Taking for a starting point the “revolutions” experienced by Arab and Muslim societies since 2011, this issue proposes a reflective discussion on the links between the event and our practice of the social sciences.
The changes that occurred from the end of 2010 in the South and East of the Mediterranean have indeed been marked by several characteristics: the strength of the event and its narrative construction, the unexpected nature of the event, the speed of the first changes and the resilience of certain processes. A context of rapid social change produced a demand for social understanding (or at least, a demand for explanations), which very quickly implicated the social sciences. Despite mistrust for what is generally assimilated to “spontaneous media spin”, it was impossible not to comment, however transient the explanation. At first, commentary was provided by political and more generally current affairs specialists asked to provide context, in virtual real time, for the unfolding historical events. But they were not alone. We propose to examine, on the basis of first hand and comparative experiences how social science practitioners (historians, linguists, demographers, specialists of Islam, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers...) responded to this interpellation.
We seek contributions from researchers in all human and social science disciplines reflecting upon how breaking events in an historical context serve to stimulate and enrich cross-disciplinary exchanges, open new fields for investigation, produce new directions, eliminate others, change references and more generally, renew fundamental questions.
For global upheaval...
Arab and Muslim societies today offer a remarkable point of entry for evaluation of the human and social sciences in a context of social transformation. The explanatory power of an event should not be limited to the political field but tested across a range of fields and disciplines, challenging the social sciences in their own practices. In such cases, fields of enquiry may be exposed or redefined for phenomena which heretofore may have been largely ignored, proscribed or inaccessible for study. One can legitimately question whether the exposed phenomena are properly a product of crisis management or part of an underlying process exposed by the collapse of the old order. What is important is how such phenomena are taken into account and “discovered” in the post- revolutionary context.
In some cases, such enquiry can lead to a new understanding of known phenomena. To take one example, the effect of context obviously plays heavily on discussions on long held beliefs regarding the religious foundations of society, forcing a reexamination of the Islamists’ bid for power and their willingness to reintroduce “Islamic” policies.
In other cases, the appearance of new practices could bring into the field of research objects which may have struggled for legitimacy and recognition, as, for example, the proliferation of linguistic practices, beginning with the language and vocabulary of protest. More broadly, it is cultural production as a whole (film, literature, Internet...) which nurtures and encourages revolutionary social dynamics.
To the phenomena mentioned above, we should add the considerable effect of networks and Internet links to a variety of geographies which place these changes in the global context of contemporary socio-political protests.
The magnitude of these changes and the use of the term “revolution” detracted somewhat from the popular concept of an “Arab identity” before its forceful, post revolutionary re-appropriation. Does such a sequence offer possibilities for comparative studies on a greater scale and over time?
…enforced multidisciplinarity ?
It is probably the multidimensional nature of these developments that explains why such a wide range of disciplines have been mobilized and solicited by events and individual researchers in organizing the conduct of their enquiries, and for interpreting and understanding their observations. This is also true for the teaching of these disciplines. But the very boundaries of disciplinary practices tend to blur in the heat of events, testing multidisciplinarity in ways that few research programs could hope to achieve in times of “normal observation”.
It is thus that Islamic scholars specializing in medieval Islamic law and unaccustomed to media exposure, can be questioned on the issue of the application (or non-application) of Shari`a law. Specialists in contemporary Arabic literature reiterate the importance of the social dimension of cultural production, beyond the strictly textual analysis of the works they study. Some linguists report cross-border movement of slogans, unexpected combinations of linguistic registries and languages (Arabic, local dialects, Berber, French, English) while noting the linguistic diversity of political protest.
Anthropologists and geographers offer hypotheses which do not always correlate with respect to the territorial implications of strains placed on tribal or confessional identities, as was the case in Libya and especially in Syria.
Historians – who are often said to write inevitably from their own present – cannot fail to wonder at what looks like history in the making: How does one reconcile an obvious fascination for the fleeting present with a long term perspective? How should one treat new sources as they become available while digital archives are in the making? How should one interpret the (re)writing of national histories, etc.?
We can add that such proliferation is obviously amplified and projected by new digital media – spun for effect, yes, but also informative – such as journals and research blogs, whether personal or the product of group effort. These are just so many new ways of writing the present, which, while immediate and personal, may with time lead to more traditional publication products.
Arab revolutions: social sciences invoked by force of events
As editors of the REMMM, a multidisciplinary journal whose purpose is to contribute thought and insight in the area studied, we wish to take the opportunity to think about what the Arab revolutions are to the social sciences. Faced with a series of events that have blurred accepted standards for intelligibility, how are the demands for social explanation formulated? How can the social sciences, drawing on their own resources, recreate sense? In what terms can the issue of cross-discipline scholarship be posited and reposited so that academic practitioners, advancing in dispersed order at times even in competition with one another, may contribute to a practical foundation for mutual understanding between approaches and specific knowledge?
Several lines of thought can be considered:
- The researcher and social demand for expert opinion: unlike the attacks of 11 September 2001 which led to criticism of research on Middle Eastern societies, the Arab Spring has led to a heavy reliance on academic expertise for commentary. The sudden disruption of public understanding has led to call for better understanding. We might therefore consider the channels through which social demands are communicated as well as the intermediaries who make the request. What latitude do researchers have in choosing to respond to such requests, what is their margin of flexibility, their degree of autonomy and specific contribution to recreate intelligibility?
- The shifting boundaries among the social sciences: In research, it is a matter of studying current developments and emergent research for innovative disciplinary approaches and new interactions among fields that study evolving realities. To take one example, the Tunisian and Egyptian elections of 2011, whatever their outcome, produced an immediate effect, giving new importance to the behavior and choices of voters, thus opening a major avenue of research in electoral sociology, a field until then considered inconsequential for Arab societies. Conversely, one might consider an heuristic approach heretofore hidden by an excessive focus on the present or dismissed in an agenda dictated by social demands. The aim would be to extend this type of thinking to all disciplines, to try to understand how these might be transformed, both from a theoretical point of view (new objects, new models and interpretations...), and a methodological point of view (access to land and resources, or conversely, by exclusion) by observing, analyzing and commenting on the changes that have occurred since the end of 2010.
This call is open to researchers working in other areas and to whom the Arab revolutions have, somehow, brought new perspectives to their own fields. Such contributions could indeed help conceptualize the Arab revolutions as “local” manifestations of a process which is disruptive of the “disciplinary regimen of knowledge”.
Proposed papers (4000 characters at the most) should be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org and to email@example.com before 28 February 2014.
Selected papers of 40,000 characters (maximum) should be received before 1 September 2014.