Area studies in Germany: Investigating research topics, denominations and structures in continuous change

By Carolina Rozo Higuera and Kathleen Schlütter

world map mesh connecting global concept with colorful triangle, geometric and dots line, vector illustration (Adobe Stock)

Area studies, transregional studies, global studies – is there a difference between those denominations of research fields and should we care about it? At first glance, the debate about the naming of research fields in this part of the humanities and social sciences can seem very theoretical and far away from social or even political relevance. At least, that is how we feel when we explain what we are doing within our research project “The Production of World Knowledge transformed.” Research on research, quite out of the way, isn’t it. And yet the questions we want to answer are indeed of relevance beyond academic curiosity. We want to find out what the German “production of knowledge about the world” looks like and thus not only examine how the scientific landscape has changed over the last 20 years, but also which regions of the world we know a lot or little about in Germany and how internationally connected we are in the process. And this can actually be very relevant for social or political questions.

A structural crisis leading to new funding schemes

Indeed, the world has become intensively interconnected and “globalized” in the last 30 years through the increased mobility of people, goods, capital, cultural patterns but also viruses. This has a direct impact on the production of knowledge about that very world and its global connections. We focus on such effects and impacts on our research project with a particular emphasis on the new emerging knowledge fields of Transregional Studies, Comparative Area Studies, and Global Studies. They have grown out of reflections on where to go with knowledge fields known as “area studies” in the perspective of these global connections.

In the aftermath of the end of the Cold war there were serious assumptions that the world, without the hostile antagonism between the Soviet Union and the US and by becoming more intensively interconnected, would develop into a less conflictual place of mutual understanding. As a consequence, the research fields of the classical area studies were expected to change as a response to this “new order” or even loose validity. Maybe it was not necessary anymore to intensively study societies, cultures and languages of other continents on the ground in order to understand them? Additionally, the growth of area studies particularly in the US was related not only to the strategic geopolitical goal of “knowing the enemy” but also to a more general expansion of higher education in post-Second World War years with an exponentially growing number of students (Milutinović 2019). However, area studies have a history long beyond the Cold War expansion and developed differently in Europe (including the Russian Empire) and North America with distinct schools of thought and transregional connections (Marung 2019a, 2019b). We are interested in the evolutions within the German academia. Due to the federal organization of the German republic, area studies, such as all academic structures within universities, were (and are) under the authority of the regions (Bundesländer). They were often located in rather small institutes or chairs within different faculties and not very well connected among each other. With the reunification of Germany, decreasing public resources and the growing demand for “employability” of graduates, these disciplines came the under the threat of being cut off. When the terror attacks of September 9/11 at the latest proved the hopes of a more peaceful world wrong, these events also raised the question if there was a problem with area studies and related policy advice: Nobody had seen the attacks coming or at least hadn’t been listened to by politics and public. So by the beginning of the 2000s, the area studies and specifically the ones in Germany, were in trouble (Mielke and Hornidge 2017; Middell 2013).

The concrete background for our research project is a study by the German Science and Humanities Council (WR) in 2006 (Wissenschaftsrat 2006a) in reaction to this crisis. The highly respected body warned of a lasting loss of regional studies expertise in Germany due to the lack of national, visible research centers and of interdisciplinary and cross-faculty cooperation. “Only if academic institutions in Germany continue to ensure a broad spectrum of expertise in regional studies in the future will it be possible for actors in German politics and business to communicate successfully with their partners in other regions of the world in the long term,” said WR Chair and Germanist medievalist Peter Strohschneider at the time of the publication (Wissenschaftsrat 2006b, own translation). In particular, it was recommended to create Centres for Area Studies at universities in Germany in order to “bundle and integrate the competences of regional studies” (Wissenschaftsrat 2006b). The Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) reacted to the alarming WR report and launched extensive funding programs for the required Area Studies Centres as well as networks and smaller research projects. They emerged in 12 universities. The federal excellence initiative, whose first round was launched around the same time in 2005, initiated, within the general competition of universities to become “lighthouses” of German academia, further project funding in the German area studies with excellence clusters and graduate schools in those disciplines. The funding continues until today. Nearly 40 multi-year projects are currently being supported by the BMBF within this framework, including extensive research centers such as the Käte Hamburger Kollegs or the Merian Centres in Delhi, Guadalajara, São Paulo, Tunis and Accra. And several excellence clusters and graduate schools profit from the federal excellence initiative, that starts a new funding round this year.

Mapping moving targets

After 15 years of funding policy it is time to find out if a visible and sustainable structural change at the universities and research bodies is observable and how interconnected they are with other area studies institutions outside of Germany. To investigate this, we are working on a mapping of area studies, respectively of the younger knowledge fields Transregional Studies, Comparative Area Studies and Global Studies, in Germany and its networking with the world. We are applying cartographic methods, using bibliometric procedures and visualization methods for thematic focal points.

There are four particularly challenging methodological issues: the definition of the research object, the classification of knowledge, the bibliographic mapping of non-databased publications and the transformation of institutional reality to cartographic mapping.

1. The definition of research objects

The historically grown disciplinary structure of area studies in Germany has led to the following situation: On the one side, the “systematic” sciences with their own methodology – such as Sociology, Philosophy or History – on the other side, regional studies, in which experts for certain regions are trained, who then profoundly know the local language, culture and history. In this assumed dichotomy, regional studies were considered as the supplier of empirical material while the “real” sciences worked on theories and the big picture. This was long accompanied by the implicit assumption that no theoretical-conceptual contributions could be expected from the Global South. This view is changing and includes the now common approach of “researching with instead of researching about”, which means researching together with scientists from the regions that are the object of study. It is equally important to recognize and welcome independent theory building from countries outside of the Global North (Jean Comaroff and J. L. Comaroff 2012).

These historical conceptions had also produced blind spots in terms of research interest. Africa as a continent is in German academia the research object of “Afrikanistik” (or nowadays more often “Afrikastudien”), but for a long time, this only meant Sub-Sahara Africa. For Asia, a distinction is made between South Asia and Southeast Asia, among others. Europe is only partially understood at all as a world region in its own right and as an object of research in the sense of area studies – or who understands Romance Studies or European Studies as area studies? And this already specific “containerization” of world regions into study objects is even more called into question when you take a country like Afghanistan: Where does it belong to? South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East? This depends. And at the same time, Afghanistan, albeit being a place of high relevance for contemporary questions of politics, migration and also terrorism, is at the margin of the research interests of the classical area studies fields of South Asian Studies or Oriental studies (Mielke and Hornidge 2017, 11). The same problem of belonging counts true for a country like Sudan (ibid.). So even defining which institutions or research projects belong to our sample and under what area studies category is a challenge. We respond to this by applying a broad definition of area studies and by classifying items by several categories if necessary (e.g. research on Polish history is both classified as “Europe” and “Middle Eastern Europe”).

2. The classification of knowledge production

In the early stage of the development of disciplines, the content of a document was easily classified into one of the major areas of knowledge. Boundaries among disciplines were clearly defined or at least catalogers managed to overcome multidisciplinary content with the development of alternative classification systems and broader subject categories. Traditionally content in the social sciences and the humanities had a strong disciplinary focus.

However, this is not a dominant trend anymore. Content tends to make associations between fields even from different sciences. Knowledge develops in a such natural way quite opposite to classification structures. Examples are subject categories in bibliographic databases and directories. Our challenge is to analyze interdisciplinary content under disciplinary classifications. Our research tries to understand how the situation is in Germany and how fields respond to the education governmental principles and the necessity of research in multidisciplinary fields.

Those traditional classification structures are actually a visible result of disciplinary ones in academia, in which specialists in one region but also in quite established disciplines, complement the field expertise and its methodologies with those from the discipline. Reproducing the ideas of the American political scientist and expert in the Eurasian region Mark R. Beissinger, area studies contribute precisely to blur the borders of knowledge production: “The more confused we are about the boundaries between Area Studies and other modes of knowledge production, the more thoughtful and knowledgeable we will be about the forces that shape the world in which we live” (Beissinger 2019, p.149)

3. The bibliographic mapping of monographic and serial publications

Making a sample of journals and monographs which aims to represent Area Studies content faces various challenges. One of them is setting the criteria of what should be added to it and what not. Therefore, questions emerge regarding studies involving language, music, or folklore in which researchers would not see themselves or their research as part of these studies.

Furthermore, the building of the sample relies on availability and accessibility. Unfortunately especially in the domain of area studies, a high number of journals and their articles are not indexed in any bibliographic database, not no mention grey literature or working papers, which are not included in this research as they are not included in library records. Books, on the other hand are catalogued in library administration systems, which is an advantage for this project even if bibliometric software cannot be applied here. The advantage of being indexed is not just about complying with standards that make possible the transferring of data records but is also about visibility, which increases the chances of being read and citable. However, being indexed requires preliminary work that demands resources and time, something that not all journals can guarantee.

The crisis of Covid-19 has aggravated the problem of accessibility since the handling of the management of journal titles was quite often seriously delayed, specifically complying with the periodicity in which a journal publishes its issues. This is a factor considered by many bibliographic databases, which evaluate this aspect in order to drop or ensure the continuity of such indexation.     

Last but not least is the recent delegation (in the last decade) of content from institutions to worldwide publishers. Many editors decide to give big publisher houses the administration of content, some without planning the migration of previous issues. In some cases, just recently published issues are accessible because previous ones are still in print format. If those are scanned,  manual work in collecting information is a time-consuming task because old printed literature has more typos than articles digitally “born”.

Concerning the mapping of monographic and serial publications, no indexed databases comparable to the ones for journals exist. But since area studies, such as a large part of the Humanities, very much rely on books, we absolutely want to take this part of the knowledge production in account. We therefore develop our own methodological approach in using data access points of large research libraries, that allow us to harvest the publications of our sample of authors (which is currently still in process). We are at the beginning of this endeavor, but we’ve already encountered several technological challenges and we expect to bump into even more complex questions content-wise (cf. Steinbach-Hüther 2020).

4. The process of mapping

The challenge of transforming institutional reality to data that can be entered in a mapping software is one that every researcher faces who is working with some form of data visualization. Within our project, we are particularly dealing with the fact that we are mapping a “moving target”, meaning that the institutional structures are changing while we are observing them: new structures are created, people change their workplaces, projects start, end or are financed by another funding line. Since we aim at getting a comprehensive picture with a historical view of 20 years, as far as possible, we are constantly improving our data model. The tricky part is, as often, the details. E.g. a scientific journal that is published by a community of researchers that are organized within an association. This association does not have an official address but the current head of the association is responsible for the publication. So the geographical place of the association, the “point” on the map, will be the university that the respective researcher belongs to. But this can change while we are still investigating. Another example are large third-party financed research projects that have already become permanent structures within their institution. While at first sight, one would think that a project and an institution are easily distinguishable, we’ve encountered research centres where both applies. These questions can of course be solved and integrated in the data model. But this takes time and time is scarce. So we are aware of evaluating our mapping choices in the perspective of how feasible something is within the scope of a four year research project.

Where do we stand with that in Germany?

Currently, as in any other research project in the first phases of analysis, we have more questions than complete answers. The whole picture of understanding the dynamics of area studies in Germany needs to consider the stories of those that have experienced the changing structures in the field over time and also the knowledge production itself. Therefore, a successful understanding of area studies development in Germany depends on a comprehensive analysis of a complex network of people, institutions, and knowledge all under the influence of institutional and supra-national policies and interests. We complement our wide range of sources with interviews. As sources are indeed chosen, as well as the people to be interviewed, we do not pretend to give an uncontested picture of area studies in Germany. Quite the contrary, with our findings we hope to contribute to the ongoing self-reflection of the field, opening the path for new ways of thinking area studies not just in Germany but in a broader sense.  

The research project “The Production of World Knowledge transformed” is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. You can find out more about our project here. 


Beissinger, Mark. 2019. “Disciplinarity, Interdisciplinarity and the Plurality of Area Studies: A View from the Social Sciences.” In Milutinovic 2019, 129–50.

Comaroff, Jean, and John L. Comaroff. 2012. “Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America Is Evolving Toward Africa.” Anthropological Forum 22 (2): 113–31.

Marung, Steffi. 2019a. “Area Studies, Regionalwissenschaften, Aires Culturelles: The Respatialization of Area Studies from a Bird’s-Eye View.” In Middell 2019, 23-57.

Marung, Steffi. 2019b. “Transregionality in the History of Area Studies.” In Middell 2019.

Middell, Matthias. 2013. “Area Studies Under the Global Condition Debates on Where to Go with Regional or Area Studies in Germany.” In Self-Reflexive Area Studies, edited by Matthias Middell, 7-57. Global History and International Studies 5: Leipziger Universitätsverlag.

Middell, Matthias, ed. 2019. The Routledge Handbook of Transregional Studies. Routledge history handbooks. London, New York: Routledge.

Mielke, Katja, and Anna-Katharina Hornidge, eds. 2017. “Introduction: Knowledge Production, Area Studies and the Mobility Turn.” In Area Studies at the Crossroads, edited by Katja Mielke and Anna-Katharina Hornidge, 3–26. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Milutinovic, Zoran, ed. 2019. The Rebirth of Area Studies: Challenges for History, Politics and International Relations in the 21st Century. First edition. London, England: I.B. Tauris; Bloomsbury Publishing.

Milutinović, Zoran. 2019. “Introduction: Area Studies in Motion.” In Milutinovic 2019, 1–18.

Steinbach-Hüther, Ninja. 2020. Bibliotheksdaten, Kulturtransfer und Digital Humanities: Zu einer Methodik bei der Untersuchung transregionaler Zirkulationen akademischer Literatur afrikanischer Autoren. Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag. Dissertation.

Wissenschaftsrat. 2006a. “Empfehlungen Zu Den Regionalstudien (Area Studies) In Den Hochschulen Und Außeruniversitären Forschungseinrichtungen.” Drs. 7381-06.

Wissenschaftsrat. 2006b. “Regionalstudien: Mittler Zwischen Den Kulturen.” Accessed August 10, 2022.

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