Rethinking Relationality: Abductive Reasoning, Action Research, and Islamist Politics

By Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

*This memo was prepared for the “Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamist Politics” workshop, January 29, 2016.

Scholars of Islamist politics have been struggling to come to terms with developments that seem to be moving too fast and too far in places and among people we have known well. Whether because of a coup in Egypt or a war in Syria or Yemen, most contributors to this collection of essays are working in contexts of rapid change, where the organizations, groups, and individuals we have long studied have taken on new roles and are interacting with new, arguably unpredictable, forces. In some cases, Islamist politics seems to have undergone a qualitative change. In others, perhaps, it seems to have become irrelevant, as such.

Intellectually, the increasingly pressing question when I think about the methods and epistemologies of our research program is whether “Islamists” are even a thing. I mean this both analytically and colloquially. First, as a post-positivist critique of the too-easy intellectual objectification of a research program in which I am heavily invested but about which I am increasingly uncertain, and second, as a way to describe some of the effects of the rapid changes in places in the region that we are collectively trying to think through. There is a possibility that we can’t easily make sense of ongoing developments because our concepts – Islamism first among them – lack traction.

One of the primary lessons of the existing literature on Islamism, yet one that I don’t believe we have fully reckoned with as a collective, is our inability to isolate Islamists as an object of analysis. No matter the scholar’s epistemological commitments – and surely some among us question the extent to which a social-scientifically objective relationship is desirable or possible on ethical or practical grounds – our collective work shows that it is neither intellectually productive nor even possible to study Islamist politics in isolation from non-Islamists. In different country contexts and using different methodological tools, we focus on how Islamists interact with institutions, other interlocutors and organizations, and each other. We study Islamists only in relation.

Doing so requires some kind of implicit criterion of demarcation by which we understand an Islamist to be distinct from a non-Islamist, but as Jillian Schwedler ably argued at our meeting last year, and reiterated this year, we are far from this ideal and our efforts have too often devolved into a kind of “idea entrepreneurship” aimed at the development of typologies of Islamists – moderate, radical, jihadi, etc. Schwedler encourages us to “ask whether many of the common-sense distinctions and concepts that structure our analytic frameworks should be revised or even retired.” Two possible trajectories of revision seem clear, on the basis of different epistemological grounds. The first, like Ahmed Khanani’s ordinary-language approach to the study of Islamism in Morocco, might take as Islamist those who describe themselves as islamiyyun. Another might hold that “Islamist is as Islamist does,” and seek to deduce a set of practices against which to evaluate the work of Muslims who may or may not call themselves Islamists but who engage in practices or espouse views that align with some institutions that we understand as Islamist.could be measured. I am not at all interested in this latter approach, but I think elements of its deductivism seep into most of our work, including my own, explicitly or implicitly.

It is not clear that we currently have agreement on even the most basic criterion of demarcation, Islamist/non-Islamist, nor does it seem possible to arrive at one that would not systematically privilege institutional membership, a criterion that seems intellectually indefensible, given what we know about Islamist movements, organizations, parties, practices of everyday piety, and the slippage among them. From a Lakatosian standpoint, this undoubtedly hinders the potential progress of our research program, but the critical reappraisal may at the very least protect us from the “tyranny of unexamined systems” (Feyerabend 1965, 212).

The Promise (and Peril) of Abductive Reasoning

As we struggle to connect unfolding events in the region to what we know or think we know from the perspective of our existing research program on Islamist politics, it makes sense to move from Feyerabend’s general ethic to something more practical, like Ian Shapiro’s notion of “problematizing redescription.” For Shapiro, this is a two-step process that “starts when one shows that the accepted way of characterizing a piece of political reality fails to capture an important feature of what stands in need of explanation and…then offers a recharacterization that speaks to the inadequacies of the previous account” (2002, 615). It is possible that a narrow focus on Islamism – and what we think we know – needs to be redescribed in such a way.

This process of problematizing redescription emerges most clearly through an encounter with the puzzling and is most clearly advanced by abductive reasoning. The mode of reasoning seeks to avoid the linearity of both inductive theory-development and deductive theory-testing in favor of a an iterative and recursive “hermeneutic circle-spiral” by which we continually revise and refine our thinking about a particular puzzle – including the specific nature of the of puzzle itself – in light of new and ongoing discovery. The abductive focus on the puzzling or surprising “requires attending to the expectations and other prior knowledge one brings to the field,” and being open to “new concepts, new relationships, explanations, or accounts” that emerge when “theorizing these surprises or puzzles” (Schwartz-Shea and Yanow 2011, 32-33).

Embracing this iterative-recursive approach in order to rethink the centrality of Islamism would, among other things, allow us to embrace the curiosity that we have as we face new and unanticipated events in the Middle East, without needing to immediately fit them into existing theory. It would, in effect, allow us to be curious learners more than experts. And by “allow us to be,” I mean that it would encourage an honest reckoning with where many scholars of Islamist politics are right now in relation to the rapid changes on the ground in our areas of expertise. In my case, the nearly year-long war in Yemen has left the country’s political dynamics practically unreadable. Instead of asking “what role are Yemen’s Islamists playing in the current conflict?” I would far rather ask (or be asked) “what’s going on politically?”[1]

Despite the clear advantages to abductive reasoning, the perils are also reasonably clear. If one’s head is already spinning, a hermeneutic circle-spiral that is recursive and interactive cannot promise to slow the spinning down. In fact, in the short term, at least, it may make knowledge seem or feel even less tractable. That problem is particularly acute when we are called upon to comment from a perspective of expertise, to provide a longer (if still recent) historical perspective on a given conflict, to offer a genealogy of a particular organization and, in particular, to opine about where things are going rather than ask what’s going on.

Where Action Research Comes In

This leads to the issue of our role as scholars of Islamist politics in an international policy community, an issue that is particularly apt for the contributors to this collection, given that POMEPS takes as its explicit aim “to increase [scholars’] contribution to the public foreign policy debate and to the policy-making process, in order to allow their expertise to have more of an impact on vital decisions about the Middle East.”

The line between our scholarship – idealized by a majority in our field as a dispassionate and “objective” exercise – and policy advocacy is far less clear than might always be recognized. Yet outside of political science and along its methodological periphery,there is an established literature on “action research” or “participatory research,” in which scholarship consciously shapes the policy arena that scholars study. The challenge of such research, as Charli Carpenter ably demonstrated in Perspectives on Politics, is that when effective, it may actually contribute to changing the very phenomena under investigation (Carpenter 2012, 368). While this is problematic from the perspective of neopositivist political science, the epistemological commitments that underwrite interpretivist work already take for granted the potential impact of scholarly inquiry itself and challenge the subject-object distinction implicit in neopositivist claims.

That does not mean, however, that action research is not ethically fraught, even for those who accept its basic epistemological and political premises. Indeed, in the current regional context with its very high stakes, scholars of Islamism might rightfully feel compelled to use knowledge to advance some particular good – say, the political freedom of people who are being suppressed by ascendant anti-Islamist and/or sectarian regimes. However, the risks of engaging directly – risks for our interlocutors and risks for our own career trajectories – are real. POMEPS, I believe, navigates this line well through its emphasis on research programs more than individual scholarship. That said, our conversations should necessarily include a more open reckoning with the limits (and politics) of expertise under rapidly changing conditions. This can start, I think, with the kinds of questions we ask each other. As a thought exercise, if nothing more, it is worth considering what would happen if we were to stop asking each other about Islamists and start asking each other about politics, broadly. We might find that we still want/need/like our conversations about Islamists (qua Islamists), and those concepts will still be available for us. But we might not.

What I Don’t Mean to Say

I worry that this essay will be read as biting the hand that feeds me. After all, I might be arguing for the abandonment of a research tradition on Islamist politics in which I’ve worked for more than a decade. But I am not actually arguing that, at least not quite. I am arguing, I think, for the intellectual space to breathe, and certainly, for some greater reflexivity and honesty about our diverse roles in the process of knowledge-production. These are not novel arguments, but they do require repeating. And, as Carpenter argued, “taking seriously the idea that we are part of the world we are studying requires more than a few paragraphs in our methods section.” (2012, 364).


Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon” (I.B. Tauris, 2013)



Carothers, Thomas. 2002. “The End of the Transitions Paradigm.” Journal of Democracy 13 (1): 5-21.

Carpenter, Charli. 2012. “You Speak of Terrible Things So Matter-of-Factly In This Language of Science.” Perspectives on Politics 10 (2): 363-383.

Paul Feyerabend. 1965. “Consolations for the Specialist.” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge, Vol. 4. Imre Lakatos and Paul Musgrave, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 197-230.

Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus. 2016. The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

Khanani, Ahmed. “What I Talk About When I Talk About Islamism.” Project on Middle East Political Science, 3 February 2015. Accessed 5 January 2016.

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Dvora Yanow. 2012. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes. London: Routledge.

Schwedler, Jillian. “Why Academics Can’t Get Beyond Moderates and Radicals.” Washington Post, 12 February 2015. Accessed 5 January 2016.

Shapiro, Ian. 2002. “Problems, Methods, and Theories in the Study of Politics, Or ‘What’s Wrong with Political Science and What To Do About It.” Political Theory 30 (4):596-619.

[1]This framing recollects a similar critique made by Thomas Carothers with regard to the literature on democratic transitions, where he advised that “aid practitioners and policy makers looking at politics in a country that has recently moved away from authoritarianism should not start by asking, ‘How is its democratic transition going?’ They should instead formulate a more open-ended query, ‘What is happening politically?’” Thomas Carothers. 2002. “The End of the Transitions Paradigm.” Journal of Democracy 13 (1): 18.

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