Social Sciences in the Arab Region: Five Years after the Arab Uprisings

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The Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS), based in Beirut, is launching the first comprehensive report discussing the state of social sciences in the Arab region titled, Social Sciences in the Arab World: Forms of Presence. The report builds valuable knowledge about the social sciences in the region’s universities and research centers, and highlights specific issues of priority for Arab social scientists. This publication is part of the ACSS’s Arab Social Science Monitor, a platform to analyze emergent trends in the Arab world’s social sciences. Given developments over the past several years, knowledge production and the social sciences remain indispensable tools for understanding current challenges in the Middle East and North Africa and, in turn, developing adequate responses.

Social Sciences in the Arab World

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I discussed the report with lead author Mohammed Bamyeh and ACSS Director General Seteney Shami. Bamyeh stressed that the waves of unrest, conflict, and war that characterize the region make the reassessment of trends, needs, and priorities essential. Shami explained that the challenge of writing the report was delineating the diverse realities of the Arab world’s social sciences with very little preexisting research available on the topic. The scarcity of publicly available information on the social sciences in the region means the report is based almost entirely on original data collected by the research team. That process generated knowledge for the international community on some of the most vital academic disciplines in the Middle East today.

The report delves into the multitude of issues social scientists are working on, including revolution, modernity, and gender. Since 2010 the Arab Spring has dominated print media, scholarly periodicals, digital media, and social science research in universities and institutes. Most notably, the report reveals that Arab social scientists are examining the Arab Spring as it relates to questions of reform, justice, and citizenship. The role of women in the public sphere is also a recurrent topic within the academy and beyond, particularly as it relates to citizenship and participation. Bamyeh explained that this finding reveals a marked shift from the dominance of topics concerning women in the private sphere and the family to discussions situated in public participation and women’s rights.

The report also highlights analytical and identity categories among the region’s scholars. Bamyeh points out that the “Muslim World” as a concept is almost completely absent among social scientists in the Arab world. Arab researchers do not regard the category as sufficiently coherent to warrant its analysis as a single entity. Conversely, the “Arab World” as an analytical category is relatively common among Arab social scientists given the region’s recent history and common challenges. It suggests that the use of “Muslim World” as a category fails to capture the vast diversity of cultures and societies, an important point to recognize, as many Muslim-majority countries do not share the specificity of issues associated with the Arab region.

Additionally, the report traces the institutionalization of the social sciences in the Arab world to the first half of the twentieth century. It chronicles the notable growth of universities, faculty, scholarly periodicals, and research centers in recent years. Particularly since the 1990s the number of research centers in the region has increased dramatically, suggesting a rapidly changing landscape in the Arab world’s social science research. For example, in the 1980s there were merely 43 research centers; the number of centers has increased tenfold to 436 today. Despite this, the study indicates that the social science disciplines continue to face notable obstacles due to institutional fragmentation, high levels of bureaucracy, and political restrictions.

Still there is an interesting and often understudied landscape that underlies the diverse realities of the region’s social sciences. The report indicates that only a few countries contain the majority of university-based social science research centers. Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq are home to 89 percent of the university research centers, with Egypt and Algeria combined accounting for 57 percent of these centers. Universities in Egypt and Algeria also offer the most degrees in the social sciences and produce a large number of the Arab world’s social science scholars. Approximately 44 percent of the region’s master’s degrees and 39 percent of PhDs hail from Egypt and Algeria.

Ultimately, the region’s relationship with the social sciences has undergone an immense transformation over the past several decades, a phenomenon that was widely undocumented and understudied up until this point. The ACSS report marks an important intervention, outlining the progress social sciences have made in the Arab world. The profound developments that swept across the region after the uprisings in 2011 call for greater consideration of the role the social sciences can play in the region. By better understanding the current condition of the social sciences, we can better support the disciplines to play an active role in shaping the future of the region.

The English-language edition of the report will be launched on March 28 at Carnegie Corporation of New York and it will be available for free download at the ACSS website. The Arabic-language version of the report is available here.

Nehal Amer is a Program Assistant in the Transnational Movements and the Arab Region program at Carnegie Corporation of New York.