Institute for Comparative Literature and Society


The Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS) was founded in 1998, taking stock of the diminished role of area studies programs after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was time to notice that area studies programs had interdisciplinarity built into them and generally practiced intensive language study. On the other hand, a humanities-based, generally Eurocentric, comparative literature was offering theories of interpretation that would enhance the area studies approach. The goal was to open up the discipline of comparative literature to languages beyond the canonical European ones, and to embed a rigorous training of reading in specific social and historical contexts. Vice President David Cohen found this argument for combining comparative literature and the social sciences, inclusive of Area Studies, compelling and thus we began under the visionary directorship of Andreas Huyssen and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. We were fully committed to robust institutional and faculty development through team-teaching, which produced an excitement in our student body. Since then, our undergraduate and graduate programs have thrived. In 2006, we became an institute.

One of the Institute’s primary goals is to provide institutional support for cross-disciplinary and cross-regional comparative work, acknowledging the force of recent changes in the humanities, social sciences, law, architecture, and the performing arts. In its capacity to embrace and bridge the totality of languages and traditions studied at Columbia, ICLS provides the only site for comparative scholarship across languages of more than one language group, including extensive engagement with non-European languages. ICLS has emerged as the primary intersection between literary studies and social science studies at Columbia, not only across the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, but also the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation; Columbia Law School, and the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. The Institute is both a full-fledged curricular and degree-granting unit, and a major research hub for Columbia University and its global programs. 

ICLS is recognized nationwide as a leader in the newer developments of the comparative literature discipline: a truly global purview and cross-disciplinary work. Both in theory and in practice, in research and in teaching, ICLS brings the comparative methods of studying literature and society into the current globalized conditions of knowledge production and history-making.