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How to Make Area Studies Relevant Again

Area studies in the United States has its roots in national interests. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 jump-started the teaching of less commonly taught languages, and the Department of Education’s Title VI framework references maintaining the “security, stability and economic vitality of the United States” as the central motivation for supporting area studies. The guiding belief behind these programs is that area studies yields practical knowledge that can be used to make better policy.

That belief remains widely held. A recent study by Paul Avey and Michael Desch found that a broad sample of U.S. policy makers viewed area studies—not theoretical and quantitative modeling, and not qualitative case studies and policy analysis—as the single most important contribution that academic social scientists can bring to policy making. And this belief is hardly unique to the United States. Many other countries support area-studies research in order to further their own national priorities.

Yet area studies in the United States is in crisis, and has been for at least two decades. The crisis lies in the relationship between it and the academic disciplines that employ most area specialists and where most Ph.D. students are trained.

Economists with substantive area expertise are rare. Political scientists and sociologists have long struggled to conceptualize the role of area studies in modern social science. Despite an expansion of new field-based projects employing sophisticated research designs—which may help to counteract the “parochialism” of the social sciences—research visits to field sites are shorter and shorter, students are encouraged to work on precisely contained and narrowly circumscribed empirical projects, and competence in foreign languages, particularly those less commonly taught, is increasingly rare.

Anthropology is alone among the social sciences in its comfort with area studies, but disciplinary turns have discouraged the kind of practical or applied research that policy makers can use. (A recent symposium in Current Anthropology about “engaged anthropology” struggles to articulate a constructive role for anthropologists in the policy process, preferring to conceive of engagement as critique, advocacy, activism, etc.) In the humanities, too, where area studies is strongest, practical knowledge is seldom a high priority.

As a result, scholars whose work is deeply engaged in particular areas of the world are not trained in ways that allow them to step beyond their narrow areas of expertise to contribute meaningfully to policy or practice. Even worse, they are not encouraged to do so.

The central problem is a misalignment of incentives. Disciplines friendly to area studies have come to value deep engagement on narrow, abstract topics, not wide-ranging interest in societies writ large. The harder social sciences favor theoretical advancement and contribution to existing academic debates, not close knowledge of the nitty-gritty details of national politics. Yet the policy community requires area specialists whose expertise lies between those two extremes, who are able to respond to policy problems as they emerge, who have a sophisticated understanding of key political actors and interests in the countries they study, and who can situate those problems within the appropriate national context. Some Ph.D. students develop this kind of expertise, but it is not part of the job description for an emerging scholar in either the social sciences or the humanities, and so such skills are seldom prized and rarely nurtured.

To be clear, the disciplines are not the problem. Anthropologists should not need to produce research that is relevant to U.S. policy making as a condition of funding. Theoretical and substantive debates, not day-to-day policy problems, ought to animate the best political-science research. Given that the disciplines remain the centers of knowledge production in area studies, however, ensuring the continued vitality of area studies in an uncertain funding environment does require that the disciplines produce area-focused scholars who can do the work that practitioners want and value.

Aligning the academic disciplines that train most Ph.D. students with the priorities of governments and donors that fund area studies requires creative efforts to manage the divergent incentives of students, faculty members, and funding bodies. Renewed emphasis on nonacademic career paths among Ph.D. students, for example, is only the first step; it must come with incentives for serious language training, interdisciplinary study, and policy work, especially among early Ph.D. students.

This does not require diluting the disciplines, which can and should follow their own distinct intellectual priorities. The disciplines must also jealously protect their ability to criticize and to question, especially the priorities and the interests of those who finance them. Emphasizing nonacademic career paths does, however, place a heavier burden on faculty members to nurture scholars whose careers may lie elsewhere.

Funding bodies also have a role to play. Foundations and grant makers, who continue to have a major part in supporting area studies, often have an explicit mandate to support engaged scholarship with policy impact. As partners with the disciplines, area-studies centers, and individual scholars, they can encourage policy engagement that complements academic excellence.

But it is the federal government that has always had the greatest influence over the future course of area studies. Its instinct may be to use “priorities”—the criteria upon which grants are awarded—to encourage area studies to move in a particular direction, but that is the wrong approach. Instead of making support conditional on some blunt measure of policy impact, a better alternative is to focus on incentives for students while protecting the richness and diversity of area-studies scholarship, especially in the disciplines.

An expanded and deepened version of the Boren Fellowship program, which funds one year of fieldwork in areas of interest to U.S. national security, is one possibility. A “Critical Area Studies Scholarship Program” could identify promising students before the start of their Ph.D. who are interested in public-service careers but also eager to develop deep area knowledge in the context of an academic discipline such as political science. Providing Ph.D. scholarships to these students would nurture exactly those future practitioners who can be most useful to federal departments and agencies. (Roughly comparable programs that already exist include the SMART Scholarship for Service Program and the Department of Homeland Security’s Scholarship Program.)

Students in such a scheme would have academic incentives to develop practical knowledge through area studies that they can later use to meet their career goals. Departments and universities would face no diversion of resources away from existing priorities in training the next generation of academics. An additional, indirect benefit would be greater contact between future policy makers and future academics, which might help to realign academic and policy-making priorities more naturally.

The direct financial costs of creating a Critical Area Studies Scholarship Program would be modest. But there are other hurdles, and these are structural in nature. Few universities would be fully prepared to receive these students, as many less commonly taught languages are available at only a handful of universities, and area-studies programs remain under pressure everywhere. (The most recent report from the Modern Language Association documents a declining trend in graduate-student enrollment in Bambara, Czech, Hausa, Hindi-Urdu, Farsi, Indonesian, Lithuanian, Polish, Swahili, Tamil, Thai, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Zulu, among many other languages.)  Given the current higher-education landscape, creating a critical mass of policy-minded, area-focused Ph.D. students would effectively mean targeting a relatively narrow slice of U.S. higher -education institutions.

It is best, then, to combine new resources for students with renewed attention to area-studies programs themselves, to expand access and maintain excellence. Greater synergy between what area-studies programs do, the students they train, and the priorities of the donors that fund them would revitalize area studies, both within and across the disciplines.

Thomas B. Pepinsky is an associate professor of government at Cornell University and president of the American Institute for Indonesian Studies.

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