Zachary Lockman is professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and of history at New York University. His new book, Field Notes: The Making of Middle East Studies in the United States (2016) was published in Stanford University Press.
Drawing on extensive archival research Field Notes reconstructs the origins and trajectory of area studies in the United States, focusing on Middle East studies from the 1920s to the 1980s.
The conventional story is that area studies, as a new academic field as well as a new set of institutions and funding flows in American higher education was essentially a product of the Cold War when the U.S. government had the desire to understand and to control different regions of the world. In his book Lockman shows that this isn't quite the full story: "While the emergence of area studies was certainly inflected early on by Cold War anxieties and concerns, it was also propelled by a vision (promoted mainly by the Social Science Research Council) that, through a focus on specific world regions, area studies could promote a new kind of interdisciplinary knowledge that would advance the social sciences in particular." As such most scholars had primarily scholarly and pedagogical interests and priorities, and later in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them even became increasingly critical of the United State's role in the part of the world they focused.
Concerning the development of Middle East studies Lockman argues that they root in a much older American tradition of Arabic and Islamic studies, generally related either to Bible studies or to missionary activity, as well as in the study of the ancient Near East, which marked later direction after Second World War. Criticized for the lack of theoretical and methodological rigor, the new field didn't gain much attention until the transformations of the 1980s and beyond. The critique of Orientalism and modernization theory, the impact of women's and gender studies, and the "cultural turn," opened the way for scholars in Middle East studies to shed what had been a widespread sense of intellectual isolation, backwardness and inferiority, and instead to engage across disciplinary and regional boundaries in productive new ways.
In many ways the historical trajectory of Middle East studies was similar to that of area studies as a whole. Perhaps what most distinguishes Middle East studies from other area studies is that scholars and teachers in this field have repeatedly been subjected to campaigns of harassment and vilification by well-organized and well-funded groups based outside of academia, whether by branding as anti-Israel (or even anti-Semitic) or, especially after 9/11, as apologists for radical Islamism. As a result Middle East studies has become a key battleground in the struggle to protect academic freedom in American higher education.