Area studies are sometimes framed as focused on specific localities, rooted in deep linguistic, cultural and historical knowledge, and hence empirically rich but, as a result, as yielding non-transferable/non-translatable findings and hence as theoretically poor. In Europe and North America some social science disciplines like sociology, economics and political science routinely dismiss any reference to local specifics as parochial “noise” interfering with their universalizing pretensions which in reality obscure their own Euro-American parochialism. For more qualitatively oriented disciplines like history, anthropology and cultural studies the inherent non-universality of (geographically constricted) area studies presents a predicament which is increasingly fought out by resorting to philosophical concepts which usually have a Eurocentric pedigree. In this paper, however, I argue that concepts with arguably European pedigree – like religion, culture, identity, heritage and art – travel around the world and are adopted through vernacular discourses that are specific to locally inflected histories and cultural contexts by annexing existing vocabularies as linguistic vehicles. In the process, these vernacularized “universal” concepts acquire different meanings or connotations, and can be used as powerful devices in local discursive fields.
The study of these processes offer at once a powerful antidote against simplistic notions of “global”/”universal” and “local,” and a potential corrective to localizing parochialism and blindly Eurocentric universalism. I develop this substantive argument with reference to my own professional, disciplinary and theoretical trajectory as an anthropologist and historian focusing on Vietnam, who used that experience – and the empirical puzzles and wonder encountered – in order to develop theoretical interests and questions that became the basis for larger-scale, comparative research projects in Japan, China, India, South Africa, Brazil and Europe. The subsequent challenge is to bring the results of such larger, comparative research “home” to Vietnam in a meaningful way, and thus overcome the limitations of both area studies and Eurocentric disciplines.