Stephen Hutchings

Stephen Hutchings

Professor of Russian Studies, The University of Manchester

The process leading to OWRI involved discussions over the legacy of the 5 national Language Based-Area Studies Centres which were co-supported by the ESRC and the AHRC from 2005 to 2016. These centres were focused on the languages traditionally associated with Area Studies – Arabic, Russian and East European languages, Chinese and Japanese (significantly, the national subject associations for these languages, unlike those for French and Italian, combine representation from Modern Languages and Social Science disciplines including Politics, Geography, Economics, as well as History). Rightly, the AHRC, which took responsibility for the legacy, decided to open OWRI up to Modern Languages more broadly, whilst encouraging applications building on the LBAS centre achievements.

Reasons for the identification of Language-Based Area Studies with a restricted subset of Modern Languages reflect the history of Area Studies itself, which is bound up with the geopolitics of the Cold War. The end of the Cold War coincided with a crisis in Area Studies, defined simply as interdisciplinary research and scholarship pertaining to particular geographical, national/federal, or cultural regions. More recently, Area Studies has made a comeback, albeit in new guise. I want here to explore the earlier crisis and the ‘New’ Area Studies, but also to establish the role of Modern Languages, actual and prospective, in the renewal process. Examples from my own specialist language area – Russian –allow me to draw on personal experience, but also to highlight the association with ‘Sovietology’, the beating heart of Area Studies in its Cold War prime.

Sovietology’s heyday coincided with the Cold War period, when western policy makers were thirsty for insight into the workings of a nation whose hold over the ‘communist world’ and its sympathisers seemed to threaten the foundations of the post-colonial ‘Free World’. The democratic, free-market credentials of Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Yeltsyn, singularly failed to guarantee Sovietology’s afterlife. Russia succumbed first to economic humiliation, then to authoritarian rule and an increasingly provocative foreign policy which has barely affected institutional support for post-Sovietology legacy disciplines.

The situation was compounded by developments in some corners of the social sciences where a turn to abstracted empiricism and grand theory was supplanting careful study of individual geographical regions. A vivid example of the deleterious influence of universalising theory on post-Sovietology disciplines is ‘Transitology’ – a theory founded on the notion that regime change (principally, from forms of authoritarianism to democratic models) can be studied as a single process conforming to common patterns. It soon became apparent that several countries were ‘ignoring’ the prescribed models, and that the assumed trajectory is not universally guaranteed. But as social scientists specialising in the economical, (geo)political and social aspects of particular regions were nonetheless absorbed by departments in which such trends prevailed, it became difficult to sustain careers founded on dedication to regional specificity.

The resulting tendency towards the bifurcation of the humanities and social science wings of Area Studies was reinforced by the foregrounding in UK Higher Education of market and policy-led trends. The arrival of ‘Knowledge Exchange’ and ‘Impact’ agendas in the early 2000s was eventually embraced across the humanities. Politics and Economics scholars found the adjustment easier. Prior to 1991, researchers in the literatures and cultures of the Area Studies languages rarely needed to concern themselves with doubts about their ‘relevance’ (Russianists in particular benefiting from perceptions that everything relating to our Cold War adversaries was significant).

With the introduction of tuition fees, teaching, too, became subject to unfamiliar pressures. The realisation that degree curricula must keep pace with the growing emphasis on career needs was accompanied by anxiety that cut adrift from the social sciences, language and literature staff lacked the inclination to imbue courses shaped by the historical canons of High Culture with policy relevance. What students wanted were insights into contemporary society of value to employers and, above all, intensive training in practical language skills. The general crisis in UK Modern Languages departments was exacerbated by the health of University language centres offering the no-nonsense, practical language training which students from non-languages disciplines craved. The success of such centres, combined with declining recruitment to languages degrees, undermined the rationale for research-led departments and schools of Modern Languages. The effect on the ‘LBAS’ languages is especially severe, owing to their relatively low take-up at undergraduate level.

During the same period, world events began to furnish a rationale for the renewal of Area Studies. Responses to the 9/11 attacks marked the beginning of the painful recognition that the apparent vacuum created by the end of the Cold War was now being filled by radical jihadist threats emanating from regions in which informed policy expertise at the highest levels was lacking. At the end of the decade, the first stirrings of the ‘Arab Spring’ hit news headlines. Subsequent disappointment at its failures, and the ensuing disastrous western military interventions, underscored the urgent need for regional expertise and cultural and linguistic knowledge. The first decade of the new century was also rocked by the 2008 financial crash which few predicted, least of all mainstream economists within whose abstract models such crises no longer occurred. Subsequent scepticism about the economic orthodoxy brought with it a questioning of the same universalism which had supplanted traditional Area Studies emphases on specific regional histories, political cultures and socio-economic conditions. Finally, Russia’s re-emergence as a belligerent, if paranoid, ‘Great Power’, unsettled anyone assuming Putin’s regime was an aberration in Russia’s tortuous path to democracy.

Such developments confirm that without regional expertise western policymakers fall back into misleading ‘Cold War’ paradigms. Compounding the problem, post-2008 austerity budgets have affected the capacity of both academic and Foreign Office expertise to provide such knowledge; drastic cuts to the BBC Monitoring Service are one example. It is vital to stress, too, the need for that expertise to be language-based. Public comprehension of the Ukraine situation was hampered by consistent press confusion over terms used to refer to the Russian-speaking population in Eastern Ukraine (‘Russian citizens’; ‘Russian speakers’; ‘ethnic Russians’; ‘pro-Russian population’) occurred interchangeably). In fact, the most common term in Russian public discourse is ‘sootechestvenniki’, a deliberately ambiguous word that translates as ‘compatriots’).

Globalisation means that we now live in an interconnected world in which newly configured, ever-shifting transnational spheres of influence clash, collude and intersect in ways previously unthinkable. It is incumbent upon Area Studies to engage in collaborative research to address these phenomena, to trace the inter-regional flows, identities and tensions that the networked world has generated, to take account of their implications for our notion of nations and regions, and to uncover latent geopolitical configurations and transnational identities. Such phenomena demand interdisciplinary approaches that acknowledge the emergence of new communities within and across national boundaries, and recognise that, whilst nations stubbornly refuse to fade, the multiple global flows now traversing the world have created fresh building blocks with which to interpret it. Study of their interrelationships demands an integration of empirical and quantitative methodologies with qualitative and theoretical paradigms drawn from cultural studies. This offers further justification for the reinvigoration of Area Studies, which has traditionally hosted expertise that cuts across the arts/social sciences divide.

A renewed case for region-specific knowledge is based on recognition that humans are embodied beings rooted in circumstances whose complexity and diversity do not submit to universalising generalisation. A prime element resides in the languages spoken by particular communities, along with the different modes of conceptualising the world encoded within those languages. Lack of linguistic skills is an impediment to gaining in-depth understanding of particular regions. Language is also fundamental to the identities both of the new communities forged across national borders by migration flows, and of the ‘super-diverse’ communities inhabiting urban spaces within those borders. In my field, the promotion of the ‘Russian-speaking world’ as a key Russian foreign policy plank is one example of the ties linking language to ideology and politics.

There are also powerful arguments for maintaining undergraduate programmes which combine high-level language training with the study of relevant histories and cultures. Knowledge of the latter gained through training in the former provides the ‘thick’ contextual understanding of the socio-political phenomena studied by social scientists. We have offered a route to survival for these programmes in previous blog posts, where we propose that Modern Languages should rethink its traditional language ‘canon’. Similarly, the New Area Studies must reach beyond its Cold War subset of language areas. Our OWRI project is busy putting both of these principles into action.