American studies or American civilization is an interdisciplinary field dealing with the study of the United States. It incorporates the study of economics, history, literature, art, the media, film, urban studies, women's studies, and culture of the United States, among other fields.
American civilization may also mean the United States, and its culture and people.
Vernon Louis Parrington is often cited as the founder of American studies for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Main Currents in American Thought, which combines the methodologies of literary criticism and historical research. 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 Smith's Virgin Land and Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden. 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, 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 have critiqued this ethnocentric view, and have focused critically on issues of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and transnational concerns.
Institutionally, in the last decade the American Studies Association has reflected the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the field, creating particularly strong connections to other interdisciplines such as ethnic studies, gender studies, cultural studies and post- or de-colonial studies. Another 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.
American studies outside of the U.S.
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.
Richard Pells, a historian, concludes that 'the American Studies movement in Europe... did not result in a transplantation of American values. Instead, European scholars used American Studies for their own purposes, reinterpreting American history and literature in terms that were relevant to European problems. In the end, American Studies became a lens through which Europeans could more clearly see and understand themselves'.
For many years, strong critiques from within the field have been leveled against the political abuse of "American Studies" as an arm of US foreign policy. This has permitted far richer and more skeptical interactions with the field around the world. Currently vital American Studies work from outside the US, especially in the Global South, is playing an ongoing role in limiting US ethnocentrisim and understanding the negative impact of American political and cultural influence.
There is a new American Studies program at Tehran University, 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 Australia, American Studies has come under intense criticism with the development of a US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. This center has been explicitly set up to counter an anti-US foreign policy sentiment found in the Australian public.
See American Studies in Britain and American Studies in Germany.
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 Heidelberg Center for American Studies (HCA) and the Zentrum für Nordamerikaforschung in Frankfurt (ZENAF). The American Studies Leipzig program at the University of Leipzig offers both BA and MA degrees and is known for the graduate journal aspeers. 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 and the University of Leiden only offer a graduate program in American Studies.
- ↑ R. Pells, Not Like Us. How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II, New York: Basic Books, 1997, 95.
- Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline, edited by Lucy Maddox, Johns Hopkins University Press 1998, ISBN 0-8018-6056-3
- The Futures of American Studies, edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman, Duke University Press 2002, ISBN 0-8223-2965-4
- American Studies in a Moment of Danger, George Lipsitz, University of Minnesota Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8166-3949-3
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 36 American Studies journals in 19 countries.
- Academic discipline
- American culture
- American history
- American literature
- American Studies in Britain
- American Studies in Germany
- AMERICANA – E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary
- The Futures of American Studies Institute at Dartmouth College
- American Studies Crossroads Project
- British Association for American Studies
- Encyclopedia of American Studies
- The American Studies Association
- American Quarterly at Project Muse
- Theory and Method Resources, T. V. Reed, Washington State University