On Local Frameworks and the Ethics of Accuracy

June 13, 2014

By Scott Weiner, George Washington University

* This memo was prepared as part of the “Ethics and Research in the Middle East” symposium

Sayid Qutb’s 1951 essay “The America I Have Seen” describes a horrific game he witnessed as an Egyptian studying in the United States between 1948 and 1950:

Their lack of attention to the rules and sportsmanship to the extent that they are enthralled with the flowing blood and crushed limbs, crying loudly, everyone cheering for his team. Destroy his head. Crush his ribs. Beat him to a pulp. This spectacle leaves no room for doubt as to the primitiveness of the feelings of those who are enamored with muscular strength and desire it.[1]

Qutb cited the event as proof that Americans are “primitive” and “overlook principles, values, and manners.” Whether or not such inferences can be based on what was in truth a college football game in the town of Greeley, Colorado is perhaps a matter of debate.

Accuracy in academic writing is about more than good scholarship. It also has an impact on the identities of those about whom we write. Qutb’s description of football is not “false” per se, but it is certainly not the whole truth. Similarly, academics writing about the Middle East have historically been quick to judge what they have seen in the region. Today, even well meaning researchers in the Middle East can fall into tropes about authoritarianism, tribalism, and a general aversion to “liberal values.” These descriptions are harmful to people whose identities may already be a matter of sensitivity or contention in the region or in the international arena.

Rather than debate these issues among ourselves as scholars, we should bring people in the region into our conversation. The formalization that comes with treating local sources as “subjects” helps us conceptualize our responsibility toward them. However, it also dilutes the extent to which we consider their agency.

As a doctoral candidate in political science, I spent six months in Kuwait and one month in Oman conducting interviews for a dissertation on kinship and family. Most of my subjects had little experience speaking on the record, especially about these intimate relationships. Furthermore, many were suspicious of my motives as an outsider, while others were reluctant to reveal their true beliefs. In general, my subjects were concerned that I would misrepresent them, their family, or their society – a concern based on precedent in existing scholarship.

In other words, subject and researcher share the same goal of accurately representing the society in question. Yet rather than see the researcher-subject relationship as a collaborative attempt to attain knowledge, scholars often approach subjects – even experts – as “untrained” and “data points” rather than fellow knowledge-seekers who share one perspective that the researcher must then triangulate with others. Obviously, some subjects – government officials, leaders of politically sensitive factions, or mistrusting elders – will deliberately obscure the facts. However, even in such cases, these misrepresentations are overcompensation for some underlying truth that motivates the speaker, even if it is nothing more than a desire to raise one’s profile by talking to a Western researcher. In most cases, taking a subject’s ideological framework seriously until proven otherwise is a better approach than writing off prima facie a framework that differs from the Western academic consensus.

In my endeavor to learn important lessons from Gulf societies, local expertise was invaluable. In Kuwait, I benefited largely from the expertise of local scholars, students, and researchers. While not all held a doctorate (or in the case of many students, a bachelor’s degree), these colleagues had extensive expertise on the region and its people. Some had conducted interviews and even published books of their own. Most importantly, all understood the ideological frameworks of other interview subjects far better than I or any outsider could. My conversations about these frameworks often involved uncomfortable discussions about the privilege of American researchers, cultural imperialism, deep mistrust of the U.S. government, and my inability to truly understand Kuwaiti society. However, their intent in raising these issues was not to alienate me, but to defend an accurate representation of the society in which they lived.

Oman is a country where very little social science research is conducted. Yet even in such an environment, local experts were a vital part of my research process. At first, subjects were often confused why I was asking questions like “How did your parents meet?” But they were usually happy to answer once they understood my broader research intent. While in Oman, previewing my questions with local researchers (including fellow doctoral candidates) proved invaluable to this understanding. In particular, female students at multiple colleges, universities, and technical institutes were some of the most informative subjects with whom I spoke. So often treated as victims, these young women were invaluable to my understanding of the politics of kinship in the country.

Political scientists are storytellers. Often, we tell stories of people whose stories have not been shared in our professional and non-professional circles. Before telling our stories, replete with variables, controls, and case selections, our ethical obligation is to ask what kind of story our subjects would want to be told. Finding a balance between total deference and total indifference, our stories must amplify, rather than overpower the narratives that are so important to the identity of those on whose assistance we depend.

Scott Weiner is a doctoral candidate in political science at the George Washington University. His dissertation analyzes ethnic politics and state formation in the Middle East.

 


[1] Sayid Qutb, “The American I Have Seen”: In the Scale of Human Values,” Al-Risala Magazine, 1951: 6.

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