It has become commonplace for anthropology departments in the United States to organize their curriculum around area studies. Courses are taught about Africa, East Asia, Latin America, Europe, and so forth. I have taught such courses specifically on the Middle East and South American Indians. Students learn about the geography, history, literature, and delve into specific topics such as kinship, minorities, language, religion and so forth—material that equips them with a general understanding of a particular geographic area. Area specialties are useful for job searching and hiring especially if an important part of the world is missing representation in a large department. Funding institutions award research grants on the basis of area specialty and scholars interact and stimulate each other’s thinking at international area conferences. In a sentence, area studies have served a purpose in that they may create more in depth understanding of selected geographic areas.
In more recent times critical researchers have investigated the museum and military origins of area studies. Museums have traditionally organized exhibits by area and the military planners organize national security interests around delimited areas. Regarding the Middle East, “the middle of what and east of where” always brings a smile of recognition that areas are of course artificial entities. It was an American imperialist—Alfred Thayer Mahan—who first called the area between Europe and India the Middle East. Thus it is to the problem of artificial entities that are in reality treated as if they were genuine and not artificial that concerns me because in my 50 plus years of practicing anthropological scholarship I have run into area boundary problems that I see as limiting the anthropological imagination that might range beyond an area named by outsiders, with the borders of their nation-states after independence set by outsiders.
In addition my work is, among other things, comparative, having started with a PhD thesis based on controlled comparison. Early on I recognized there were different kinds of comparison—controlled, cross-cultural, or comparison used as a discovery tool, something we might call loose comparison. In the 1980s I wrote “Orientalism, Occidentalism and the Control of Women,” an article, describing how two patriarchal societies—Islamic and Euro-American—control their women by directing attention to how bad things are for Other women, say in Islamic culture, while not surprisingly perhaps the Other does the same. The paper was reviewed by two US journals and rejected with the suggestion that the paper should be about one or the other area but not about both areas. Reviewers, after all, are specialists in one area and rarely more thus explaining a lack of knowledge or reviewer ignorance that might lead to rejection. Nonetheless the paper was readily accepted for publication in Belgium and has had wide circulation and translation since.
The rejection experience was repeated in a paper on human rights (Nader 1999) in which I posited that the US was in need of human rights documentation, as for example in US prisons and pertaining to Native American religious practice. The paper was rejected in the US and immediately accepted in Brazil. Such experience has not been unique however. The pattern extends to student work. A former graduate student working on the Shanghai stock market had compared the China market with the US stock exchange. Publishers requested that she contain the study to China. Another student working on gender issues in India had contrasted the Indian situation with similar problems in the US and was asked by publishers to eliminate the comparison. A study of the Bush era on “Winning the Hearts and Minds of Muslims” has encountered similar nervousness since the researcher incorporated the voices of both American and Arab participants in the project. In history a graduate student documenting the military origin of area constructs as it impacted both the Middle East and the US had difficulty finding grant support. A most recent example involves my forthcoming book Culture and Dignity: Dialogues Between the Middle East and the West. Marketing personnel had difficulties imagining a cover for such a book that did not reflect camels and markets and in their blurb suggested that the book is about the Other and not about us and them, presumably so it could be used in well demarcated area courses.
The question that needs some serious thought is can we be both area scholars and comparativists at the same time, and even diffusionists? We need to examine the role that academic anthropologists, our publishers, and marketers have in directing scholarship to fit the paradigm of area studies. There are limitations such behavior puts on the anthropological imagination. That something needs to happen was the subject of a recent conference at George Mason University on the teaching of Middle East area courses although few anthropologists were in attendance.
The controversies between those who study a people as if there were boundaries are old ones in anthropology. The study of the colonized and not the colonizers still haunts our work. The classic 1896 study of James Mooney’s multi-sited studies of Native American religious beliefs led him to include their colonial context and to compare their nativistic movements with white Europeans in Europe thereby earning the ire of missionaries, US government officials, educators and anthropologists. He was not allowed further study of Native American reservations. Max Gluckman’s published assault on the concept of bounded tribe in 1940 banned him from further research in South Africa by the Secretary for Native Affairs. In 1989 Sir Edmond Leach had to reiterate—“Social systems are open, not bounded,” although pioneering anthropologists had already taken such ideas seriously. Thus June Nash did not separate Bolivian miners from the world system in which they were embedded. Margaret Lock studied the construction of menopause in Japan and North America. Implicit comparison needs to be made explicit, especially if we are concerned with the misuse of anthropological knowledge and growing nationalisms worldwide. Amnesty International reports that 26% of Syrian men beat their wives. The US figures for domestic violence are comparable if not worse.
We live in a globalized world, and as Sydney Mintz reminded the AAA in his distinguished lecture that we have been globalized for a long time. Can we recognize the utility of area studies as well as their actual and potential limitations? We describe ourselves as a comparative discipline yet when the US is included in the comparison out of the woodwork come minders to exclude the potential insights that come from looking in the mirror consciously as we examine the Other, and the distortions that result when we think we are being “objective” if we don’t.
Laura Nader is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Nader is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.