A welcome collision of continents

June 4, 2004

Merging two London institutes to form a centre for the study of the Americas will allow scholars to explore novel comparisons and connections across a hemisphere, says Huw Richards

Little is more calculated to raise academic suspicion than the proposed merger of two institutions. An instinctive first assumption, based on a fair amount of experience over the past couple of decades, is that financial or bureaucratic convenience is being served ahead of academic priorities.

Such suspicions are redoubled when the smaller of those institutions, the Institute of United States Studies, was saved from closure a dozen years back only by a brouhaha whose participants included the US Embassy and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The University of London also went into the decisive committee meeting on the future of the IUSS late last year with a report from a review body chaired by Tony Badger, a Cambridge professor, that broadly backed retaining its autonomy.

Yet in August, the IUSS and the Institute of Latin American Studies will merge to form the Institute for the Study of the Americas, under the directorship of James Dunkerley, the ILAS chief. Cue, one might expect, howls of affront from Grosvenor Square, but Dennis Wolf, cultural attache at the US Embassy, says: "We're very concerned that there should be a centre for the study of the US in London, and that these studies should be both protected and promoted. Of course we'll be watching what happens very closely, but we've been kept in touch with developments and we're comfortable with what we're seeing."

His chief source of reassurance is the appointment of two new chairs in American studies. The IUSS had just one full-time academic. At the same time, Dunkerley points out: "Latin American studies won't be losing out. Resources there will be ring-fenced."

It would have been possible to appoint two chairs and keep the IUSS independent, supplying necessary energy and resources to US studies without prompting the wary response from specialist academic communities. But there are sound scholarly reasons for not doing so, argue Dunkerley and Graeme Davies, London's vice-chancellor. Dunkerley points out that existing structures excluded some parts of the Americas: "They left out Canada and took little account of the Spanish-speaking population in the US - between them accounting for about 80 million people. And we've never really given the Caribbean sufficient attention."

Moreover, some disciplines important to area studies do not regard political boundaries as useful definitions for their activities. "Neither archaeology nor social anthropology has much use for them," Dunkerley says.

Davies adds: "Given the choice between replicating what happens elsewhere and doing something new and different, my preference is always for something new. Both existing institutes are remarkably valuable resources, but it was a matter of thinking what would be useful five to ten years ahead and getting into the vanguard."

Much will remain as before - the three masters courses in Latin American studies, which attract 75 students a year, existing seminar and publications programmes and, most important, the role played by the institutes within London's Schools of Advanced Studies as international drop-in centres and network hubs for practitioners in their subjects. "We want people to drop in and talk about their work," says Dunkerley, who emphasises that many a useful research project or collaboration develops from such serendipitous contact.

But the broader ambitions of the new institute are symbolised in its name and keynote programme. Dunkerley says: "The plural in 'Americas' is a challenge to stereotypes on both sides." A masters programme in comparative American studies will be offered from the autumn of 2005.

Dunkerley says: "We don't expect it to be very big at first - maybe ten to 12 students - and we're aware that we might suffer initially for being ahead of the field. It will be the first course of its type in Europe - Warwick University runs an undergraduate programme, but hasn't so far offered a masters." What it, and the new institution, reflect is the extent to which the worlds covered by the two existing institutes affect each other: "There's no reason why you shouldn't be interested in both Ecuador and East Lansing (Michigan), and we'll offer the place to study both," Dunkerley says. He hopes, too, that academic visitor programmes, particularly well established at ILAS, will bring in scholars whose interests span the divide.

And while the US studies community may look with a touch of wariness at Dunkerley, firmly rooted in Latin American studies and director of ILAS for the past six years, his own interests equip him well for keeping the wider picture in view. Among his publications is Americana (2000), a comparative examination of the Americas in the 1850s.

He points to the extensive interconnections between the Latin and US worlds, both historically and contemporaneously: "Large parts of the US were initially colonised by Spain and remained parts of Mexico until 1848 - and the outcome of the war that led to their changing hands was far from a foregone conclusion. The difference between the two was one of quality of leadership rather than of technology. It is one of the great hypotheticals in history to wonder what might have happened if the war had followed a different course, or if gold had not been discovered in California so soon after the war. At the very least, the history of Texas could have been very different."

Rather better known is the rapid growth in the Spanish-speaking population of the US. Dunkerley points out: "There are now more Spanish speakers in the US than there are in Spain, many of them now outside the areas that were initially colonised by Spain. Hispanics have overtaken African-Americans as the largest ethnic minority, a development of immense historic significance, and are expected to go on growing in number until 2050. You can now say that while Wasps (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) still control 95 per cent of the influence inside the Washington Beltway, they are now only about one in five of the population."

The impact of this change is the subject of vigorous academic speculation. Ilan Stavans, a one-man Institute of the Americas in himself as a Mexican Jew who occupies a chair at Amherst College, Massachusetts, looks forward to the creation of a Spanish-English composite tongue that can act as argot for much of the world. At the same time, Harvard professor Samuel Huntingdon's latest attempt to identify the coming apocalypse, Who Are We?, homes in on "the dominance among immigrants of speakers, largely Mexican, of a single non-English language (a phenomenon without precedent in American history), with the resulting tendencies toward the transformation of America into a bilingual, bicultural society." While not agreeing with Huntingdon, Dunkerley points to his value as a provocateur in debate and feeder "of the voracious academic appetite for big ideas".

He notes that migrant populations continue to have an impact on their nations of origin as well, particularly through money sent back to families: "Central America may have dropped off the map compared with the attention that it received while wars were going on in the 1980s, but the fate of those states is very largely wrapped up with that of the US, not because of political intervention but because of the remittances from emigrants that have kept them going."

The same is true of a state such as the Dominican Republic - which attracts notice only through the huge contribution of its natives to top-flight baseball; when its next-door neighbour, Haiti, undergoes one of its periodic convulsions; or when natural disaster such as the recent flood strikes. "Dominican politics are probably more influenced from New York than they are from within the country," Dunkerley says.

None of these trans-American issues will or should divert scholars pursuing productive careers studying either the US or Latin America, he emphasises. But there is a whole landmass of underexplored comparisons and connections to be examined, shedding fresh light on both parts - not to mention Canada and the Caribbean.

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