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Factors Influencing the Development Trend of Area Studies: Beginning from Three Previous Heated Debates in the US

On December 31, 2022, the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS), held the 45th New Buds Salon. The salon’s theme was “Factors Influencing the Development Trend of Area Studies: Beginning from Three Previous Heated Debates in the US.” The salon, moderated by Zhang Yongle, deputy director of PKUIAS and assistant professor of PKU’s Law School, invited Prof. Gao Bai from the Department of Sociology of Duke University in the US to make the keynote speech. Yin Zhiguang, professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University; Lei Shaohua, professor at the School of International Studies at Peking University; and Zan Tao, deputy director of PKUIAS and professor of PKU’s Department of History also joined the discussion and shared their opinions.

Prof. Gao Bai analyzed the three previous heated debates on area studies in the US, and illustrated how three variable factorsforeign policies, academic disciplines and the value systems of target countriesinfluenced the development trend of area studies.

The first debate was on nationalism and cultural pluralism. Viewed from the origin of modern area studies, area studies are not only the product of the development of modern Western social sciences, but also of the expansion of Western colonialism. The Enlightenment Movement had a profound influence on modern Western social sciences, including area studies. On the one hand, the Enlightenment played a positive role in developing rationalism, gradually promoting belief in science instead of religion and advocating social progress. At the same time, it was also characterized by a linear historical view and ethnocentrism, regarding Europe as civilized model and its colonies as typical barbarians. In the 1920s and 1930s, ethnocentrism was challenged by cultural relativism. Cultural relativism strived to underline the importance of studying the value systems of target countries and stressed the need to understand local people’s behaviors from the perspectives of the civilizations themselves, rather than comparing them to European traditions. Cultural relativism had an in-depth influence on area studies and institutionalized the cultural integrity of target countries in US universities. From then on, up to the end of the Cold War, basic knowledge of the local language, history, politics, economy and society of target countries and regions were all required courses for area studies. That is why area studies has always been seen as an interdisciplinary field.

The second debate was on modernization theory. World War II greatly influenced the development trend of area studies in the US. During that time, area studies appeared empirical, practicable and comprehensive. Modernization theory was in line with the ethnocentrism of the 19th century and categorized European and American countries and developing countries as either traditional or modern. Modernization theory had a great influence on area studies in the US during the 30 years after the war, and most studies on foreign countries were launched under such paradigms.

Behaviorism also had great impact on area studies in the 1950s. First, behaviorism shifted the emphasis of political research targeting other countries from researching their formal government institutions to investigating a new series of questions related to political parties, election, and interest groups. Also, quantitative analysis based on questionnaires was adopted to challenge field research head on. Behaviorism held that field research used in area studies could not escape the limitations of a given country’s unique conditions and could not lead to the development of universal theories. Dependency theory, based on in-depth studies on Latin America, challenged modernization theory’s paradigm of the dichotomy of traditional and modern societies, and pointed out that the Latin American countries did not transit from traditional political systems to democracy, which was not in line with the development trend predicted by modernization theory. Instead, bureaucratic authoritarian regimes emerged.

Modernization theory took the nation state as a unit of analysis, but dependency theory and world system theory both refused to do so. They argued that both the consequences of colonialism and the emergence of a capitalist global market had created structural imbalances in the world economy, relegating developing countries to an unequal place, where they were grossly exploited. In the US, Neo-Marxism and Neo-Weberism also directly criticized pluralism under the democratic political paradigm of behaviorism and modernization theory, and sought to bring country studies back into the social sciences.

In the post-Cold War period, the third debate revolved around rational choice theory. Influenced by the “end of history” mentality that appeared after the end of the Cold War, the basic position of rational choice theory was developed through studies on US elections; it postulated that elections in democratic politics were the main theoretical content of the study of what politics would be like in the future. Similar to modernization theory, rational choice theory also pursues the grand theory of social science, but it treated area studies in a stricter manner because its proponents believed that, after the end of the Cold War, there was no longer a need to pursue area studies.

Rational choice theory advocated that social science theories should not be affected by specific time and space conditions. Even when studying foreign countries, it paid more attention to analytical tools such as econometrics and statistics rather than language, history and culture. However, area studies experts believed that the process of conventional theory construction of area studies was to conceptualize and verify the rules behind the observed phenomena. They agreed that, although they had to know relevant languages and history, observe the research subjects in a participatory manner and learn about the local culture from a local perspective when studying other cultures, it was generally difficult to pass on the knowledge acquired in this way to people in a completely different cultural environment.

The role of the social sciences is to provide the concepts and terminology that convey the research results of area studies. However, the social science theory they understand is the inductive conceptualization and theorization of the results of area studies, rather than using theories based on the US experience to analyze other countries in a deductive matter, as rational choice theory advocates.

In the past 30 years, the relationship between social science disciplines and area studies has seen profound changes. On one hand, the study of social sciences at US universities attracted large numbers of foreign students, of whom most returned to their home countries after graduation. They advocated cultural relativism and received systematic training in the research processes, academic norms and argumentation methods of social science. Also, they had in-depth knowledge of their own country and national conditions and connections with other people that foreign researchers would find difficult to match in their own fieldwork. This situation has not only opened a new channel of cooperation between the US academics and overseas area studies experts, but also started a new globalization of area studies knowledge production. On the other hand, the previous research methods of area studies have been widely accepted in the mainstream of social science studies. For example, whereas mainstream sociology journals were dominated by behaviorist quantitative research methods in the past, now the common research methods of area studies, such as in-depth interviews, text analysis, case studies and historical comparison, make up half of the total.

In the end of his lecture, Prof. Gao Bai put forward three inspiring opinions for China’s area studies. First, research paradigms that try to grasp the changing nature of the world pattern and have a macro perspective will have a major impact on area studies. This is because area studies are undertaken out of the need to understand the outside world at this time when the influence of major powers expands around the world. There are two unavoidable questions. What is the significance of the expansion of the country’s external influence at the level of world history? What is the ideal international order that the country wants to lead or can imagine? Although many area studies topics focus on specific countries or phenomena, theories with transnational explanatory power are needed to grasp the relationship between human history and epochal characteristics, and the relationship between the special case of a single country and the international pattern.

Second, be wary of ethnocentrism. Respect the integrity of the target country’s culture and learn the local language to get an in-depth understanding of various aspects such as history and culture. If Chinese scholars go to developing countries for field research, they must pay extra attention to understanding local people’s behavior from the perspective of the local culture, and avoid being affected by ethnocentrism.

Third, Chinese scholars should be aware of the complexity of social science in Western countries. There are not only the mainstream theories of modernization and globalization, which reflect Western ethnocentrism, but also various schools of thought that are opposed to the mainstream. The ideological and theoretical “weapons” of these schools of thought still originate from the West. Also, Western social science has developed a whole set of research processes, academic norms and argumentation methods. The diversity of schools of thought and complete research methods help the US maintain great influence in area studies on other countries.

In the end, Prof. Gao Bai summarized the essence of the three debates. First, the three debates in the US were not about whether to adopt social science theories at all, but what kind of theories should be adopted, or what theories based on which countries’ historical experiences. Social sciences of any country are based on the study of its own historical experience. The point is not whether a theory is useful, but where the boundaries of understanding it lie.

The debates were directly related to people who put forward the research topics. Since the main driving force of area studies comes from the country’s foreign policy, the research questions put forward by area studies researchers are often specific, and specific to a country. However, the topics raised under various disciplines of social science are often more abstract since they are more concerned with development theory.

Also, the debate on methodology is not that important since the choice of which research method to use depends on the research topic. For a country, more than one kind of knowledge is always needed. As a result, there should not be only one research method for area studies. All methods are important for a country to accumulate various types of knowledge.

During the discussion, several participants shared their views on Prof. Gao Bai’s remarks.

Prof. Yin Zhiguang shared his opinions on the local characteristics, boundary awareness and sense of autonomy of area studies. Area studies of any country will have very strong local characteristics, which come from the problem consciousness of area studies, and represent the value of area studies. Clear boundary awareness helps scholars overcome or transcend the limitations of teleology in area studies. In addition, the sense of autonomy also plays an important role in area studies. How to understand diversity in the dialectical and dynamic historical process is a core theoretical problem for us today.

Prof. Lei Shaohua gave some suggestions on China’s area studies. In his opinion, scholars should be wary of the trap of colonialist discourse and avoid falling into the traditional modernization theoretical framework. Also, although it is very difficult, it is utterly necessary for area studies to combine universal theories with diverse approaches to research.

Prof. Zan Tao spoke on China’s area studies from a historical and comparative perspective. In a broad sense, the history of area studies is quite long. In foreign countries, orientalism, a very important academic tradition in early European history, can be regarded as the starting point of area studies. China’s research experience of area studies can be traced back before Liberation or even earlier.

Being a field of study with strong concerns for practicality, area studies is inevitably influenced by scholars’ own experience and identity, but we need to understand its boundaries. Compared with the US, we face more complex problems in area studies. Therefore, while reflecting on ethnocentrism, we should also be vigilant as to whether we are being deeply influenced by US-style universalism.

Area studies in the US is not discipline-oriented, but placed within the traditional discipline structure of the university system, which is exactly the opposite of China. As a result, this is also a challenge for China’s area studies, namely the survival in the university, Zan Tao concluded.

Prof. Gao Bai gave a brief response to the three speakers and further shared his opinions. He pointed out that the government established area studies as a first-level discipline to protect its development. At present, now that area studies has become a first-level discipline, it is worth paying attention to identifying the existing academic and intellectual links between the development of area studies and that of other traditional disciplines and to maintain such links.