Researching the Middle East: Challenges and Miseries

This extreme violence in the region was the trigger to the appearance of challenging surroundings, which influenced the academic institution, state agencies, security services and the whole society and, accordingly, the researchers. These challenges depend on what the identity of the researcher is and for which institution they work.

There are many great challenges, yet there is an increasing rate of enrollment in postgraduate studies at universities in the Arab World. Despite the difficult challenges and declination that face the social science research centres and researchers, the number of postgraduate students in the region from 1998 to 2008 has increased by 6%[1]. Moreover, the majority of the students of the universities in the Arab World are part of the social science and humanity faculties (87%). On the other hand, 22% of the students of universities study natural scienc[2].

Research Methodologies, lack of resources, censorship and restrictions are all the main challenges that face the researchers of social science in the Middle East. This essay focuses on some main challenges that encounter the social science, as a field of study in MENA, and the researchers of this field. In March 2017, the Arab Council for Social Science (ACSS), which is a great initiative to gather Arab young researchers, organized their annual conference in Beirut to discuss the relationship between the state and the citizen in Arab World. One panel shed light on Egypt where a much-respected Political Islam researcher, Khalil Anani, was attacked by other academics from the same country. There was a lack of objectivity. The trigger of all these arguments was because Professor Khalil Anani used the term “coup” in his paper. Furthermore, there were some subjective researchers from the same panel, where one of them said, “Personally, I hate the Muslim Brotherhood and I hate them.” However, no one attempted to oppose her for being using personal expressions in an academic and scientific panel. The lack of objectivity is a problem because it tend to not only exclude other opinions, but also creation of “otherness” in academic convesntions, which does nt serve the purpose of academia at all. It has become systematic to exclude academics based on their writings, opinions, and sometimes political–orientations.

The traumatic accident of Gulliano Regeni in Egypt is another trouble that researchers and academic writers faced in the Middle East whether being an Arab or a foreigner. Recent Turkish academics expressed fear among these sacking of academic writers after the coup. These subjective writings can be applied on every country in the Middle East with the difference of types from country to another as it depends on the techniques and intensity of violation of academic freedom. The below is a V-Dem institute’s indicator on Academic and cultural freedom, which shows a very serious decline in the whole region.

Another challenge for researchers in the Middle East is the mistrust they receive from the older generations who do not only focus on qualitative research, but they also focus on teaching only (in the majority of the MENA universities). Most of the old generation scholars practice their job as teachers as a work they do, not as a career which is a part of the research institute whose main job is to produce and reproduce knowledge. Unlike the old scholars, the young scholars and researchers, especially the western-educated, focus much more on research and knowledge production. The young modern scholars use the quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods. Therefore, young researchers face the obstacle of being mistrusted by the old scholars, which leads to forcing young scholars to leave the institute or even the whole country because of the pressure of their old-generation colleagues. That is why the great majority of the Middle East research is produced through more qualitative than a quantitative method or mixed methods. Besides, the majority of doctoral theses from the region use the qualitative method despite the availability of quantitative dataset for the last decade such as Arab Barometer, World Value Survey and the Arab Opinion Index.

The lack of knowledge of different statistical methods and their different techniques is an effective reason that causes the lack of qualitative studies in the Middle East. However, many institutions now exert great efforts to introduce such courses for young researchers. Also, ACSS has started to introduce such courses for young researchers from the Arab region and V-Dem cooperated with Bibliotheca Alexandria to start such collaboration in 2015. With such initiatives, new innovative and transdisciplinary studies would emerge in the field, which will contribute to knowledge production by researchers who focus on the MENA region.

Moreover, such initiative will provide a more interesting and valuable, and intensive knowledge in different fields such as culture, politics, psychology, feminism and women studies especially when it links researchers from the MENA to their counter partners from the West and other regions in the world

Another challenge is the gender bias against the female researchers. According to the ACSS’s social science in the Arab world, 75% of academics in social science in the Arab World are males[3]. I do not believed that this rate is inaccurate, but it gives us a glance to the gender bias and inequality in the academia in the Middle East. Over and above, female academics are not only underestimated by the old generation academics, but also by their counterparts from the same generation. Although their work can be valuable and published in prestigious journals, their work still gets sunder suspicious and mistrusted by their findings and ability to lead a research team or a department. This reflects the patriarchal society, where not only young researchers are pressured and neglected, but also female researchers, which shows the lack of unequal oppurtunities.

Despite these challenges, there are many opportunities persist and keep coming, not only for researchers and academic from the region, but also for academics from the west who study the Middle East and its broader region. Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, the number of research grants for studying the Middle East or related questions has rocketly increased despite the clear reduction of social science budget in many western countries. For instance, US president has proposed a sweeping cuts to major science agencies[4]. European Union has proposed cut on research budget, but then reduced the cut by half billion Euro in 2015[5]. in This creates opportunities for many scholars from the Middle East to be a part of such research projects, empowering them, providing a high quality mentoring mechanism, and expanding their networks in Europe and North America. Moreover, the engagement of young Middle Eastern researchers in such projects provides a great insight and a street-level data and information for the research projects; they ensure high quality and accurate knowledge products.

Other persisting and increasing opportunities are the new policy and research oriented International Non-Governmental Organizations, which many of them initiated a research unit to produce high-quality research and policy recommendations based on scientific research. Oxfam, Danish Refugees Council, ESCWA, UNV, and COSV are all examples of NGOs and agencies that have research units or established research as part of their work to enhahnce their work based on research and scientific policy recommendations. There are plenty of these agencies working in the Middle East and outside the region too. These platforms provide not only a safe place to produce knowledge, but also provide the capacity to have first-hand in-field experience that can advance the knowledge reciprocity of the researcher, and provide them with an enormous network with INGOs that may advance their skills as independent consultants from the region that provide local experience with international standards.

Another important opportunity is the international initiatives and the research gatherings, organized by Middle Eastern and Non-middle Eastern institutes, which provides a space to network and collaborate with researchers from the west on individual levels, but also provides an institutional capacity for the young researchers to learn and publish their work in internationally recognized academic platforms. Initiatives such as APSA Middle East fellowships and ACSS conferences and fellowships.

In conclusion, the pressure on academics and researchers whose focus is the Middle East is being amounted and unbearable. Being a researcher in the Middle East is such a pressure accompanied by unacceptability by the old social science school academics and scarcity of resources will corner researchers from the Middle East leaving them alone in the battlefield of both unemployment sometimes and scarcity of resources that make their research invisible or inaccessible. However, there are still some opportunities that rise, which provide a hope for those young researchers amid these barriers. The increase of funds to study the Middle East and the INGOs research oriented policies and the international platforms are all a way to strengthen the young researchers’ resilience in the face of the current challenges.

Note: A copy of this article was published at APSA, MENA newsletter, Issue 2

A copy of this article was published at APSA, MENA newsletter, Issue 2

[1] http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/FIELD/Beirut/pdf/Regional_Report_on_Higher_Education_in_the_Arab_States__Arabic_-_Final_.pdf

[2] http://www.ub.edu/LinkingMedGulf/docs/kickoff_meeting/scientific_research.pdf

[3] http://www.theacss.org/uploads/English-ASSR-2016.pdf

[4] https://www.nature.com/news/social-scientists-tell-congress-don-t-cut-our-funding-1.21801

[5] https://www.timeshighereducation.com/content/european-union-research-cuts-scaled-back