(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a package on the prevalence and consequences of academic self-censorship in Arab higher education, based on a survey conducted by Al-Fanar Media and the Scholars at Risk network. See other articles and commentaries in the package at this link.
We might wonder whether Arab sociologists enjoy their full unrestricted scientific and intellectual freedom when dealing with social phenomena, or whether they limit their research and teaching through self-censorship.
In democratic countries, the “social space,” a term coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, allows competition and struggle among the holders of various forms of capital over hegemony, and also allows the understanding of the many issues of knowledge production and dissemination. But is this the case in countries where the owner of political capital is the only one in power?
In his latest, 318-page book, Production of the Void: Arab Research Traditions, the scholar Adnan El Amine seeks an answer to this and other questions related to the reality of Arab academic freedom. El Amine says that any observer of the course of work at the Arab universities, especially the public ones, can clearly notice that political control is the main explanation for the decline in the production and circulation of social knowledge in these countries. (See a related article, “Arab Social Sciences: Scarce, But Sorely Needed.”)
Research for the Sake of Promotion
In the book, El Amine says the selection of professors in the social sciences in the Arab countries is based on their high school grades, which are low compared to the high grades required to get into scientific colleges. As a result, these professors tend to be conformists who are ready to take into account the conditions they work in, in institutions governed by political control, including teaching and conducting research within the existing frameworks. They do all of this in order to preserve their jobs.
El Amine explains how these professors shape their research for the sake of promotion and building a glamorous social image of themselves as researchers rather than for knowledge production. As professors are subject to these political and socio-cultural contexts, they usually avoid researching the serious issues of their local communities and are content to conform with research traditions that adhere to the methodological form at the expense of the scientific content, producing a knowledge vacuum.
Avoidance of Sensitive Issues
In his book, El Amine rarely uses the term “self-censorship,” preferring the term “avoidance” in reference to how scholars avoid addressing sensitive issues in society—a tendency that suits both the ideologically based regimes and the scholars who prefer to avoid ideological pressures, from power or society alike. (See a related article, “The Door for Many Middle East Scholars Is Slamming Shut.”)
With the prevalence of this tendency, scholars become able to “walk by themselves,” without warning, assistance, or surveillance, and without the need for apparent prevention of academic freedoms. Yet they actually prevent themselves from exercising it.
El Amine reveals two methods that are used to establish this “avoidance” tendency. The first lies in professors’ reluctance to conduct qualitative research that relies on analyzing texts, conducting interviews and making observations, while the second is represented by their interest in quantitative studies, the use of questionnaires, tests, and measurements, and avoiding studies that could lead to the development of theoretical frameworks.
From this context, the “typical university” is born and becomes the most widespread model, with presidents appointed from among those loyal to the authority, who favor marginalizing social sciences and banning the study of topics classified as “taboo” by the prevailing culture, like sex, religion, political conflict, minorities, and women’s studies. (See a related article, “Arab Researchers Face Challenges in Studying Sexual Orientation.”)
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In such an atmosphere, research methods that are easier to implement and accomplish prevail, pushing aside the investigative method and replacing it by indoctrination. Thus, it would be difficult to “produce independent thinkers” in such environments, and social science research centers turn into marginal and ineffective ones.
The book reviews the reality of the scientific community and the ceremonial conferences held under the patronage of presidents, kings, emirs and ministers, and their impact on the public sphere. It also deals with the problems of various forms of university publishing, i.e. books, reports, or articles in periodicals, whose policy is subject to restrictions related to the existing authority, to the extent that one of the goals of those writing is to be published for the sake of promotion. Upon writing their books and papers, authors will be lenient in applying standards and methods of accountability, which leads to a decline in their local, regional and global impact, besides their intellectual closure to professors from within the same specialty. (See a related article, “Why Social Science Risks Irrelevance.”)
“Research methods that are easier to implement and accomplish prevail, pushing aside the investigative method and replacing it by indoctrination.”
The subordination of social scientists to these contexts led to the emergence of two major types of educational and social studies, says El Amine. These are “empty empiricism” and the “social normative pattern,” with the “pattern of fabrication in between.” All of this together leads to the production of a knowledge void.
Under the empty empiricism category, research proceeds from cognitive certainty, in contrast to the knowledge research traditions, which proceed from a problem or issue that needs to be explained. Empty empiricism avoids the provocation of what irritates the prevailing ideology leaving academic freedoms as a victim.
Perpetuating Ineffective Traditions
According to the book, social research traditions in Arab countries are based on four common characteristics. The first is prioritizing the social return of research, i.e. the author’s interest. The second is conformism, or paying attention to social acceptability among those in power and decision-makers, observing the traditions, norms, and social taboos, and avoiding research into socially provocative issues. The third is the delusion of addressing the broad public and political authority. The fourth, partisanship, is taking a specific ideology or set of values as a reference in examining a topic instead of relevant social theories.
These traditions are shared by most Arab countries, and university professors are their protectors, passing them on to the new generation of scholars, instead of contributing, as members of the society’s intellectual elite, to criticism of ideologies and ideas that give legitimacy to tyrannical authorities.
Fidaa Bou Haidar is a professor of social sciences at the Lebanese University.