California Studies Association

The latest news, events, and perspectives from the CSA


What is California Studies?

A central question for anyone dealing with California as a distinctive entity and wishing to make the case for the value of such work against the indifference of so much conventional thinking, in and out of the academy.

For a classic discussion of the matter, see Jeff Lustig’s report on California Studies in the State University system , written in 1988.

Here is one short answer, by Richard Walker (Professor Emeritus of Geography, UC Berkeley):

Why study any place, California or any other?

The problem is no more or less than the study of, say, ‘The United States’ or ‘France’. These are places, but they are taken as givens because they are nation-states. No one doubts that there is good reason to study them. California is only a subnational state & region. Yet some regions, like the American South, have a long and distinguished tradition of historiography and regional studies, without being national states. Why can’t California?

Of course, one could argue that a true discipline is only defined by a key, universal dimension of social life, like sociology or economics or politics/government, or even geography, and a set of theories and methods pertaining to each. Area Studies have always had an uphill fight against this sort of definition of proper disciplines. Oddly, the same question can be put to History and any subfield of history, like the history of an epoch such as ‘Colonial’ or ‘Medieval’ history. It’s just a matter of a slice of time, rather than a slice of space. So what’s the subject? or the theory?

Still, I don’t think that ‘the economy’ or ‘class/stratification’ or ‘politics’ are necessarily more vital topics of study than ‘the United States’ or ‘The European World System’ or ‘China’ — it’s just different ways of slicing the Big Apple of human life. And, of course, we’ve discovered in recent years that other topics, such as race, gender, cities and environment are worthy of disciplines and departments, expanding the range of the social sciences beyond the old disciplines.

Of course, some of the key theories of modern life have been posed in terms of the classic disciplinary subjects, and the new disciplines and various ‘studies’ have to prove themselves worthy of being taken seriously by showing that their angle on the world generates key insights. But they shouldn’t be written off a priori. Certainly, race and gender studies have shown their worth in recent years, despite much denigration from the Old Guard disciplines.

So the main thing California studies has going against it is a century of disciplinary tradition that deems regions a lowly form of academic study and a spotty record of producing great work. Still, the fact that so many people worldwide have read Mike Davis on L.A., Annalee Saxenian on Silicon Valley, or Randy Shilts on gay San Francisco ought to show that studying California is not just a localist prejudice, but might be worthy of serious consideration in the wider academic world.

California Studies in the Universities

Jeff Lustig, Report on California Studies in the California State University System (1988).

California Studies in Higher Education
(compiled by California Studies program, San Francisco State University, c 2005)

California Studies online syllabi
(compiled by California Studies program, San Francisco State University, c 2005)

(historians’ list-serve on California)

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