Research and Creative Activity

Exploring Africa in a Changing World," the January 1999 issue of Research & Creative Activity, provides significant evidence bearing on the recent debate in the academic world about area studies. This debate has reflected growing criticism of area studies from various quarters of the academic community. (For a typical illustration, see Christopher Shea, "Political Scientists Clash Over Value of Area Studies," The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 10, 1997, B45.)

Two types of complaints have predominated. A number of scholars, primarily from the social sciences, have termed much of the work in area studies descriptive and lacking in theoretical concern or merit. Many scholars have also deplored what they view as the absence of a genuine comparative framework in the great bulk of research and writing done by area specialists.

Defenders of area studies have acknowledged that individual area specialists need to share their area expertise more with those working on other areas and to expand their knowledge base in search of processes operating across disciplines and regions. But these scholars have also contended that the area studies approach can and has yielded major scientific knowledge, and they have maintained that an increasing amount of work in area studies derives from comparative perspectives.

The research projects and activities treated in detail in "Africa in a Changing World" render strong support to the champions of area studies. Clark Gibson's study of wildlife policy in Africa has resulted in an approach called the "new institutionalism" (which looks at institutions as rules, not as organizations) to help explain the behavior of actors involved in shaping policy; moreover, Gibson himself has expanded this area of expertise to investigate the politics of natural resources in Latin America as well as Africa. Samuel Gyasi Obeng has examined notions of politeness across various African cultures, and his explorations of verbal indirectness as a communication strategy to avoid trouble when expressing difficult or unpleasant information has enriched the field of sociolinguistics. Ruth Stone and Kelly Askew have shown the value of studying musical performances to gain an understanding of the political and social aspects of a society. Eileen Julien seeks to demonstrate that African creativity has not been simply imitative but has evinced dynamism. That is, African writers and artists have been inventive in appropriating various modern forms and modes and combining them with ethnic traditions, cosmologies, and legends.

These undertakings by Indiana University scholars, then, have importance above and beyond their specific purposes. They help to validate the worth of area studies and in a broad academic sense.

David E. Albright
Senior Fellow
Center for the Study of Global Change
Indiana University Bloomington

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