Background and Scope of the Project

Background and Scope of the Project

A new research initiative on world regions and civilizations was jointly launched by CIRS and the Stony Brook Institute for Global Studies (SBIGS). Integration of social theory and regional studies is a major project of SBIGS, and the pioneering volume on this subject, Social Theory and Regional Studies in the Global Age has just been published in the Institute’s Pangaea II: Global/Local Studies with SUNY Press. This volume highlighted the promise of civilizational analysis/multiple modernities, and within it, singled out two concepts for further analysis: that of world regions and regional unity, on the one hand, and the civilizational constituents of power and the geopolitics of regional divides, on the other.

Just like world religions and civilizations, the concept of “region” or “world region” refers to loosely integrated unities that are sub‑global and yet transcend society and the nation‑state. In this sense, we can speak of regional paths of development and modernization, and even of regional varieties of capitalism, each with a distinctive culture of capitalism. The construction of regional identities is a global and historical and interactive process that is set in motion by and in turn shapes the pattern of regional reorientation following major world historical events such as the Mongol invasion and World War II. As collective identity is indeterminate and multiple, regions formed on its basis can be overlapping and shifting.

The classic essays on geopolitics in the first years of the twentieth century, F. Ratzel’s Lebensraum (1901) and H. Mackinder’s “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904), made the geography of world regions central to political science. In 1916, Radhakamal Mukerjee proposed the “region” as the appropriate unit of analysis in The Foundations of Indian Economics. A year later, he “emphasized the essential need for Regional Economics” as the foundation for “General Economics.” As the region was, for Mukerjee, a geographical, economic, social, and cultural complex, he proceeded in the following decades from economic regionalism to comparative sociology, publishing Regional Sociology (1926) and The Regional Balance of Man: An Ecological Theory of Population (1938). His sociological conceptualization of the region presented it as a dynamic field of interplay between environment and culture. The region is thus a “configuration,” an intricate network of interrelations. Under the impact of globalization some three‑quarters of a century later, dealing with world regions is back on the agenda of metropolitan social theory. Notable among the more recent elaborations of the concept of world regions as the intervening institutional order between the aging nation‑states and the vigorously evolving world society is Peter Katzenstein’s work.

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations (1996) was a significant attempt to highlight the close connection between culture and power in geopolitics, his thesis being that the end of the bipolar world system replaced the clash of ideologies by a clash of civilizations. By contrast, in A World of Regions. Asia and Europe in the American Imperium (2005), Peter Katzenstein  argued that with the collapse of communism, disintegration of the Soviet Union (the so-called Second World), and the concomitant disappearance of the Third World, the arena of world politics changes from bipolar blocs to new regional orders of greatly varying cultural coherence, economic integration and legal and political institutional structures. Both authors acknowledge that civilizations and world regions existed long before the half century of the bipolar world system, and both highlight differences among world regions and civilizational zones and challenge the assumption of increasing convergence and uniform modernization in a world of nation-states.

Huntington’s fundamental misconception was the reification of civilizations as monolithic and unchanging entities. In fact, civilizations are porous and in constant interaction. Like civilizations, world regions have a historic trajectory with changing configurations of loosely integrated elements, and they are porous and interact. Furthermore, their emergence and decline are often connected with the rise and decline of civilizations, with the rise and fall of empires and formation of successor states, and with the expansion and contraction of markets and international trade. Examples of regions that are primarily civilizational zones are the Hellenistic ecumene, the Sanskrit Cosmopolis (400-1400), to use Sheldon Pollock’s felicitous concept, the Persianate world (900-1900); and examples of world regions created by empires are China, the Roman Empire around Mare Nostra (the Mediterranean), the British and French colonial empires in Asia and Africa, and most recently, the North Atlantic community; and an example of economically driven regional formation is the European Union that grew out of the European Coal and Steel and the Common Market.

As a world region the Middle East and North Africa has been the cradle of civilizations and empires and of the Abrahamic religions. As such, it is crucial region for examining the very idea of a region in comparative perspective, constituted by its historical, civilizational, and religious continuity, and for a comparative understanding of the Islamicate legitimation as well as its transmutations of power. With its obvious interest in the Middle East and North Africa, CIRS shares the SBIGS’ interests in this area of inquiry, and welcomes this opportunity to bring the two institutions together to work on this research initiative.         

At the high of the Islamicate civilization in 765, the `Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur built the City of Peace (madinat al-salām), commonly known by its former Persian name as Baghdad (god-given), at the center of what he took to be the civilized world. Medieval Muslim historians and geographers occasionally referred to our region as the “middle of the earth/world,” but the most common terms were the Maghreb and the Mashreq—and “the middle of the Mashreq” could be used for Khorasan and Transoxania. Terms such as “the Nearer East,” “the middle Orient” gained currency in the context of the so-called Eastern Question, which was the question of the slow disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The Balkans tended to be included in these terms and certainly in “the Eastern Question.” The Near East and the Middle East gained currency in early twentieth century. The idea of the Arab world (as opposed to the Abode of Islam (dār al-islām) is still more recent and could only emerge as a geo-political entity after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and acquired greater purchase after the creation of the state of Israel.

Amongst other topics to be addressed through this research initiative are:

  • A Pangaean Approach to World Regions
  • The Islamicate civilization and the Persianate world
  • The Islamicate Ecumene in MENA and South Asia before Colonial Empires and Nation-States
  • The Arab World and the Middle East as overlapping world regions
  • The Middle East and international relations theory
  • Central Eurasia as a World Region