Of Power Relations and Responsibilities

By Laurie A. Brand, University of Southern California

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

Fieldwork in the Middle East and North Africa region poses many ethical concerns. Most immediately and obviously, particularly given the authoritarian nature of the regimes of the region, are the need to respect privacy or even anonymity of sources, to do no harm, whether through omission or commission to those who help us, to present ourselves and the purposes of our research honestly, and to accurately report and honestly assess the material we have gathered.

Here, however, I would like to reflect on several other issues related to the broader power relations that affect our research.[1] We cannot escape that much of the history of modern social science in the developing world has its origins in colonial projects to conquer and control. Britain recruited academic specialists primarily from Oxford and Cambridge to work on economics, social services, and educational programs in its colonies. Closer to home, following World War II some of the United States’ most elite academic institutions took money directly from the CIA, FBI, or other intelligence or military agencies, while others secured government funding indirectly through various foundations that served at the time as laundering channels. Perhaps the most infamous of these programs was Project Camelot, which aimed at creating the information base needed for a variety of social engineering projects and then for the counterinsurgency and psychological warfare operations that were launched when the initial projects failed. Conceived in 1963, it was intended to bring social science expertise to bear on “managing” national liberation movements in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. It was exposed before it could be launched, but other similar studies and projects were implemented.

Indeed, it is important that those of us who work in a regional studies tradition remain mindful that it was precisely during this period that “area studies” emerged owing largely to similar government concerns, not out of a desire for disinterested knowledge, but in response to the need for experts who could deal with specific problems. As a result of the Vietnam War experience some sectors of the academic community became more wary of government initiatives, but the history here is important. One of its clear lessons should be that it is important to draw and maintain a clear distinction between research that may contribute to ongoing policy debates and research in the service of particular national objectives. The former may be called policy relevant, the second, however, is political, not academic, work, and to present it as otherwise at very least violates professional ethics.

Thus, our fieldwork needs to be seen, not just in terms of our individual endeavors, but as a part of a larger set of relations. At the most basic level are the links between each of us and those with whom we interact during our research, from the cab driver, to the archivist, the young revolutionary, and the government official. There are also relations between institutions: between our home universities and whoever else funds our work on the one hand, and the universities, research centers, NGOs and the like with whom we affiliate and from whom we seek assistance, on the other. Framing all of these relationships, however, are the inter- and trans-national structures, the relations between centers of power (and weakness): between the American academy, which increasingly sets the standards for or serves as a model for others, and MENA universities; between the U.S. government and regional governments; and between U.S. corporations and regional/national economies.

As scholars we have different degrees of ability to influence these power relations, but we have a clear ethical responsibility to be aware of them all and of the role they can play in various aspects of our research: from how we conceive of a project, to how we carry it out (how much time in the region, what sorts of regional sources/input), to how we draw conclusions, and how and to whom we present them.

An excellent example of the ethical questions imposed by unequal power relations was raised by Mona Abaza in an article on the phenomenon of “academic tourists.”[2] Her reflections merit repeating here because, while what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Arab uprisings was perhaps unprecedented in the region, the problems she expressed did not begin in January 2011. She focused the problem of what she termed the local “service providers,” those scholars in Cairo who were bombarded with requests for assistance by Western scholars wanting to study the Egyptian revolution. Her complaint concerned not the interest of outsiders in the developments in Egypt, which she welcomed, but rather the unequal positioning and privilege of the Americans versus their Egyptian counterparts.

Americans with funding and time (sabbaticals, course releases, etc.) went to Egypt and sought help with contacts, logistics, translators, and so on, while implicitly (and in some cases, probably explicitly) treating the Egyptian scholars as helpers, rather than colleagues. It was the outsiders who had the financial means and privileged access to outlets of power (prestigious publishing, lecturing in the United States, etc.) who thereby became the analysts of local developments for the centers of power: They in effect created the knowledge about the uprisings in Egypt, while the Egyptians they consulted became the objects of that knowledge creation.

It is, therefore, critical for all of us to reflect regularly on the nature of our interaction with those who assist us in our work: What do we give back? What do we do to level the playing field, to help break down the barriers of privilege? Clearly, circumstances differ, so there is no single appropriate formula, but the basic, guiding principle should be that of establishing relationships of mutual respect, not some variation on neocolonialism. To list just a handful of ways to ensure this: We must first listen to our colleagues, sources, etc. as much or more than we speak ourselves. We must take responsibility for our own work, and not impose on our MENA friends’ and colleagues’ resources or sources. There should also always be honest pay for services rendered when appropriate: no exploitation facilitated by Arab generosity. We should be creative in finding means of thanking or compensating people: assisting with information or access for our colleagues to enable them to advance their careers – through helping with information on grants, writing letters of recommendation, engaging in joint authorship when appropriate, including them in conferences, recommending them for projects and the like, etc.

Finally, we should be ready to defend them when necessary. Here I will mention the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom, which I have chaired since 2006. We take up cases of academic freedom violations against members of the academy in North America and the MENA region. Bringing to the committee’s attention cases of academics and students whose academic freedom has been threatened or violated is a powerful way to put in the service of our colleagues abroad some of the influence that our privileged positions here in the United States offer us.

In sum, it is unethical and amoral (perhaps immoral) for those of us who have had the privilege of learning, indeed, taking, so much from the region – its average people, its scholars, its other experts, its institutes – to regard our involvements there solely or even largely in terms of how they serve our professional advancement. Our research interactions in the region impose upon us a range of ethical responsibilities, some of the most important of which extend well beyond the strictly professional boundaries of our lives.

Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California and chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom.


[1] See my 2004 MESA Presidential Address, “Scholarship in the Shadow of Empire,” MESA Bulletin, Vol 39, No. 1 (June 2005): 3-18. For reflections from another discipline and other regions see James Derrick Sidaway, “In other worlds: on the politics of research by ‘First World” geographers in the ‘Third World’,” Area, Vol. 24, No. 4 (December 1993): 403-08.

[2] “Academic Tourists Sight-Seeing the Arab Spring,” http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/2767/academic-tourists-sight-seeing-the-arab-spring. Last accessed June 3, 2014.

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