What is Global Studies?

Jakarta Farmers Protest, Jonathan McIntosh, 2004, CC. 2.5

What is Global Studies?

In the fields of international studies and international relations, one important term has been making its way into the vernacular for years, if not decades. This term is global studies. As individuals are continued to be engaged with studying the world, they are looking at different ways to examine how relations between various actors are taking place. Traditionally, the attention used to be given to international relations to answer these questions. But as we shall see,  fields such as international studies, and global studies began to develop, and have left their mark as it relates to how we should go about thinking of these transnational issues.

In this article, we answer this question of “What is global studies?” Related questions that students and others may often ask is, “What is the difference between international relations and global studies,” or, what is the difference between global studies and international studies.

These are important questions, and questions that we address in this article. Here, will will not only offer a definition of global studies, but also answer what is global studies, and how it fits into the social science majors. In addition, we also devote a section to a discussion about global studies jobs.

Global Studies Definition

Global Studies is a term that has been defined by a number of scholars. Here are a couple of global studies definitions.

Global studies is the study of transnational issues, and how these issues are interconnected with a variety of other issues. The definition of Global Studies includes discussions about human rights, globalization (and the effects of globalization on rights, diplomacy, the environment, conflict, etc…), along with other issues such as health, culture, economics, etc…

For example, Professor Shawn Smallman (2013), the co-author of the book International and Global Studies argues that

International and Global Studies is about globalization in all its aspects, economic, cultural, political, social and even biological. The advantage of this approach is that -since globalization is an omnipresent phenomenon- everyone can understand this definition. The challenge is that globalization is now commonly perceived in terms of economic globalization, which people associate with neoliberalism. This narrows how people view the discipline very quickly. So I try to convey that people can study flows of people and flows of information from many different vantage points, only some of which focus on economic issues. Because of globalization’s diversity as a phenomenon, it also entails a diversity of methodologies to begin to understand this process. So International and Global Studies programs are inherently multidisciplinary. In my program, a humanities professor teaches a class on the literature of espionage, while my political scientist colleague teaches about the European Union from a Political Science perspective.

What often separates international studies and global studies from international relations is that global studies tends to focus not only on nonpolitical factors related to interactions, but international and global studies tend to do it from various academic approaches. This is not to say that the role of politics is removed from global studies. That is not the case. However, what has happened is that non-state relations, as well as non-political and non-economic factors are also being looked at in global studies.

Mark Juergensmeyer (2011) argues that global studies has five key characteristics or distinctions that identify the field of global studies. He states that:

Transnational Nature of Global Studies: One of the key aspects of global studies is the transnational feature of the field. The issues examined in global studies span multiple countries, not only in terms of having a presence in multiple states, but more than that, it is the interconnectedness of the issues across borders. It is virtually impossible to study human rights, conflict, diplomacy, the environment, international law, health and human rights, refugees, the questions of asylum seekers, etc… without understanding the transnational connection and relationship that takes place with these issues. For example, looking at the work of Caribbean scholars and the relations of Caribbean issues to global studies, Slocum & Thomas (2007) have found that “attention to social and political processes, history, an active nation-state, and synergies between global and local frames. Morever, Caribbeanist research on globalization balances macrostructural accounts of the nature, extent, and force of global processes with ethnographic treatments of “globalization from below” that also emphasize how people mobilize local history and meanings to negotiate-and indeed shape-their available avenues within current configurations of global power” (560).

  1. Global Studies as an Interdisciplinary Field: Another key point in understanding what is Global Studies it to know the importune of interdisciplinary work in the field. While other fields might concentrate on issues of conflict from a political or economic perspective, international studies, and global studies look at these questions from multiple perspectives. Thus, if one wants to understand conflict, for example, not only would you look at the role of politics (and ideas of power, for example) or economics, but one would also look at any potential linkages to issues of psychology, sociology, health, law, etc… Examining contemporary issues from multiple fields allows one to gain greater insight from theories and approaches in other disciplines. This is critical, particularly since no global studies issue can be answered or completely understood merely by looking at theories and explanations of one field, without the reliance or offerings of other disciplines.
  2. The Historical, and Contemporary elements of Global Studies: While many of the global studies issues are quite contemporary and current (i.e. Syrian refugees, nuclear talks, conflict resolution, etc…), the importance of history understanding “what is global studies” is quite important. It is impossible to effectively understand global contemporary issues without a detailed working knowledge of the history of international studies or international relations. The role of imperialism, wars, conflict, peace movements, all of these go into our current understandings of global studies issues. Moreover, it is also important to note that while many give attention to global studies now–in part because of the importance of globalization, globalization has occurred in centuries past as well. As Juergensmeyer (2011) points out, one needs to know about these past events in order to better know about globalization today.
  3. The relationship to post-colonial, as well as critical studies: Global Studies has a rich history in post-colonial studies, as well as in the fields of critical studies. As it has been argued, “The postcolonial perspective of global studies is one that is viewed from many cultural perspectives. Scholars of global studies acknowledge that the perception of globalization and other global issues, activities, and trends are viewed differently from different parts of the world, and from different socioeconomic locations within it. For that reason scholars of global studies sometimes speak of “many globalizations,” or “multiple perspectives on global studies.”  This position acknowledges that there is no dominant paradigm or perspective in global studies that is valued over others” (Juergensmeyer, 2011)
  4. Global Citizenship: One of the other core characteristics of global studies is the importance of global citizenship. Individuals who are looking to understand what is global studies often are drawn to not only understanding transnational issues, but for many, there is also an importance attached to the idea of a unified world community as a whole. Individuals are not confined to the idea that no interconnectivity exists. But rather, there are attempts to understand and empathize with the experiences of others throughout the world. Their issues are often connected. We want to be better versed in what is happening in the world, and understanding the relationships between these various transnational issues.
 An inflatable boat with Syrian Refugees just arrived safely to Skala Sykamias, Lesvos island, Greece, Ggia, CC 4.0

An inflatable boat with Syrian Refugees just arrived safely to Skala Sykamias, Lesvos island, Greece, Ggia, CC 4.0

International and Global Issues

Interestingly, many in the field have been thinking a great deal about the term international studies, and some of the issues with that term, compared to global studies. International studies is quite similar to global studies in the approach to studying transnational issues. However, calling it international studies seems to suggest that the focus of the studies continues to center on the role of the state or nations. However, with the rise of globalization, and the importance of non-state actors and non-state issues, the term itself seems to not only be outdated, but also misses the inclusion of many other important non-state components of transnational issues.

Global Studies Major

Following our discussion of what is global studies, I also want to now concentrate on what a global studies major. Elsewhere in the website, there has been a discussion about the international studies major. A global studies major should have a number of components, which include courses in a variety of disciplines. Wank (2008) argues that: there are six key different “building blocks” that the global studies major can be built on. Wank (2008) emphasizes:

1. Thematic courses consider such broad frameworks as transnationalism, world systems, global history, global-local, world literature, and global intellectual history.

2. Topical courses focus on democratization, migration, media, nationalism, gender, NGOs, diaspora, food security, ethnic conflict and so on.

3. Issues courses emphasize problems requiring solutions such as environment, population, disease, disasters, genocide, human rights.

4. Training courses emphasize job-related skills in program evaluation in NGOs, managing multicultural organizations, conflict resolution.

5. Methodology courses present ways to study globalization, mostly focusing on qualitative approaches.

6. Area courses focus on specific countries and regions in globalization. (This constitutes a fruitful overlap with Area Studies curriculums).

These sorts of concentrations are important, not only for learning about global issues, but also as it relates to establishing effective global studies policy (for work on global policy studies, see Soros, 1990).

When looking at some of these categories listed for foundations of the global studies major, it is clear that there is not a clear consensus on what should be offered for such a major. For example, some of these categories under the global studies major continue to be refined and reworked by scholars in the field. For example, one of the most recently discussed foundational blocks that is now being re-evaluated is point six, which is the the idea of area studies courses within global studies. Traditionally, international studies, while focusing on other factors (and not just politics or economics, for example), continued to categorize the world in these different “areas.” However, as global studies continues to concentrate on transnational issues, there are calls to minimize the importance of area-specific courses, and instead develop more transnational courses in this major. Part of the reason for this shift is that there are just less and less issues (and courses) that solely concentrate on one country, or one region, for that matter. Take most of the global studies issues, and what one finds is that few can be understood by solely looking at one region, for example.

Of course, it is fine that students and scholars may want to specialize their academic studies in one region. And that is why eliminating such a category entirely might not serve the goals or interests of everyone in the field of global studies. But the global studies major continues to be moving away from area studies, and more towards these transnational courses and issues.

Global Studies Jobs

Related to the question “What is Global Studies,” others have also asked what sorts of global studies jobs exist for those looking to enter this particular field. As I have discussed elsewhere (in our conversations about international relations jobs), there are a number of global studies careers and jobs for those interested in working on these transnational issues. For example, global studies jobs can include working for an international organization–on issues such as health and human rights, migrant issues, or someone can work at a refugee camp.

Others looking for global studies jobs might be more interested in international law, international human rights law, or diplomacy as it relates to nuclear non-proliferation negotiators. Furthermore, some have looked at global studies jobs with an eye on the environment, thus working for a conservation organization, or advocating for environmental rights through organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, or as an advocate pushing for a climate change agreement at the United Nations.

The opportunities and possibilities as it relates to the different careers in global studies is vast. There are many different ways that someone can connect their interests in transnational global studies issues to a direct job in global studies.

Scholars such as Iva Bozovic (2007) point out that there are many reasons why someone would be interested in a career in global studies. Bozovic writes that:

The allure of a Global Studies program for a future professorial career lies in its promise to encourage and reward truly entrepreneurial and interdisciplinary scholarship. In line with Schumpeter’s conception of an entrepreneur as an innovator, Global Studies scholars are challenged to “carry out new combinations” in the crowded academic “markets” by introducing new research questions that demand alternative theories and new methods (or that employ existing tools in new directions) in order to offer alternative structures for the production of knowledge. According to Ronald Burt, such entrepreneurs are individuals who can broker across the structural holes that exist between bodies of ideas. While the ideas and opinions are likely to be homogeneous within groups, individuals who are connected to multiple groups across structural holes offer alternative and innovative points of view or, as Burt put it, “good ideas.” Global Studies programs, it seems, wish to capitalize on these ideas by bringing together scholars that are breaking away from the confines or loyalties of their respective disciplines, motivated solely by the thematic goals of understanding the needs and challenges of an integrated world society (Global E-Journal, 2007).


As we see, Global Studies is a field focused on the study of transnational issues, and the interaction of various international actors. International and Global studies emphasize learning about these transnational issues from an interdisciplinary perspective. Furthermore, we discussed the details within the global studies definition, as well as global studies jobs for those interested in pursuing this work as a career option. Lastly, we want to leave you with  a video of a discussion on the topics such as “What is Global Studies,” “How has Global Studies developed,” and “What is the direction of Global Studies.” We hope that this page has been helpful in answering the question “What is global studies.”

We will continue to update this page, along with others on the website, so that you continue to receive up-to-date information and discussion about the global studies field, as well as international relations.

Global Studies References

Bozovic, I. (2007). Interdisciplinary Prospects in Global Studies. Global-E: A Global Studies Journal, Vol. 1.  Available Online: http://global-ejournal.org/2007/05/15/bozovic/

Juergensmeyer, M. (2011). What is Global Studies? Global-E: A Global Studies Journal Vol. 5. Available Online:

Slocum, K. & Thomas, D. A. (2007). Rethinking Global and Area Studies: Insights from Caribbean Anthropology. American Anthropologist, Vol. 105, No. 3, pages 553-565.

Smallman, S. (2013). What is International and Global Studies? November 16th, 2013. Available Online: http://introtoglobalstudies.com/2013/11/what-is-international-or-global-studies/

Soros, M. (1990). A Theoretical Framework for Global Policy Studies. International Political Science Review.

Wank, D.L. (2008). Is Global Studies a Field? (Part 2). Global-E: A Global Studies Journal, Vol. 2. Available Online: http://global-ejournal.org/2008/08/29/is-global-studies-a-field-part-2/

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