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.