The following essay went “live” in the Encyclopedia of American Studies online on August 17, 2012, and is reproduced here with permission. Cite as:

Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), s.v. “American Studies: A Discipline” (by Simon J. Bronner), (accessed August 17, 2012).

Beginning in the 1970s with the rise of a generation of professionals trained in American studies departments and holding American studies degrees, research publications appeared that referred to American studies as a paradigm-driven discipline, and consequently, researchers as Americanists or American studies scholars rather than historians or sociologists. These Americanist labels were at odds with a prevalent organizing “matrix” principle of American studies program formation involving multidepartmental, and therefore multidisciplinary involvement, particularly with literature and history. The “matrix” principle was based upon the notion of American studies as a location for progressive research, a form of area studies, allowing in its flexible domain multiple ways of viewing the same subject–the United States or the Americas–and forging integrated approaches that could be called inter- or transdisciplinary. An alternative view is that American studies is counterdisciplinary because it is problem centered in a reform project of the bureaucratic university and works to break down departmental walls. Nonetheless, the number of departments and independent programs grew to the end of the twentieth century, often with the justification that American studies had its own theories, methods, practices, legacies, and pedagogies that set it apart from other units with disciplinary claims in the university curriculum. As American studies in higher education became a dominant designation for inquiry into the society and culture of the United States, the plural “studies” in the title implied multiple perspectives, although the rendering of “Studies” as a capitalized singular noun suggested that American studies existed as a bounded unit.

By 2008, the departmental or “independent” program model for American studies was the primary curricular structure in American higher education, according to a survey conducted by the American Studies Association (ASA). The report published in the ASA’s newsletter noted that a sign of change to the matrix model, and consequently for the perception of American studies as an educational field, was the replacement of the joint faculty appointment of American studies scholars in another department, or discipline, with the exclusive designation of American studies. The implication was that American studies stood on its own among the different disciplines represented in the university. The report also examined American studies departmental descriptions and found that departments tended to refer to themselves as disciplinary units constituting goals other than forming a mix of multiple perspectives from other disciplines or being embedded within an overarching discipline. In some cases the plural “studies” was replaced with the singular “American Culture,” “American Civilization,” or “American Society” to indicate the focus of disciplinary inquiry. A compromise position was that American studies is an “interdiscipline,” a distinctive hybrid or offspring study that has grown to form its own character between parent disciplines. The assumption in the concept of “interdiscipline” is that the genus of literature and history is still discernible whereas advocates for a discipline of American studies claim emergent methods, purposes, and theories that do not owe to other disciplines.

The argument for a discipline of American studies is that disciplines can be emergent rather than a preexisting pantheon of fields. The label of a discipline implies an independent existence in an organizational unit such as an association or department that constitutes a power base. It also connotes a rigor and background that requires training within that unit. Advocates for conceptualizing American studies as a discipline point out that the rise of the American studies department in the university landscape, a longstanding ASA amid learned societies, and centers, foundations, and institutes devoted to American studies bear out the disciplinary power base of American studies. Other hallmarks of a discipline that relate to American studies include the formation of its own paradigms, theories, concepts, themes, pedagogies, practices, and methods (e.g., democratization, Americanization, nationalism, frontier, transnationalism, consumerism, cultural hegemony, exceptionalism, massification, multiculturalism, empire, colonialism, futurism), or distinctive applications (e.g., myth-symbol, rhetorical analysis, ethnography, cultural criticism, socioanalysis), a distinctive intellectual history with figures identified as American studies scholars (e.g., Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Alan Trachtenberg), a separate bibliography and historiography including foundational texts and standard textbooks and reference works such as Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline (1998), Encyclopedia of American Studies (2001), and American Studies: An Annotated Bibliography (1986), and a community of discourse through journals, book series, listservs, meetings, and institutions bearing the American studies label and implying measures of American studies practice and worth.

Perhaps most important is the idea that American studies practitioners have a sense of their own identity and are aware of the field’s boundaries and characteristics. Toward that end, many departmental descriptions suggested an intellectual purpose for American studies as a discipline to displace the formerly heralded mechanical process of mixing disciplines at the core of American studies work. They frequently mentioned stylistic, organizational tendencies such as an integrative view of “seeing things whole,” “examining the big picture,” or thinking thematically and critically; orientation toward addressing problems, patterns, and issues of American society in “intersectional ways” or “multiple dimensions,” including a variety of nontraditional evidence in visual and material culture; considering the influence, often overlapping, of local, regional, national, and global contexts, particularly in the production of folk and popular expressive cultural forms; an applied project as sociocultural criticism to reform America or convey intellectual perspectives to a wider public and professions in a variety of institutions (e.g., museums and heritage organizations, government, community and cultural agencies, K-12 education, medical, business and legal professions); and a bridge (or the frequently used metaphor of “crossroads”) between, and comparative project of, humanities and social sciences, and sometimes science and technology, focused on a crucial, and complex, geopolitical area of the world.

Paralleling summaries of history as the study of the past and sociology as the analysis of society, many conceptualizations of American studies in a disciplinary perspective emphasize the interpretation of American experience in its totality or the ideas of America at home and abroad. Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth, and David Wilson, faculty members in the Department of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, for example, drew attention in 1973 to coalescing paradigms of American studies in an essay for American Quarterly (the flagship journal of the ASA) by declaring that the academic task of a disciplinary American studies is the analysis of culture with particular attention to American expressive forms and characteristically American “cultural scenes.” Murray Murphey at the University of Pennsylvania echoed this view in an article titled “American Civilization as a Discipline” for American Studies (journal of the Mid-America American Studies Association) in 1999 and underscored an historical element in his definition of American studies covering “American culture, past and present” to separate American studies from anthropology’s cultural concern. Whereas past-focused historians reportedly often are hesitant to predict the future based upon their research, American studies scholars frequently commented on trends and projections. To the objection that slicing off America from the world narrows American studies inquiry, Murphey and others cautioned that the study of American culture is properly a cross-cultural or comparative enterprise. He wrote that American studies provides “a particular case, or set of cases, viewed as instances or components of general cultural processes and systems.” American studies in this view involves inductive research toward the purpose of making generalizable and testable statements. Claiming that American studies deserves disciplinary identification because in its mature state it offers more intellectual coherence than designations of English and history, Murphey proclaimed that “Where the relevant approaches have in common an empirical orientation to the subject and share an understanding of what constitutes explanation, evidence, theory, and confirmation, they can and should be combined into a single more general discipline that can yield a holistic and consistent model of the subject.”

In the twenty-first century, formulations of “transnationalism” or “globalism” include the role or idea of America in the world and extend American studies to rhetorical and cultural uses of America and Americans in international settings. Another paradigmatic move is to diversify the awareness of culture with an American studies project devoted to uncovering the plurality of American society, particularly the ramifications on American identity or identities of social constructions (and their intersection) such as race, ethnicity, religion, community, class, gender, age, region, sexual orientation, disability, and physicality, or the representation and framing of performances and practices in situated everyday and ceremonial lives, landscapes, groups, and settings. Related enterprises in a disciplinary view are to devote American studies to foundational ideas such as citizenship, democracy, individualism, freedom, and mobility. A summative statement of disciplinary practice is that American studies identifies and interprets themes, patterns, trends, behaviors, traditions, and ideas that characterize the United States as a nation, an experience, a rhetoric, and peoples–past, present, and future, at home and abroad (or in counterconceptualizations transcending borders), and in thought and action. In short, as a disciplinary as well as intellectual enterprise, American studies is uniquely constructed to seek an understanding of Americanness.

Simon J. Bronner


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