Reviewed by: Middle East Section
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Resilience
Secondary Theme: Persistence
The instabilities overtaking the Middle East complicate, exacerbate, and give new urgency to older fault-lines of conflict as well as creating profound challenges to anthropologists. While Iraq has experienced increasing sectarian strife since the U.S. invasion, the fallout of the so-called Arab Spring has given rise to repressive conditions in Egypt and civil war in Syria. The 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey has given the ruling government the excuse to severely curtail freedom of expression and expand its crackdown on media and academia. Meanwhile, Yemen is in a state of civil war, Qatar is experiencing challenges from Saudi Arabia, while parts of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and Sinai are under the territorial control of a Salafi jihadist terrorist organization known as the Islamic State (ISIS).
Anthropologists of the region are deeply concerned about these developments, as they affect the livelihoods and personal and familial lives of their research interlocutors. The increasing instability has also imposed substantial challenges in conducting on-the-ground ethnographic research in the region, since travel to or continued residence at research sites is becoming ever more risky, if not untenable. Even when they are able to conduct research, ethnographers face the challenge of interviewing and interacting with people who are subject to or participating in intensifying government scrutiny, surveillance, repression, and violence. Anthropologists also face greater scrutiny and suspicion of their motives. Either out of justifiable fear or increased political orthodoxy, opportunities for crossing social, ideological and territorial boundaries may have narrowed for many ethnographers.
This roundtable will facilitate a discussion among experienced anthropologists who can address the challenges of conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the Middle East and offer insights on studying the region ethnographically in the current political climate. Roundtable members include ethnographers of Qatar, Iran, Turkey, Morocco/Western Sahara, and Israel/Palestine. Questions of conversation include: How do unstable field conditions impact critical ethnographic accounts? How can we resist challenges to democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech through our ethnographic practice and writing? How can we study controversial and potentially risky issues under these circumstances ethnographically? Are traditional ethnographic methods resilient enough to be deployed satisfactorily in conflict-ridden zones and under repressive regimes? Or should we recalibrate our ethnographic practices? To what extent is it still possible to create multifaceted ethnographies of conflict without putting vulnerable populations at risk or endangering researchers? What commitments, if any, do researchers have in representing not only marginalized groups but those who support or directly participate in repressive tactics and/or authoritarian regimes given their local iteration and global resurgence? How can we do justice to such concerns in the written results of our work without foreclosing the continued possibility of engagement with such individuals, and our chosen topics?
In addition to engaged dialogue among the panelists, a goal of this roundtable is to stimulate a conversation with the audience about the trials and possibilities of anthropology in the Middle East.