Chapter 1: Lessons from the Past, Perspectives for the Future

Tim Niblock

*Tim Niblock is a member of Academic Committee and Co-Chair of Postdoctoral Studies Program at Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University, Beijing, and Emeritus Professor of Middle East Politics at Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS), University of Exeter. He was the Founding Director of the IAIS (1999 to 2005). He previously served as Director of the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Durham, 1993-1998, and has also worked at the University of Khartoum and the University of Reading. His research interests currently focus on the political economy of the states of the Arab world, and on relations between Gulf countries and East and South Asian countries.


This chapter seeks to suggest where and how the field of Area Studies can usefully focus its attention in the future. From its early development, Area Studies has developed through a steady process of re-conceptualisation. Each stage of re-conceptualisation begins with a determination to move away from tropes and approaches that were previously prevalent and are, in the re-conceptualisation, now deemed inadequate or perhaps even harmful. New frameworks for the future development of the field forward are then identified. Area Studies, then, is seen here not as a product of the development of social sciences in the Western world, but as a reflection of a much longer-standing human concern for understanding how societies work and what makes one different from another. Although the primary point of reference will be on the origins of Area Studies in Western Europe, reference will be made to writers in China and the Arab world who attempted to understand societies by bringing a combination of historical, linguistic, cultural, social, and economic factors into their accounts of these societies.

The chapter traces the development of the field through four historical stages, “Individual Scholars, Independent of Governments” (between the 14th and 18th centuries), “The Beginning s of Government-encouraged and Institutionalised Area Studies”(from the early 19th century to the Second World War), “The Age of Unprecedented Expansion” (1945-1990), “Doubts about the Value of the Field” (1990-2000), laying emphasis on the dynamics that led on to the new conceptualization.

It is suggested that a new process of re-conceptualisation is currently underway, which can reconcile the universalistic approaches found in the fields of Comparative Politics, Comparative Sociology/Anthropology, and Comparative Economics with the more narrowly-focused approaches that have been characteristic of Area Studies. Comparative Area Studies provides a bridge that can enhance the understanding of the processes of change and development in the Global South.