Hillary Wiesner: The Social Sciences in the Arab World — Making Societies Visible to Themselves

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How do the majority of Americans view the Arab world?

If you’re just reading the newspaper, you might think these countries are a series of never-ending problems. But they contain their own solutions and their own knowledge sectors, which go largely unreported because it’s not news. It’s as if all you knew about New York City came from reading its crime reports. You would wonder how anyone in the city is left alive. That’s the lens through which we view most of the world outside of the U.S.

What is the aim of the Corporation’s current Arab region work?

Carnegie has been supporting vital research originating from and relevant to the Arab region. We build institutional partnerships, and we aim to raise the visibility of that research internationally.

How have the recent developments in the Arab region made clear the need for, and importance of the social sciences?

When we look at the Arab region today we see change. Sociology, economics, political science, anthropology — the social sciences make societies visible to themselves. They use research to illuminate drivers of change, in contexts of economic, political, and cultural contestation.

What are some of the more important research topics?

We see expertise in the region active in constitutional and legal reform, negotiating civil rights and the social contract. The quality of life in cities is also a priority topic for many countries in the region, so there’s a lot of exciting new research in urban development and urban governance. Migration and refugees are major topics; demography is critical. In some countries we still lack accurate population data. Population estimates range widely; as in other regions there are citizens, non-citizens, and undocumented workers. Having an accurate headcount is a starting point in advancing health, education and development. In addition, there is some attention paid to studying how they have been studied: what frames and names have come from outside the region, and what has been omitted.

Have Arab social scientists had an impact on U.S. policy toward their region?

Arab social scientists might say not much. Voices coming from within the U.S. are what we mainly hear. But today we know that knowledge about regions must include knowledge from those regions.

In general what are some of the differences between social scientists in the Arab region and North American?

In many Arab societies we’re witnessing the blossoming of civil society. People are staking claims to being full actors and full citizens. This is also happening in universities and research institutes. We’re seeing advances in academic freedom, greater access to higher education. Specialists are discovering ways to measure phenomena that are happening in their societies, and at the same time they’re seeking more effective ways of using that research to impact policymaking.

We’ve had interest from the region in projects that the Corporation supports right here at home – projects that measure whether and how research is accessed by policymakers. Our interest is in providing policymakers with sound research that they can in turn base their policies on. It’s far from a perfect art, how we collect, analyze and improve those information flows.

What is the current capacity of most Arab countries to support their own social scientists?

The status of the social sciences varies a lot from country to country. There’s actually quite a bit of “brain drain” within the region where excellent scholars from less well-off countries are moving to those that have better pay and opportunity. This challenges assumptions that brain drain is just about outward flows in our direction.

There’s a system of large public universities in the region that are often facing financial challenges and problems of over subscription—flooded with students, and education quality is not always aligned toward intellectual advancement and employment opportunity. There are also smaller, disproportionately wealthy, private institutions. And now almost every day new, for-profit institutions are opening, which are different from the non-profit private university system we know so well. We work closely with other higher education funders, including those based in the region, to connect with this constantly changing landscape.

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Young social scientists (above) Tweeting during "Arab Transformations: Interrogating the Social Sciences," the First Conference and General Assembly of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS) held in March 2013 in Beirut. The Corporation supports the ACSS, which was established in 2011 by leading Arab scholars to help create a larger role for social science research in the Arab region, and to empower policy makers to base decisions on sound research.