American studies or American civilization is an interdisciplinary field of scholarship that examines American history, society, and culture. It traditionally incorporates the study of history, literature, and critical theory, but also welcomes research methods from a variety of other disciplines.
Scholarship in American studies has most often concerned the United States. In the past decades, however, it has also sought to study other nations and territories in the Americas, as well as American interactions with countries across the globe. Subjects studied within the field are varied, but often examine the histories of American communities, ideologies, or cultural productions. Examples might include topics in American social movements, literature, media, tourism, folklore, and intellectual history.
Fields studying specific American ethnic or racial groups are considered to be both independent of and included within the broader American studies discipline. This includes African American studies, Latin American studies, Asian American studies, American Indian studies, and others.
The first signature methodology of American studies was the “myth and symbol” approach, developed in such foundational texts as Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land in 1950 and Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden in 1964. Myth and symbol scholars claimed to find certain recurring themes throughout American texts that served to illuminate a unique American culture. Later scholars such as Annette Kolodny and Alan Trachtenberg re-imagined the myth and symbol approach in light of multicultural studies.
Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, these earlier approaches were criticized for continuing to promote the idea of American exceptionalism—the notion that the US has had a special mission and virtue that makes it unique among nations. Several generations of American Studies scholars have critiqued this ethnocentric view, and have focused critically on issues of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and both transnational and international concerns.
Institutionally, in the last decade the American Studies Association has reflected the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of the field, creating particularly strong connections to other interdisciplines such as ethnic studies, gender studies, cultural studies and post- or de-colonial studies. Environmental perspectives, in ascendance in related fields, such as literature and history, have not penetrated the mainstream of American studies scholarship. A major theme of the field in recent years has been internationalization—the recognition that much vital scholarship about the US and its relations to the wider global community has been and is being produced outside the United States.