What Is American Studies?

American Studies is an interdisciplinary field in academia that examines all aspects of American civilization, including American history, arts, economics, politics, anthropology, sociology, and linguistics, amongst other fields. The aim of American Studies is to develop a greater understanding of American society from both a domestic and international point of view, and to think critically about the role of America on the international landscape as well as in global history.

Defining "America"

Even within the field of American Studies, there is some debate about how to best define the term "America." Generally speaking, "American Studies" refers to studies of the United States of America, but there are scholars who also argue that the term "America" should be used to apply to all of North America, the Americas (including North and South), the American expatriate community abroad, and pre-colonial, Native American-controlled continent. All of these arguments are respected within the field, but for most purposes (including this fanlisting), "America" refers to the nation known by that name.

History of American Studies

The roots of the field of American Studies are generally traced back to four scholars – Vernon Louis Parrington, Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, and Robert Spiller – who first introduced the concept of an integrated, holistic approach to studying American life in the 1920s and 1930s. In particular, Parrington's three-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Main Currents in American Thought (1927) is most frequently cited as the ground-breaking work that led to the development of academic studies and programs on American life. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Harvard University laid its claim to the birthplace of American Studies when scholar Henry Nash Smith created his own doctoral program there in "History and American Civilization." Following the publication of his dissertation of the same name, American Studies programs began to be developed by a number of American colleges and universities, among them Brown University, Georgetown University, and Yale University, which still are considered to be among the world's best programs in the field. To this day, many of the oldest programs still use the name "American Civilization," in recognition of Smith's importance to the field.

By the 1960s and 1970s, American Studies programs began to face criticism for promoting the idea of American exceptionalism – that is, they were incubating the idea that America was largely faultless, and ignoring any real criticisms of American culture, politics, or influence. As a result, American Studies programs began to adopt a less ethnocentric view, and also began to involve more international viewpoints in their instruction. While American Studies programs were previously taught largely by white, male, upper-class Americans, more international faculty members were brought in, and more texts published abroad were added to syllabuses. In addition, programs in American Studies began to appear in other nations, especially in West Germany, which found itself particularly enthralled by the concept of American democracy and culture during the Cold War.

Today, American Studies is one of the most commonly available interdisciplinary academic fields in American higher education. It is also often offered as a concentration in other academic majors, such as English Literature with an American Studies focus, or History with an American Studies focus.