A Conversation With Seteney Shami

BEIRUT—In a building dating back to the 1930’s, between Hamra Street and the Ain el Mreisseh Corniche, lie the relatively new Beirut headquarters of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. Seteney Shami, the director general of the council, has managed it since its establishment in 2012.

The new council office kept most of the features of the old building, with its very high ceilings, interior arches and black-and-white chessboard floor. It is a beehive of activity, with dozens of scholars and visiting scholars, often working with the support of the council.

In Shami’s office, which has a wide terrace overlooking Beirut’s residential neighborhoods, she talked about the center’s activities thus far, the reality of social-science research in the region, and ways to support young researchers.

How do you see the reality of social-science research in the region five years after the launch of the council?

For many years, social sciences in the Arab world lived in a crisis primarily because of the nature of the incubating institutions. Social sciences’ natural place is in public universities, which are, unfortunately, witnessing a continuous decline. The lack of an environment to encourage critical thinking, in a tense and non-liberal political environment, often results in the production of research with weak relevance to the issues pressing a community. Therefore, after five years of work, we have changed many of our programs in line with this reality, but certainly have tried to keep our basic objectives.

What are the new programs you have adopted?

At the beginning, we did not have any programs geared to undergraduate or master’s degree students. The stage of research production begins only with the doctoral degree, but the quality of research we found prompted us to work from the very early stages. Unfortunately, most Arab universities do not graduate students with the required standards. We designed a four-week online training program that was attended by 67 students from Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt. Then, we invited the best 20 to attend a summer school here in Beirut to work with them to develop their writing skills. And because of the lack of awareness of the importance of social sciences research, we are also working today with the ministries of education in several Arab countries to organize periodic visits to high schools, to explain the importance of the social sciences and their potential employment opportunities to students and teachers. We hope that could contribute to changing the stereotype of social sciences depicting them to have no career future in our region. In addition, we have started a postdoctoral fellowship program for new Arab scholars who have received their Ph.D.s within the last three years to help them pursue their research and publish the results.

What are the major challenges facing social-science research today?

Funding is of course very important, and it is the main goal behind the establishment of the Council. We did not want it to be a research center as much as we wanted it to be a center of support for scholars, whether individuals or institutions. Besides the difficulty of obtaining funding, there are other difficulties related to the publishing opportunities available to scholars. We have provided funding for about 130 researchers over the past three years, but most of them face difficulties in publishing. We have thought of creating a journal to help researchers publish their work, but such a step needs time and funding as well, and we prefer primarily to be a research-support center and not a publisher. There is also the problem that the majority of researchers lack the necessary writing skills, so we began programs whose essential objective is to develop writing skills among researchers and help them to write their papers in a way that will make it easier to publish them later on. I should also refer to the importance of promoting research ethics; there are many problematic ethical issues that are not addressed now. For example, how can we separate research from humanitarian or moral duty? When should a researcher intervene or when is his or her monitoring sufficient? This is also something we are working to rectify by working to establish basic regulations, train scholars in them, and support their commitment to them.

So, what has the Council achieved so far?

As I mentioned earlier, the main objective of establishing the Council was and still is to support research and the production of knowledge in social sciences in the Arab region through an independent non-profit regional institution without its being a research center or publishing house. Besides providing funding to study the social phenomena, the Council also works to create a community or network for researchers to ensure communication and participation. I think we managed to achieve that largely through either our ongoing all-year financing and training programs or our contribution in identifying and meeting the needs of social scientists and social sciences groups in Arab countries. Our conference, which is held every two years, also contributes to consolidating the foundation of a strong network of Arab researchers in the social sciences.

What kind of research do you support today? 

The Council uses a broad definition of the social sciences, including the basic sciences such as anthropology and demography, moving to economics, political science, psychology, and sociology, and relating these disciplines to arts, architecture, geography, history, law, literature, philosophy, and public health. This is an interesting approach as it opens the field of social-sciences research so it intersects in multiple places, just as it is in reality, to include all that is related to development, women’s issues, urban issues, and citizenship.

How is the tense reality of the Arab world affecting social research? And what is the role you hope for social research today? 

It is a difficult question. It cannot be ignored how the region’s reality increases the pressure on Arab researchers as regards the level of freedom or even the difficulty of moving among Arab countries. At the same time, the revolutionary social mobility [that is, the movement of Arab youth demanding a change in their society and life—what is sometimes called in politics Arab spring] increases the importance of social research for its role in understanding and analyzing these movements’ causes and repercussions to draw prospects for a possible better life in the future. I think there is a great opportunity for researchers today to work seriously to change the reality of social research and consolidate its presence and impact in the region. Today, there are many efforts to read the reality, but we need to make a critical reading and provide a perception of the future too.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.


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