By Nathan J. Brown

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Uprisings Explained” workshop, October 2-3, 2014. 

For decades, political scientists studying the Middle East have felt marginalized by their disciplinary colleagues. At the heart of our resentment have been two very different, almost contradictory, claims. First, many of us have felt that empirical work trying to make sense of politics within the region has required serious study of language, history, culture, and extended time working in the region. We may bristle at being considered area studies specialists, but we have insisted that serious regional training is necessary for most research. Second, political scientists doing research on the region have complained about a feeling of Middle Eastern “exceptionalism” in the broader discipline – a prejudice that politics operated by different rules made the region of interest to political science only for its exoticism.

While not fully contradictory, these two complaints pulled in very different directions. The first insists that special training was necessary; the second that the Middle East should be amenable for comparative work. What was needed, then, was a set of scholars with deep regional knowledge and experience still trained in the methods of the discipline and oriented toward the increasingly strong preference in most disciplinary programs for causal explanation over scholarship that can be dismissed as primarily idiographic, “area studies” work.

That set of scholars has arrived – over the past decade or so, a new generation of political scientists has been able to ground itself both in rich (and nuanced) empirical work in the region and emerging methodological and theoretical trends in the discipline. Significantly, most of these scholars did not combine regional and disciplinary training in their doctoral programs. Instead they approached them (intentionally or not) in sequence – they accumulated language skills and regional experience before beginning their doctoral training. And one valuable (if ironic) piece of advice for aspiring Middle East scholars might therefore be: Learn everything you can about the region before you start studying it, since most doctoral programs will not make much space for it.

But in retrospect, I suspect another factor was also operating that made the broader discipline less interested in Middle East work; that factor has changed even more dramatically and has led to our being welcomed back into the discipline. Politics in the Middle East was boring because there did not seem to be much of it. In previous decades, in order to participate in disciplinary debates, Middle East scholars had to explain what was not happening (democracy), what seemed anemic in comparative terms (social movements), or what did not change (persistent authoritarianism). Our dependent variables did not seem to vary very much. The Middle East seemed to be where politics ­– at least domestic politics – went to die.

And when that changed in ways that drew enormous global attention in 2011, we found ourselves suddenly welcome. Those who studied subjects that led them to ignore us in the past suddenly sought us out to ask questions, form panels at conferences, participate in special issues, and on-line symposia. The uprisings of 2011 showed that politics was very much alive in the region.

But oddly, that welcome by our colleagues has paid limited rewards thus far. When the uprisings shook the region, we were armed with a set of conceptual tools, approaches, and subjects that first seemed terribly relevant: democratization, transitions, social movements, and regime change. What was happening in these areas was surprising but very much amenable to comparative analysis. But those things seemed to change quite quickly. And we have struggled to keep up. In a workshop of specialists on the Arab world in 2011, participants asked Valerie Bunce what advice she had for us based on what scholars of the falling Soviet bloc missed, she said “Keep your eye on the authoritarians.” Some of us did, but more of us should have. In 2014, suddenly security services, civil wars, and identity issues loom far larger than they did in our thinking three years ago.

What does this suggest for a young student interested in the Middle East but beginning a doctoral program today? The region may seem especially daunting now. Politics is all too alive in the region; there seem to be too many moving targets to aim at. Today’s topic will seem not simply old fashioned but perhaps naïve when the dissertation is completed.

Of course, I have already given one piece of advice to a beginning doctoral student: If you do not have regional experience and training coming into the program, you are unlikely to get it now. So go back and be raised in the region or by people from the region. If those options are not available, spend a couple years living there (and more studying a language or two). Then come back and I can teach you – and you can teach me.

I can be a bit more helpful and specific for a student who has followed this advice already. In particular, let me suggest three areas that are likely to be ones where a well-trained political scientist will be able to make a strong disciplinary contribution based on empirical work in the Middle East in the coming years. These areas where disciplinary interest is high, gaps clearly exist, and close study of Middle Eastern cases seem very likely to help fill those gaps:

  1. Legacies of authoritarianism: Bunce was right; we should never have taken our eyes of the authoritarians. But there is something else we need to probe as well – how patterns of authoritarian politics survive authoritarian regimes. The structures of authoritarian regimes deserve our attention (indeed, as I will suggest in a moment, they deserve more of our attention), but that is not what I mean by “legacies” here. Just as important as state structures are the political patterns, forces, organizations, constituencies, modes of interactions, expectations, and linkages that grow up under a set of authoritarian conditions. They can survive a change of regime in ways that we need to understand much better.

In a book I edited a few years ago on democracy and democratization, it became clear to me that the discipline was increasingly focusing on a middle temporal range: No longer was regime type understood primarily as a result of long-term historical, social, and economic trends or as an outcome of contingent and short-term struggles. Instead, something in between seemed to be attracting our attention.

Societies go into regime change with the actors and patterns that they have. Patterns of interactions between Islamists and non-Islamists, for instance, or patterns of labor politics in the post-2011 period are heavily shaped by what came before. And there seem to be clear parallels with other regions in this regard. Recent interest on authoritarian legacies in the former Soviet bloc make this clear, but there are other ways that inter-war experiences informed post-war ones in Europe (such as party formation), or that patterns of authoritarianism in 1970s Latin America (such as economic changes) shaped politics in the 1990s that have not yet drawn our full comparative attention.

  1. More nuanced picture of authoritarianism: The study of authoritarianism (and of a variety of non-authoritarian regimes) has burgeoned. But I have been frustrated that much writing on the subject has replaced teleology (authoritarianism as a residual category for democracies that have not yet happened) with functionalism (in which every feature of authoritarian politics is seen as serving the purpose of regime maintenance, or even the interests of an individual autocrat). Yet that clearly has never been the case for well-established authoritarian systems, and the Middle East is rich in opportunities to probe the complexity and varieties of authoritarian politics in a manner that does not treat it only as a matter of autocratic intelligent design.
  2. Identity politics: Political scientists have not had enough to say about identity politics in the Middle East. An earlier generation was trained more in political economy and avoided sect, ethnicity, and tribe for that reason; that attitude survived in an aversion to anything that seemed “essentialist.” But if there is one thing clear in the region today, it is that identity politics is of interest not because it is timeless but because it varies so much. Of course, there is much recent work on precisely this subject (especially when identity politics takes conflictual and even violent form), but this is still a very rich field to explore. There is a dependent variable here that varies like crazy; it is time to understand what causes those changes.

Indeed, more generally, I do not mean to imply that no work has been done in these areas. Each one has seen some significant pioneering work already. But each one is likely to be fertile ground for wonderful empirical work and fresh insights for the study of politics as the discipline of political science currently conceives it. A beginning student could be trendy, useful, and nuanced all at the same time.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012).

Advice for youngsters: Do as I say, not as I did

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