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.