(updated) The dubious behaviour of Western researchers sightseeing the “Arab Spring”
Egyptian sociologist Mona Abaza has written an interesting article about “growing inequalities” between researchers from the Middle East and the West.
“While the Arab Spring has enhanced global interest in the Arab world, local academics have often been reduced to service providers for Western ”experts“ who jet in and jet out”, she writes in the Egyptian news site Ahram Online.
Many belonging to our scientific community have recently felt somehow “misused” through being overwhelmed by Western tourist-revolutionary academics in search of “authentic” Tahrir revolutionaries, needing “service providers” for research assistants, for translating, and newspaper summaries, for first hand testimonies, and time and again as providers of experts and young representatives for forthcoming abounding conferences on the Arab Spring in the West.
These Western experts “typically make out of no more than a week’s stay in Cairo, a few shots and a tour around Tahrir, the ticket to tag themselves with the legitimacy and expertise of first hand knowledge":
Many overnight Middle East experts show a remarkable tendency to pursue sensational and market-driven topics and readily switch interest as the market forces fluctuate. One day they are self-proclaimed experts on “political Islam” or “Islam and gender” and another, they are authority on “the Arab Spring” and “pro-democracy revolutions”. This superficial and business-oriented handling of crucial developments and changes in the area affects how the peoples of the region are perceived and how policies are shaped in the West.
She adds that “there is nothing wrong with providing services, had the relationship been equal, which was unfortunately never the case":
Without sounding xenophobic, which is a growing concern that personally worries me more than ever, there is much to say about the ongoing international academic division of labour whereby the divide between the so called “theoreticians” of the North and the “informants” who are also “objects of study” in the South continues to grow.
There’s still a lot of orientalism in sociological textbooks as Malaysian sociologist S Farid Alatas pointed out, Abaza stresses:
Namely, that European thinkers remain pervasively as the “knowing subjects” whereas non-Europeans continue to be the “objects of observations and analyses of European theorists”.
Unless these issues are not brought up on the table of research agendas I am afraid that much will be said in the name of the revolution while perpetrating the same inequalities and Orientalist attitudes that are mostly felt in the job market, and in evaluating “whose knowledge counts more” in academe.
PS: “Service providers” is a term she borrowed from her colleague, political scientist Emad Shahin
UPDATE: Interesting comment by a reader at Ahram Online:
Thank you Mona Abaza for having the courage to speak on behalf of local academics like yourself and journalists as well who are expected to offer their insight, information, years of hard work with the western tsunami that’s bombarding them (us). I’m personally sick and tired of having to do their homework for them. Where where they before the revolution and why do I have to give them my ideas?
Her article about this dubious academic tourism was also published in the magazine Jadaliyya. A Egyptian-American researcher writes she has “mixed feelings about this article” and notes among others:
Judith Orr, a British leftist academic said earlier this year that the Egy revolution is a monumental historic event that will be studied for generations. So whatever difficulties in the relationship with Western academics exist, they will need to be worked out somehow. Or maybe not.
UPDATE 2 (30.9.11): “The frustrations expressed by Mona Abaza and her colleagues in Egypt are also shared by a good number of scholars from the region who currently live and teach in Western universities” according to a commenter on Ahram Online
Great comment by Kevin at the Arabist blog. Kevin, a “(white) PhD candidate in History at the University of Michigan working on modern Iraq, suggests the following to American/European academics working on the Middle East:
(1) Reject the practice of organizing your bibliography around the three categories of archival sources, Arabic/Persian/Turkish sources, and secondary sources in European languages. Arabic sources should not all be lumped together - the primary sources of Arab ’subjects’ should be listed alongside those of European subjects and the secondary/theoretical writing of Arabs should be listed alongside that of Europeans and Americans, not in its own special category.
(2) Take Arabs seriously as not only ‘informants’ but also ‘theoreticians.’ As Chakrabarty said, Indians feel compelled to site the authority of Western theorists (Marx, Gramsci, etc.) while Westerners writing on India never feel the need to site Indians AS theorists. For my part, I’ve learned a great deal by seriously reading the work of Iraqi historians and thinking about what their insights can add to the historiography in English and French. (I’ve been particularly struck by the significance of poetry as an historical source and the poet as an historical agent - something totally elided by white men and women.)
Another commenter linked to a text on academic freeloaders that was posted on the Arabist blog four years ago.
What expertise I have was won by extended research in the country over time–but I’ve not been back since 2010. Yet because my book (set in pre-revolution times) just came out, and because I maintain a blog in which I speculate on what’s going on in Egypt, the media contacts me and asks me to pontificate as an expert. It’s one thing when it’s local news media–many companies are trying to survive by “localizing” even the international news–but just this week I was contacted by a European journalist stationed IN CAIRO calling me to speak as an “expert.” I did redirect her to AUC [American University in Cairo] and to a colleague at Cairo University, but clearly many in the media privileges our academic affiliations in North America above people with greater immediate expertise in the region.’
UPDATE 4 (3.10.11): David Judson comments on Abaza from a Turkish journalism perspective in the Hürriyet Daily News: Citing the sightseers ogling the Arab Spring
Similar points about inequalities can be made about anthropology. As Brazilian antropologist Gustavo Lins Ribeiro pointed out six years ago:
Globalisation in anthropology has mirrored unequal relations existing within larger structural processes. Theory, for instance, has flown from metropolitan centers to non-metropolitan centers while the flow of “raw data” makes the opposite movement.
In order to trancend ethnocentrism and orientalism, he and several others edited the the book World Anthropologies. Disciplinary Transformations within Systems of Power .
Kenyan anthropologist Mwenda Ntarangwi discusses similar questions in his book Reversed Gaze. An African Ethnography of American Anthropology.
Interesting points and certainly an issue.
Nevertheless, at times I wonder how one can do it “right". As a first world revolutionary, one can either stay home, and be criticized for not knowing about the world or not engaging with the ‘real’ struggles of today, or one can travel to the third world and e accused of revolutionary tourism. Both can be true, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s all a matter of how sincere people are with their engagement it seems to me.
Similar about anthropologist: my main criteria is why people go somewhere to study. If it’s mostly to get a degree or brownie-points at home it’s one thing. if there is a genuine interest in understanding and making use of that knowledge productively, it’s something else. Things that are written for career purposes are generally contentless and boring to read, consequently hardly anyone will make use of it and so it makes little difference whether it’s written by a western academic, it seems to me.
Comment from: [Member]
I agree with you. The solution is not to stay at home and be an armchair anthropologist.
But Mona Abaza’s point - if I understand her correctly - is that researchers in Egypt are not treated as equals by their colleagues in the West, they are “reduced to service providers” for the academic tourists from the West who after a week in Cairo present themselves as authority on the so called “Arab Spring”.
She reminds us of the long history of the inequal relationship between the West and the Arab world. As another local researcher told me yesterday, chances to get quoted is much higher when you’re from a British university than from an Egyptian university (he gave some examples). As Abaza says “there is nothing wrong with providing services, had the relationship been equal, which was unfortunately never the case”
Then I suppose, they really get overwhelmed by all inquiries from researchers and journalists from around the world. During the four months of my stay in Cairo, I’ve stumbled upon numerous film makers and journalists who came to Egypt because of the revolution.
I absolutely get what you are saying. I still think it’s a matter of degree. when I was in Honduras in 2009 and filmed there, some local activists told me “what we really need is a camera like yours, everything else we can do ourselves". Now when I was back, this seemed to have changed somewhat – they appreciated the amount of work that had gone into presenting their case worldwide, as well as the translating and traveling around with the video, neither of which they could have done themselves. Also they noticed I hadn’t enriched myself using the footage – quite on the contrary.
Nevertheless, the issue is important and likely the re-foundation/re-organization of academia that has to happen some time in the near future will also have to address the issue of third world researchers not getting recognition for their work. The reason why so may Chinese and rich kids from former colonies stream to Europe to study is related to this. For example, one could set up a global structure of inter-financing between the different anthro associations and then sponsoring such things as plane tickets for third world researchers to cover similar first world protest events – Madison or London riots.
Comment from: martin [Visitor]
just a side-note: this is not something that relates only to the (what used to be called) “third world". the “second world” (i.e. the former eastern block countries) and its academia was treated in a similar manner (think of all the ethnicity studies of the 90s). and as this article distinguishing between theory and data-production also suggests it has to do with the political economy of academia. see for instance poblocki’s article here: http://coa.sagepub.com/content/29/2/225.short
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