“Who frames the debate on the Arab uprisings? Analysis of Arabic, English, and French academic scholarship”

April 13, 2020 — Leave a comment
We are sharing below the conclusion, because it offers a good summary, of a very relevant (evidence-based) study that deals with a topic rarely addressed in mainstream academic journals and even less, think tank publications. The study is titled “Who frames the debate on the Arab uprisings? Analysis of Arabic, English, and French academic scholarship”. It was published in the International Sociology Journal (July 2015, Volume: 30 issue: 4), and authored by Nada AlMaghlouth (American University of Beirut, Lebanon), Rigas Arvanitis (Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, France), Jean-Philippe Cointet (National Research Institute, France) , Sari Hanafi (American University of Beirut). For the whole paper go to: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0268580915580157

“The network analysis we conducted demonstrates clearly that there is an evident hierar- chy between three levels of knowledge production, indicating the different levels of influence of those who will frame the debate about the Arab uprisings. At the first level, knowledge producers who have the highest level of legitimacy (and the highest citation factor) are often from US foreign policy Ivy Leaguers, who create the theoretical, informational, or/and analytical center. These authors are cited by all levels of knowledge producers and publish often in high impact factor journals. Their legitimacy comes from their status as ‘experts’ on authoritarianism in the ME, democratization, and political reform. ‘Expert’ in this context has little to do with local knowledge, since few of these producers reference local authors when studying the region. Instead, some of their expertise is confined to understanding the costs and benefits of US foreign policies in the ME, while some is critical of the longstanding US administration’s support for Arab authoritarian regimes. Titles like ‘Common interests, closer allies, how democracy in Arab states can benefit the West,’ and ‘Authoritarian learning and authoritarian resilience: Regime responses to the “Arab awakening” ’ are pertinent examples of the ways in which these producers perceive the problems they are studying. In addition, their status as both academics and researchers at prominent US think tanks is particularly problematic when it comes to scientific ethos, where their research imperatives are necessarily inclined toward US private interests. The Brookings Institution, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Wilson Center, and other US think tanks are funders of political/ social scientific research in the ME, a factor that has undoubtedly affected the production of knowledge. Their legitimacy is further solidified through their public appearances on international news networks like CNN, and regular publications in journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. Unfortunately this article cannot further examine the differing influence of publication outlets.

At the second level we find scholars who do not have a pronounced level of intel- lectual authority. Here we are not talking about the local scholars who are sometimes used as ‘informants’ to first level knowledge producers. Mona Abaza (2011) complains strongly that local academics have often been reduced to ‘service providers for Western “experts” who jet in and jet out.’ Rather, we are referring to scholars who are less cited in spite of the significance of their work. The best example is El-Ghobashy, who has followed the Egyptian revolutions very closely on the ground. However, what we noticed is that her writings were subsequently used as a reference to factual events that occurred during the time and not as a theoretical reference. Other authors in this category might include Arab authors writing from within the AW in English or French. We also find many French-speaking authors that belong to this level, clearly identified in the network analysis and disconnected from the American networks. As we showed in the clusters, those who bridge between different clusters, they often provide alternative voices to the mainstream analysis.

Third level producers are peripheral knowledge producers and include Arabs writing from within the region, in Arabic. As the names within the cluster showed, these voices are seldom heard on the international level, and are only referenced by second level knowledge producers. These voices privilege social justice over geopolitics (very debated by American and French scholarships). What is particularly problematic is the one-way relationship between first and third level producers, which creates the hierar- chal structure of legitimacy; while third level producers cite first level producers (thus legitimizing them), first level producers do not cite third level producers, thereby delegitimizing their positions as knowledge producers at the international level. The collective nature of knowledge production is broken, and a hierarchical structure based on the legitimacy of hegemonic western-institutionalized standards of political and ideological normativity is set in place.

This hierarchy of legitimacy in knowledge is due in part to where the articles are pro- duced. The majority of articles are indeed produced outside the AW and in English. This is primarily due to the hegemony of the English language (Hanafi and Arvanitis, 2014; Mosbah-Natanson and Gingras, 2014) in social science research, facilitated by the dominance of western academic institutions, think tanks, as well as the standards of publication in international journals, which expend little to no effort in accommodating foreign languages. Furthermore, what little knowledge is being produced within the AW is produced in Arabic and not being translated. In fact, scarcely any authors who write in English or French reference in Arabic. To a large extent, authors who write in a particular language, cite in that particular language. Houssay-Holzschuch and Milhaud (2013) find that French authors tend to quote mostly French references and this is confirmed by our work. The issue of language compartmentalization becomes significantly poignant here. Some authors see translation an opportunity for increased reflexivity (Hanafi, 2011), which might lead to new ways of conceptualizing and articulating concepts. New ways of thinking can indeed be found in translation, as long as translation is understood and practiced as a process that is never-ending, dialogical, and fraught with heuristic tensions (Houssay-Holzschuch and Milhaud, 2013).

The hegemony of political science is significantly problematic as well, in addition to the weakness of peripheral authors (both geographical and theoretical), which greatly impoverishes the international debate. Karim Makdisi in Reflections on the State of IR in the Arab Region provides an overview of influential IR journals and demonstrates that voices and research from the Arab region are notably absent, and moreover that those IR ‘conversations’ dealing with the Arab region routinely eschew Arabic sources, let alone oppositional Arab voices.

Given Arab scholars’ lack of resources, language barriers, and poor publication record in mainstream journals, it is clear that many Arab scholars working in Arabic and within national institutions are virtually invisible internationally. The challenge today is the disengagement of social science research from its local context, which is amplified by the hegemony of neoliberal interests and concurrent narratives for change, as well as the marginalization of local knowledge by many Arab scholars who suffer from both local and global constraints on knowledge production.”


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