Global Studies as Academic Field

In the electronic Global Studies Journal, Global-E, Sophia University sociology professor David Wank explores the idea of global studies as academic field (part 1 & part 2). This is of particular relevance to me as I am one of the people in charge of creating a center of global education at my college.

So, the basic question that Wank asks is whether "global studies" is an academic field in the first place. Is "global studies" a discipline? Does it have a clear subject matter? A clear research method through which it approaches and studies phenomena? These are questions that all institutions of higher education have to answer as soon as they start creating a global studies program. For Wank, these are traditional difficulties that all interdisciplinary programs face in discipline-based organizations.

Secondly, Wank raises the question of whether "global studies" is "old wine in a new bottle". What disciplines, now, do not recognize the importance of global and transnational phenomena and influences? How is global studies different than multicultural or area or comparative studies? Which, of course, gets us back to the question of the subject matter and methodology of global studies.

Third, Wank contends that global studies can be seen as part of the spearheading of the new post-Cold War neo-liberal order. I tend to disagree. From what I know of global studies programs I have studied, it seems that the opposite is the case. Global studies programs generally question the good and the bad about globalization from a variety of perspectives.

Of course, the central, organizing concept of global studies is globalization. Now, as soon as one uses that work, we’re in for lengthy debates about its meaning, its popularization or even its very relevance. Nevertheless, Wank and his department established three different frameworks of analysis for globalization:

  1. A world systemic framework that sees the world as a single order: some examples are Immanuel Wallerstein’s capitalist world system, John Meyer’s world cultural polity, and some concepts of global governance.

  2. A transnationalist framework that looks at flows and actions that move across two or more national state spaces. Examples are the works of Arjun Appadurai, Saskia Sassen and others.

  3. A third framework is global/local, which highlights how lives and processes in locales are constituted and animated by an awareness of being or existing in a global world: the works of Roland Robertson are seminal.

And what of methodology? Do global studies have a specific approach to their subject matter? On this, Wank is not clear. From his examples, it seems that global studies borrows its methodologies from its component disciplines. In which case, one can question whether it is a field in the first place.

Regarding curriculum, according to Wank, there are usually six types of courses offered in global studies programs:

Wank adds that any global studies program should have a strong critical component, for instance through the study of notorious globalization critiques (such as Naomi Klein or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) or the study of the alter-globalization social movements, as well as peace studies components and courses on alternative to the dominant orthodoxy (which makes sociology relevant , and yet underrepresented, in these programs that are usually dominated by economics or political sciences).

The usual frustration when reading such articles is that the analysis is mostly geared toward the creation of graduate global studies programs. But what of the undergraduate side of things? That part is usually left out. A major lacunae in my view.

One thought on “Global Studies as Academic Field

  1. C,
    Fascinating stuff you got going here. Although, I think that both Ulrich Beck, Goran Therborn and Anthony Giddens would have very different approaches towards a global studies. This has to do with the idea of “reflexive modernization” and the transition from the “first modernity” to the “second modernity”. These transition(s) and structural changes would be the themes of global studies when looking at it from a world sociology perspective.

    I would suggest looking at this more closely when thinking about setting up a unique “global studies” curriculum.
    “The central postulate of the Reflexive Modernization Research Center is that the changes that can be observed in science, politics, the economy and society can, indeed should be interpreted as a “structural break” within modernity. In the research program, this break is conceptualized as the transition from “first” to “second” modernity or from “simple” to “reflexive” modernization.

    In order to analyze this “structural break” in modern societies, three steps have been undertaken by the 15 research projects. First, on the basis of selected examples, efficiency losses and transformations within the basic institutions of first modernity were singled out for the second half of the 20th century. The aim was then to explore to what extent one could observe the emergence of new concepts, structures, configurations and institutions that could only be apprehended and described beyond the eroded categories and boundaries of first modernity. Finally, the projects hope to determine what consequences the transformation of institutional premises have on the power structures of modern societies.

    How can the discourse about a “structural break” and the related transition from a “simple” to a “reflexive” modernity be apprehended more precisely? If the observable structural changes seem to occur on various levels, it seems obvious that they are triggered and influenced by what can be characterized as a return of insecurity. Thus, in almost all societal domains, one can no longer detect self-evident structures, unequivocal solutions and clear differentiations. Instead, there are always contradictory models, functional alternatives and unintended side-effects. This evolution is by no means fortuitous. It actually derives from the developmental dynamics of modernity, three aspects of which should be highlighted:

    * First, a sustained and increasing contingency is built into the developmental dynamics of modernity – a contingency that subsequently translates into a pluralization of options. Nothing appears fixed or self-evident any more. From the social structuring of individual relationship networks to the nation-state, everything seems possible, changeable and likely to be justified in a variety of ways.
    * Another important point is that the side-effect of social behavior are becoming increasingly obvious. The fact that every conscious goal entails unintended side-effects is by no means revolutionary but in the context of reflexive modernity, the link between conscious behaviors/aims and unintended side-effects can shift in dramatic ways. Indeed, unintended side-effects frequently thwart conscious aims to the extent that dealing with side-effects often requires more attention and effort than the original implementation of a particular intention.
    * Thus against this background, it is easy to distinguish a crisis in both the rationality assumptions and rationalization expectations of first modernity. For instance, one can no longer expect that more growth, knowledge and social differentiation will make societal structuring clearer and more reliable. Instead, it seems obvious that experiences of contingence and side-effects have made modernity into an ambiguous and uncertain phenomenon. And it is precisely this process that questions formerly “linear” rationalization and differentiation representations, despite of – or maybe even because of – the indisputable increase in steering knowledge or guidance.

    Numerous examples display the extent to which increasing contingencies and side-effects cast doubt upon the apparently self-evident structural constructs often considered as the “basic institutions” of first modernity. These examples especially question the following aspects of second modernity:

    * a nation-state organization of society and economy that is understood more as an achievement than a limitation, and that points back to the constitutive territorial reference of societal institutions in first modernity.
    * against this background, the self-evident (but, linked to globalization, increasingly weak) territorial linkage between production, cooperation and enterprise, as a stage upon which the contradictions between work and capital are played out while still appearing manageable.
    * a division of labor along gender lines that is often conceptualized as a “natural” characteristic. This division of labor is often correlated with a gender-specific and extremely unequal organization of gainful employment.
    * linked to this aspect, the existence of functioning nuclear families as the reproduction condition and guarantor of a predominantly masculine work force.
    * the relatively closed, mainly position-influenced proletarian and bourgeois milieus or life worlds that can be seen as the social precondition for class development during first modernity but also as a meso-level of social identity construction.
    * the naturalized differentiation and mutual exclusion of societal sub-systems (the economic, political, administrative, cultural and scientific spheres), which thanks to their own media and behavioral rationalities can be experienced as different and separate.
    * the structuring and hierarchization of societal knowledge systems that rests on a devaluation of (everyday) experiential knowledge in parallel with a revaluation of scientific theoretical knowledge, not to mention an instrumentalized use of nature and a controlling rationality.
    * the enforcement of a hierarchy of experts and lay-wo/men, based on professionally generated and controlled knowledge monopolies.

    The exploration of this broad spectrum of structural changes, which all point to an erosion of the basic institutions of first modernity, not only requires a broad empirical research program but also new observation categories and reference frameworks in order to make the “novelty” of these social changes empirically apprehensible. With the help of the social science concept of cosmopolitanism, the Reflexive Modernization Research Center aims to sharpen its grasp of historically new realities, interdependencies and problems – all of which lie beyond the limited perspectives of methodological nationalism to be found in the social sciences and problematize the internal differentiations to be found in individual fields. Two dimensions of cosmopolitanism can be distinguished in the center’s research program:

    * a methodological dimension: cosmopolitanism as a new approach to a globalized world enabling the transcendence of obsolete demarcations between inside and outside,
    * a political and historical dimension: cosmopolitanism as a particular form of societal interaction with cultural difference and a way to process contingency and insecurity (which seem to be characteristic of second modernity).”

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