The Development of American Studies : New Method and New Context of American Studies

The Development of American Studies : New Method and

New Context of American Studies

Tori Nuariza Sutanto


            Basically, American Studies explores United States of America through its history, diverse culture and global role. American studies is different than another degree of courses because it combines a number of subjects including history, sociology, politic, literature and etc, also studies a broad range of topics. The major contribution of American studies is the way to look in multiple aspect because in understanding America should be used multiple aspect in viewing. Thus, It needs interdisciplinary approaches to value the nations complexity engaging with historical, political, social, and other perspectives. American studies sees what kind of society represents and what culture shaped in a way to discover through the ‘text’ and reveals the context. Through the context, the American studies scholars search for the identity, meaning and its impact toward the society. Since meaning is socially constructed by individual through interactions and the reality is not the fixed, single, agreed and a measurable phenomenon, Thus there are multiple constructions and interpretations of reality in which continously changes over time. Therefore, American Studies employs qualitative research. According to Patton (1990) qualitative research is an effort to understand situations in their uniqueness as part of a particular context and the interactions there. Concerning to the goals of American studies scholars in which searches for identity, meaning, and its impact toward society, the use of qualitative research significantly contributes to the understanding of what the nature of American society and character, what is going on with the American reception toward such a propaganda, what their reaction toward the U.S government policies, what actually the world looks like in the new political trends of American society, and etc. In this way, American studies strives for depth of understanding with the scrutinizing multiple aspect and freely playing on interpretations.


Trends in American Studies

               At the very beginning of emerging of American Studies, It can be considered a political movement rather than intellectual movement since it struggled for finding its national identity. Who are We?, Where are We heading?, Who is American, What is America. Jay Guerian (1969) stated American Studies recapitulates America in revealing ways, it began as  revolts against the established order, the Old World, and contested the Old World with a new and better order. First phase of American studies focuses on the study of usable past through the history, fables of its past, politic, economic ways, character which concludes seeking for the national identity. According to Gene Wise, Scholars from University of Maryland, The initial stage of American Studies history comes to consciousness during the Progressive Era in the Twentieth Century, and later on the seed of ideas can be found in 30s and 40s that supported to articulate the movement. Vermon Louis Parrington initially constructed an immensely usable past of America which is not only to make the past relevant to the urgency of the present but also triggered in offering a way to create order and direction from masses of disparate materials on the whole history of American experience. This kind of way to integrate contributes to the emerging of American Studies. Until the 50s, the institutionalization of the movement began, than the term ‘American Studies became popular as efforts to structure the new ways to study and teach about American experience. For that reason, the writer agreed that American Studies basically was a political movement rather than intellectual movement even though the way to seek and discover the past-present-future can be considered as an act of intellectual.

               Some scholars from University of Richmond stated that the next stage of American Studies led to the interest of combining the study of history and literature into an unified methodology that defined essential American character traits. Thus, the ideas of what we called the ‘myths’ and ‘symbols’ were becoming important for understanding the designed and set of American experience. Myth and symbols exist in a different place from empirical fact. Fact have a specific spatio-temporal location in the context of space and time, while symbols have a place in the mind. This uniqueness of America is inevitably because of the myth and symbols. Myth in the framework of American Studies is not considered as a legendary story but Myth under the American Studies is a fake fact, since it is tamed historical experience, fixed, and satisfying by conditioned the myth repeatedly told again and again from one generation to another generation to normalize its into the social life. For instance, Myth in the U.S offers symbol of modern life even though living in the U.S is hard with a bunch of expensive tax, school fees, expensive health care services and etc. The state of mind of American conditioned into the fake of modern life symbol ; cars, good apartments, technologies, and so on.

               The writer here finds that American studies always follow the current trends. U.S in the 50s and 60s changed in terms of individualism, self-continue, and self-respect as the advancement of modernity influenced the American society. The emerging of middle class forced the changing of social stratification. American Studies here existed to contest the ideas within what happening of American society. Therefore, the use of Myth and Symbol analysis to scrutinize and criticize became relevant.

               During the 1960s and 1970s, the American Studies began in exploring issues of dissent and diversity since the American society engaged with the issues of race, gender, and class. American Studies scholars unavoidably followed the trends that it affects their work that highlighted the current political, cultural, and social  issues. In this way, American studies developed strong sense of social justice and civic engagement.  

               In the 1990s, the American Studies felt new direction of the field toward the politics of culture. The emerging of popular culture led the marxist and feminist categories of scrutinizing developed into analysis. The trend of study of popular culture including low-high culture, literature, folklore, music, film, and so on,  expanded the wide range areas of American Studies in which force to the use of new number subjects ; film and literature studies, urban studies, gender studies, ethnic studies, and etc. As the current world nowadays engages with the globalization issues, American studies also responds it. The beginning of 21st century marked the student of American Studies to confront new topics such as diasporic cultures, border-crossing identities and impact of postmodern approach. This state of condition force the American Studies scholars to develop its method and context.

               The changing of trends in American Studies presented above that simply as a consequence of the dynamics of cultural, political, and social trends within American society. The writer here would like to draw the stages in the American studies in a way of offering the urgency of New American Studies. First, at the very beginning American studies emerged to reveal ‘usable past’ to find the national identity and character through history that shaped American experience. Second, the stage of American Studies was the intellectual history as a result it studied the American Intellectual history ; puritanism, Transcendentalism, enlightment, rationalism, naturalism, and etc. The map of American Intellectual history present a way of understanding American thought and ideology. Third, American Studies stage was Myth and Symbol studies, as the tamed of historical experience extremely affected the way how American lives. Those three stage of American Studies enriches the finding of American national identity uniqueness, and character.Next, the fourth stage of American Studies was the Myth to Rhetorics. Myth to Rhetorics responded the development of American Studies. It is a one way to characterize new generation. The background of complexity of America led the use of Myth to unify the American as a nations. Myth used as a unifying force ; myth of the west, puritan missions, and frontier myth. The role of American literature that  tamed the myth, transfered into the American  University. This condition inevitably kept the state of mind of American.    


New American Studies Method and Context            

            Sociologically, Society is always changing and culturally is liquid. Society always change as the changing of  Eras, times, trends, and needs. Society differs in terms of geographic, belief, myth, demographic, and culture. American Society merely faced the context of society above. The object of American studies is the American society, in this way American studies must follow the changing of American society also. What the writer explained above in the American studies trends clearly show the need of new American studies.

The discourse of American studies new method emerged since Henry Nash Smith (1957), a Harvard graduated scholars, stated the need of new perspetive. Henry Nash Smith wrote that

‘to find out what was happening to the man and to the society we have to ask questions which lead simultenouly to literary analysis and to analysis of social change’  (Henry Nash Smith, 1957 :199, “Can American Studies develop a method?” American Quarterly)

He has been confronted the literary criticism and social sciences. He found that the problem of trend of literary  studies would loose from social facts. For that reason, Smith insisted that the development of a method for American studies was bound up with an effort to resolve the dilemma posed by the dualism which separates social facts from esthetic values. Smith proposes the method of American studies that can be bridged the literary criticism and social science.  This implies the sustained effort of student of literature to take account of sociological, historical, and anthropological data, and methods, and the sociologist or historian to take account of data and methods in the field of arts. What Henry Nash Smith proposal merely widening the boundaries imposed by the convention methods of inquiry. This unique of American studies collaborates interdisciplinary studies that quite compatible to analyze the American culture past and present.

            Unlike Henry Nash Smith that propose and emphasize the need of new method of American studies, Robert F. Berkhofer Jr, scholars from University of Michigan, proposed the need of new context of American Studies. As what the writer explained above, The current trend of American studies forces the use of new context because of the object of American society changes too. Robert starts from the idea that new subject matter and new terminology in American studies indicate at first a new approach to American studies.

The concern with myths, symbols and images, which marked the classical period of American studies, has given way to an overwhelming interest in class, ethnicity, race, and gender. Such once popular terms as paradox, ambiguity, irony have been replaced by domination, hegemony, and empowerment. The definition of culture has changed from one stressing ecclesticism but unity to one emphasizing division and opposition. (Robert. F. Bekhofer Jr, 1989 : 588-589, A New Context for A New American Studies? ,American Quarterly volume 41)

Like what Robert stated above that the Myth and symbols shifted to the new popular terms as domination, hegemony, and empowerment. This shifting led to the new way of contextualization, therefore the American studies need a new context. Robert strengthen his arguments by classifying the three categories of context. Simply, It classify into general context, intertextuality, and extra-textuality. Next, Robert states that the new cultural studies seek to fuse cultural and political critique in practice through contextualization. The aim of combining cultural and political critique is not new but its current vitality represents a new phase in American studies. Robert questioning about the need of renew emphasis on ideology in the past leads to the new contextualization in the present.

             The writer here would like to draw that what Robert Bekhofer Jr (1989) arguments are relevant nowadays, since current world today engages with globalization and postmodern issues. The changing trends of American studies in the beginning of 21st century also marked the relevance of new context in American studies because student of American studies confront new topics such as diasporic cultures and border-crossing identities. Also American studies movement in the writer opinion has been entered the postmodern phase of deconstructing the grand narratives. Therefore, American studies engagement with post-structuralist, post-Marxist, post feminist, post-historicist theory and practice is unavoidable.


American Studies Scholars Mission Sacree

            Henry Nash Smith assumes that social scientist views all values in the society implicitly through social experience in group behaviour, in institutions, in man as an average numbers of society, while literary critics views all values outside the society, in works of arts which exist in our actual experience. In contrast to both, American studies scholars views the society through the text from cultural works, arts, and artifacts that presents meaning within context. For that reason, American studies scholars have new research results that differs their research toward both literary critics and social scientist. American studies scholars merely have given a new insights, new mirror, and new meaning that clearly answered the identity. Thus,  by giving a new insights and mirror, American studies scholars can enlight the state of mind of others, perhaps it will be the mission sacree of American studies scholars.



Bekhofer Jr, Robert. F. (1989). “A New Context of a New American Studies”. American Quarterly Volume 41, 588-613

Fisher, Philip. (Ed). (1991). “The New American Studies :Essays from Representations”. California University of Press.

Fisher, Philip. (1991). “The New American Studies : From Myth to Rhetorics”.

Gurian, Jay. (1969, Spring). “American Studies and the Creative Present”.Midcontinent American Studies Journal

Kuklick, Bruce. (1972). “Myth and Symbol in American Studies”. American Quarterly Volume 24.

Patton, Michael Quinn. (1990). “Qualitative Evaluation and Reseach Methods”. Sage Publications

Smith, Henry Nash. (1957). “Can American Studies develop a method ?”. American Quarterly Volume 9, 197-208.

Spiller, Robert.E. (1973, Dec). “Unity and Diversity in the Study of American Culture : The American Studies Association Perspective. American Quarterly Volume 25, 611-618.

Sykes, Richard.E. (1963). “American Studies and the Concept of Culture :A Theory and Method”. American Quarterly Volume 15, 253-270.

Maddox, Lucy.(Ed).(1999). “Locating American Studies : The Evolution of A Discipline”. John Hopkins University Press

Wise, Gene. 1999. “Paradigm Dramas” In American Studies : A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement”


Tinggalkan Balasan

Isikan data di bawah atau klik salah satu ikon untuk log in:


You are commenting using your account. Logout /  Ubah )

Foto Google+

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Logout /  Ubah )

Gambar Twitter

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Logout /  Ubah )

Foto Facebook

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Logout /  Ubah )


Connecting to %s