is on the Tai world, made up of the various peoples who speak Tai languages. The largest groups are the Thai of Thailand, the Lao of Laos, the Shan of Burma and the Dai of southern China. Of course, each of these categories is problematic; they are all the modern products of historical circumstance rather than being natural or self-evident ethnic groups. There are certainly linguistic and cultural similarities that justify the shared label ‘Tai’ but this must be treated as a preliminary delineation of a field of interest without rushing to assumptions about a common identity or a sense of shared history. Indeed, our primary goal is to critically examine contemporary notions of belonging in this Tai world.

This is a highly engaging and innovative approach to the intellectual challenge of understanding the culture, history, and current trajectory of a large part of the peoples of Southeast Asia. The contributors capture some of the best current thinking about the fluidity and plasticity of cultural identities and the complicated ways in which cultures and modern social forces interact. Particularly pressing for historians and area specialists is the challenge of taking adequate account of language, culture, local community, extended networks, and varied political and economic interests when we try to make sense of a large population dispersed over a macro-region.

Take “red shirts” and “yellow shirts”. These are two constituencies in contemporary Thailand. In the past two years there have been massive popular movements corresponding to each of them, leading to major demonstrations and challenges to the government. They are often characterized in terms of differences in social class and economic sector: rural, poor, disempowered, versus urban, affluent, and privileged. This characterization is one that political scientists and economists would be comfortable with; it locates the two groups in terms of their interests and their location within the relations of wealth and power that exist in contemporary Thailand. But it’s at least worth posing the question: does this “interest”-based definition of contemporary politics in Thailand leave out something crucial, in the general zone of culture and identity? And are there possible cultural differences between the groups that are potentially relevant to political behavior and mobilization? Is there an ethnography of the red shirt movement and its followers yet?

Or take the issue of refugees, displaced persons, and migrant workers. There are flows of people across the borders of Burma and Thailand; Burma and Bangladesh; Thailand and Malaysia; and even from Burma to Cambodia. (For that matter, there is a significant population of Thai “guest workers” in Tel Aviv and other parts of the Middle East and Gulf.) How do differences in culture and identity play into the situation of these displaced people when they find themselves in the foreign country?

So research along the lines of Tai Lands and Thailand is highly valuable. It is likely to give us some new conceptual tropes in terms of which to understand these large social realities — modern community, provisional identities, and a multi-threaded understanding of the social worlds of Southeast Asia. And I think it demonstrates another important truth as well: there is always room for fresh thinking when it comes to trying to make sense of the social world.

(See an earlier posting introducing a spatial representation of the UnderstandingSociety twitter feed on Southeast Asia. Here is a direct link to the google map for this effort.)

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.

The social science disciplines

The social sciences consist of a variety of disciplines, subject areas, and methods, and there is no reason to expect that these disciplines will eventually add up to a single unified theory of society. Political science, sociology, history, anthropology, economics, geography, and area studies all provide their own, largely independent, definitions of scope, research agenda, and research methods. And there is no grand plan according to which the disciplinary definitions jointly capture all that is of scientific interest about the social.

History rather than logic explains the particular configuration of social science disciplines that we now face. The major social science disciplines have grown up in the past century and a half by creating stylized answers to these topic areas: the “political” concerns institutions of coercion and governance; the “economic” has to do with production, exchange, and distribution of goods and services; the “anthropological” has to do with the cultures, values, and practices through which individuals and groups conduct their local lives. Area studies are defined according to a different axis; Asian studies or Latin American studies demand that we cut the social differently: not from the point of view of social domains, but from the point of view of geographical complexes of related social, cultural, economic, political, and normative regimes.

At the same time, we as “users” of the results of social inquiry have no inherent interest in the intra- and inter-disciplinary debates that have led to the constitution of the disciplines of the social sciences as they currently exist. The social world does not come to us labeled as “political,” “economic,” or “ethnographic.” We ordinary citizens have questions that cut across these boundaries recklessly: Why does the US state so commonly ignore the needs of poor people? Why are Indonesian rice farmers reluctant to make use of HYV rice strains? Why did the hi-tech bubble occur in the American economy in the 1990s? How do police departments succeed in recruiting good potential officers? When is the practice of charitable giving most likely to thrive or falter? Why did the Chinese Communist revolution occur? Why did it succeed? Note what a mixture of topics, human interactions, and methodologies is invoked by this collection of questions. Some of these queries raise the question of why individuals behaved as they did; some focus on group action, while others single out individual choices; some have to do with the institutions within which individuals live; some suggest turning to ethnography, comparative economics, or political science; and so forth.

The upshot is this: Users of the social sciences have a different way of parsing “the social” than is found in academic social science. We are interested in human agency and behavior — individual and collective. We are interested in the ways social relations and institutions work, and how they affect the behavior and choices of the individuals who operate within them. We are interested in how large agglomerations of human activity work — how they emerge, how they behave over time, and how they go wrong (cities, states, corporations, networks of friends, …), and we are interested in the dynamics of face-to-face social interaction.

This suggests that new thinking about the social sciences needs to start with the idea of acquiring a strong commitment to interdisciplinary study of common social topics.

(Here are several other posts on “social science disciplines” (tag).)

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