- Necessary Travel: New Area Studies and Canada in Comparative Perspective by Susan Hodgett and Patrick James
The best and most enduring edited volumes have an agenda. Books like Bringing the State Back In (Evans, Rueschmeyer, and Skocpol 1985) or Transitions from Authoritarian Rule (O’Donnell, Schmitter, and Whitehead 1986, along with its companion volumes) staked out a position and have succeeded in moving academic studies forward by championing the importance of an actor, a method or a perspective.
Necessary Travel has such an explicit interventionist agenda. In this case, the volume makes the case for “New Area Studies”, as opposed to “Traditional Area Studies”, which were much maligned in academic and policy circles, reaching their nadir around 2000. The book seeks to reclaim the “area studies” moniker, but labels it “new”, to signal that it is a phoenix rising from the ashes of an outdated approach.
In the introduction, Susan Hodgett and Patrick James lay out their goal, to move beyond Traditional Area Studies (TAS), as they dub it, with its dubious history and instead embrace New Area Studies (NAS). The traditional approach is commonly accused of being “overly descriptive, cultural, historical … and irrelevant” (p. 7). TAS is also closely associated with ethnocentric, colonial and neo-imperialist perspectives, especially British and American ones. During the Cold War, and typically funded by Western governments, TAS researchers often adopted the perspective of their country’s foreign policy stance and produced work that helped their government try to understand the “Other”, its relations with the Other, and often contributed to its foreign policy perspectives, possibly of a dubious ethical nature. A comment once made by a professor at a US military institution, as an aside to me at an African Studies conference, is typical of this approach: “We need to understand them better so we can get them to do what we want”.
New Area Studies, in contrast, seeks to dissociate itself from the Western-centric and instrumentalist approach. It does not discard all characteristics of TAS, seeking to retain historically grounded and culturally sensitive analysis. Area studies, the editors argue, are highly relevant, especially in an [End Page 123] unstable and rapidly changing world. However, NAS needs to be comparative and comprehensive in its analysis of the situation in a specific place, adopt a multidisciplinary approach, and take into account growing international and global influences.
The following 11 chapters engage to varying degrees with the debates on the value and desired characteristics of area studies, often reflecting its intersection with other interdisciplinary fields, such as refugee studies, global studies, regional studies, border studies, religious studies, and even circus studies. The last four chapters form a separate section on “Canada in comparative perspective”, which is probably more due to the personal networks that led to the recruitment of authors than to a particular benefit of focusing on Canada.
Some chapters appear to be custom written for this collection, directly engaging with the concepts of TAS and NAS, often drawing from the authors’ own experiences in area studies. For instance, Mandy Sadan explores the artificiality of defined “areas” of Asia and how TAS and NAS deal with the borderlands that do not fit with the cartographic definition of regions. Stephen Hutchings traces the decline of Sovietology and discusses how NAS can be productively applied to the hard-to-label set of countries once under communist rule. Other chapters similarly review the intersection of NAS with interdisciplinary approaches such as refugee studies (by Peter Gatrell) or regional foci such as Latin American Studies (by Christopher Sabatini and Nicolás Albertoni) and Central Asian Studies (by Claus Bech Hansen). Charles Batson’s chapter on Québec’s relatively new circus industry—think Cirque du Soleil—highlights how international dimensions are crucial for analyzing this recent phenomenon within the field of Québec Studies.
In other chapters, however, the authors’ engagement with NAS seems added on. For...