Chapter 2: Reflections on the Challenges to the Development of Area Expertise

Graham Furniss

*Graham Furniss is Emeritus Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and a Fellow of the British Academy. During his career he chaired the African Area Studies Centre at SOAS, an Africa Panel at the British Academy, and was Pro-Director for Research at SOAS. He was a Commissioner of the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission, and was the lead on a series of reports on issues relating to research collaboration between the UK and Africa in the Humanities and Social Sciences. He holds a PhD from the University of London. His research has focused upon Hausa oral and written literature of northern Nigeria.
Rashin sani ya fi dare duhu runs the Hausa proverb: “ignorance is darker than the night”.


Understanding “other” cultures has a long history, embedded as it has been in a variety of humanities and social science disciplines and in the growth of particular institutions.

It is important to remember that the growth of area studies in the US was intimately bound up with the needs of American foreign policy in the years during and following the Second World War. In the 1960s, the US government reacted to foreign challenges by recognizing its own ignorance of many societies and cultures of the world and thus pushed universities to develop expertise that they could draw on in policy development. At that point, language competence was key to the budding expert’s ability to develop a deep understanding of a given language community, seen from a multidisciplinary perspective. The assumption in those early days was that it would be an American citizen learning about a culture that was not his or her own, hence the need for language training. Later political controversy attacked the connection between the development of such expertise and US government policy.

What was perceived in the US as a close instrumental relationship between the conduct of area studies and the development of foreign policy quickly came under fierce domestic attack, particularly as internal opposition to the Vietnam War and other interventions grew. Area Studies was seen by some as a lackey of government foreign policy driven by orientalist visions of the “other”. For others, area studies was a mechanism whereby a nuanced and well-informed understanding of particular parts of the world could be generated and maintained in itself and for the mitigation of xenophobic and culturally ignorant tendencies in national cultures. At the core of such a vision of area studies were the essential elements of extensive fieldwork and familiarity with the studied culture and a high level of linguistic competence. Combined with this was a view that area studies would draw on a range of fields of theory and methodology—from anthropology, political science, cultural studies, history, economics, as well as other fields in social sciences and the humanities.

This latter heterogeneity became itself a subject of criticism, with theorists criticising the apparent lack of a single theoretical core and thus debate for area studies. A response came in moves to establish a body of theory for area studies, and then to focus upon comparative work as defining area studies. For those who perceived the advancement of human knowledge as being driven by the testing of an ever advancing body of theory, area studies looked like a second class citizen in the pecking order of knowledge.

These universalist versus particularist tendencies were competing for legitimacy while the world of academic scholarship was itself changing dramatically. In the West, growing numbers of researchers, both academic faculty and students, were themselves from the cultures under study. They often knew the languages and were entirely familiar with the cultures concerned. Their knowledge and their new theoretical perspectives contributed to the growth of more culturally sensitive understandings of non-Western societies and to theory more generally. At the same time, universities and research institutes across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—some new, some with very long histories—were increasingly more significant in the training of researchers and in the reorientation of fields, including area studies, away from a predominantly Western base to one that linked up researchers and debates across the world.

These latter developments have driven a rethinking of the modus operandi of area studies. The idea of a researcher originally from outside with long exposure to a society, a high level of language competence, and familiarity with a range of social science and humanities disciplines, working perhaps alone on a local and particular project, has been gradually moved sideways, as scholars feel they do not have the time and the funds to go through such lengthy and sometimes arduous training. In its place comes the notion of an area studies “team” in which a number of individuals each bring particular skills and competencies to complement each other—one theoretician, one methodological expert, one from the area and speaks the language, one historian of the area, and another understanding the politics of working in that area. This “team” appears to cover all the competencies required of them. Naturally, Language training was thought to be less significant when there are native speakers in the team; different people bring different strengths to the team; group work is thought to be more reliable than fallible individuals, etc.

However, as the author’s experience reflected, some issues emerged considering partnerships and collaborations, particularly where research cultures differ, sometimes considerably, between one university system and another. Besides, as has been conceived in the earliest models of area studies, fluency in the language is playing an important role in facilitating a deep understanding of history, culture, and politics through long-term familiarity with the area. The author thus argues that area studies must still rely on the development of such skills and experiences if such partnerships are to succeed in the long run.