Organizing a World of Knowledge

Project analyzes how universities organize the study of world regions and the role of area studies centers.
March 23, 2009

WASHINGTON – At "globalized" universities, mapping can be a challenge – mapping where and in what forms international connections and research can be found on a campus. But try mapping what’s happening across multiple universities and you could end up – as a dozen researchers recently did – with 10,000+ pages in field notes and interview transcripts.

“Despite wide consensus among higher education leaders that U.S. universities are undergoing a process of 'globalization,' there is little agreement about just what globalization means, what propels it, or what intellectual, political, and ethical consequences it will bring for American higher education," states a new report from the Social Science Research Council, Academic Internationalism: U.S. Universities in Transition. “There is little systematic empirical research on the range of things often described by the term globalization: the proliferation of satellite campuses and cooperative agreements between schools; the growing scale and complexity of student flows across national borders; the diffusion of institutional and curricular norms; and the ‘internationalization’ of instructional programs, to name just a few."

The report is a byproduct of the council’s ongoing research project, “The Production of Knowledge on World Regions,” which attempts to track how universities organize such knowledge production and the role and relative position of government-funded area studies centers.

Among the guiding insights for the research, “We believe in general the relationship between the U.S. government and universities is tremendously under-theorized, particularly in the social sciences. We also believe, and are starting from a standpoint, that research flows matter for the character of research and instruction. What kinds of funding come in and how the funding is distributed matters for what gets taught and what gets researched,” Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a co-author of the report and assistant professor of international education at New York University, said during a conference presentation Friday. Michigan State University organized the conference with U.S. Department of Education support to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title VI, the section of federal law that supports international education, including area studies centers.

The research process was qualitative and quantitative, and involved site visits to 12 universities with Title VI-funded area studies centers over three years, starting in 2005. The team of 12 main researchers examined knowledge production involving four regions: Central Asia, Eurasia, the Middle East, and South Asia. Researchers did ethnographic analysis on campuses, observing the “breadth and depth” of expertise on regions at each university – mapping expertise on South Asia, for instance, “wherever they could find it.” Researchers conducted interviews with vice provosts for international affairs (or administrators with variants of that title), area studies center directors and assistant directors, directors of graduate studies, chairs of economics, political science, and sociology, and other faculty working on issues specific to a region (“wherever they were, in centers for migration, women’s studies, wherever we could find them,” said Miller-Idriss).

In total, researchers collected those 10,000+ pages of qualitative findings. They held about 200 interviews and conducted more than 30 student and faculty focus groups, in addition to conducting a national survey of graduate students and area studies center directors in 2008 and analyzing a federal database for Title VI reporting.

Researchers are still analyzing their considerable bounty, but shared some preliminary findings during the conference session Friday. Miller-Idriss identified four "essential, unquestioned" functions of area studies centers, including three obvious ones – providing outreach, language training, and serving as a source for funding and opportunities abroad – and an important fourth. “Which nobody talks about it, but it came up again and again, is space, both physical and conceptual … the centers play a really important role on campus for providing a physical space for area studies people to hang out in” – especially graduate students – “and also conceptual, a place where people come to work across disciplinary boundaries.”

Expanding on that first function, outreach, many centers focused on the Middle East had difficulty responding to the immense demand post-Sept. 11, said Jennifer Olmsted, an associate professor of economics at Drew University. “The experts in the field were overtaxed. There were people reporting that they were giving 200 talks in a year, which was extraordinary that they could do that in addition to their other activities."

Researchers also shared some preliminary findings on the study of Middle Eastern languages (a topic discussed in more depth at a separate conference session on Thursday). Elizabeth A. Anderson, of American University, described a number of challenges in Arabic language learning. “The first challenge was that university structures hinder the development of competent language specialists, and specifically, that has to do with the length of master’s programs and unrealistic expectations,” Anderson said. Directors of master’s programs “really didn’t think that two years was an adequate amount of time to not only produce graduates who can think deeply and thoughtfully about issues but also are specialists in a language.”

Anderson also described her finding that some disciplines have discouraged doctoral students from pursuing advanced language learning or overseas fieldwork. Gesturing toward long-simmering tensions between area studies and many social science disciplines, Anderson said some comments “hinted at a disdain almost for area studies.” For instance, a graduate student adviser for a Ph.D. program in political science said, “‘Nobody cares about area studies,’" Anderson recalled. "I’m only shocked by that quote because he said that to me knowing I was doing fieldwork on area studies.”

NYU’s Miller-Idriss said the research did find a lot of the predictable tension between “particularism and universalism,” with economics being the most absent and most despised of the social science disciplines within area studies. Political science, she continued, is undergoing a generational shift. A younger generation of scholars, she said, seems to be more interested in blending context and theory.

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