Between Tradition and Modernity: India’s Emergence in American Scholarship in the Interwar Period

Authors: Ishan Ashutosh*, Indiana University
Topics: Historical Geography, Political Geography, Third World
Keywords: Historical Geography, Area Studies, South Asia, United States
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Embassy Room, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper examines the emergence of India as a site in American scholarship during the interwar period. The First World War violently unleashed a new ordering of the world underwritten by what Timothy Mitchell (2003) called a ‘civilizational anxiety’ that beset Western powers. The study of non-Western societies became of increasing importance and what concerned scholars and state officials alike were the transformations of traditional societies brought about by the colonial rule. As scholars in the United States interrogated their inadequate knowledge of foreign areas, a problem that in time would prompt the creation of Area Studies programs during the Cold War, a range of institutions, such as the Advanced Council of Learned Societies (1919), Council on Foreign Relations (1921), and the Social Science Research Council (1923), were established. These institutions were designed to guide scholarship and policymaking in an attempt to create an ideologically coherent American foreign policy. Even existing scholarly institutions underwent a marked change during this time. Across these organizations, the study of India, emerged and in which some of the enduring tropes about India – as a land of contrasts, as caught between tradition and modernity, were articulated. As I argue, India became the stage for the scholarly battle between humanities oriented and social scientific conceptions of the region.

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