The Political Stakes of Anthropology

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Studying the Middle East at the height of US empire reveals the politics of academia.


Supporters of academic boycott during the annual business meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Denver, Colorado, November 21, 2015. Photo by Alex Shams.

The consummate image of the scholarly life is that it is defined by the free and impassioned pursuit of ideas. We conduct research and we teach; we produce, question, and impart knowledge. Yet all of us working in colleges and universities know that the life on which we once, perhaps naively, embarked is also filled with politics, much of it quite fraught. Perhaps nowhere is this more salient today than in the field of Middle East studies. In particular, anthropological study focused on this region provides a compelling lens through which to view some of the key stakes in the political struggles of academe and their relation to broader structures of power—particularly as the region has taken center stage in US imperial ambitions.

US global engagements in the Middle East and North Africa has for decades influenced how and why people research and teach about the region.

Those ambitions have, on the one hand, precipitated significantly more interest in funding work on the region and hiring scholars to research and teach about it. On the other hand, since at least the 1970s, academics who research or teach topics against the grain of dominant US national narratives about and interests in the region have faced the prospects of not having their research funded, not being hired, being accused—by parents, students, administrators, and people unassociated with academe or their campus—of bias and even treason in their teaching and public lectures, being targeted by blacklists and hate mail, and even losing their jobs.

A number of factors have contributed to this charged environment in Middle East Studies. For one, recent decades have seen a massive influx of women and region-related scholars into the field, a demographic shift that has altered the field in fundamental ways. The increasing diversity of scholarly voices has often resulted in the foregrounding of serious critiques of the social inequalities based on race, gender, religion, and national heritage, as well as US empire, Israeli occupation of Palestine, and the inherently subjective nature of knowledge production. These emergent boundary-pushing perspectives also dovetail with an academic climate that increasingly relies on tuition dollars and donations to support its operations—institutional funding that is secured by currying favor with boards of trustees, students, and alumni, who consequently have greater power over what gets taught, how, and by whom.

This economic reality—the increasingly corporate ethos of higher education and the scarcity of tenure-track faculty positions—has meant that in order to get and keep good jobs, academics need to (or strongly feel they need to) shape their scholarly activities in ways that meet market demands without rocking any boats. The unhiring of Steven Salaita is perhaps the most famous point-in-case of recent memory: When, during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, Salaita issued a series of tweets critical of Israel, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded by rescinding its job offer to him. Region-related scholars, like Salaita, must in particular constantly fight stereotypes of being un-American or anti-Semitic and are subject to greater monitoring than other scholars—dynamics which are directly related to and shaped by US foreign policy.

US global engagements in the Middle East and North Africa has for decades influenced how and why people research and teach about the region—it also determines which issues scholars might experience as too risky to confront. While US involvement in the region has drawn people to study it, it has also created political minefields that pressure scholars to conform to normative US perspectives on the region. For anthropologists in particular, specific events within this long history of US political engagement have affected scholars’ access to research sites. For example, the 1978-79 Iranian Revolution against a US-backed dictator essentially prohibited generations of US scholars—with a window of exception for Iranian Americans—from doing research there. And Iran is far from an isolated example: Over the course of the past few decades travel bans and other impediments to access have been implemented on Beirut, Libya, Afghanistan, Algeria, and Iraq all as a result of US foreign policy objectives. Most recently, Syria has become a black box for contemporary ethnographic research, first due to problems obtaining research permission and engaging ethically with interlocutors under the Asad regimes and now also due to war.

Federal research funding has always reflected national security and political concerns, and policymakers have used resulting knowledge to their own ends.

On the other hand, the presence of US diplomatic ties and/or economic aid to a country has eased access in some places, as these relationships carry with them both stated and unstated obligations to grant visas and permissions to researchers carrying US passports. Yemen’s popularity for many years, including during the Cold War, was at least partly due to the fact that it was, in the words of a Yemen scholar’s mentor at the time, “beholden to the U.S. government because of all the foreign aid given to them” and therefore accessible to US researchers. While US scholars had great difficulty doing fieldwork in Egypt during the Nasser period (particularly after 1967), it became the most popular fieldsite in the Middle East and North Africa after the Camp David Accords in 1978 and subsequent aid from the United States. The 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, meanwhile, enabled a critical mass of scholars to conduct research in the occupied Palestinian territories for a time. Generally decent diplomatic relations with Morocco, Turkey, Jordan, and some Gulf countries have also facilitated access to fieldsites in those countries.

Anthropology's Politics

Anthropology’s Politics » offers a complex portrait of how academic politics hinders education and limits the public’s access to critical knowledge about the Middle East.

The events that instigated ebbs and flows in fieldsite access not only motivated scholarly interest in working in specific parts of the region but also molded the content of that interest as it evolved through academic careers. Violence in particular created and cemented stereotypes of Middle Easterners, especially men, as terrorists, which anthropologists then sought to complicate, if not outright combat, drawing on both their knowledge that miniscule numbers of Middle Easterners actually engaged in violence against Western or Israeli interests and their knowledge that US and Israeli aggression in the region was concealed from public view and whitewashed as a possible motive for such violence.

The War on Terror exacerbated these narratives but also presented another troubling tension. Federal research funding has always reflected national security and political concerns, and policymakers have used resulting knowledge to their own ends. But the twenty-first century brought new government efforts to use funding to shape scholars’ research topics and frameworks. For example, a number of grants and other funds were made available to students and researchers in exchange for their commitment to put their skills to use in the service of national security interests in some manner. This “strings-attached” funding model reflects the ways that global politics have intertwined with the university’s corporatization to create instrumental, and sometimes militarized, academic interest in the region.

Studying the contemporary Middle East during the apogee of US empire reveals the politics of academia in myriad ways. The academic environment is utterly entangled with trends in US domestic and foreign policy, the result being that the pursuit of ideas—that hallmark of scholarly practice—is never pure; it is infused with tensions large and small. This is not to say that the lofty ideals of higher education have grown more tainted over time (surely the halls of medieval universities were host to many political machinations). Instead, it is to bring a key insight of post-WWII humanities and social science research—that knowledge and power are coconstituted—to bear not just on the scholarship we produce, but on how we produce it.

This post has been adapted from Anthropology’s Politics by Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar.

Start reading Anthropology’s Politics »


Lara Deeb is Professor of Anthropology at Scripps college and co-author of Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East.

Jessica Winegar is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Northwestern University and co-author of Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East

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