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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Challenges and Tradeoffs in Moving Beyond Dominant Approaches to the Study of the Comparative Politics of the Middle East

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The recent uprisings in the Arab world have raised some tough theoretical and empirical challenges for scholars of comparative politics. The failure of dominant approaches to the study of  “nondemocratic politics” to account for the breakdown of (what was previously deemed durable) authoritarian institutions, as well as the emergence of new forms of political activism outside of orthodox political channels, highlights the urgent need to move beyond conventional paradigms and theories in building and enhancing public understanding of the political realities in the Arab world. The emphasis on regime-type questions in the study of the comparative politics of the Arab world, whether democratization or authoritarian durability and governance, has crowded out important issues that speak to pressing problems and concerns in the region, such as the deepening of socio-economic inequalities and the impact of innovations in media and communication technology on political participation and public debates.

Despite their shortcomings, these paradigms continue to dominate public discourse and to inform policies of important international actors – a reality that underscores the need to challenge the validity of these approaches and their applicability to the Arab context in academic and public fora. For example, international actors continue to pursue policies that assume that economic development grounded in the principles of neo-classical economics could in fact advance meaningful democratic change and economic empowerment of unprivileged social groups in the Arab world. Resources and efforts continue to be spent on advancing projects and policies predicated on the notion that limited electoral competition under authoritarian settings could provide a viable vehicle for the gradual democratization of autocratic regimes through expanding political participation and competition. This paper develops an understanding of the tradeoff between moving beyond dominant, yet empirically tenuous, theoretical frameworks with a view to studying the political realities of the Arab world on their own terms, and the goal of assessing (if not challenging) dominant assumptions about the workings of political development in the Arab world. The two goals, though competing, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Balancing between these two sets of objectives demands a creative strategy that combines an inductive approach to understanding Arab politics and all its nuances with a deductive strategy aimed at reevaluating conventional assumptions that often guide public understanding of Arab politics.

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