“Liangxiang Forum” | Tim Niblock: Area Studies: The Scope and Value of Comparison Across Asia, Latin America and Africa

On the evening of December 8, 2020, Tim Niblock, a member of the Academic Committee of Institute for International and Area Studies (IIAS), Tsinghua University, and the Emeritus Professor in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, gave an online lecture entitled “Area Studies: The Scope and Value of Comparison Across Asia, Latin America and Africa”. This lecture is the last lecture of “Liangxiang Forum” this semester, which is organized by IIAS, Tsinghua University. Tingyi Wang, Assistant Professor of IIAS hosted the lecture.

(Photo of the Scene)

At the very beginning, Professor Niblock evaluated “Liangxiang Forum” by describing it as an academic platform and a model for diversified and interdisciplinary Area Studies in the modern era. Meanwhile, he praised the development of Area Studies in China, which takes the lead of the subject right now.

This lecture takes Area Studies as an independent discipline, introducing and evaluating its developments and potentials. An important definition throughout the lecture is, what is Area Studies? Professor Niblock proposed that Area Studies is “a field of studies which seeks to know, analyze and interpret the cultures, histories, societies, polities and economies of specific countries and regions through a multidisciplinary lens.” In this discipline, multidiscipline and interdisciplinarity are two research methods that are of great importance.

Professor Niblock then raised three questions, which divided the whole lecture into three parts accordingly, and they are: why we (referring to researchers of Area Studies) are here? How we got here, and how many stages have we been going through? And where are we going, and what can be found there?

Regarding the first question, Professor Niblock argued that there are two factors: personal motivations and practical needs. Personal motivations lead to interests in knowing more about other countries and regions, and practical needs come out of the need of governments or companies to understand other areas. The combination of these two factors, in general, plays a key role in promoting the development of Area Studies.

As for the second question: How we got here, and how many stages have we been going through, Professor Niblock supposed that the development of Area Studies could be divided into three main stages: the first stage is pre-19th century; the second stage is between the nineteenth and the mid of the twentieth century; the third stage is from the mid of the twentieth century (1945) to 2010. Scholars in the first stage were mostly driven by personal motivations and were not affiliated with governments, such as Xuan Zang under Tang Dynasty and William Jones in England. However, Area Studies suffered from a lack of continuity during this period. In the second stage, Area Studies entered into an institutional era. From the nineteenth century, the major powers at that time began to promote researches on other regions out of national strategies, thereby funding and supporting the establishment of institutions of Area Studies. Thanks to this, the second stage witnessed the rise of Area Studies as an institutionalized discipline and the emergence of prosperous research works. Nonetheless, the literature of this period suffered from a typical “Orientalism” accusation, which tended to portray non-Western societies and people as “underdeveloped”. Accordingly, the academic situation of this period has been accused of being strongly racist. In the Cold War era, Area Studies has experienced unprecedented development and expansion, as a result of great support from the governments of the US and the USSR. Since then, almost all regions have been covered in the research field. In this period, it is worth-noting that theoretical frameworks of the research have been adopted and promoted dramatically, with the emergence of frameworks, such as behaviorism, constructivism, and feminism. These theoretical frameworks can be commonly used in Area Studies, rather than limiting to a single country or region. However, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the field of Area Studies was accused of being over-Westernization. In other words, western culture and values have been applied to all areas, thus ignoring the diversity of the whole world.

Vis-à-vis the third question, Professor Niblock proposed that modern researchers should not forget to learn from the past and perspectives on their application to the regions. On the one hand, the downgrading of cultural, linguistic and historical factors in the 1990s was misguided, thus should be avoided. On the other hand, in order to get over the accusation of excessive introversion, area scholars should seek integral cooperation with other disciplines and regions.

At the end of the lecture, Professor Niblock suggested that modern scholars of Area Studies should think “out-of-the-box”, which means breaking the existing mode, rather than going beyond the generalizations that emanate from comparative politics\sociology\economics, and exploring dimensions which only Area Studies specialists have the capacity and expertise to handle.

The lecture ended with a Q&A session, where Professor Niblock interacted with audiences from both online and offline.

Editor: Yuan Zhang
Revisor: Tingyi Wang
Photographer: Yao Cheng