Cold Wars and the Academy

Updated: Dec 4, 2018

Article / I discuss the oral history project for the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.

The Russian Institute (now the Harriman Institute) was founded in 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, at a time when U.S. government officials were struggling to understand their new Soviet adversaries and pushing for more experts on the region. The Institute’s creation was grounded in a partnership between government and academia. It was also the first manifestation of the area studies model—interdisciplinary research concentrated on one geographical area.

Over the decades, the rise of think tanks and the prevalence of regional experts within government agencies eroded the relationship between government and academia, and diminished the influence of area studies in the policy-making world. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, a growing number of academics began to question the value of area studies altogether.

The focus shifted from the perceived threat of the Soviet Union to the anticipated democratic transition of former Soviet republics and satellites. Meanwhile academics became increasingly absorbed in their disciplines. Political scientists, in particular, gravitated toward quantitative methods and sought out theories they could apply universally rather than from a regional perspective. For many, the regional and interdisciplinary approach of area studies seemed outmoded, particularly in the context of globalization, and institutions like the Harriman Institute had to determine their roles in this new context.

Read the article in the Fall 2018 issue of Harriman Magazine.