American studies or American civilization is an interdisciplinary field dealing with the study of the United States. It traditionally incorporates the study of history, literature, and critical theory, but also includes fields as diverse as law, art, the media, film, religious studies, urban studies, women’s studies, gender studies, anthropology, sociology, African American studies, Chicano studies, Asian American studies, American Indian studies, foreign policy and culture of the United States, among other fields.
American civilization may also mean the United States, and its culture and people.
Vernon Louis Parrington is often cited as the founder of American studies for his three-volume Main Currents in American Thought, which combines the methodologies of literary criticism and historical research; it won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize. In the introduction to Main Currents in American Thought, Parrington described his field:
- I have undertaken to give some account of the genesis and development in American letters of certain germinal ideas that have come to be reckoned traditionally American—how they came into being here, how they were opposed, and what influence they have exerted in determining the form and scope of our characteristic ideals and institutions. In pursuing such a task, I have chosen to follow the broad path of our political, economic, and social development, rather than the narrower belletristic.
The “broad path” that Parrington describes formed a scholastic course of study for Henry Nash Smith, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard’s interdisciplinary program in “History and American Civilization” in 1940, setting an academic precedent for present-day American Studies programs.
The first signature methodology of American studies was the “myth and symbol” approach, developed in such foundational texts as Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land in 1950 and Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden in 1964. Myth and symbol scholars claimed to find certain recurring themes throughout American texts that served to illuminate a unique American culture. Later scholars such as Annette Kolodny and Alan Trachtenberg re-imagined the myth and symbol approach in light of multicultural studies.
Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, these earlier approaches were criticized for continuing to promote the idea of American exceptionalism—the notion that the US has had a special mission and virtue that makes it unique among nations. Several generations of American Studies scholars have critiqued this ethnocentric view, and have focused critically on issues of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and both transnational and international concerns.
Institutionally, in the last decade the American Studies Association has reflected the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the field, creating particularly strong connections to other interdisciplines such as ethnic studies, gender studies, cultural studies and post- or de-colonial studies. Another major theme of the field in recent years has been internationalization—the recognition that much vital scholarship about the US and its relations to the wider global community has been and is being produced outside the United States.
Associations and scholarly journals
The American Studies Association was founded in 1950. It publishes American Quarterly, which has been the primary outlet of American Studies scholarship since 1949. The second-largest American Studies journal, American Studies, is sponsored by the Mid-America American Studies Association and University of Kansas.
- Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline, edited by Lucy Maddox, Johns Hopkins University Press 1998, ISBN 0-8018-6056-3
- The Futures of American Studies, edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman, Duke University Press 2002, ISBN 0-8223-2965-4
- American Studies in a Moment of Danger, George Lipsitz, University of Minnesota Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8166-3949-3
- “American Studies at a Crossroads” http://ragazine.cc/2011/12/discourse-american-studies/
- Winfried Fluck. Theories of American Culture, Theories of American Studies. ISBN 3-8233-4173-1. Retrieved 2011-06-21.