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.