“A Major Task is to Challenge our own Positionality on an Ongoing Basis” – Interview with Mohammed Bamyeh

Mohammed Bamyeh is a Sociologist from the University of Pittsburgh and has been working with the Europe in the Middle East – The Middle East in Europe (EUME) program of the Forum Transregionale Studien for many years. In 2019, he was elected the president of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS). In this interview, Lamia Moghnieh (EUME Fellow 2018-2020) and Moritz Buchner (Forum Transregionale Studien) talk to Mohammed about his new role and working with the social sciences in the Arab region.

Before we talk to you about your new position, we’d like to start with some questions about your academic life. Could you tell us more about your research interests and questions? What were the social scientific debates you were preoccupied with and how did they relate to social scientific scholarship in Arab-majority societies?

Mohammed Bamyeh (Image: private)

My interest in sociology as a broad social science emerged out of a desire to understand the complex realities of the region. However, early on in my studies, it became clear to me that social science from the global south faces different problematics than it does in the U.S. or Europe, problematics that should give rise to distinct theories and methods that emerge from the ground up. For example, I studied social movements and revolutions, a subfield where the theories and models were all based on US or European case studies. The shortcomings of that perspective became very clear when I tried to analyze the first Palestinian intifada or the uprisings of 2011 and 2019, which obeyed none of the articles of faith of such theories. In addition, one feature of social sciences in the region that, for me, was especially significant as a perspective but overlooked due to the way social sciences are taught, was how in the Arab region, these sciences interlink with other knowledge cultures, including philosophy, history and literature, in fascinating ways.

What do the social sciences look like in the Arab World, and what is their trajectory after the 2011 uprisings?

We are still forming a picture of the social-science landscape in the region, mainly through our biennial reports, of which two have already been published and a third coming out soon. The first three ACSS reports sought to answer three basic questions: where, what, and who: 1) where do we encounter social sciences in the region? 2) what is their content? 3) who are the Arab social scientists? Thus far we can say that the social sciences have a profuse if uneven presence across the region. Thematically, they are focused substantially on social change. They tend to have interrupted histories: periods of great originality and effervescence here or there are often followed by stagnation, loss of resources, or forgetfulness. The Arab social scientific community is productive but highly fragmented; its agendas, language, and style are heavily determined by the place of training or the global network to which the researcher is attached.

The uprisings of 2011 have generated a new interest in the role of social sciences in explaining complex social realities, including revolutions. Here we have the potential to do something original, based on a moving reality that is rich in research materials. But we still do not see what impact social science has in these conditions, largely because the Arab social scientific community is itself disjointed and therefore neither in a position to formulate common research questions, nor to position itself as a necessary presence in the public sphere. Networking this community, therefore, has been a high priority of ACSS.  

The ACSS describes itself as a forum for debates around social phenomena, with a focus on dialogues surrounding academic freedom, freedom of speech and expression, as well as policies governing social research, access to information and trends in higher education. Do you have a particular agenda for the time of your mandate as the president of the ACSS?

The ACSS is grounded on teamwork, which means that mandates tend to be continuing from one board to the next, and ACSS’s visionary director, Dr. Seteney Shami, has, over the years, elaborated a growth plan that, while ambitious, was also realistic and around which a consensus within ACSS’s community has emerged.

We will continue our support of workshops, training and fellowship programs, which are constantly expanding into new demographics and themes. In the coming period, we need to do more outreach and increase our membership, with special attention to under-represented countries and disciplines, and an aim to improve our gender balance. We are also establishing a publishing program. In addition, we are working to make data we collect publicly available, and are joining other international consortia that have the same goal of making social scientific research and databases available to the public at large and free of charge.  

Arab Council for the Social Sciences Board of Trustees (Source: ACSS)

How would you describe the challenges of doing social sciences in the region from a pragmatic, ethical and intellectual point of view?

Where do I begin? The challenges are enormous. From a pragmatic point of view, the infrastructure of support for the social sciences remains weak. Apart from a few associations, Arab social scientists are not well-connected to each other, nor do they do collaborative research. That contributes to feelings of isolation and a sense of unclear purpose. The Arab universities tend to be bureaucratic, top-down, rigid structures not conducive to innovation. The workload in them is often so high that faculty do minimal research and cannot keep up with more recent advances that would make them better teachers. Often their pay is so low that they need to take on extra jobs.

From an ethical point of view, the list of issues is endless. We have many people who gravitate toward the social sciences out of a deep concern about social or political problems, whose roots and solutions they wish to understand. But they are frustrated by the low status of the social sciences among policy makers, for example, who rarely consult any social scientist. They look with dismay at governments inviting global consulting firms that have no knowledge of the local environment, to propose solutions to issues that our local social scientists have been studying for years. There are also repeated assaults on academic freedom, which always raise the question as to how one should respond, given that in many cases, a response may likely endanger more people than resolve the issue.

The intellectual challenges are also great. While earlier social science institutions, in Egypt or Iraq, for example, gave rise to important schools and key intellectuals, that heritage was lost as of the 1970s and beyond, for various political and institutional reasons, including changing the role of the university in society. A main intellectual problem therefore is absence of cumulative historical knowledge, which is essential for forming intellectual communities and providing them with a sense of purpose and self-confidence.

Much of the literature on Islam, sectarianism, violence, revolutions/protests, youth, etc. in Arab-majority societies has emerged as a reaction to knowledge produced by the West. This scholarship is mostly dominated by Arab-American scholars who write from a specific positionality. How do we theorize and formulate theoretical questions from our own positionalities in Arab-majority societies? 

I think a major task is to challenge our own positionality on an ongoing basis. But in order to do so, we need to be aware of it! The problem is that often we are not. What we call “science” is defined by a search for truth, an idea that is more strongly present in some disciplines than others. But in any case, you are trained to speak to your scientific community. So often the social scientist does not think that they are speaking from a specific positionality, but are rather discovering or conveying a truth (whether in theoretical or empirical terms) to one’s community, and in a language that only that community understands.

For me, certain events, like the September 11th attacks or the Arab uprisings of 2011 and 2019, served as important landmarks that made me question my role and practice as a sociologist. I began to understand the significance of the role of sociology more as “public philosophy,” and less as an exclusive academic enterprise. I also had to learn how to speak to different publics, and in a way that, while informed and educated, was not condescending. A science that calls itself “social,” must after all communicate somehow with the society. But this does not necessarily mean telling people “the (single) truth,” but more importantly, to showcase critical thinking, entertain opposing viewpoints and consider the evidence.  

How do you envision the future of the social sciences in the Arab world?

My work with ACSS has made me optimistic. That in spite of what we were finding, which was that the challenges are enormous. But at least now we have an institution that gathers together individuals from rural Morocco to Yemen, who would have never met otherwise; we are establishing new networked research initiatives in the region and globally; we are reaching out to the new generation, now including school students; and have ongoing programs that foster connections to the arts and humanities. So optimism emerges here not out of the fact that we have solved lots of problems, but more out of the fact that today we are able to do something when yesterday we could not. In addition, the uprisings of 2011 and 2019 give hope, not because they were successful, but because they indicated the presence of an enormous social energy driven by a broadly felt desire for a new society, especially among the youth who are asking foundational questions and are yet to receive satisfactory answers. A new society is one that asks new questions and establishes new conversations, in which social science should be natural participant.

Mohammed Bamyeh is Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. He has been a EUME Fellow of the Forum Transregionale Studien in the academic years 2010/11, 2014/15 and 2018/2019. His areas of interest include processes of comparative cultural change as reflected in Islamic histories, revolutionary processes, social movements, and social theory. He is also a specialist in the sociology of knowledge, especially concerning the role of intellectuals in society and professional knowledge systems in the Arab World. He has recently published Lifeworlds of Islam: The Pragmatics of a Religion (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Citation: “A Major Task is to Challenge our own Positionality on an Ongoing Basis” – Interview with Mohammed Bamyeh, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/22734.

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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