A Conversation With Sari Hanafi: The State Of Arab Research

Sari Hanafi, a sociologist, along with his collaborator Rigas Arvanitis and their team have spent the last five years investigating research in the Middle East and North Africa. They’ve interviewed hundreds of academics—across many disciplines—working in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine and Morocco. Hanafi’s team asked questions about the way the academics conduct their research and the challenges they encounter.

Over the years, Hanafi has conducted these interviews and has published his findings in a number of journals. (Some references can be found at the bottom of this interview.)

In August, Hanafi, who is the chair of the American University of Beirut’s Department of Sociology, was recognized for his work with the Abdul Hameed Shoman Award for Arab Researchers. The award was founded in 1982 to recognize research that leads to an increased awareness of cultural and scientific research in the region. He spoke to Al-Fanar Media about the state of research in the Arab world and how it is rapidly changing.

Did you find that researchers in different parts of the region had a lot in common? Or not?

There are lots of things that are shared. For example, many universities consider research output when looking at promotion opportunities for staff. But research shouldn’t just be counted in the number of papers published—universities should be doing a qualitative analysis too. We should look at how the public perceives research and whether it’s creating awareness of an issue or subject area.

We also need to be better, as an academic community, at praising each other. In June 2014, I organized a tribute for Lebanese sociologist Samir Khalaf at the American University of Beirut. When we sent this invitation to our mailing list, we received seven phone calls and emails asking us when Samir passed away, and four other emails asking when he retired. This anecdote alludes to a lack of tradition in the Arab world of giving a tribute to someone when they’re still alive. It indicates the absence of a “scientific community” that acknowledges the contribution of its members.

We noticed that international collaboration has increased across the Arab world. But this increase means Arab researchers have become part of research designs conceived outside of the region. Therefore much of the research is concerned with international problems instead of Arab problems.

I want more research the other way round. I also want partnerships that are more equal. When I started this research project, I realized that northern partners are usually the main authors and Arab partners are usually the junior authors. Sometimes Arab names just go missing from the bylines altogether—they become an informant rather than an author.

What’s your stance on the recent flurry of rankings for universities in the MENA region? Do they inspire academics to achieve or do they punish long-term research?

I’m so glad that Al-Fanar questions the value of these rankings; it’s a real farce because most of these rankings are commercial activities. A university will get higher in the rankings if it uses the consultancy products that the ranking agency is offering. There’s a lot of business going on behind these beautiful graphs and charts they produce. A university should be judged by its relationship to its environment. We should all be less worried about the hierarchy of universities. We need to focus on quality of research—there’s no real measure for that.

What would allow Arab researchers to be competitive with their Western counterparts?

Spending more money on translation would allow Arab researchers to be more visible on the international stage.

Even if more Arab research was translated, other observers tell me researchers who aren’t involved with international collaboration are too local-minded.

Local relevance doesn’t mean you should be parochial. Researchers should look at the question of relevance. They should ask themselves: how will the international community perceive it? Arab researchers shouldn’t exist in a bubble. If you live in a bubble you think you’re important but you’re not influencing the wider debate. You can’t just be interested in only a local audience.

So what are the main things hampering research in the Arab world?

I’d say the main two factors are the state and ideological groups. These are the two forces that seek the de-legitimization of the social sciences in particular.

The lack of freedom of expression is a huge problem in the Arab world. Self-censorship and state censorship are commonplace. I’d like to praise Al-Fanar for highlighting the demise of academics at the hands of political powers. We have a real problem where people don’t dare to speak up and criticize. Principled social scientists have been sent to prison, exiled or assassinated. The state in many Arab countries has actively restricted the social sciences. For example, it is rare in the Arab region to hear of a “white paper” written by social scientists at the request of a public authority and then debated in the public sphere.

On top of that, the social sciences are perceived as anti-clerical. Preachers in the Arab world study religion with zero social-science education. They therefore see social scientists as competition for the public’s attention. Clerics want a monopoly on “morals” in society.

What is the direction of Arab research? Are things getting better or worse?

I know I said that we should focus more on quality rather than quantity, but in terms of [quantity of] publications, it’s getting much better. More and more countries are doing more amazing research. In terms of knowledge creation, I don’t know. I think we still have a problem there; there is no connection between research and industry.

If we take the publication rate as an indicator of the size of the research in the Arab world, there is clear progress. Tunisia has quadrupled its publications in less than a decade—from 540 in 2000 to 2,026 in 2008. Morocco also had a very strong surge in production. Jordan and Lebanon have shown strong production. Jordan has woken up and shows a continuous and rapid growth that now surpasses Lebanon. Finally, one should note the spectacular growth of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Still, the total number of scientific articles is relatively low. The number of Arab scientific publications is estimated to be 20,000 papers yearly. Moreover, the number of articles published annually per 100 researchers varies from just two in some Arab countries to around 100 in Kuwait. There remains room for improvement.

This interview has been edited by Al-Fanar Media for brevity and clarity.

Selected References:

“Complex Entanglements: Moving from Policy to Public Sociology in the Arab World.” Current Sociology.

“University Systems in the Arab East: Publish Globally and Perish Locally vs. Publish Locally and Perish Globally.” Current Sociology.

“Palestinian Sociological Production: Funding and National Considerations.” (Book Chapter 21 of ISA Handbook of Diverse Sociological Traditions)

“Complex Entanglements of Public Sociology in the Arab World.” The Future of the Social Sciences in the Arab World. Beirut: Center for the Arab Unity Studies. (In Arabic


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