In defence of Area Studies

Back at my alma mater, and in my current masters, the subject I’ve pursued is best described as ‘area studies’. Chinese with Japanese (~75% language, 25% culture/history) under the title of ‘Asian & Middle Eastern Studies’ for my BA, and a mixture of Chinese Law, Japanese History, Taiwanese Society and International Politics of East Asia for my MA.

For many, this seems quite wishy-washy. Indeed, in our modern vocation-driven learning environment, “area studies” doesn’t provide nearly as good an idea of my skills as, say, “law” or “economics” would for others. Even within the humanities, in which, for example, history and anthropology degrees are often (unfairly) derided as not setting students up for the future, they do at least provide you with extensive training in the methodologies* of history/anthropology and so train you for a career in that subject area. Meanwhile, with the variety of topics it covers, ‘Area Studies’ seems to imply more of a “jack of all trades, master of none” approach.

*If you’re not familiar with academia, the methodology is the approach you take to any subject. Simply put, even if you’re writing about the same subject, say the assassination of Bill McKinley, then a historian would take a vastly different approach, consider different factors, and structure a paper differently, from a sociology/political studies/law major.

The shortcomings of area studies were emphasised personally to me quite recently. In a meeting with one of my essay supervisors, she asked about my course generally, and my plans for the future. When I told her about my other modules and that I was hoping to go abroad to do another Masters in East Asian studies (with different modules), she looked concerned and said she was “worried about what direction [I’m] headed in, academically”. Now, she’s a good lecturer, very good at her subject, and I respect the hell out of her, but I kind of resented that.

So if I’m worried about what the area studies label means for my employment prospects, why insist on using it? Why not just say I have a degree in Chinese and Japanese? Well:
A) because I set quite high standards for myself and I don’t consider my own level of either Chinese or Japanese to be degree-level – not compared to my peers who only took one or the other, and certainly not these days. The last thing I want to do is mislead someone into thinking I’m fluent in both languages (though I do have a working knowledge of both) and come out looking like an idiot when I can’t translate to the standard they need.
B) because to say my degree trained me to speak Chinese and Japanese would be to neglect the many and wonderful things that the non-language-based learning has introduced me to. While I love languages, it was learning about things like Confucianism and Mohism, like the Gempei War, the Meiji Restoration and Dr. Sun Yat-sen that really made East Asia a world that I wanted to discover. Arguably, without learning the languages, I couldn’t have discovered those things, but there are many great scholars before me who have done the translation legwork, and so much of this is now available in English. This is by no means to deny the utility of studying languages, and my languages in particular, but just that I feel the true value of my education so far has not derived solely from a fluency in one or two languages, but from that and everything else that I have discovered about a world still so far removed from our own.

So that’s why I cling to the label. Moreover, I’m proud to, and I’m actually glad that I chose the multidisciplinary, jack-of-all-trades approach. This is because, while I’ve not spent three years studying history, or politics, etc, at the postgraduate level, I have at least been given a pretty decent grounding in all of those methodological approaches. And thanks to the fact that I’ve studied one particular area of the world in depth, I have a decent grounding in those methodologies as pertains specifically to an area that not many people have experience of. As far as (academic) career prospects are concerned, I may not be able to jump straight into foreign policy institutes, but I do have enough knowledge that if I wanted to pursue that path, with a little elbow grease and a little willingness to start at the lower levels, it’s still a viable option. Imagine it like a long corridor, with many different doors. Each piece of expertise can get you into one suite, and once you’re in, you can get further and further into that suite with the grounding you’ve been given. I may not be able to get beyond the entrance hall of any particular suite, but so many more doors on that corridor feel open to me.

And ultimately, those open doors – not just in careers, but in life – are the most important thing to me. By studying what I like to study from so many different angles, I feel truly enlightened. In my Chinese Law course, there are honest historical explanations as to why Chinese law on freedom of religion is still so stringent (hint: less ‘communism’, more ‘Taipings and Boxers’), and my professor seemed to really appreciate the historical perspectives I could offer. Likewise, there is a real discussion to be had over whether escalations in Chinese/Japanese tensions are easily explained by political models of behaviour or whether there is a deep-seated historical, even sociological, animosity between the two. Especially in places beyond our cultural safety-net of the Western world, you simply can’t understand one aspect of non-Western societies out of context.

One of my best friends is a rather fantastic lawyer in London – studying Chinese Law this year has not made me an expert in law, but it has given me a far greater appreciation for what he and all law students go through, and it’s honestly enriched our friendship. We’ve had long discussions over pints about mediation vs. litigation, and it was on such an informal, fun level that we could have been talking about the football. And that sort of thing is what makes area studies so valuable to me. It may be a slower career path than most, but looking beyond careers, to what it has meant for my life and my views on the world, I am so glad I’ve chosen this path.