Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.
We might wonder whether Arab sociologists enjoy their full unrestricted scientific and intellectual freedom when dealing with social phenomena, or whether they limit their research and teaching through self-censorship.
In democratic countries, the “social space,” a term coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, allows competition and struggle among the holders of various forms of capital over hegemony, and also allows the understanding of the many issues of knowledge production and dissemination. But is this the case in countries where the owner of political capital is the only one in power?
In his latest, 318-page book, Production of the Void: Arab Research Traditions, the scholar Adnan El Amine seeks an answer to this and other questions related to the reality of Arab academic freedom. El Amine says that any observer of the course of work at the Arab universities, especially the public ones, can clearly notice that political control is the main explanation for the decline in the production and circulation of social knowledge in these countries. (See a related article, “Arab Social Sciences: Scarce, But Sorely Needed.”)
Research for the Sake of Promotion
In the book, El Amine says the selection of professors in the social sciences in the Arab countries is based on their high school grades, which are low compared to the high grades required to get into scientific colleges. As a result, these professors tend to be conformists who are ready to take into account the conditions they work in, in institutions governed by political control, including teaching and conducting research within the existing frameworks. They do all of this in order to preserve their jobs.
El Amine explains how these professors shape their research for the sake of promotion and building a glamorous social image of themselves as researchers rather than for knowledge production. As professors are subject to these political and socio-cultural contexts, they usually avoid researching the serious issues of their local communities and are content to conform with research traditions that adhere to the methodological form at the expense of the scientific content, producing a knowledge vacuum.
Avoidance of Sensitive Issues
In his book, El Amine rarely uses the term “self-censorship,” preferring the term “avoidance” in reference to how scholars avoid addressing sensitive issues in society—a tendency that suits both the ideologically based regimes and the scholars who prefer to avoid ideological pressures, from power or society alike. (See a related article, “The Door for Many Middle East Scholars Is Slamming Shut.”)