American studies or American civilization is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship that examines American literature, history, society, and culture. It traditionally incorporates literary criticism, historiography and critical theory, and the discipline has been called "an agenda-setting entity.".
Scholarship in American studies focuses on the United States. In the past decades, however, it has also broadened to include Atlantic history and interactions with countries across the globe. Subjects studied within the field are varied, but often examine the literary themes, histories of American communities, ideologies, or cultural productions. Examples might include topics in American social movements, literature, media, tourism, folklore, and intellectual history.
Fields studying specific American ethnic or racial groups are considered to be both independent of and included within the broader American studies discipline. This includes African American studies, Latin American studies, Asian American studies, American Indian studies, and others.
Vernon Louis Parrington is often cited as the founder of American studies for his three-volume Main Currents in American Thought, which combines the methodologies of literary criticism and historical research; it won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize. In the introduction to Main Currents in American Thought, Parrington described his field:
- I have undertaken to give some account of the genesis and development in American letters of certain germinal ideas that have come to be reckoned traditionally American—how they came into being here, how they were opposed, and what influence they have exerted in determining the form and scope of our characteristic ideals and institutions. In pursuing such a task, I have chosen to follow the broad path of our political, economic, and social development, rather than the narrower belletristic.
The "broad path" that Parrington describes formed a scholastic course of study for Henry Nash Smith, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard's interdisciplinary program in "History and American Civilization" in 1940, setting an academic precedent for present-day American Studies programs.
The first signature methodology of American studies was the "myth and symbol" approach, developed in such foundational texts as Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land in 1950 and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden in 1964. Myth and symbol scholars claimed to find certain recurring themes throughout American texts that served to illuminate a unique American culture. Later scholars such as Annette Kolodny and Alan Trachtenberg re-imagined the myth and symbol approach in light of multicultural studies.
Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, these earlier approaches were criticized for continuing to promote the idea of American exceptionalism—the notion that the US has had a special mission and virtue that makes it unique among nations. Several generations of American Studies scholars moved away from purely ethnocentric views, emphasizing transnational issues surrounding race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, among other topics. But recent studies critique the exceptionalist nature of the Transnational Turn. “The transnational turn has positioned American Studies in a nationalist rut,” observes Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera, in After American Studies: Rethinking the Legacies of Transnational Exceptionalism:
- In these transnational turns...the unhyphenated-American phenomenon tends to have colonial characteristics: English-language texts and their authors are promoted as representative; a piece of cultural material may be understood as unhyphenated—and thus archetypal—only when authors meet certain demographic criteria; any deviation from these demographic or cultural prescriptions are subordinated to hyphenated status.
Institutionally, in the last decade the American Studies Association has reflected the interdisciplinary nature of the field, creating strong connections to ethnic studies, gender studies, cultural studies and post- or de-colonial studies. Environmental perspectives, in ascendance in related fields, such as literature and history, have not penetrated the mainstream of American studies scholarship. A major theme of the field in recent years has been internationalization—the recognition that much vital scholarship about the US and its relations to the wider global community has been and is being produced outside the United States.
Outside the United States
Following World War II and during the Cold War, the U.S. government promoted the study of the United States in several European countries, helping to endow chairs in universities and institutes in American history, politics and literature in the interests of cultural diplomacy. Many scholars and governments in Europe also recognized the need to study the U.S. The field has become especially prominent in Britain and Germany. The British Association for American Studies was founded in 1955, and is a constituent member of the European Association for American Studies.
European centres for American studies include the Center for American Studies in Brussels, Belgium and most notably the John F. Kennedy-Institute for North American Studies in Berlin, Germany. Other centers for American Studies in Germany include the Bavarian America-Academy, the University of Munich, the Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) and the Center for North American Studies (Zentrum für Nordamerikaforschung or ZENAF) at Goethe University Frankfurt. Graduate studies in the field of North American Studies can also be undertaken at the University of Cologne, which works together in joint partnership with the North American Studies program at the University of Bonn. American Studies Leipzig at the University of Leipzig is a center for American studies on the territory of former East Germany. Founded in 1992, the Center for American Studies at the University of Southern Denmark now offers a graduate program in American Studies. In the Netherlands the University of Groningen and the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen offer a complete undergraduate and graduate program in American Studies. The University of Amsterdam, the University of Leiden and the University of Utrecht only offer a graduate program in American Studies. Both the University of Sussex and the University of Nottingham in England offer both a number of postgraduate and undergraduate programs. In Sweden, the Swedish Institute for North American Studies at Uppsala University offers a minor in American studies. In Slovakia, the University of Presov and Pavol Jozef Safarik University offer a complete undergraduate and graduate program in American Studies combined with British Studies. The Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library also offers a range of events and fellowships, as well as promoting the American collections held at the British Library.
In the Middle East, the oldest American Studies program is the American Studies Center at the University of Bahrain in Sakhir. Founded in 1998, the UOB ASC celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2008. Established as a university minor, the ASC currently offers over 20 different courses for students, heralds weekly movies in its ASC Theater, regularly hosts diverse speakers, and sponsors gatherings and excursions for ASC students. There is a new American Studies program at the University of Tehran, Iran. The new program, offered at the Faculty of World Studies, is a multidisciplinary MA program focusing on American culture, politics, history and ethnicity.
In Oceania, the University of Canterbury in Christchurch New Zealand operated a full undergraduate and graduate American Studies program until 2012, and in Australia, a postgraduate program in US Studies is run by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
In Canada, the University of Alberta has the Alberta Institute for American Studies. The University of Western Ontario has a Centre for American Studies that has both an undergraduate and master's program in American Studies, with specializations at the graduate level in American Cultural Studies, and Canadian-American Relations. York University offers an undergraduate program in United States Studies.
In China, due to the lack of communication between China and the United States since the communist party took up the power in 1949, the Chinese recognition of the U.S. was still limited to the communist political propaganda of the Cold War at the time when the two countries established the diplomatic relationship. Therefore, since the Sino-U.S. relationship was normalized in 1979, various research centers have been founded within Chinese universities in order to meet up to the needs of understanding the U.S. Thus, most of the prestigious American Studies centers in China established around 1980s, such as American Studies Center (Beijing Foreign Studies University) in 1979, the Institute of American Studies (Chinese Academy of Social Science) in 1981, Center For American Studies (Fudan University) in 1985, American Studies Center (Peking University) in 1980,Center for American Studies (Tongji University), American Studies Center (Sichuan University) in 1985, Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies in 1986, American Social and Cultural Studies Center (China Foreign Affairs University) and Center for American Studies (East China Normal University) in 2004. These centers do not have undergraduate programs. Based on the requirement of the curriculum setup of the China Department of Education, these centers only have graduate programs. In addition, there are also scholarly journals, such as American Studies Quarterly, up in 1987 and organized by both the Institute of American Studies of Academy of Social Science and the Chinese Association of American Studies, Fudan American Review organized by the Center of American Studies of Fudan University.
The American Studies in the U.S. is different from the American Studies in China. The former focuses more on one aspect, which is “civilization”; and the latter includes almost every aspects of the U.S., among which the civilization is just a constituent (Ye 207). Take the curriculum in the American Studies program in Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) as an example. The American Studies program in BFSU is not only the oldest one but also the one in which all courses taught in English from the beginning of its founding. To help the students lay a comprehensive and interdisciplinary grounding in American Studies, the current ASC curriculum, made up of 28 courses, centers on three major areas: 1) American Government and Diplomacy, 2) American Society and Culture, 3) American Economy and Trade. In addition, there have been short courses and seminars offered by guest speakers from home and abroad to broaden the students’ horizon for better understanding of America. Every master student is required to choose one of the three major areas as his or her study track and chooses the courses accordingly.
The affiliation of each center decides its different research focuses, although sometimes they have some study overlapping. According to the affiliations, these centers can be generally divided into two groups. The one, affiliated to the international relations department, academically tends to focus on U.S. politics, economy, law and diplomacy. The diploma conferred is the Politics. While the other, to the foreign language department, usually concentrate more on racial/gender issues, literature, religion, education, history and culture. The diploma conferred is English Language and Literature. For example, the American Studies Center of BFSU belongs to the School of English and International Studies, and the Center of American Studies of Fudan University is administered by the Institute of International Studies.
The researches on different areas are not equally developed. The researches on economy, politics and foreign policy have been much more developed than that on American culture and thoughts. Out of the all articles from the year of 1987 to 2008 published in American Studies Quarterly, the ones, which deal with the Sino-U.S. relations including American foreign diplomacy, foreign commerce and military policies and strategies, accounts for 50.9%. Whereas, the articles, which have its topics on literature, history, gender, intellectual history, philosophy and culture, only take up about 20% (Ye 207). However, with the accelerating academic exchange between two countries, more and more students are coming to the U.S. to study American Studies and at the same time American Studies scholars coming to China to do researches and teaching.
In Republic of Korea, Sogang University (Seoul, Korea) is the sole institution that offers regular degree program both in bachelor (BA) and master (MA) degree in American Studies, named American Culture. The American Culture division is run by the Department of English along with English Literature and Linguistics. The undergraduate program consists of classes covering topics such as Native American, Black American, Asian American, American history and the context of specific period of America. Keimyung University (Daegu, Korea), Hansung University (Seoul, Korea), Pyeongtaek University (Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi-do, Korea), Kyunghee University (Yongin, Gyonggi-do, Korea) are also providing American Studies major. Seoul National University (Seoul, Korea) and Yonsei University (Seoul, Korea) offers undergraduate Interdisciplinary course about American Studies. The American Studies Association of Korea (ASAK) researches multicultural context of American into Korean circumstance. In contrast to Chinese Institution focuses on America after Cold War era, the ASAK focuses on multicultural problem and politics that affects modern day American society.
International American Studies Association (IASA)
Founded at Bellagio, Italy in 2000, the International American Studies Association has held World Congresses at Leyden (2003), Ottawa (2005), Lisbon (2007), Beijing (2009), Rio de Janeiro (2011), The Sixth World Congress of IASA at Szczecin, Poland, 3–6 August 2013, and Alcalá de Henares, Madrid (2019). The IASA is the only worldwide, independent, non-governmental association for Americanists. Furthering the international exchange of ideas and information among scholars from all nations and various disciplines who study and teach America regionally, hemispherically, nationally, and transnationally, IASA is registered in The Netherlands as a non-profit, international, educational organization with members in more than forty countries around the world.
Associations and scholarly journals
The American Studies Association was founded in 1950. It publishes American Quarterly, which has been the primary outlet of American Studies scholarship since 1949. The second-largest American Studies journal, American Studies, is sponsored by the Mid-America American Studies Association and University of Kansas. Today there are 53 American Studies journals in 25 countries.
- Academic discipline
- American culture
- American history
- American Literature (academic discipline)
- American Studies in Britain
- American Studies in Germany
- Cultural studies
- High School of American Studies at Lehman College
- Public humanities
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- International American Studies Association: IASA
- RIAS Journal
- AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary
- Journal of Transnational American Studies
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- American Studies Crossroads Project
- British Association for American Studies
- The American Studies Association
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- American Studies Journal
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- Southern American Studies Association
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