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Introduction to Area Studies


Admission requirements

This course is only available for students in the BA International Studies.


Scholars who study “other places” and “other peoples” have long sought to live up to the ideal of representing and understanding what is “really there” in a balanced and objective way, without imposing their own assumptions or prejudices upon their subject. But recent scholarship has shown that this challenge is more complicated than you might think, particularly when power and history are added to the equation. The more power the observer has over “the other,” the easier it is to impose one’s own assumptions and fantasies on “the other,” and the harder it is for “the other” to “talk back.” If the power to speak for and define “the other” is something held for a long time, these one-sided beliefs about “us” and “them” can actually start to shape reality. Not only do the powerful come to see their own superiority and difference from “the other” as normal and natural; “the other” is also increasingly obliged to conform to the expectations of the powerful. Over time, a difference in power between “self” and “other” can thus produce the appearance of essential differences between “us” and “them”—cultural, “racial,” national, religious, and so forth—which seem to exist naturally and separately from one another, but which are actually the products of an ongoing mutual negotiation. Whether we are aware of it or not, our ideas and attitudes regarding “other cultures,” as well as “our own,” are thus deeply connected to shared politics and shared history.

In a world dominated economically, politically, and militarily by a minority of nation-states (and former empires) commonly referred to as “the West,” this is much more than just abstract theory. In the realm of knowledge, Western dominance has long translated into the power to speak for and interpret the “rest of the world”: Consciously or not, seeing things from the perspective of “the West and the rest” has become a habit of thinking, “the West” the imagined center of the world and the yardstick by which we measure and define ourselves and others. These assumptions can be found not only in the self-absorbed worldview of the tourist, the missionary, and the imperialist, but also in the ostensibly “objective” sciences we use to study “other places” and “other people” —anthropology, sociology, geography, history, political science, literary science, linguistics—all the more because the period of the rise of these modern academic disciplines, roughly the last 200 years, has corresponded more or less precisely to the period of global Western dominance.

In the accumulated images and interpretations of “us” and “them” that we encounter as scholars of “other places,” we thus confront an ambivalent heritage: An archive of knowledge and categories that are not nearly as definite, fixed, or neutral they seem, but are themselves the product and reflection of shifting social, economic, and political power balances. What is this intellectual inheritance, what are its implications, and where do we go from here? These are the fundamental questions around which this course is constructed. For the scholar of Area Studies, and indeed for all of us, they are questions whose importance extends far beyond the academic. In a world in which Western dominance is no longer a given—with alarmists in “East” and “West” alike warning of a looming “clash of civilizations”—our answers also have serious political consequences.

The course “Introduction to Area Studies” seeks to equip young scholars of “other places” with a critical awareness of how history and power can shape the categories and assumptions that divide “us” from “them,” fostering scholarship informed by a deeper understanding of an interconnected and interdependent world. As scholars in a global, “postcolonial” world, these are issues that concern all of us, transcending the boundaries between academic specializations, as well as the boundaries between “us” scholars and the rest of humankind. Indeed, the achievement of such an understanding must begin with a willingness to question not only the boundaries and categories that define “them,” but also those that define “us” as well.

This course highlights different angles on these issues through the consideration and analysis of a series of strategically chosen case studies from different places and times. In recent decades, our scholarly understanding of the making of “self” and “other” has profoundly deepened, and broadened, through the combining of insights from several disciplinary fields (in particular anthropology, sociology, literary theory, history, cultural studies, and postcolonial studies), and our approach is therefore informed by such a multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary perspective. Having completed this course, as each student proceeds further in their chosen area of specialization, we hope that their scholarship will continue to be informed, and inspired, by the global lessons learned here.

Course objectives

  • to develop an introductory-level familiarity with some of the major theoretical and methodological challenges involved in studying “other peoples” and “other cultures” in a global context.

  • to foster “global positioning sensitivity” based on an awareness that there is no single objective position from which to observe the world.

  • to develop a critical awareness of how identity categories of “self” and “other” have been historically defined and redefined in a context of shifting global and local power balances.

  • to develop a basic familiarity with approaches from a variety of social science and humanities disciplines involved in the studies of “other peoples” and “other cultures,” and their evolution over time.

  • to develop a basic awareness of interdisciplinary approaches to Area Studies, their advantages and challenges.

  • through encounters with a series of comparative case studies in different places and times, to develop a broad perspective on local cultural, historical and social diversity as well as our inter-relationship and interdependence at the global level.

  • to become familiar with some of the foundational texts and theories of contemporary area studies (such as Said’s Orientalism).


The timetable is available on the BA International Studies website.

Mode of instruction

One two hour lecture per week; bi-weekly tutorials. Lectures are held every week, with the exception of the midterm exam week. Weekly lectures will cover both issues discussed in the readings, and issues outside of the readings.

Attending lectures and tutorials is compulsory. If you are not able to attend a lecture or tutorial, please inform the tutor of the course. Being absent without notification can result in a lower grade or exclusion from the final exam or essay.

Assessment method

Tutorials 30%, midterm test 30%, end-term test 40%

There are no resits for the tutorials. Resits for the exam concern all the material for the full 70%, so there will be no separate resits for mid- and end-term tests. The grade for the resit replaces both the original grades for the mid- and end-term tests.


Blackboard will be used. Students are requested to register on Blackboard for this course.

The course site on Blackboard offers important course information, reading material and media, as well as a place for discussion of course contents and practical issues. Please be sure to consult the blackboard site regularly.

Reading list

  • T. Morris-Suzuki, Re-Inventing Japan: Time, Space, Nation , New York: East Gate 1998

Course readings are consciously selected from a variety of sources, with the aim of confronting students with a range of concrete historical cases and the variety of multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary methods used by contemporary scholars. All course readings and other learning materials can be found on the course Blackboard Site.

Weekly reading assignments follow in the next section. You are expected to do the assigned weekly readings before the lecture. Make sure to read the description and questions about the readings in the syllabus before you read, as this will help you put the reading in a proper context. Preparing the readings in advance will make the lectures much more interesting and rewarding. During the lectures, students may be called upon at random for their responses to the questions in the syllabus about the readings. Preparing the readings in advance will also prepare you better for the exams, whose questions are based on both the readings and the lectures.


The student administration will register all first year students for the first semester courses in uSis, the registration system of Leiden University. General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


During the lectures, students may be called upon at random for their responses to the questions in the syllabus about the readings. Students are also encouraged (although not required) to ask questions and initiate discussions during the lectures, so long as these are related to the weekly topic.