Salim Nasr, a Lebanese sociologist, is a Ford Foundation program officer in the Middle East and North Africa office in Cairo. He spoke with Lisa Hajjar in New York City on May 29, 1997.
How would you assess Middle East studies as it is undertaken by scholars based in the region?
The most striking problem is the limited expertise that Arab scholars have about countries in the Middle East other than their own. Even in the most established intellectual institutions, for example in Egypt, it is difficult to find real experts on Lebanon, Jordan or Yemen. Very few could even be called real experts on the Palestinian question. The problem is even greater in countries with newer and smaller academic establishments. One factor is the weakness of scholarly communities in general, and another is that would-be researchers are spending most of their time teaching — or perhaps “over-teaching” is more accurate — in colleges and universities with poor working conditions. Then there is the problem of poorly equipped libraries and very limited resources to support scholarly research.
There are political factors, too. After the Camp David agreement, inter-Arab connections broke down, and this stifled research on other countries. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was an inspired interest in comparative work on nationalism and social movements, but this has receded and been replaced by more in-country work. This inhibits the development of regional expertise.
How would you describe the circulation of locally produced scholarly research in the region?
The problem here is one of access to publications. There is absolutely no institutional structure in the Middle East that facilitates the circulation of academically oriented research. Except for those rare studies put out by commercial publishers, studies by academic presses are like clandestine publications as far as their marketability or accessibility to scholars outside of that country. You can find them if you seek them out, which enterprising individuals visiting other countries sometimes do. But most scholarly works in Arabic get very limited exposure.
There are a couple of exceptions. One is the Center for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut. Since the mid-1970s, this has been a kind of advocacy and research center on Arab relations that has published some good works, including theses. In the early years, the Center was largely interested in Arab ideologies and nationalist movements. There were very few single-country studies because this would have been considered “infra-national.” But this has changed in the last few years. The Center has been publishing on Palestine, on the Algeria crisis, on Lebanese reconstruction. And contrary to most of the university publishers, the Center has a good distribution network.
How would you describe the dominant paradigms informing or influencing the work of Arab scholars’ research agendas?
The work of scholars trained in local universities still tends to be very traditional, due to the problems of limited exposure to debates and discussions going on elsewhere. Although there are some individuals who are engaged in theoretical and methodological debates, trends emanating from the West have not had much of an impact on research in general. The last major trend in Arab social science, by now rather dated, is variations on Marxist approaches. Topically, however, some of the same issues of interest in the West are drawing the attention of Arab scholars, especially civil society and citizenship issues, and women’s studies. These topics are generating some lively research, especially in North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. I am talking, of course, about research in Arabic.
What kinds of critical reevaluations of modernization are being elaborated by Middle East-based scholars?
While one no longer finds the kinds of naive advocacy of Western-style modernization, one finds few constructive alternatives to deal with problems related to development — urban sprawl, the welfare state, militarization. These problems present a real dilemma for people in the region, and not simply in an intellectual sense. You have societies in real crisis, with difficult choices to make. What is the first priority? Certainly scholars can play an important role in promoting understandings about the issues at hand. For this reason, I think it is a problem that so much intellectual energy is being devoted to issues of “images” and “representations.” The priority should be the social conditions affecting people’s lives, yet in this area scholarship remains quite weak. The most challenging ideas are coming from the constellation of Islamist intellectuals, including former leftists turned anti-modernist Islamists.
How do you envisage a more comprehensive approach to analyzing social conditions?
The social map has changed considerably in the last 20 years. Yet we know very little about these changes because so much intellectual energy is being channeled into ideological debates, not into research and the hard work of social analysis. From an academic perspective, this is a problem.
Existing statistics are not usually very helpful, and survey research is quite limited because the possibilities for doing such work are often shaped by national interests and priorities of the regimes. The main problem, as I see it, is the real gap in solid sociological approaches to the study of social categories, to which neither quantitative methods nor more narrowly focused anthropological approaches are adequate.
What is really missing is a solid middle-level range of scholarship. We have lots of work being done at the very local level, like studies of neighborhoods or particular institutions. And we still have a concern for global relations, particularly among those remaining committed leftists as well as among Islamists. But there is a real lack of critical work on what is happening at the national level. In the 1960s and 1970s, this was starting to develop, but it was subverted by conditions in Palestine, the Lebanon civil war, the fallout from Egypt’s signing of a treaty with Israel. The best middle-level work is going on in North America, because of the influence of French intellectual traditions and the flow of people and information between the Maghrib and France. The French tradition is strong on sociology, with its emphasis on the study of classes, social history, mobility, relations between the state and society, and so on.
The US-influenced scholarly tradition, which tends to be more prominent in Egypt and the Mashriq, has a very limited commitment to sociology — there are hardly any American or American-trained Arab sociologists working on the Middle East. Rather, the middle-level analysis is dominated by political scientists for very specific reasons related to US foreign policy, whether for or against it. And the anthropologists have tended, at least until rather recently, to look for the “exotic,” the less overtly political issues. As for this middle-level analysis among scholars in the region, it is lacking because this is the most sensitive area, the area where relations of power are constructed and reconstructed. There is a real need for — and a real lack of — research on the effects of economic liberalization on societies, on the effects of the end of the Cold War on national policies, and on the quite slow and often reversible transition to democracy.
What can you say about the role that governments play in facilitating or constraining researchers’ abilities to conduct their work?
Scholars have to present their research agendas in ways that make them acceptable to the powers that be. What this means depends on the country, of course. In many countries, you still need a permit to do any kind of research, particularly field work and survey research. In some places, permission is almost impossible to get. This has been one factor pushing researchers into studies of particular communities or to work on documents. The results are an emphasis on textual representations and images, or on historical studies. You can work on some neighborhood or tribe, or study TV programs, or work on poetry or craft-making. I am not dismissing that, don’t get me wrong. But if it is the major trend, then it is not enough to really understand the Arab world. It presents a distorted view because there is no way to put these findings into some larger perspective.
How would you characterize relations between scholars coming from the US and Europe and their colleagues in the Arab world?
It depends largely on the scholars themselves, on the ethics and motivations that they bring to their work. Certainly there is strong resentment toward those who are perceived as acting paternalistically or taking advantage of local scholars as “native informants.” But there is a basis for real cooperation and collaboration when scholars find that they can share in each others’ perspectives and contribute to each others’ work.
One issue that this question raises is the naive and romanticized views of the region that some Western scholars bring, especially when it is coupled by a lack of preexisting knowledge about the societies in which they land. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a trend to go to “revolutionary places.” Some of this produced great collaborations, especially in Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon. During the intifada, lots of people went to the West Bank, partly motivated by solidarity with the Palestinian struggle. But when a romanticized view is what motivates scholars to choose a research site, this can generate frustrations on the part of local scholars who have their own — unromanticized — agendas.
How would you describe cross-cultural influences on scholarship?
There is not nearly enough cross-fertilization. Only a handful of Arab scholars are widely known by scholars in Europe and North America; the same people are always being invited to conferences and having their books translated. Promising younger scholars from the region have few opportunities to travel to present their work or attend academic conferences. As for the Arab world, the biggest problem is the serious decline in foreign language mastery and the declining number of works being translated into Arabic. The younger generation of students, even graduate students, have difficulty reading material in English or French, a noticeable change from 20 or 30 years ago. One reason is the rapid popularization of higher education which has the consequence of falling standards. In a general sense, academic institutions are being exhausted due to the overburdening of teachers and limited resources. The language issue is compounded by problems getting works translated, as fewer outlets have the capacity to fund such projects, and governments are less interested in subsidizing translations. This has hurt social science scholarship through the constricted circulation of publications, which in turn inhibits cross-cultural dialogues.
Are there any significant region-wide research projects that facilitate collaborative work among Arab scholars?
One important area is human rights. This is more advocacy-oriented than academic, but some of the activists are scholars. There are also some important developments in women’s studies, building regional networks, especially in the last two or three years. Last summer, 50 researchers from all over the region gathered in Beirut for the first meeting of an Arab women’s research network, organized by the Lebanese Association of Women Researchers. Their journal, Bahithat, includes both female and male authors reflecting on the state of research in the region. It is a women-led but not women-limited initiative. The Birzeit Women’s Studies Center is also doing some interesting research and network building.
One other emerging network worth mentioning is on women and memory, based in Egypt. It is mostly historical and literary-focused, but includes people in various disciplines. They are engaging in critical readings of Arab traditions from a feminist perspective. Now they have formed an association and are planning meetings and conferences. These are a few examples of good and innovative research, regional networking, critical analysis.
In the last two years, ten or so of the major social science and policy research centers in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon have decided to develop systematic means of information sharing, exchanges, training workshops, collaborative research, and to pool their intellectual resources. This very promising regional initiative can now be visited on the web (Arab Social Science Research, www.assr.org). This initiative reflects a response to the desire for more inter-Arab research enterprises. I hope that such projects can get the necessary support because there is a real need to develop critical masses of experts who can deal with the problems facing the region today. So although there is a problem doing research on other countries, there is a growing trend to cultivate networks and structures to facilitate a greater exchange of information. I see this as a revitalization of an “Arab sphere.”