A Survey Reveals How the Pandemic Has Hurt MENA Research

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s Note: An online discussion based on this commentary will take place on October 5, 2020, at 4 p.m. Beirut time. Readers may register here to attend the discussion: The number of places is limited. 

Researchers who study the Middle East and North Africa region are more likely to face increased challenges compared to those researchers focusing on more democratic settings, our online survey of scholars working in the social sciences and humanities has found.

The Covid-19 pandemic has transformed the way professors teach, work, and carry out research. For most scholars conducting comparative research, the ability to travel for data collection is essential not only for promoting their research agendas and meeting grant requirements, but also for career advancement. While the pandemic interrupted most scholars’ research plans, their ability to present work, and planned summer research activities, researchers who study the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region tend to encounter higher barriers. Given the authoritarian nature of politics in most parts of the region, MENA researchers face security and ethical challenges associated with conducting fieldwork remotely, especially with vulnerable and displaced populations.

To learn more about the effects of the pandemic on scholars’ research, we conducted an online survey between May 26 and July 28 of more than 200 faculty members in the social sciences and humanities. Respondents worked at institutions in 32 countries in North and South America, Europe, Africa and the MENA region. We focus in this article on respondents researching the MENA region, who represent about half of our sample. We also conducted qualitative interviews with international and regional scholars to further explore important themes and challenges facing academics working on the MENA.

Amid lockdowns, travel bans and restrictions, and social distancing measures, scholars around the globe canceled travel and fieldwork planned for the summer of 2020, with many indefinitely delaying data collection. Three-quarters of scholars stated that they either had to change (57 percent) or cancel or postpone their research plans (23 percent) for the summer. Only 5 percent of respondents were able to conduct their summer activities as planned. Early on in the pandemic, many conferences were cancelled, while those later in the summer and fall have moved to virtual formats.

As shown in the first graphic below, 91 percent of scholars with a MENA focus said they had to postpone travel for research, compared to 79 percent of scholars studying other areas. But more MENA-focused researchers started new projects (46 percent) as well as research related to Covid-19 (30 percent), compared to 32 and 23 percent, respectively, among scholars studying other regions. Less than a third of MENA scholars were able to conduct their fieldwork remotely (31 percent). Finally, less than half of the respondents—49 percent—were able to resume their research and secure access to previously collected data.

Less than one-third of MENA-focused scholars were able to conduct their fieldwork remotely, a survey found (Graphic by Nasser Zawk).
Less than one-third of MENA-focused scholars were able to conduct their fieldwork remotely, a survey found (Graphic by Nasser Zawk).

Moreover, researchers based in the Middle East and North Africa face mounting challenges with looming cuts to already low research and travel budgets. As one of our respondents said, “For scholars based in the Middle East region, research and funding were already a challenge and with the effects of COVID on universities, it will become even more challenging to be able to travel for conferences or to get grants for research. Add to that the very high probability of an increase in teaching load that will transform research universities to teaching universities.”

Heightened Security and Ethical Concerns

Scholars researching the MENA region also have to grapple with heightened security and ethical concerns surrounding fieldwork in the new Covid-19 reality. The prevalence of authoritarian politics across the region adds a layer of complexity for scholars’ ability to carry out projects amidst the pandemic. While online research designs—such as interviewing subjects over web-based video apps—have been hailed as the answer, they raise a number of serious ethical and security concerns. Digital technologies in the MENA often become mediums for state surveillance and crackdowns, raising concerns surrounding trust, security, and safety of research subjects. Furthermore, relying on online research design excludes the voices of disadvantaged research subjects who might not have access to Internet and digital technology.

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Additionally, researchers tend to spend countless hours in the field with their subjects and interlocutors to establish networks of trust, ensure participants’ safety and privacy, and to make sure research designs are implemented ethically. This ability is almost non-existent in the new pandemic reality. This is particularly true for research on vulnerable and/or displaced populations within authoritarian contexts. One professor studying sex trafficking in refugee camps emphasized in an online interview (May 29, 2020) how it is impossible to secure “someone’s trust that we see in a refugee camp in Jordan to talk to [me] online about what happened…. [I]t’s not going to happen.” While carrying out research with vulnerable populations is always fraught with uncertainties, the online landscape exacerbates these uncertainties, particularly threats to the safety and privacy of research participants.

Long-term Implications on MENA Scholarship

Our survey found that challenges to carrying out fieldwork will have an effect on the discipline at large as well as on scholars’ careers. The majority of Middle East and North Africa scholars believe that, going forward, they will increasingly have to rely on online collection of data (88 percent), and 76 percent agree that there will be fewer publications utilizing primary sources in the field (see the graphic below). Only one respondent believed that the ongoing health crisis would not significantly affect MENA-focused research. Although the majority of respondents (84 percent) were “somewhat” or “very concerned” about the ability to fund their research as a result of the pandemic, only 36 percent thought that funding and research priorities would shift toward Covid-19-related research.

Most MENA-focused scholars believe that, going forward, they will increasingly have to rely on online collection of data (Graphic by Nasser Zawk).
Most MENA-focused scholars believe that, going forward, they will increasingly have to rely on online collection of data (Graphic by Nasser Zawk).

In addition, in our online interviews with researchers, those who conduct ethnographic studies and other qualitative data-collection methods expressed concerns that field research will not only be “delayed” but also “devalued,” since “big data” and “regression”-based research may not necessarily face similar challenges. Such methodological divides will exacerbate and, as one respondent anticipated, it will become one of “the most important divide[s]” in the field. This disparity will have long term implications on scholars’ careers. Junior scholars who carry out qualitative work, one professor explained, will face at least “two, three years of repercussions.”

In sum, scholars who carry out field research, regardless of whether they utilize qualitative or quantitative methods, face distinct challenges, especially as publication expectations seem to remain the same.

Looking Ahead: Some Positives

The transition to online research presents key challenges for researchers but it may also offer  some opportunities for Middle East and North Africa-based scholars. For example, moving international conferences and workshops online may present an opportunity to promote regional scholars’ participation and reduce the isolation felt by those in conflict areas such as Iraq, Yemen and Syria. Given the costs and difficulties associated with obtaining visas and traveling to conferences in North America and Europe, virtual conferences and workshops may make participation easier for scholars based in the region.

Finally, while the pandemic has created new challenges for research and exacerbated existing disparities in the field, scholars continue to tap into their creativity to mitigate some of its effects. Our survey findings confirm this point, with many respondents initiating new Covid-19-related research projects or adapting existing research to include study of the Covid-19 reality. Other researchers have started to apply for grants that were not available prior to the pandemic. In fact, many funding organizations are re-allocating their travel and other event budgets toward research projects that can be conducted remotely, which may have a positive impact on MENA scholarship.

Marwa Shalaby is an assistant professor of political science and gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research areas are gender politics, research methodology, and legislative politics under authoritarianism. She is working on a book about women’s political representation in Arab parliaments.

Gail Buttorff is an instructional assistant professor and co-director of the Survey Research Institute at the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. Her research focuses on electoral politics and gender and female empowerment in the Middle East and Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Nermin Allam is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University–Newark.


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