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Transregional Studies Initiative

Conceptual Introduction to the Trans-Regional Studies Initiative

The Trans-Regional Studies Initiative at Michigan State University began in 2016 when leaders from ISP, the MSU Libraries, and other campus units began a conversation about the future of area studies and global studies. We began by asking ourselves the following question: what needs to happen at the institutional level to re-imagine and institutionally transition to a new model for international studies, one that retains place-based depth while providing horizontal bridges among area/regional experts?

Many of us are already members of networks and scholarly communities that engage in global research that crosses regional boundaries. While these groups support research and dissemination of trans-regional scholarship, they have not always promoted reflection and subsequent transformation of the institutions, especially universities like Michigan State University that are home to long-standing area studies programs. We learned that many partners -- from academic institutions to global consortial programs to funders and even publishers -- were asking similar questions.

We therefore requested support from our Federal Title VI funding and reached out to national and international partners including Howard University and the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), to carry out a four-year initiative on the theme “Africa-Asia-Latin America Trans-Regional Connections.” The initiative is comprised of a series of four international workshops, to be held at Michigan State University (April 2019), the West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal (March 2020), Howard University (spring 2021) and Southeast Asia (spring 2022).

At the same time, we launched a Trans-Regional Studies reading group at MSU for faculty and graduate students interested in developing this topic and contributing to the intellectual content of the symposium by creating a list of objectives, framing questions and recommended readings. That group came up with the following list of objectives for the symposium:

  • To promote an exchange of ideas and knowledge among international scholars engaged in trans-regional research that is focused on the “global south,” in particular Africa and Asia.
  • To interrogate concepts such as “south-south,” “east-south” and “north-south,” which are commonly used in scholarship and practice. We will do this through a rigorous collective inquiry among participants whose work explores and challenges the geographies of knowledge production in diverse global contexts.
  • To build capacity among all partners to address the ways we can institutionally re-imagine and put into practice new approaches to international studies that are trans-regional and global while retaining the requisite depth of place-based knowledge. 

The group developed the following questions in advance together with the participants. After beginning with a general discussion on the theme “What is Trans-Regional Studies,” we went on to discuss the following:

  • What is the relationship between Trans-regional Studies and Area Studies? If TRS will build upon and strengthen regional studies, does that mean that there will be no fundamental transformation of area studies itself? 
  • What and where are the “regions” in Trans-regional Studies and what epistemologies does this reproduce or disrupt? Is TRS the study of the connections in the global south(Africa, Asia, Latin America) and therefore excluding the global north(Europe and North America)? What are the consequences of this for scholarship and for institutions?
  • What historical structures of knowledge production (colonial, national, Eurocentric) are challenged, or reproduced, in Area Studies? In TRS?

How we define Trans-Regional Studies

Following the symposium, Shobana Shankar from NYU StonyBrook and Jamie Monson developed the following definition of Trans-Regional Studies as an outcome of the symposium:

Trans-Regional Studies is an emergent ‘scholarly borderland’ that engages regional/area studies while focusing on global intersections. It considers the connections among world regions as well as the spaces of in-between, including global flows as well as frictions (Cooper 2014, Tsing 2005). Trans-Regional Studies advances an innovative re-interrogation of the organization of regional/area studies as a way to generate knowledge about the world (Masao and Harootunian, 2004; Stevens, et al 2018). It recognizes the limitations of traditional area studies approaches (Schafer 2014) while seeking to strengthen and deepen area-specialized knowledge through the study of local, national and global phenomena that cross boundaries. Following the lead of new scholarship in comparative social science (Arjomand 2014), our premise is that the study of globality requires an understanding of wide-scale connection that is critically informed by place-based historical experience.

Thematic and Interdisciplinary Examples of TRS

Our inquiry into Trans-Regional Studies must engage scholarship at the research level. While we have started from the premise that institutions must reflect and transform to better integrate global connection and deep place-based knowledge, this can only happen through the support and dissemination of research. To that end, we propose framing our interdisciplinary inquiry around specific thematic focal points that will simultaneously foreground global connection and contextual specificity.

  1. Health
  2. Global Islam
  3. Agriculture and Trade
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Land/Water Nexus