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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Teaching Middle East in Theory Courses

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

The protests and revolutions unfolding in the Middle East have shaken a variety of notions about the region in popular imagination and the media (as well as within academia). It is hard to tell how these various revolutions will continue to unfold and what their ultimate results will be. The history of past revolutions and transitions away from authoritarianism indicate that these processes are difficult, contentious and often suffer from reversals. But regardless of how they ultimately turn out and what the shape of the new political systems will be, the old authoritarian structures have been fundamentally undermined. This is true even where the revolutions have faced brutal resistance from the regimes as in Bahrain, Yemen and especially Syria or where the protests have morfed into full scale civil war as in Libya. 

These developments are likely to also impact how we study the region, the new questions researchers will now ask and the new theoretical insights that the study of these revolutionary upheavals will generate about the processes of political change and social mobilization. In recent years, there has been a growing interest among Middle East specialists in connecting the study of political, social and economic dynamics of this region with comparative theorizing about the processes of change. I think recent developments will further energize this trend. I already see how these protests movements have been making their way into my recent writing on social movements, the political economy of transitions and the changing role of emerging donors in the Global South. I think one of the areas of research that these movements will influence is the investigation of the dynamics of regional spread of contentious collective action. I don’t think we fully understand through what processes and mechanisms contentious collective action spreads through particular geographic areas in which the political opportunity structures vary so vastly. Nor do we fully understand the processes of signaling across political borders of the changing possibilities for social mobilization. The study of these revolutions and protests movements will also generate new insights into the complex dynamics between the processes of socio-economic change and conflict dynamics. It is also, I think likely to spark new interest in examining the dynamics of resilience and breakdown of authoritarian regimes. If nothing else, the revolutions of the last few months indicate that there is still a lot about these processes that we do not fully understand.

I have not taught courses on the Middle East in years but have always included the region in one from or another in all my courses. But I found myself incorporating it more and in different ways this spring as the revolutions and protest movements intensified. In a doctoral class I teach on Structural Theories I found myself referencing the Middle East often and drawing on the unfolding events in seminar discussions about overcoming collective action problems, the role of political opportunity structure in facilitating or hindering of collective action, on resource mobilization and framing, the influence of particular political, social and economic institutional structures of a state on the dynamics of contentious action, how the particular incorporation of a state’s economy into the global economy affects those contentious processes, and so on. In undergraduate introductory course n Conflict Analysis and Resolution the unfolding revolutions also proved extremely useful in getting the students to delve more deeply into the difference between underlying grievances and trigger events when looking at conflict dynamics. For students in these courses, most of who do not specialize in the Middle East these discussions were often a revelation to them. Many if not most had tended to see the region through the prism of Islam, terrorism or, less frequently, oil. From my perspective as a political economist interested in contentious politics this new interest in the region among students in non-regional courses, provides really exciting pedagogical opportunities. 

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