Publication Date

February 1, 1997

Since the first board meeting that I attended as the AHA representative to the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the reorganization of the council and the reshaping of its funding priorities have dominated the board's discussions. By the time that SSRC president Ken Prewitt called this meeting in September 1995, it was a foregone conclusion that the area studies emphasis of the SSRC would be transformed. The board had been discussing this change for several years under pressure from major funders whose priorities were shifting. There was also a general consensus that the new structure and programs would focus heavily on global and comparative studies and on interdisciplinary issue-oriented research. But many aspects of the new configuration of the council were still under discussion, and the area studies committees and some board members were expressing doubts about the wisdom of these changes.

By the June 1996 meeting, two major proposals had resulted from this re-evaluation: a joint SSRC/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) proposal to the Ford Foundation to support a new international program and an SSRC proposal to the Mellon Foundation to support international field research fellowships and workshops. The joint SSRC/ACLS proposal argues that in the current global configuration, as the boundaries of world areas grow more porous, common critical problems and research issues transcend any given area. Current conditions therefore call for "area-based knowledge" (as opposed to traditional area studies) that starts with local knowledge but then applies it to broader comparative phenomena. Recognizing that globalization promotes not only integration but also the proliferation of difference, the proposal argues for the importance of analytic tools that promote our understanding of the interconnection of the specific and the general. The new program will have three major goals: to further the internationalization of knowledge, to promote the integration of area-based knowledge into disciplinary work, and to encourage scholarship that is critically engaged with contemporary world issues.

Resting on the same assessment of current conditions, the international field research program will continue the pattern of funding doctoral research. But proposals will now be evaluated from the combined perspective of discipline, geographic area, and theme, whereas in the past, review panels were drawn from an interdisciplinary group of specialists on particular regions. Applicants whose dissertation research and training are geared toward abstracting from local experience to broader contexts will receive priority.

The implications of these changes for historians are not altogether clear. Several of us on the board have insisted on the need for historical understanding of contemporary issues and, perhaps in response to our concerns, the fieldwork proposal includes a section on historical perspective. I will quote this discussion in full because it conveys clearly how historical knowledge fits into the council's current emphasis:

Successful applicants will demonstrate an understanding that contemporary issues-however urgently topical-are rooted in the histories and cultures of specific places. And those proposals that are historical in their construction will, in turn, demonstrate how historical analysis helps us understand contemporary issues. Obviously not every sociologist or economist is expected also to be a historian, just as the historian or cultural anthropologist is not expected to specifically address a contemporary question. What we are looking for is an appreciation that issues of political identity or energy consumption or migration flows have not suddenly appeared on the world stage.

Because the structure that will underpin the revised international program is still under discussion, it is too soon to predict the implications for historical research with any certainty. It is interesting to note, however, that of the 889 proposals submitted to the new International Dissertation Research Fellowship Program, 27 percent came from historians. Only anthropology (at 28 percent) had a slightly higher number of applicants.

Thus it seems likely that changes in SSRC priorities will open new opportunities for funding to historians whose work lends itself to illuminating contemporary comparative and global issues or to those who can articulate the general or theoretical relevance of their work. Some historians working from a narrower geographical perspective, who might have received funding under the old area studies structure, may be less likely to be competitive at present.

Other new initiatives in economics training, higher education, and biodiversity are under discussion and will take more definite shape in the coming year.

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