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Area studies are interdisciplinary fields of research and scholarship pertaining to particular geographical, national/federal, or cultural regions. The term exists primarily as a general description for what are, in the practice of scholarship, many heterogeneous fields of research, encompassing both the social sciences and the humanities. Typical area study programs involve history, political science, sociology, cultural studies, languages, geography, literature, and related disciplines. In contrast to cultural studies, area studies often include diaspora and emigration from the area.
Interdisciplinary area studies became increasingly common in the United States and in Western scholarship after World War II. Before the war, American universities had just a few faculty who taught or conducted research on the non-Western world. Foreign area studies were virtually nonexistent. After the war, liberals and conservatives alike were concerned about the U.S. ability to respond effectively to perceived external threats from the Soviet Union and China and the emerging Cold War, as well as to the fall-out from the decolonization of Africa and Asia.
In this context, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York convened a series of meetings producing a broad consensus that to address this knowledge deficit, the U.S. must invest in international studies. Therefore, the foundations of the field are strongly rooted in America. Participants argued that a large brain trust of internationally oriented political scientists and economists was an urgent national priority. There was a central tension, however, between those who felt strongly that, instead of applying Western models, social scientists should develop culturally and historically contextualized knowledge of various parts of the world by working closely with humanists, and those who thought social scientists should seek to develop overarching macrohistorial theories that could draw connections between patterns of change and development across different geographies. The former became area studies advocates, the latter proponents of modernization theory.
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