Rethinking the history of area studies in the United States.
The annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) that opens this week will celebrate the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. That makes it a good time to take a new look at the history of Middle East studies as an academic field, and more broadly at the historical trajectory of area studies in the United States.
Most accounts of the emergence of area studies as a distinct set of academic fields embodied in a range of institutions (centers, departments, faculty lines, graduate programs, academic associations, scholarly journals, funding streams, fellowship programs for training and research, and so on) treat this phenomenon as largely or exclusively a product of the Cold War and of the needs of the U.S. national security state to which it gave birth. But my research suggests that postwar area studies actually had significant roots in developments in the U.S. academic and foundation worlds during the interwar period. These included efforts from the late 1920s onward, orchestrated mainly by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to promote and modernize the study of the world beyond the United States and Western Europe, develop more effective modes of language training and overcome what were widely perceived as excessively rigid disciplinary boundaries—themselves a product of the reorganization of U.S. academia along disciplinary lines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It was the unprecedented munificence of the big foundations, and not government funding, that made area studies into a relatively well-established and durable component of U.S. higher education.
During the Second World War the new institutions, networks, pedagogical practices and emerging visions of knowledge production that these prewar initiatives had begun to generate were drawn upon, remolded and drastically expanded in order to meet the urgent needs of the U.S. government and military for useful knowledge about peoples, places and issues around the globe deemed critical to the war effort. In this hothouse atmosphere a new set of sites and practices emerged that sought to produce concrete, interdisciplinary knowledge about particular regions, locales, cultures and issues, along with accelerated methods of training in languages of which very few Americans had previously had any knowledge. Relatively early in the war, and well before anyone could have imagined that the postwar period would be characterized by a decades-long global confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, academic leaders at the ACLS and at its sister organization (and sometime competitor) the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) had begun to formulate what they regarded as a new and efficacious vision of interdisciplinary, regionally focused knowledge production and to argue that it should become a permanent component of postwar higher education in the United States.
Key officials at these organizations’ main funders, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, quickly embraced this vision and used the abundant means at their disposal to turn it into reality shortly after the war ended by providing the funds with which to launch the first area studies centers, along with new funding streams to support research and training. By the end of 1946 Rockefeller Foundation funding had made possible the establishment of Columbia University’s Russian Institute as well as new programs in “Far Eastern” (what we today call East Asian) and Russian studies at other universities. The Carnegie Corporation soon followed suit by allocating millions of dollars for the establishment and support of area studies centers at universities across the country, along with a new national research fellowship program.
Wartime and early postwar promoters of area studies were often as focused on visions of advancing and transforming the social sciences and humanities as they were on national security.
That so many of the new foundation-funded area studies centers and programs focused on the Soviet Union, China and Japan was of course no coincidence: by 1947 what had already begun to be referred to as the Cold War was under way, and foundation, university, and government officials certainly hoped that the new area studies fields would produce knowledge (and students) to serve national security. But while it is clear that the launching of area studies in the immediate postwar years was inflected by contemporary geostrategic concerns, I argue that it cannot be reduced to them. Academic and foundation leaders had since the interwar years been grappling with some of the intellectual problems that would later feed into the formulation of a rationale for area studies as an apparently promising new mode for the production and dissemination of knowledge; at the same time, wartime and early postwar promoters of area studies were often as focused on visions of advancing and transforming the social sciences and humanities as they were on national security. In any case, much—perhaps most—of the scholarly work which came out of area studies fields over succeeding decades had little or nothing to do with national security or with policymaking.
In the late 1940s Middle East studies was generally regarded as among the less developed of the area studies fields. Grants from both Rockefeller and Carnegie made possible the establishment, in 1947, of what was touted as the country’s first area studies program focused on the Middle East, at Princeton. But the foundations and the SSRC were from the start skeptical that Near Eastern studies at Princeton could overcome its philological and classical legacies and develop what they had by now come to regard as a proper area studies program for the Middle East, which in their view entailed focusing on the modern and contemporary periods and on social science research. So while they would continue to give Princeton substantial grants in the years that followed, these two foundations (joined in the mid-1950s by the even wealthier Ford Foundation) also sought to develop alternatives. They funded new Middle East programs at the University of Michigan and Columbia; from the mid-1950s onward they pumped large sums into Harvard’s new Center for Middle Eastern Studies; and they supported a number of new and existing centers at other (largely elite) private and public universities in the United States, along with McGill University’s new Institute of Islamic Studies. Other area studies fields experienced similar developments.
It was thus the unprecedented munificence of the big foundations, and not government funding, that made area studies into a relatively well-established and durable component of U.S. higher education in the decade and a half after the end of the Second World War. In fact, it was only with the passage in 1958 of the National Defense Education Act that federal funding began to flow into area studies, to support centers, programming and faculty positions as well as graduate fellowships for language training. Existing area studies centers quickly secured their share of the new funding stream that Title VI of the act provided, but it also made possible the establishment of new area studies centers, often at public universities, which had not benefited from the foundations’ largesse. By 1968 twelve Title VI-supported Middle East centers were in operation, with about 300 affiliated faculty and some 8,000 students enrolled in language and area courses, in addition to several other centers which did not receive Title VI funding.
The rapid expansion of Middle East studies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, propelled by this large-scale infusion of foundation and government funding, led to growing interest in some form of organization for the field.
The rapid expansion of Middle East studies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, propelled by this large-scale infusion of foundation and government funding, led to growing interest in some form of organization for the field. Many of the other area studies fields had established national associations earlier: the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) had originated as the Far Eastern Association in 1941, the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies had been established in 1948, the African Studies Association had been founded in 1957, and by the early 1960s there was much discussion about establishing a national association for Latin American studies. In 1961 the (mainly Ford-funded) ACLS/SSRC Joint Committee on the Near and Middle East (JCNME), whose origins go back to 1951 and which was the main vehicle for field-building in Middle East studies, established an ad hoc committee to explore the question of organizing the field, either under the auspices of an existing association or independently. There was vehement opposition to working with the American Oriental Society and negotiations with the AAS proved fruitless, but there was also doubt that Middle East studies could sustain an association of its own; so little progress was made for some years.
Pressure for action continued to build, however, perhaps especially among younger social scientists and historians who focused on the modern or contemporary Middle East and who had begun their academic careers in the late 1950s or early 1960s; they had come to feel that the field was now sufficiently large and stable to make the establishment of a professional organization for it both feasible and necessary. They were also well aware that many of the other area studies fields had already established associations to serve their interests, making Middle East studies something of an outlier by that point. Finally, in 1966, soon after the establishment of the Latin American Studies Association, Princeton sociologist and JCNME chair Morroe Berger responded to demands for action by convincing his committee to convene a conference that would lay the foundations of a new national membership association for Middle East studies. That conference led to a second (invitation-only) meeting in December 1966, held at the offices of the SSRC, at which MESA was formally established. A dose of Ford Foundation funding early on helped get MESA up and running, and it was able to hold its first annual meeting a year after its founding and not long thereafter launch its own scholarly journal.
There is obviously much more to the story, of Middle East studies and of area studies more broadly. But the point I want to drive home is that we need to pay close attention to the institutional visions and decision-making that shaped these new fields, but also to refrain from treating them (and the knowledge they produced) simply as epiphenomena of the Cold War. The trajectories of area studies (and of Middle East studies) in North America were shaped by many contingencies and much contention, and the histories of these fields have been replete with unrealized visions and unanticipated consequences. Certainly neither Middle East studies nor the other area studies fields developed along the lines that their early advocates and leaders imagined they would; nor has most of the knowledge they produced, and continue to produce, served to further American global hegemony in any obvious way.
A version of this post appeared originally in Issues in Middle East Studies, a publication produced by the Middle East Studies Association.
Start reading Field Notes »
Zachary Lockman is Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and of History at New York University. He is the author of multiple books including, most recently, Field Notes: The Making of Middle East Studies in the United States, which traces the origins and trajectory of area studies in the United States.