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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Reconsidering Muddles in Middle East Models: The Utility of Ethnography in Pedagogy, Theory-Building, and Public Debate

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“Empowerment,” “accountability,” and “freedom” have been key words among those who launched and sustained revolutionary movements in the Middle East since December 2010, as well as among those covering these momentous events in a variety of media.  Many scholars in the West have also experienced an almost giddy delight, as well as an empowering sense of vindication, in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The efforts of Campus Watch and allied organizations to limit debate in the classroom have suffered a body blow. 

The dismantling of authoritarian regimes and the rise of new grassroots and networked movements have thrown a spotlight on the poverty of prevailing Orientalist and Neo-Liberal models of the region. Western scholars, policy makers, security studies “experts,” and journalists have been forced to reexamine their assumptions about the narrow political horizons and un-modern “cultural mentality” of Arabs. News consumers in Europe and North America suddenly see democratization and human rights struggles in a new light--as surprisingly similar to their own concerns, rather than as the odd behaviors of exotic others.
The long-term repercussions of the “Arab Spring” will be considerable It is a new day--but that day is not yet over. Mainstream media commentary and public debate following the assassination of Osama bin Laden demonstrate that dehistoricized and context-free imaginaries of Middle East politics die hard. Journalists and commentators who, just three months ago, were hailing the emergence of a hip, tech-savvy, and courageous youth movement quickly reverted to explaining the region through notions of tribal vengeance, the violent nature of Islam, and the moral incommensurability between the Middle East and “the Homeland.”   

Events of the last five months demonstrate the critical need for more inductive and qualitative approaches to politics in the region, as well as a more fine-grained and critical discourse analysis of media and policy representations of the region. Students come to class with unexamined and one-dimensional assumptions about the Middle East, which mainstream media and policy debates do much to sustain. Public debate, classroom discussions, and media coverage of the Middle East are deeply intertwined. The Arab revolutions have illuminated in new ways the extent to which the Middle East is constructed and managed by the media/policy/military / academia “machine,” and remind us that we have to think, speak, teach, and advocate beyond the boundaries of thinkable thought on the region.

The need for and utility of ethnography for research, teaching, and public debate is indisputable. In her monumental study of anthropology and politics, Joan Vincent (1990) stressed that anthropologists must always attend to emerging political identities, practices, and organizations in the “interstitial zones” of established institutional structures. Ethnography is well-suited to mapping the new terrain of power in the Middle East. Power’s location is not easy to chart through conventional political science and international relations approaches, however, because it is not yet formal and institutionalized, and even when it is crystallizing, power in the networked world is subject to constant contention by counter-powers. What seems certain, though, is that this is not the kind of top-down political/military/coercive power that has long dominated the region The Arab world may be teaching us something new about collaborative political power. One of the most important lessons of the last five months —for scholars, journalists, and students -- is that democracy is always an “inside job.” The post-Cold War cottage industry focused on “civil society” and conflict resolution in the context of dictatorial, US-backed regimes looks quite sad in retrospect. New theories and models of democratization, built out of the experiences of Arabs themselves, are long overdue.

Ethnography can help us reconceptualize what we mean when we speak of “power” and “justice” at the local, regional and international levels. States long assumed to wield decisive power in the Arab world--the United States, Israel, and Iran—cannot easily sweep their own undemocratic practices under the carpet. The human rights debate, and the way scholars conceptualize it, will doubtless change considerably. As Arabs question their own regimes, they also illuminate inconsistencies and confusion in the policies of the great powers and that of their clients.

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