Reflections: Normativities in Area Studies and Disciplines



By Claudia Derichs

Strange Bed Fellows? Area Studies and Disciplines

Strange Bed Fellows? Area Studies and Disciplines

Area studies suffer from various epistemic boundaries which have been delineated during decades of academic as well as political norm-making or norm-creation. Designating a field of area studies as ‘Southeast Asian studies’ or ‘Middle East studies,’ for instance, is based on a political decision and does not necessarily match empirical realities. Even in the case of broader approaches such as ‘Islamic studies’, Asian or Southern African regions have long been neglected as an integral part of ‘Muslim worlds’ – leading to a strong focus in Islamic studies on the Middle East and North Africa, which has only recently been extended. Epistemic borderlines have also been constructed by a hegemonic way of identifying academic disciplines. The separation between area studies and disciplines, too, is ultimately a decision based on global power relations which extend their influence well in to the field of knowledge production. The dichotomization has caused an array of normativities that were conventionally accepted by area- and discipline-oriented scholars alike, but have recently become scrutinized and at times heavily criticized. The following reflections address the constructivist dimension of area studies and disciplines. The attempt is to identify leading currents in contemporary area studies, relate them to disciplinary approaches, and look out for conceptual options that allow us to grasp the normative notions behind the exercise of creating knowledge.

Area studies and disciplines

How, why, and to what end should disciplines and area studies (AS) find a ‘healthy’ relationship with one another? The background to the narrative of area studies and disciplines as ‘strange bed fellows’ (Derichs et al. 2014: title page) goes back into pre-world war II decades and has provoked fresh attention in the course of alleged ‘crises’ in both the disciplines and the area studies (cf. Mitchell 2002). The somewhat ‘uneasy’ relationship rests on different normativities which are followed by area studies scholars (areanists) and their colleagues in the ‘systematic’ disciplines. As Katja Mielke and Anna-Katharina Hornidge succinctly put it: ‘The general claim by the Areanists (sic) is that AS have produced a superior kind of knowledge without which the disciplines would not be able to generate and advance their theories.’ (Mielke/Hornidge 2014: 12) The general exclamation by discipline-based scholars is that AS are ‘theory-distant and methodologically weak,’ leading to the claim that AS ‘only generate case studies, but not work in comparative manner, not even ensuring comparability with a systematic approach to case studies.’ (ibid.) The fronts are slightly smoother with regard to comparative area studies (CAS), where a ‘truce’ seems to be achieved (Ahram 2011: 69). Ahram distinguishes CAS from inter- and cross-regional comparisons1 and sees the value-added of CAS in

‘bringing contextual variation into even starker focus, using inter-regional and cross-regional comparison to place regional differences in the foreground. […] What CAS offers is the potential to make the mechanisms [of contingent conjunctions in diverse histories; C.D.] portable and appreciable in general terms without neglecting historical specificity.’ (ibid.: 84) 

Ahram’s approach, however, is to consequently join qualitative and quantitative methods of the social sciences with expertise on areas in different world regions. While this is certainly a fresh and welcome approach, it does not necessarily meet the compliance of areanists who doubt the huge importance of theories and methodologies (of Western-origin). Apart from the conciliatory current of comparative area studies, therefore, the landscape is very much inhabited by areanists concerned about positionality, the hegemony of the West/global North in global knowledge production, and a diversification of area studies. The logical question then is: Does area research have to make use of disciplinary-based theories, concepts, and methods? Or, can it do without them – relying instead on a paradigm that takes the ‘field’ as a realm of encounter and thus dispenses with a translation of ‘unconceptualized’ phenomena into the theoretical terminology of a particular discipline? Two strands of scholarly attitude towards this question can be identified.2 They promote a specific understanding of area studies, and moreover of what the field ought to deliver in today’s global machinery of knowledge generation, knowledge flow, knowledge exchange, knowledge translation, and the like.

The first strand or current can be called a conciliatory current (similar to the CAS current mentioned above), which is composed of scholars who emphasize the mutual benefits of combining area studies with disciplinary approaches (theories, methods). In the context of Asian Studies in Germany, they have gained momentum since the mid-1980s and have become visible, for instance, in scholarly societies such as the German Association for Social Science Research on Japan (established in 1988), which has ever since its inception sought to promote exchange between social scientists and japanologists.

A second group of scholars can be called the representatives of a new areas studies current. They acknowledge the contribution of the social sciences to the deepening of knowledge, but perceive area studies and the disciplines as each taking ‘different points of departure’ — that is ‘a certain space’ in respect to the former and ‘a particular thematic field of study’ in respect to the latter (Houben 2013: 3). A historian and Southeast Asia expert, Vincent Houben writes further that:

‘Whereas disciplines can boast of a very large, well-organized body of knowledge and established theories and methods in order to extend that knowledge, studies of nonwestern areas face a number of problems which make them appear weak from the very start. The first problem is that their origins appear to lie within Orientalism, a Western way to view, categorize and ultimately attempt to subjugate the non-West. […] The second problem is the area itself, since it is unclear how it can be demarcated properly as a unit of analysis; “area” in itself does not explain how it could be studied in a fruitful manner’ (ibid.: 3f.).

As a supporter of a new area studies paradigm, Houben hopes that the potential of area studies will move to the center of scientific research – not least because the disciplines now find themselves in a state of crisis.

While both of these scholarly currents conceive of areas as entities existing beyond geographical proximity, they are not as radical in their departure from the geographical notion as the third current is. Herein, scholars are urged to rethink area studies epistemologically, to avoid thinking in container entities (such as that of “nation-state”), and to focus on the mobility patterns and communicative processes of human interaction. As such, we can call this the rethinking current. Reasoning that South Asia, as a case in point, may sometimes be more visible in the United Kingdom than in India or Pakistan, this current supports the concentration on sociospatial relations rather than geographically defined areas. Crossroads Asia, for instance, is a research network prominently representative of this current in Germany. According to this network, the necessity to rethink areas studies lies in the fact that there is no longer a tight coherence between physical and cultural space:

‘Crossroads Asia, as a research paradigm, and thus the here put forth idea of “Crossroads Studies”, distances itself from conventional AS-approaches that focus on fixed territories, demarcated by clear, political borders and assumed to be characterized by certain elements found on the inside.’ (Mielke/Hornidge 2014: 18)

Instead of subscribing to ‘conventional AS,’ Crossroads Asia seeks to ‘move human action and interaction and its role in communicatively constructing space into the center of attention.’ (ibid.) Whether this reorientation should be labelled Post-Area Studies or Critical Area Studies is still a matter of debate, but of minor importance for the substance of the research. Crossroads Asia’s relationship with the disciplines is more relaxed than that of the “new areanists” (current two), although the crossing of disciplinary boundaries is still a work in progress.

The merit of the Crossroads approach also lies in the reminder they put up against conventional forms of conducting social science research as well as area studies research: the awareness of one’s positionality as a researcher – for area studies scholars not only but particularly in the field. The underlying gist of this concern is obvious, since a thorough reflection of who studies whom and where is of growing importance if area studies are to become ‘decentered’ and ‘diversified’ (Goh 2011: passim). The issue of positionality and reflexivity (as a consequence thereof) in area studies ultimately tackles the question of ‘universal knowledge.’ In principle, giving due consideration to positionality means to admit that the generation of ‘universal knowledge’ is factually impossible – not to mention the rebuke it gives to the claim of having generated universal knowledge. This insight does not go along easily with the belief in universal theories and of methods that can be applied anywhere on the globe in order to gather data. Furthermore, the political dimension of ‘doing area studies,’ which is today an accepted fact, has to be taken into account. As Timothy Mitchell succinctly put it, ‘the genealogy of area studies must be understood in relation to the wider structuring of academic knowledge and to the struggles not of the Cold War but of science – and social science in particular – as a twentieth-century political project’ (Mitchell 2002: 52). This implies acknowledging that political intervention in the organization of science has always taken place, and simultaneously recognizing certain lopsidedness to theory formulation on the Global North–Global South scale.

A conceptual suggestion3

How can the sociospatial scale and the dimension of positionality be recognized in area studies analyses and concepts? An endeavor that is rooted in the mission of grasping the empirical reality and binding it back to a conceptual framework which integrates the conditionalities of a globalized world – such as hegemonic knowledge production – has been developed in sociolinguistics. The Belgian scholar Jan Blommaert (also) uses the notions of ‘scale’ and ‘scaling’ in his analytical framework, albeit not for areas of area studies but for ‘spaces of multilingualism’ (Bloemmart/Collins/Slembrouk 2005; Blommaert 2006; 2008). The approach is particularly interesting since it opens channels to avoid the pitfalls of linking area to geographical space. Space is conceived of by Blommaert as something that organizes regimes of language (Blommaert/Collins/Slembrouk 2005: 198). A simple example is the ‘world language’ English. Having learnt English to a comfortable extent in a country or region where English is not the main medium of communication, a student may be quite satisfied with his/her language abilities and the social surrounding may even applaud his/her proficiency in speaking English. A travel to a native English-speaking locality, however, would most probably reveal that the student’s language abilities are far from the level of ‘fluent’. In other words: The respective local space is the regime which evaluates or ‘indexes’ the student’s level of English proficiency (or the level of multilingualism, for that matter). It is reduced from high- to low-scale just by spatial moving. We can transfer this scheme to the understanding of area knowledge. Globalization processes trigger changes in the structure of societies and force us to acknowledge that there is, ideal-typical, no such thing as ‘mono-cultural’ areas. Studying Japanese life in Düsseldorf, for instance, just happens on another horizontal scale, since it is a part of contemporary Japan and cannot be blanked out just because it does not fit the dominant – normative – idea of  studying Japanese society in Japan. What has to be acknowledged is the reciprocal relationship between space (area) and regimes that ‘scale’ particular elements of empirical reality and hence render them ‘norm-conforming’ or ‘non-conforming.’  ‘Jumping the scale’ (van Schendel 2001: title page) or ‘jumping normativities’ could thus become a motto for future area studies.

Claudia Derichs is a full professor for Comparative Politics and International Development Studies at the University of Marburg, Germany. She has studied Japanese and Arabic in Bonn, Tokyo and Cairo and holds a PhD in Japanology. Her professorial dissertation addressed the topic of nation-building in Malaysia. Her research interests are political Islam and transition in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, as well as gender and development studies in Asia and the Middle East. She has published various books and articles on Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and the Arab world, and is an advisor to several academic and political institutions, journals and think tanks. Prior to her studies of Japanese and Arabic, she worked as a journalist. After a guest professorship at Dokkyo University, Tokyo, Japan her current special assignment is a 1-year senior fellowship at the Center for Global Cooperation Research (University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany).


Ahram, Ariel I. (2011): „The theory and method of comparative area studies“; in: Qualitative Research 11(2011)1: 69-90.

Blommaert, Jan/Kames Collins/Stef Slembrouck. “Spaces of Multilingualism”. Language & Communication 25(2005)3: 197-216.

Blommaert, Jan. “Sociolinguistic Scales”. Working Paper in Urban Language & Literature 37(2006) (accessed Oct. 1, 2014).

Blommaert 2010. The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Derichs et al. Strange Bed Fellows? – Area Studies and Disciplines. Thematic issue of Asien. The German Journal on Contemporary Asia 132(July 2014)

Derichs, Claudia. “Theory-Driven conceptualization and Epistemic Reflection in Comparative Area Studies: Some Thouhgts on ‘Unwritten Constitutions’ and Research Designs”; in: Asien. The German Journal on Contemporary Asia 132(2014): 26-34.

Goh, Beng-Lan. Decentring and Diversifying Southeast Asain Studies. Perpectives from the Region. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011.

Houben, Vincent. “The New Area Studies sand Southeast Asian History”. DORISEA working paper, 4(2013): 2–10 (accessed May 1, 2014).

Mielke, Katja/Anna-Katharina Hornidge. Crossroads Studies: From Spatial Containers to Interactions in Differentiated Spatialities. Crossroads Asia Working Paper 15/2014.

Mitchell, Timothy. “The Middle East in the Past and Future of Social Science.” The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines. Ed. David L. Szanton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 1-32.

van Schendel, Willem. “Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping scale in Southeast Asia”. Society and Space 20(2001) 6: 647-668.



Citation: Claudia Derichs, Reflections: Normativities in Area Studies and Disciplines, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.10.2014

  1. While interregional studies address the comparison of entire regions — such as Latin America and the Middle East — cross-regional research depicts what the subunits of a region are and then compares them with each other — for example Muslim majority countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. []
  2. The following paragraphs are largely taken form Derichs 2014. []
  3. This segment is largely taken from a contribution submitted to the open access journal Middle East Topics and Arguments (META), vol. 4(2015). []

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