Dirlik came to the United States to study science at University of Rochester, but developed an interest in Chinese history instead. His PhD dissertation on the origins of Marxist historiography in China, published by University of California Press in 1978, led to an interest in Chinese anarchism. When asked in 1997 to identify the main influences on his work, Dirlik cited Marx, Mao, and Dostoevsky.
After his official retirement, Dirlik lived in Eugene, OR. In Fall 2011 he held the Rajni Kothari Chair in Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, India. In Fall 2010, he served as the Liang Qichao Memorial Distinguished Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He held a brief appointment as Green Professor at the University of British Columbia in February 2016.
Dirlik taught at Duke University for thirty years as professor of history and anthropology before moving in 2001 to the University of Oregon where he served as Knight Professor of Social Science, Professor of History and Anthropology, and Director of the Center for Critical Theory and Transnational Studies. He subsequently accepted a short-term appointment as Chair Professor of Chinese Studies, Professor by Courtesy of the Departments of History and Cultural Studies, and Honorary Director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong-Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Asia Pacific Center for Chinese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong He has served as visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, University of Victoria(BC), University of California-Los Angeles, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Soka University of America. He is the recipient of Fulbright, NEH, Chiang Ching-kuo, and ACLS fellowships. He has been a fellow of the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, the Nordic Institute for Asian Studies (Copenhagen), the Program in Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, International Institute for Asian Studies(Leiden and Amsterdam), the China Center for Comparative Politics and Economics of the Central Bureau of Compilation and Translation in Beijing, and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies of the University of British Columbia. He has been honored with distinguished adjunct professorships at the Center for Marxist Social Theory of Nanjing University, Beijing University of Language and Culture, and the Northwest University for Nationalities in Lanzhou.
Dirlik served on the editorial boards of boundary 2, Interventions (UK), China Review(Hong Kong), Asian Studies Review(Australia), China Information(The Netherlands), China Scholarship(Beijing), Cultural Studies (Beijing), Inter-Asia Cultural Studies(Taiwan and Singapore), Norwegian Journal of Migration Research, Asian Review of World Histories (South Korea), Research on Marxist Aesthetics (Nanjing), Register of Critical Theory of Society (Nanjing), International Critical Thought(Beijing), Pasaj (Passages in Literature)(Istanbul), and Contemporary Chinese Political Economyand Strategic Relations:An International Journal(Malaysia). He was the editor of two book series, “Studies in Global Modernity”( SUNY Press) as well as co-editor of a series of translations from prominent Chinese official intellectuals, published by Brill Publishers in the Netherlands. Dirlik’s works have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Bulgarian, French, German and Portuguese. <consider revising the summary to make it less elaborate and less focussed on accolades>
Dirlik spoke on his approach to history and the theoretical issues of historiography in a 2002 interview. As a "practicing historian" Dirlik said, "I continue to practice history not just because it is a way to make a living, which is an important consideration, but because I think that there is some value and meaning to historical understanding." He goes on to say that "I am also appalled at the arbitrary magisterial judgments on history encountered frequently in contemporary literature; a kind of licence that postmodernism seems to legitimize: since we cannot know anything, anybody can speak about everything."