In the Middle East and North Africa, where most states have their origins in colonial regimes that supplied research for their own imperial purposes, the utility of university-based social research in informing public policy has never been uncontested. Continuing ambiguity about the status of the region and of its constituent units in global affairs both reflects and shapes the conduct of social science research. The absence of a widespread notion of the public, the public interest, or the public good as a reference for governments—the absence, in other words, of citizenship rights and democratic accountability—contributes to the confusion about the audience for the research that is conducted. This collection showcases novel interpretations and approaches that transcend persistent challenges to social research in the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East is the only part of world geography that has yet to escape its imperial designation. The erstwhile mysterious “Orient” or “Far East” long ago became the far more prosaic East Asia, but the Middle East (and North Africa) continues to be framed in euphemism and wishful thinking: the “Gulf states” hover on the shores of a gulf with competing referents—Persian, Arabian—while Palestine jostles with Israel, Judea, and Samaria, even the unanchored Occupied Territories. The region is more than “Arab” (see Iran, Türkiye, Israel, the Amazigh, Afghanistan) and both more and less than “Muslim” (recall the Lebanese Maronites, the Egyptian Copts, the Indonesian Sunnis). The Middle East is a collection of imagined, unsettled, and contested communities and identities, sustained by global regimes of power and wealth that seem to privilege prolonging the region’s continuing mystery over describing, not to say understanding, its prosaic reality: Southwest Asia and North Africa—sometimes “SWANA”—has gotten no traction in popular parlance or government cartographies.

Why this is so is a continuing puzzle. Edward Said famously suggested it was a reflection of long-standing practices of European and American self-definitions by contrast: the strong, rational self is distinguished from (and, obviously, better than) the weak, irrational “other” (Said 2003; Makdisi 2008). No doubt this is true, though the relative demystification of the East and South Asia in the last half century suggest that the “Middle East” retains a value as a special locus of illogicality and uncertainty. Perhaps its proximity to Europe, its centrality in Cold War contestation, its indispensability to a post–fossil fuel energy transition, or its prominence in the trade routes and financial flows of twenty-first-century globalization (Brigham 2022; Topham 2021; Touazi 2019),1 create political and economic interests in portraying the region as puzzlingly deficient. Were it less curiously defective, it would be harder to make the case that it still requires the sort of “tutelage” the League of Nations Mandates offered peoples unable “to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” a century ago (League of Nations 1924). As it is, the failure of foreign, particularly American and European, efforts at “nation building,” “democracy promotion,” “peacekeeping,” “capacity building,” and other ostensibly well-intentioned intrusions into the region serve simultaneously to illustrate the region’s inexplicable inadequacy and to justify continued intervention. Whatever the reason, the continuing ambiguity about the status of the region and of its constituent units in global affairs both reflects and shapes the challenges to the conduct of social science research.

Admitting that this problem of nomenclature and mystery is insoluble, we raise it to convey the depth and complexity of the challenges in the region before admitting defeat and reverting to examination of a subset of its countries—those commonly known as constituting the “Arab world.” This is hardly better, of course. From Morocco through Jordan to the Gulf—though technically “monarchies” all—there are vast differences in history and economy, social structure, dialect and language. And there are further differences among the once revolutionary republics of Algeria, Egypt, and Syria, the virtually nonexistent states of Libya and Yemen, and Lebanon’s peculiar postwar state, to say nothing of variations in regime types across the region.

Still, from the vantage point of social sciences, there are common challenges, manifested in the institutional weakness of the enterprise, which is, in turn, an indication of the absence of the traditional audiences for social research: accountable governments and informed citizenries. Helmut Anheier asks in his introduction to this special collection, “Can the social sciences exist, let alone flourish, as a state-controlled, instrumentalized system, or is academic freedom a conditio sine qua non for advancing our understanding of the human condition?” Many academics who work in and on the Arab world apparently believe the answer is clear. An Al-Fanar Media survey of research scholars and scientists in the region in December 2019 showed that more than 90 percent wanted to leave the region and would accept a permanent position abroad (Plackett 2019).2 The Scholars at Risk Network, which helps place scholars fleeing repression in academic positions in Europe and North America, saw a major and sustained increase in applications from the Middle East in the last decade after 2011 (Labi 2014). In 2019 the Middle East Studies Association of North America warned against research in Egypt, presumably assuming that the dangers of work in Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region went without saying (Middle East Studies Association of North America 2019). Lebanon’s brain drain on the morrow of the twin disasters of the 2019 financial collapse and the 2020 Beirut port explosion may be symptomatic of a more general trend across the region, one fed primarily by harsh socioeconomic conditions and the precarity of everyday life.

At the same time, however, efforts to support and enhance “international quality” social science research in the region have also been increasing: the Arab Council for the Social Sciences in Beirut, which was partly incubated by the US-based Social Science Research Council, has provided funding and networking for social science research for more than a decade—including several projects described in the essays here (Arab Council for the Social Sciences 2015). The American Political Science Association has run annual workshops for junior scholars in the region, providing methodology and theoretical training and mentoring, since the mid-2010s and is supporting the launch of a new Arab Political Science Network in the region (Stinson 2020; American Political Science Association 2018). Al-Fanar Media, modeled on the Chronicle of Higher Education, has been reporting on academic life in the region since 2013 (Faek 2013).3 The Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, where several of this collection’s contributors are located, was founded in Qatar in 2015 to offer advanced degrees in the social sciences and humanities and in economics, administration, and public policy, and alongside its sister institution, the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, seeks to promote quality research on the region from the region (Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, n.d.).

The essays in this collection situate these contradictory trends and their consequences for social science within a region where research has been debilitated for decades. Foreign (and too often paternalistic) dominance of the disciplines, donor-driven research agendas, the priority given in promotion decisions to publications in foreign-language journals, regional government skepticism about the research enterprise, the stark contrast between public and private universities, limited funding of higher education, and, most recently, the rise of consultants who provide bespoke proprietary research for governments, international organizations, and private enterprises all represent challenges to the scholarly research enterprise. It is certainly true of the Middle East that, as Anheier put it, “many social scientists in the periphery are trapped in a system of weak infrastructures, low salaries, fewer opportunities, and more control.” This context shapes career opportunities, prospects for dissemination of research, and indeed, as we shall see, topics chosen and avoided, methods selected and disdained. All research takes place in social contexts that shape how projects are formulated, what research questions are asked, which methods are employed, and how the results are received (Merton 1979; Anderson 2003).

As Anheier suggests, “the development of the social sciences in the United States and Europe was in no small measure due to significant state support…in some countries, especially in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, philanthropy played a significant role too. Both politicians and philanthropists saw in the social sciences a tool for advancing the modernization of society and for helping solve problems of many kinds, from housing and education to social welfare and social integration.” In the Middle East, where most states have their origins in colonial regimes that supplied their own research for their own imperial purposes, the utility of university-based social research in informing public policy has never been uncontested. Indeed, as El-Mikawy and El Baradei point out here, the very notion of “public policy” is “not totally clear to the layperson. The context in which policymaking occurs in many parts of the Arab World is not only complicated…but also characterized mostly by ambiguity and lack of transparency.” Funding for public policy centers is almost always viewed suspiciously, by regimes and local societies alike, complicating their roles in shaping policy debates or affecting policy outcomes.

Throughout the Arab world, governments continue to prefer to engage foreign “experts” over researchers with local knowledge or capacity, further debilitating scholarship and knowledge production based in the region. For many autocratic governments, inviting domestic scrutiny and criticism, however well-informed or well-intentioned, is politically unpalatable, while social research and analysis is often the unavoidable price of foreign aid, as from international financial institutions. Governments interested in collecting data about the populations for which they are responsible often rely on their intelligence and security services—a practice that undermines popular confidence in the research enterprise—or turn to private purveyors. Privatization has been relatively slow in the Middle East, despite decades of neoliberal policy advice from donor governments and international financial institutions. One area in which such advice seems to have developed a robust industry is international consulting, however, as in the myriad 2030 or 2040 visions and McKinsey and Lazard reports produced for the peoples of the region. Here the lack of transparency is justified as protecting proprietary information, and governments can pay for research that provides a veneer of methodological sophistication in, for example, randomized control trials or data analytics without risking findings that might challenge their policy priorities or processes.

In the Arab world, these concerns are heightened by histories of colonialism and neocolonialism, new and often frail national identities, and shallow educational reach. In some countries, this makes foreign participation in research, through funding or collaborations, suspect. But since the audience for social science research is only a generation or two deep, even local researchers are suspect. Hania Sholkamy (1999), an Egyptian anthropologist, writes that “Arabic readers and consumers do pose a serious problem in the reception of critical sociological imagination, since critical findings can be disturbing and perceived as insulting” (Abaza 2010).4 Alternatively, external national security threats can implicate local researchers and communities in foreign research agendas, as was the case with CVE (countering violent extremism) research on the morrow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Nor do governments in the Middle East foster a clear sense of the “public.” Their constituents are not an abstract citizenry with inalienable rights or even blocs of partisan voters, but more typically sets of elites constructed, as Shamaileh points out here, of sectarian ties, crony or clientele linkages, or other personalist relations. Indeed, the absence of a widespread notion of the public, the public interest, or the public good as a reference for governments—the absence, in other words, of citizenship rights and democratic accountability—contributes to the confusion and atomization in dissemination of the research that is conducted, as described here by Hanafi and Khaled. As they put it, “the publics in the Arab world are heterogenous and disconnected from each other,” scattered across “policymakers, activists, researchers, government organizations, and the lay public” without productive interaction. Or as Abboud suggests, “there is no imaginary community of scholars ‘out there’ whose work resonates and speaks to the field of Critical Security Studies and which simply needs to be discovered. Instead, knowledge about security and insecurity is being produced every day, disseminated, debated and discussed but it is done so in ways that are illegible to the field as it now stands.” In fact, whether there is actually a public sphere interested and engaged in public policy debates is itself an open question given regime control over the agents of ideological diffusion.

Part of the reason social science research is illegible is that the audience is dispersed and scattered across different national and disciplinary traditions. This is reflected in the difficulty scholars working in Arabic have in publishing for the English-dominated international social science audience. Moreover, not only the language but also the conventions of reporting social science research findings are quite stylized and often inaccessible to the uninitiated. Within the region, as El-Mikawy and El Baradei suggest, the colonial legacies of French academic traditions in North Africa are quite different from, and often unfamiliar to, British- or American-based research and university conventions more common in the Middle East. So, too, as Khaled and Hanafi note here, different languages, rhetorics, and media across potential audiences further weaken dissemination and collaboration across research and policy communities. Social science communities in the Arab world exist in parochial silos, with very limited dialogue and research interaction between them. Paradoxically, bridging the chasm among these silos is much more difficult than building bridges between these silos and Western researchers and institutions.

If the causes of the fact that social scientists are often speaking mutually incomprehensible languages are clear—if, as Khaled and Hanafi put it, “the Arab world has more problems in knowledge use than in knowledge production”—the consequences for the quality and character of the research are, while equally debilitating, probably more profound.

Discomfort with the universalizing categories of much social science is not unique to the Arab world. Masha Gessen, writing about Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after 1989, decried the American fixation with democracy as impoverishing the study of politics. As Gessen (2020, 7) put it:

commentators adopted the language of liberal democracy to describe what was happening in the region. They talked about elections and legitimacy, rule of law and public opinion. Their language reflected their limitations: they assumed that their countries would become liberal democracies … and they had no other language at their disposal anyway. But if we use the wrong language, we cannot describe what we are seeing. If we use the language developed for describing fish, we cannot very well describe an elephant: words like “gills,” “scales,” and “fins” will not get us very far.5

This is an enormous obstacle to social science in the Arab world, not least because as Abboud reminds us, “researchers go out into the world and find what they want to find.”

There are several features to this. In the first instance, the importation of notions, like democracy, which are, if you will, fish-based, to describe the elephants of the Arab world distort reality and inhibit understanding. Abdelkarim Amengay’s contribution to this collection shows how Arab intellectuals recycled uncritically political cultural explanations of authoritarian persistence in the Arab world, in the process reproducing near Orientalist assumptions. The same applies to the manner in which the concept “civil society” was deployed in the Arab world: duplicating Western concepts used to study democratic transitions, many Arab scholars assumed uncritically a (weak) civil society as an impediment to democratization instead of investigating whether the concept matches the social structures produced by postcolonial state formation in the Arab world (Bishara 2012; Kawtharani 2010). These distortions are amplified in the case of critical security studies. As Abboud shows, when security is defined as referring to the state in circumstances in which many people live in the absence of any state at all, this makes the notion at best trivial and at worse an actual impediment to understanding. After all, since, as Anthony Cordesman (1999) once famously noted, “many Middle Eastern states have no enemy greater than their own governments,” perceptions of the sources of insecurity differ dramatically between regimes, elites, and ordinary people. Similarly, the inclination to see political contestation as the purpose of democracy obscures such contestation in nondemocratic settings, leading to assumptions that it does not exist or is limited to jockeying for influence among elites (Moore and Salloukh 2007). This, in turn, feeds both local and external narratives of Arab exceptionalism.

Second, a premature enthusiasm for abstraction—the building blocks of a “universal social science”—often obscures significant variation across cases. As Shamaileh observes, “the roles of elites in authoritarian regimes tend to be abstracted into generalizable observations—the optimal size of a ‘selectorate,’ for example (large), and ‘winning coalition’ (small), to the neglect of understanding of actual elite resources and intra-elite dynamics.” Indeed, even what constitutes a “case” is an imposition that may, as El-Mahdi reminds us, “strip history and context away to reveal commonalities or universals without recognizing that the foundation of those universals is not, in fact, an abstract nowhere, but merely a different history and context.” Producing social science from the Arab world is thus not just a case of contextualizing concepts or an exercise in collecting data; it is rather, as El Mahdi rightly insists, “the basis for new theorization” from the region but always in critical dialogue with mainstream theories.

Third, the misunderstanding that results from minimalist conceptualizations in the name of scientific parsimony and the allied move toward increasing reliance on technologies of analysis that privilege what can be easily quantified and measured is not merely a loss of fine-grained detail or local color. As several of our contributors point out, efforts to isolate “events,” whether of violence (“terrorist incidents”) or of contestation (“protests”), distort the lived experience and significance of the phenomena they are supposed to signify. Violence is not episodic or occasional, even if it may be more or less intense; contestation is not absent when there are no protests. Failure to appreciate the role of violence or contestation in ordinary, quotidian life leads to misconstruing the significance of the episodes that researchers do identify, as El Mahdi shows in her discussion of popular views of the army during the Egyptian uprising of 2011. This, in turn, fails to capture the actual role of violence or contestation in shaping social and political life, or, as Abboud puts it, “how people there are making sense of the world.” Equally important, the turn to quantitative methods raises a number of ethical concerns as it risks turning vulnerable local communities into sites for data collection using experimental research designs, with devastating consequences for their lived experiences, especially in postwar and refugee contexts.

Finally, as Amengay suggests here, Western efforts to capture that sense-making in the study of “political culture” have been quite contentious, often associated with overtly or subtly racist stereotypes. Yet within the Arab world, the notion that there is a local specificity that is not encompassed in the essentially materialist or positivist traditions of Western social science has continued to preoccupy social analysts and researchers. To some extent, this debate about the nature of cultural authenticity and heritage (turath) has been subsumed in disputes about identity politics, particularly though not exclusively about the merits of an “Islamic social science.” It is also part of the struggle by some Arab intellectuals to come to terms with the challenge of modernity, to articulate an indigenous model compatible with Islamic ethical values beyond merely material considerations, in the quest to demonstrate that there are multiple modernities rather than one singular universal model (Taylor 2004; Chakrabarty 2000; Bhambra 2007). In fact, the search for authenticity is also often a complex and subtle effort to reveal the unexamined cultural underpinnings of universalizing social science itself. Anheier suggests that “distinct social science traditions have formed in countries and regions outside the West,” and he asks: “are Western and non-Western notions of the ‘social’ and the concepts of society, economy, and polity equivalent?”

Certainly, the liberal predicates of social science are not hard to see. The conviction, for example, that history is linear and progressive—the past is to be discarded for an inevitably better future—is a premise that undergirds all development theory and practice. Yet it is not self-evidently true, as the shadow of anthropogenic climate change suggests. So, too, the notion that the individual should be the ultimate unit of both political life (the voter or citizen) and methodological investigation (the survey respondent or rational actor) reflects the profoundly liberal basis of democracy, democracy promotion, and, perforce, knowledge production in much of the social sciences. This methodological individualism anchored to a deeply held belief in the ideology of progress misses that there are alternative political and social forms worth retrieving, as David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021) remind us.

Efforts to uncover and integrate alternative premises in an “authentic” social science, reflecting values that resonate with the history and culture—the heritage—of the Arab world have been, as Amengay suggests, uneven and in many ways unpersuasive, not least because many regimes in the region have adopted them to justify autocratic government. Indeed, the extent to which elites use these notions to shape preferences that serve their purposes is a worthwhile research project in itself. El Mahdi’s concern that understanding politics as dynamic processes “imbued with history and context” reflects a widespread skepticism about the reigning paradigms of universal social science. Nonetheless, critique is not theory-building, however useful a starting point it may be.

Clearly a measure of modesty and humility, of collaboration and cooperation across social science communities, within and beyond the region, would strengthen the collective enterprise. Equally clearly, there are impediments to such efforts; as El-Mikawy and El Baradei suggest, often incompetent or venal governments; underfunded, overcrowded universities; poor data; lack of academic freedom; and uneven and self-interested funding conspire against the kind of collaboration that would strengthen our capacity to understand, and change, our world.

We state that no competing interests exist.

Lisa Anderson is Special Lecturer and James T. Shotwell Professor Emerita of International Relations at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Dr. Anderson’s scholarly research has included work on state formation in the Middle East and North Africa; on regime change and democratization in developing countries; and on social science, academic research, and public policy both in the United States and around the world. Among her books are The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 1830–1980 (1986) and Pursuing Truth, Exercising Power: Social Science and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century (2003); she has also published numerous scholarly articles. She is a trustee of the Aga Khan University and a member of the advisory board of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin and the Sciences Po’s School of Public Affairs in Paris.

Bassel Salloukh is Associate Dean and Professor of Political Science and Head of the Politics and International Relations Program at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. He is Editor-in-Chief at Middle East Law and Governance (MELG) and Member of the Council, American Political Science Association (APSA). His current research focuses on power-sharing arrangements in postwar states and the political economy of Lebanon’s collapse. Salloukh has coauthored and coedited four books: The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012), Mapping the Political Landscape: An Introduction to Political Science, 2nd ed. (Nelson Publishers, 2007), and Persistent Permeability: Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East (Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004).

1.

These measures not only helped to support financial institutions by avoiding any systemic crisis, but also helped to support the US dollar.

2.

Al-Fanar Media is an independent nonprofit news organization, focused on education, research, and culture in the Arab region; all stories, commentary, and resources are published in both Arabic and English.

4.

Skepticism about anthropology particularly reflects its history as research in the service of imperialism.

5.

She attributed the argument to Hungarian sociologist Balint Magyar.

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