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Arab Social Sciences: Scarce, But Sorely Needed

The social sciences remain marginalized in the Arab world, at a time when the need couldn’t be greater for countries in the region to take a serious look at themselves.

A new report on the social sciences in the Arab world focuses much needed attention on this often overlooked discipline and the contribution it could make to public policy. Governments and education ministries here dedicate numerous speeches and sizable budgets to the creation of “knowledge economies,” but this usually takes the form of supporting science and technology. The social sciences, which often produce useful knowledge about societies’ blind spots, receive scant attention.

Social Sciences in the Arab World: Forms of Presence was commissioned by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, a nonprofit organization established in 2008 and dedicated to strengthening social science research in the region, largely by giving research grants. Al Fanar reported on the report’s preliminary findings in 2015, and the final version is now available for order online.

The report’s author, Mohammed Bamyeh, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, emphasizes the urgency for a scientific understanding of reality in times of radical social change. Yet the report found that more than 50 percent of the universities in the region have no social science programs.

According to Bamyeh, some of the challenges social scientists face include “institutional fragmentation, the lack of encouragement for research activities, the political restrictions on it, the weakness of the Arab academic intellectual community, and the bureaucratic inflexibility of Arab universities.” And students of the social sciences today are largely unaware of the work of the pioneers of the field in their countries. In fact, the report found that the social sciences are deeply fragmented across different generations, languages and countries.

Part of this might be due to the massive expansion of higher education in the Arab world. As the report notes, 97 percent of Arab universities were established after 1950, and 70 percent of the universities that are currently open did not exist before 1991. The region is populated by “a new generation of institutions still in the phase of discovering each other.”

Let’s hope they do, because creating strong professional networks, multiplying exchange and collaborations, and being open to global scholarship are key to carrying out innovative research. Meanwhile, some of the most dynamic developments in the field have taken place outside universities. There are 436 working research centers in the Arab world, a ten-fold increase in the last 35 years; independent (non-university) centers publish over half of the scholarly journals in the region. Civil society organizations, meanwhile, commission much of the applied social-science research and are a major employer of social-science graduates.

The report also surveyed 244 periodicals directly related to social sciences in 2014 (up from just nine in 1961). It found that in recent years, the most common research topics have been: the Arab Spring; democracy, citizenship and civil society; women’s issues; youth issues; urbanization; development; Islam; and new technologies.

Other findings included the statistic that only 6 percent of articles are joint research (whereas the world average is about 50 percent), and that no more than half the articles specify which research techniques and methodologies were used. In fact, the report found that in published social science research there is a “relative weakness in … methodologies relevant to fieldwork, such as observation and interviews, comparisons and case studies.”

In a media survey, the report found that a mere 3.3 percent of newspapers contain material from the social sciences and that there is very little presentation, across all media, of social-science material, or use of its analytical approaches.

The social sciences have long been viewed as valuable only when they contribute to modernization and development—hence the dominance of economics departments—while social history and anthropology are more marginalized. In addition, anthropology is viewed with suspicion because of its connection to colonialism. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the authorities often regarded sociology departments as potential hotbeds of socialism and Marxism.

The report found that the social sciences “do not flourish simply due to national wealth, but rather due to public interest and the relative freedom of research.” This is encouraging, suggesting as it does that small investments could have large impacts.

Investing in the social sciences could be “very low cost,” says Seteney Shami, the ACSS’s director-general. But she emphasizes that “good social science is incredibly challenging.”

“So much of good teaching in the social sciences is enabling people to contextualize what they’re studying and make it meaningful,” explains Shami. “You can’t just take a theory that appeared at one place at one time, and study your context through this theory.” That’s why it’s much harder to do social science research than scientific research, she argues. Students must be “taught to question concepts and to think about them as working hypotheses, as opposed to being rules and scientific principles. And the universities in the region do a really bad job teaching research methods.”

Almost every topic of interest to social scientists is controversial. “Issues of ethnicity, identity and race are very problematic in every country of the region—almost taboo,” says Shami. “Anything to do with political participation and governance is always tricky; issues of foreign policy; sex and religion… Almost everything you work on is problematic.”

It is tempting, and not uncommon, to simply replicate “ruling policies and ideologies,” notes the report, rather than critically engaging with the assumptions that underlie them. In Saudi Arabia, for example, 19 percent of 1037 research papers from 1970 to 2013 focused on “crime, deviation and social discipline,” while only two dealt with social conflict and one with employment of foreigners—one of the most significant social phenomena in the country’s modern history. As the report states, there is “no good reason for such high rates of criminology research in a society with such a relatively low crime rate.”

Because of the backlash they can face, many social scientists “retreat into a scientism and obfuscation by using a lot of jargon and using numbers, instead of seeing the social sciences as a dialogue with society,” says Shami. That’s why, in addition to creating links with policymakers and civil society, it’s also important to create safe “professional spaces and academic conferences, where you can speak as an academic.”

At a time when the region is going through drastic and wrenching transformations—when its political systems, religious dogmas and cultural assumptions are all being shaken—it is more urgent than ever to recognize the contribution of objective, original, scholarly insights into the changes taking place. The social sciences can act as a mirror, but societies need to want to peer into it.

Editor’s note: The author has worked as a consultant with the Arab Council for the Social Sciences.
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