Scholars in Context: Selin Bengi Gümrükçü
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Selin Bengi Gümrükçü (SBG): I am currently working on a book project, under contract with Routledge, on one of the lively but mostly neglected periods of modern history of Turkey: the 1970s.
The Gezi Park protests of 2013 attracted a lot of attention from the media and academia, and many treated them as if they were the only major mobilization in Turkey’s history. While they certainly deserve all the attention they received, it is not possible to fully understand the culture and dynamics of protests without first understanding their background and the historical continuities between different waves.
The 1970s are of crucial importance in the history of modern Turkey, given the prominence of collective action and protest movements in this period. From a more institutionalized perspective, during this time the country was governed by many prime ministers and several different governments, including that known as the “Nationalist Front.” It was a decade of political instability which ended with a military coup d’état in 1980, after which the Turkish right wing consolidated its power. The coup itself is essential to note because it changed the political climate in the country through the repression of “radical” movements, the introduction of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis, and the creation of a new constitution that remains in place today, although it has been amended several times.
The decade also witnessed the political socialization of the masses, resulting in a redefinition of the meaning of “political,” which now includes the participation of people who had previously not been politically active. This was not a development welcomed by the ruling elites, with—as mentioned above—the era ending with a bloody coup that aimed to de-politicize society and put an end to street politics. This is why the media and some politicians frequently refer to this decade as a time of unrest, characterized by uprisings, clashes at universities, and mass protests. It is clear that some of the actors from this period are still active in the streets, organizing and/or participating in anti-globalization movements or in current right-wing mobilizations. During the early years of my career, I conducted field research on the anti/alter-globalization movements in Turkey. Despite taking place in totally different time settings and mobilizing for different causes, it was striking to see how some of the protestors in the early 2000s were politically socialized in the 1970s.
Despite this significance, the 1970s in Turkey remain a neglected decade in scholarship, and there is no study of the patterns of mobilization in those years. The research in which I am engaged aims to fill this gap and become the first systematic study, to my knowledge, to cover the protests in this period.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
SBG: By introducing an original dataset of more than five thousand protest events, my book reveals the dynamics of protests in Turkey in the 1970s, namely through an analysis of the actors and their aims and actions. This will contribute towards a fuller understanding of the continuities between different waves of protest. My study also explores the dynamics of interaction between social movements and the state, particularly focusing on state repression and the link between mobilization and countermobilization. More broadly, I hope that the research will foster further conversations about the extent to which the social movement theories developed in the “West” can be applied to the “East,” as well as the extent to which social movements have interacted with different regimes. Topics such as the dynamics of radicalization and the institutionalization of social movements will also be of interest, I hope, to a wide audience.
Generally speaking, my research addresses literature on Turkish politics, social movements, and collective action. It focuses particularly on the history of the 1960s and 1970s in Europe, the use of political violence, and the dynamics of radicalization—as well as the impact of regimes on protest mobilization.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
SBG: I first encountered the field of social movements while studying for my master’s degree in Turkey. It was a new field for me, but I immediately found myself very engaged with some of the questions the field addresses, namely: Who protests, and why? How do protests impact institutionalized politics and vice versa? How do different regimes react to protests? On the other hand, as a citizen of Turkey who also grew up in a politically conscious family, I have always been interested in Turkish politics. Both of my parents were politically active in the 1970s and they, along with thousands of people in Turkey, suffered as a result of the 1980 military coup. I grew up listening to their memories and learning how the coup shaped their lives, and eventually also mine. However, I realized that there was little scholarly work on the decade. So, when I started my PhD at the University of Zurich in 2009, it was very clear to me that I wanted to work on 1970s Turkey from a social movements’ perspective.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
SBG: Since this is a scholarly work, the initial audience I would like to reach is the academic community who is interested in Turkish politics and/or social movements. My research provides a general framework on the 1970s, and I would like it to inspire younger scholars to conduct more detailed work on Turkish politics, social movements, and collective action during this period, until now neglected as a “dark era.”
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SBG: Besides my book project, I am currently working on two articles: one explores the relationship between populism and (pro-government) protests, departing from the case of the “Respect to National Will” rallies in Turkey, and the other focuses on the concept of authoritarian legalism and how it might help us to better understand rising authoritarianism in Turkey.