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by Fred W. Riggs
Contemporary globalization challenges all the social sciences both by offering great opportunities
and undermining entrenched traditions. In order to see why this is true -- even in a highly
simplified short statement -- we need to think about how the social science disciplines evolved
during the last two centuries, why area studies became so important during the last half century,
and why both are now anachronistic. We need a newly conceptualized global social science in
which all the gains made by the disciplines and area studies can be understood in a transformed
The disciplines as we now know them evolved in the West -- i.e., in Europe and its off-spring
states in North America and Australia/New Zealand. They almost completely ignored the
situation in countries that had come under their domination during the age of imperialism,
preferring to think of them as both backward and unworthy of serious attention, to be exploited
but not admired and, quite recently, to be categorized as the Rest. Exceptionally, Anthropology
put non-Western societies under a kind of socio-cultural microscope that supported reports on the
curious customs and cultural practices of non-Western indigenous peoples, and an exotic field
known as Orientalism paid deference to the ancient non-Western classical languages and their
historical traditions, especially in China and Japan, India and the "Middle East."
The end of World War II and the subsequent emergence of many new states born out of the rise
of nationalism and the collapse of empires sensitized their rulers to the urgent need to know more
about all these new states, euphemistically called the "developing countries" on the premise that
they would want to become more like the Western world, hence to "modernize," or "westernize."
To fill this void, a set of multi-disciplinary fields of inquiry known as area studies came into
existence based on the premise that outsiders with a "scientific" point of view could best
understand and explain the situation in countries lacking the necessary infrastructure of
universities and research institutes to study and explain themselves. The main theoretical
paradigms were those of "developmentalism" and, subsequently, of anti-developmental critiques
and even post-modern reconstructions.
The massive dynamics of globalization now jeopardizes all these assumptions, even though under
Western influence, many of the non-Western countries have created their own emulative
institutions based on Western models and languages and often learned to think of themselves in
terms of images created by outsiders unfamiliar with their traditions and sense of identity, even
though in some cases neo-traditionalist centers of learning have managed to remember and
reproduce their own past while resisting their modernizing compatriots.
In this new context, we can see how each social science discipline mirrors some aspect of Western society and objectifies it as though each such dimension of a single reality were, indeed, a separate reality. One reason for this is the highly "diffracted" social system found in Western countries where, far more than in the "Rest," separate institutions handle subjects like education, religion, sports, the market, the media, politics and administraton, that elsewhere are more "fused" in the hands of a familial or clan-based social system. It makes sense for each discipline to focus on one institution -- something that cannot be done as well in other countries.
The need for cross-disciplinary cooperation in order to study and handle the problems confronted by non-Western societies accelerated recognition of the self-defeating consequences of the reductionist disciplines that had already begun to manifest itself within the Western countries. One consequence has been the appearance of a host of hybrid cross-disciplinary fields of study (cf. Dogan). At the same time, the supporters of area studies have curtailed this activity as though it was only a temporary necessity, perhaps born out of Cold War struggles and rendered obsolete by its termination. However, instead of recognizing the need for a global perspective that would link both the disciplines and area studies, they seem to think that a revived focus on the established disciplines as our basic conceptual framework is what we really need (see Almond).
Instead, globalization has not only undermined the need for Western-based area studies, but it also puts the fundamental paradigms of each social science discipline into jeopardy. We now need both to create a new global and integrated framework for understanding the contemporary planetary world-system as a macro-context for area studies, but also adapt each of the disciplines so that they can recognize that their theories have no universal applicability, but do retain their relevance within the segments of our world that can be called "Western." Put somewhat differently, the whole world is now a macro-area, and all its regions have become sub-areas. Among these regions can be found the Western countries which should now be analyzed by the inter-disciplinary methods used in the now antiquated "area studies" paradigm. Moreover, the disciplines need to be reshaped into globally-relevant theoretical frameworks, while those parochially relevant to Western contexts are re-defined -- thus works on "politics" or "society" can be better understood as works on "American Politics," or "European Societies." To achieve such a new globalized view of human beings in all their diversity and propensity for cooperation as well as conflict, we need new paradigms that will contextualize, not destroy, all the achievements of the Social Sciences during the recent past. Accolades are, therefore, due to all the great accomplishments of our social scientists provided they are humble enough to recognize the area-specific limitations of their work.
See linked pages:  Democratization and Globalization Project || Globalization sites || Globalization Concepts || Democratization Sites  Coming to Terms with Social Science