In geographic research, the Indian Ocean first started to play a crucial role in the works of Friedrich Ratzel, the founder of the field of Anthropogeography . Trying to reconstruct the diffusion of African bows, the connections between Indonesia, Polynesia and Africa became a focus of his inquiry and inspired him and his followers - esp. those working in historical anthropology - to think about spatial formations across oceans. However, with a growing interest in nation-states, in the beginning of the 20th century, larger entities such as the Indian Ocean soon became neglected. It was only in the 1980es that the Indian Ocean regained the attention of academics, historians in particular, inspired to a large extent by the seminal work of Braudel on the Mediterranean, posing questions about the connectivity and unity of this region. In the last two decades, an increasing engagement with the Indian Ocean can be observed in the humanities and social sciences, expressing itself in a large number of publications and the foundation of numerous interdisciplinary research institutes focusing on the Indian Ocean.
Parallel to this recent flourishing of the field of Indian Ocean Studies, area studies in general, however, have been met with a lot of critique, questioning the appropriateness of separating the world in different world regions, and pointing especially to the arbitrariness of their borders. As a result, recent attempts to rethink and revitalise area studies often focus on alternative, less topographical constructions of space, putting a special emphasis on mobility, relationality and translocal connections, and thus bringing maritime constructions of space to the fore.
By focusing on the history and recent development of Indian Ocean Studies, in this project we therefore wish to bring together these current – and often very abstract – debates on the nature and role of area studies with an empirical example. First of all, our aim is to revisit the work on the Indian Ocean in historical perspective in order to theoretically reflect on the relation between culture and space as conceived in this non-terrestrial context. Moreover, through ethnographic research in different Indian Ocean Studies Institutes we critically examine the most recent engagements with the Indian Ocean, their motivation and institutionalisation, crossreading these empirical experiences with the current discussions on the role and relevance of area studies.