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Surviving sociology in Egypt and elsewhere

Strangely, although nationalism is a pervasive social phenomenon with immense effects everywhere in the world, it’s not a central preoccupation of sociology or any of the dominant social science disciplines. Interview.


Screenshot from After the Battle - Yousri Nasrallah

This is the first interview of a series on the dilemmas and contradictions researchers encounter in undertaking research in the Middle East. The idea of interviewing social scientists on the processes of the production of knowledge has been inspired from Michael Burawoy’s concept of  ‘public sociology’, which he initiated and was followed by other sociologists who carried out further interviews with social scientists in ‘Global Dialogue’.

These interviews will attempt to focus on questions of methodology, equally, on the obstacles encountered by researchers when undertaking fieldwork in enduring political upheavals. It will also attempt to highlight the multiple and varied trajectories and voices which a younger generation of social scientists in the Middle East have been confronting.

Mona Abaza (MA): Your research in Egypt has been about nationalism, intellectuals, and social movements. How did you get interested in these topics?

Benjamin Geer(BG): 
I got interested in nationalism and intellectuals while learning Arabic in Egypt. I was watching Egyptian films and reading Egyptian novels to help me learn the language, and I realised that many of them are about different ways of seeing Egyptians as a nation.

I wanted to find out how these ideas had been produced and why, and this became the topic of my doctorate and of my first academic journal article.
I ended up seeing nationalism as a competitive arena in which intellectuals and politicians promote rival views of the nation. I came to see it as a dangerous game, because when you look carefully at these concepts, it becomes clear that they're all based on illusions, that nations aren't real. There's a school of thought that says it doesn't matter whether nations are real, because people behave as if they are. But false beliefs can have very destructive effects: think of witch trials, or the denial of climate science. Belief in nations is dangerous because, since they're imaginary, you can say whatever you want about them and no one can prove you wrong.

When a charismatic leader persuades a lot of people that he speaks for the nation, and that whatever he says or does is therefore justified, terrible things can happen, as they did in Egypt after the 1952 military coup. Similar tragedies have happened in many other places, and I fear that we may be about to see many more of them because of the global resurgence of nationalism.

As I studied the lives of Egyptian nationalist intellectuals who either became propagandists for the military dictatorship or were crushed by it, I concluded that nationalism tends to undermine the autonomy of intellectuals. After my PhD, I started to wonder how intellectuals can become more autonomous, especially in an authoritarian state. I published a book chapter on the Egyptian filmmaker, Yousry Nasrallah, who has made a number of films that are relatively autonomous from the interests of the Egyptian state, as well as from the demands of the Arab film market. He managed to do this in part because he made art films that were recognised as such in Europe. This gave him access to European public funding for independent cinema production, which was basically detached from political and commercial considerations.

While I was teaching at the American University in Cairo, I got interested in the problems of academics in the Arab world. In Egypt, the state’s security services interfere directly in academic affairs and campus activities, especially to make life difficult for political dissidents. In 2012, I learned that a group of Egyptian academics called the March 9 Group for University Autonomy had been campaigning against this interference for nearly a decade, with some success. I interviewed some of them to try to find out how they had managed to do this. In a journal article, I argued that the group’s survival and successes had depended on the involvement of renowned scholars, on participatory democracy, and on the avoidance of conflicts between professors. Paradoxically, after the revolutionary uprising of January 2011, all these assets became liabilities, and the group lost its energy.

That article was a humble attempt at public sociology. I tried to strike a balance between making a theoretical argument and making it accessible to non-specialists, and I published it in an open-access journal, which is the bare minimum required to enable lay people to benefit from research as well as to criticise it. I also wanted it to be accessible to people in Egypt who don’t read English, so I published it again in an Arabic translation, in an Arabic-language sociology journal. I think the people that we researchers write about should be able to find out what we’re saying about them. Otherwise, research resembles gossip, or talking about people behind their backs.

MA: You had a number of other jobs before getting into academia. What was your social background? How did you get interested in Arabic culture?

BG: I was born in New York in 1969, and raised by my mother, an orchestral musician. She was the first in her family to get a university education, and juggled several jobs to make ends meet. I learned a lot from her about how to question social norms. As a teenager I liked computer programming, but I wanted to be a jazz musician. I studied music and philosophy at Hampshire College, known as an experimental college with no grades, exams, or required courses. I started to get interested in how knowledge is produced and how concepts are constructed, but I didn't yet know that what I was interested in was called sociology and cognitive linguistics.

Jazz was a difficult way to make a living, so I decided to get another degree. I was intrigued by academic debates about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which says that the languages we speak shape the way we think. I was a monolingual English speaker, and I wanted to learn to think in another language to find out how different it really is. Also, I was starting to feel that American culture is a sort of bubble, and that I needed to get out of it to find out what else there is. I spent a year teaching myself French by watching films, then did an MA in French. I was lucky enough to be able to take courses in cognitive linguistics, a heterodox branch of linguistics. Then I went to France on an exchange programme for a year as an English-language teaching assistant. I worked hard to internalise an unfamiliar set of social conventions and to think in French, and ended up feeling very much at ease. When I returned to New York in 1996, I had a severe culture shock. Now I felt more foreign in the US than I had in France.

Although I had two degrees and was now bilingual, my main qualification on the job market seemed to be that I could type very fast. So I joined the army of temporary workers who typed and edited financial reports on Wall Street. By sheer luck, a friend helped me get into the business of developing web sites, and suddenly I had a career in software development.

It never would have occurred to me that I could do that without a degree in computer science. A couple of years later I was offered a job at a software company in London, and I jumped at the chance to return to Europe.
London’s cosmopolitanism was a refreshing change from the American bubble. There I drifted into leftist political activism, and played a small role in the alter-globalisation movement of the early 2000s, which campaigned to limit the power of the global financial markets.

In February 2003, I participated in a huge demonstration against the US-led invasion of Iraq. It struck me that in the London activist circles I knew, hardly anyone seemed to speak Arabic or know much about the Arab world. I had been wanting to learn a non-Indo-European language anyway, so I started to learn Arabic.

It was clear that I wasn’t going to become fluent in spoken Arabic without living in an Arabic-speaking environment. In 2005, having saved some money from software development, I quit my job and moved to Cairo to study Arabic for two years. During that time I also started reading sociology. By 2007, Cairo felt like home, and I had decided to try an academic career. I did an MA and PhD in Middle East Studies at SOAS in London, during which time I spent another year in Egypt for archival research. One day I was looking at Pierre Bourdieu’s diagram of the religious field, in an article from the 1960s that nobody reads any more, and I had a sort of eureka moment: I realised that I could analyse nationalism in the same way. From then on, I struggled to be a sociologist in an area-studies field.

MA: Why was it a struggle?

BG: Partly because of the peripheral position of area studies in academia. More central fields like sociology, history, and political science produce theories and job candidates, and area-studies fields consume them, but the reverse rarely happens. With a PhD in area studies, I couldn’t get a job in a sociology or history department, but people with PhDs in sociology or history could get jobs in area studies departments.

Also, sociology is not popular in area studies. Traditionally, sociologists have studied their ‘own’ societies, and mainstream sociology is focused on North America and Europe. If you do research in the Arab world, you’re more likely to be an anthropologist, a political scientist, a historian, a literary scholar, or a specialist in Islamic studies. When I applied for jobs and submitted papers to journals, the scholars who evaluated my work were usually from those disciplines. In many cases they weren’t used to thinking in sociological terms, or were actively hostile to such thinking.

I also faced resistance to my focus on nationalism, and particularly to my critical view of it. Strangely, although nationalism is a pervasive social phenomenon with immense effects everywhere in the world, it’s not a central preoccupation of sociology or any of the dominant social science disciplines. The most prestigious sociology journals rarely publish papers on nationalism. Instead, the study of nationalism is relegated to an academic backwater called nationalism studies, which is dominated by apologists for nationalism rather than critics of it. Many academics I encountered were content to view nationalism as a benign ‘discourse’ that was already well understood, thanks to one book called Imagined Communities, by political scientist Benedict Anderson. I think Anderson’s theory is full of holes, and doesn’t fit the evidence from the Arab world, but many academics seemed to think I was crazy for not adopting it. My sense is that postmodernist academics, in particular, like it because it enables them to have their cake and eat it too: they can view nationalism as just another discourse that can be deconstructed, and at the same time they can celebrate their own nationalism and that of others. Area studies scholars tend to see nationalism as a force for good, because of the role it has played in struggles against colonialism. They don’t like to be reminded how many of those struggles have led to nationalist dictatorships, as in Egypt.

Another problem in a lot of fields, and perhaps especially in Middle East Studies, is that academic work is frequently judged (and seeks to be judged) on the basis of its political merits rather than its scientific ones. I often get the sense that academic papers are implicitly presented as a substitute for or supplement to political activism, and that certain terms, like ‘neoliberalism’, ‘late capitalism’, and ‘the West’ are used mainly to signal this intention. I think postmodernism has exacerbated this problem: when academics reject the whole idea of truth, it becomes impossible to evaluate work in scientific terms, so political criteria are likely to be used instead.

But I see this as a dangerous trend. If you’re trying to do science in the public interest, your results had better be correct, otherwise they’re likely to do more harm than good. This means they have to be evaluated according to scientific criteria. Bourdieu argued that a ‘liberating science’ must be, first of all, an autonomous science, and that this has to include autonomy from political aims. That must be one of the least popular assertions ever made by a sociologist.

Sociology’s aspiration to make universally valid scientific generalisations only made matters worse for me on the job market. I was once asked, in an academic job interview in the US, why I was using a European theorist (Bourdieu) to explain events in Egypt: shouldn’t I be using an Arab theory instead? I answered as diplomatically as I could that Arab scholars use Marx, Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc., just like everyone else, and that trying to create an ‘Arab theory’ for ‘Arab society’ would, in my view, be as misguided as trying to create an ‘American theory’ for ‘American society’. Nationalism, for example, is a global phenomenon, and a theoretical understanding of nationalism has little value unless it can be used to analyse any nationalism, anywhere.

I was fortunate to spend a year as Visiting Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo (AUC), but I had to leave because the Egyptian authorities refused to allow my wife to take up the academic position she had been offered at AUC. She had done an ethnographic study on labour unions and factory strikes in the textile industry in the Nile Delta, a politically sensitive topic. When she returned to Egypt in 2011 to teach at AUC, she was turned away at the airport. Later they allowed her into the country, but never granted her a work permit.

I then did a one-year post-doc at the National University of Singapore, during which I devoted about half my time to applying for academic jobs, many of which had hundreds of applicants, as the rejection letters helpfully explained. Moving to a different country every year for a series of one-year jobs, and spending half my time applying for them, would have been difficult enough when I was single, but with a family it was out of the question. I decided I had to find a way out of the competition for traditional academic jobs. Again, by sheer luck, I got a job in digital humanities, where I can use my experience both in research and in software development.

MA: What problems do you see for foreigners doing research in Egypt?

BG: The first obstacle that many foreign students face is learning spoken Arabic. Study-abroad programs generally last a year at most, which is not enough.

I think this tends to discourage students from taking on research projects that involve talking to people or using vernacular sources such as film, and to steer them towards relying only on textual sources. In this respect I was lucky to be able to fund two years of language immersion in Egypt before I started doing research there.

During my PhD I struggled with the poor state of Egypt's national archives. Looking for evidence of the development of nationalist terms in the twentieth century, I wanted to see how those terms had been used in newspapers and magazines. But the periodicals archive in Cairo isn’t digitised or searchable. Like many others, I adapted my methodology to the state of the archive. I had a good annotated bibliography of literary reviews, so I used reviews of the literary works of nationalist intellectuals.

I was also lucky in that the Egyptian authorities didn't oppose my work. My historical research didn't require the archives that are considered politically sensitive, which can only be accessed with permission from the security services. Nor did I have any trouble when I interviewed Egyptian intellectuals in 2012 and early 2013. My main concern was not to put the participants at risk. I asked them if they wished to remain anonymous, but none did, probably because their views were already well-known. But this is a serious problem for research involving participants who are not public figures, and I think there is no easy solution.

You might think you could protect their anonymity by interviewing them from abroad using encrypted communications, but authoritarian states now have sophisticated surveillance technology, so it is actually very difficult to ensure anonymity that way.

Another problem for foreign researchers, especially American ones, has been that some members of the public may suspect them of being spies. The media and the authorities have done much to encourage such suspicions, especially in recent years. Many people in Egypt aren’t used to dealing with foreigners other than tourists, and are unfamiliar with social science research methods. The people I contacted for interviews were academics and cosmopolitan intellectuals; they immediately understood what I was doing and wanted to participate. Still, I was keen to make clear my institutional affiliations and funding sources at the outset; if these had been politically suspect, they might have been used against the participants at a later date.

Since then, it has clearly become much more difficult for both Egyptians and foreigners to do social science research in Egypt. Academic freedom has been severely curtailed, and the gains that the March 9 Group made have been lost again. The torture and murder of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, in Cairo in 2016 suggests that the risks for foreign researchers in Egypt are now very high.

All these obstacles, taken together, could have unfortunate effects on social science. If foreign students can’t use spoken Arabic, or if fieldwork becomes too risky, they’re likely to do research that relies only on written sources. And if access to archival sources is too limited, they’re likely to rely on canonical texts that are readily available. Then they may be tempted to use those texts to answer questions about everyday life. I especially see this as a common problem in Islamic studies, where there’s a strong demand for scholarship that makes broad generalisations about Islam. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make generalisations, as long as they’re based on good evidence. If you want to answer questions about Islam as it’s actually lived, it’s not enough to read canonical texts. For that, you have to talk to a lot of Muslims and pay attention to what they actually do. That kind of research now seems especially at risk in Egypt.

MA:  What do you think researchers can do about these problems?

BG: Some researchers are trying to use social media as a substitute for ethnography and interview-based research. But social media users aren't representative of the broader population, and there are many fake accounts created for advertising or propaganda. Attempts to do automated analyses of large numbers of social media posts run into trouble with sarcasm and irony. And in my view, if you study things people say without knowing anything about who they are — for example, their social class — that’s not social science.

I think we have to accept that there are now many research questions that we can’t try to answer in Egypt. Instead we should focus on studying what we can study. If a student is studying Arabic and would like to do research in Egypt, I would advise them to learn another dialect and go to another country where there are fewer obstacles and risks. The situation in Egypt may change again, and in the meantime, there’s a lot that universities could do to prepare students better to do fieldwork where it’s still possible to do it.

When I did an MA in French in the US, the courses in literature, history, and philosophy were taught in French. Years later, when I did an MA and PhD in Middle East Studies in the UK, I was surprised that no academic courses were offered in Arabic. I think it would make sense to offer social-science degree programs outside the Arab world that include two years of study abroad in an Arabic-speaking country, academic courses in Arabic, and training in ethnographic methods.

There’s also a lot that academic institutions could do to make archival research easier. While the national archives in Egypt contain many unique documents, there are also archives at academic institutions and libraries in other countries whose collections overlap, to some extent, with the ones in Egypt. But in many cases, it’s difficult to get access to these collections, and like the ones in Egypt, many of them aren’t digitised or searchable. It’s also not reasonable to expect PhD students to travel to several different countries to read archival materials in person. All these materials should be digitised, searchable, and available for unrestricted use online.

Finally, when students study texts, we should encourage them to historicise those texts, to see them as the stances of particular authors as particular times, instead of taking them to be timeless expressions of widespread social phenomena. This means having the humility to acknowledge that we can use texts to try to answer some questions and not others.

About the authors

Benjamin Geer’s research has focused on Egypt, and has used sociology and cognitive linguistics to study the history of nationalist concepts in Arabic. He has been Visiting Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Middle East Studies Center at the American University in Cairo, done post-doctoral research in the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, and taught Arabic at the University of Tübingen. He is now a Research Fellow in the Digital Humanities Lab at the University of Basel, where he develops software to facilitate long-term preservation and reuse of digitised primary sources and research data in the humanities. He is currently working on a book on nationalism, and is planning a study on the concept of ‘the West’ in contemporary social science.

Mona Abaza is Professor at the Department of Sociology, American University in Cairo. Her latest books include The Cotton Plantation Remembered: An Egyptian Family  Story (American University in Cairo Press, 2013) and Twentieth Century Egyptian Art: The Private Collection of Sherwet Shafei (American University in Cairo Press, 2011).

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