The relationship between discipline and region in the field of anthropology has undergone major transformations in the past twenty years. Where once an anthropologist could frame his or her work, both methodologically and theoretically, within a region with assumed spatial and temporal borders, by the mid-1990s such an enterprise was roundly viewed as misguided if not impossible. The groundwork for the destabilization of this relationship was laid by Marxist and feminist approaches beginning in the late 1960s, critiques of representation and the culture concept dating mainly from the 1980s, and the concomitant rise of postcolonial, poststructuralist, and critical theory more generally. For Middle East and South Asian anthropologists in particular, Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism (1979) was read as a direct challenge to reconsider the political implications of representing a region as a bounded whole. Older views of an anthropology divided into discrete world regions were made further untenable in the geopolitical context of decolonization movements, late and post-Cold War political realignments, and neoliberal capitalist and technological globalization.
Yet still, anthropology as a discipline continues to privilege deep regional experience and expertise. The sine qua non for the discipline is ethnographic fieldwork in one geographic place, and nearly all PhD programs require students to spend one to two years physically rooted in a single city, town, or village. Occasionally students will conduct fieldwork in an additional location, but nearly always within the same nation- state boundaries. This fieldwork is then translated by all disciplinary measures as “methodological expertise” in a region, even though that region is typically defined as broader than the nation- state where the original fieldwork was conducted. Thus, a fieldworker in Egypt has expertise in the Middle East, an anthropologist working in Zimbabwe has expertise in Africa, and so on. Not only does this framework conflate nation- state with region, but it also assumes that research conducted in one location or community within a nation- state is more broadly representative of that country. Additionally, comprehensive exams or other evaluative structures in graduate training generally carve out an area of “expertise” defined as in- depth knowledge of ethnographic texts based on fieldwork in a specific region that, in the case of the “areas” of this journal, also supersede nation- state boundaries. These means of producing and assessing academic knowledge and expertise in anthropology result in ethnographic monographs that are based on research in one physical place. These are produced (and read) through a series of structures that define them as part of and often representative of a larger region. This privileging of regional expertise has often extended from ethnography to theory, as certain theoretical paradigms have been associated with specific regions within anthropology in ways that may limit the sorts of questions researchers ask and the topics they find important to study.
For the Middle East, this framework is especially problematic given that ethnographic fieldwork is nearly impossible in at least half the countries of the region because of on- site research restrictions. As we have discussed in “Anthropologies of Arab-Majority Societies,” major differences in social life across contexts within the region also challenge the notion that ethnography in any one place can represent such a diverse whole. With very few exceptions, it is only when anthropologists begin second or third projects that they may consider doing comparative fieldwork between two nation- state contexts within the same region, as George Marcus has pointed out. Even then, we rarely see such fieldwork being conducted in two different world regions for the same project.
What may appear as a drawback from the perspective of macrocomparativist approaches found in other disciplines is, from the point of view of anthropologists, a distinct advantage. Anthropologists may not pursue comparative work in terms of location of fieldwork, but they would argue that only through ethnography can we get a fine- grained analysis of how transnational processes affect social life and vice versa. Also, if the impulse behind comparison is to see the similarities and differences across regions and assess why they exist, anthropologists typically say that they cannot make these distinctions without careful ethnography of how processes and structures are made manifest in social life. That is to say, ethnography can ascertain aspects of transnationality and comparativity that more macrolevel studies cannot. Fieldwork, in the view of anthropology, is a privileged means for accessing unexpected similarities and differences and remaining alert to the possibility that the comparativist impulse across large swathes of world regions can generalize in problematic ways.
Whatever the pretensions or virtues of this perspective on the relationship of anthropology to region, the fact is that theoretically anthropology has always been deeply committed to understanding human societies across space and time and in that sense is deeply comparativist at its core. In the past twenty years, with the theoretical interventions and global phenomena mentioned earlier, anthropologists of the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa have found much synergy by reading each others’ work to see how historical and contemporary global processes may be theorized in relationship to daily struggles and subject-making processes. (This synergy emphasizes regional interconnectedness and is thus very different than earlier moments in which, for example, Middle East anthropologists working on tribes may have adopted or tweaked structuralist analyses of tribes developed in Africa). In two prime examples of this new synergy, many Middle East anthropologists have incorporated theories of modernity and postcoloniality derived through scholarship on Africa and South Asia into their work. They have also found very productive theories of neoliberalism developed in Africanist research. In addition, work in all three regions featured in CSSAAME’s title that is related to gender (and feminist theory) and/or religion (especially Islam) has tended toward cross- regional theoretical engagement, perhaps a testament to the longstanding popularity of those topics for both scholars of these regions and in public discourse more generally.
An inherently comparative journal like CSSAAME could further encourage these sorts of theoretical cross-fertilizations. For example, research on racialization processes in the Middle East — a significant lacuna in anthropological work there — would benefit from and could find inspiration in critical race theory that has emerged from work focused in Africa and the Black Atlantic. The burgeoning theories of youth and generation coming out of Africanist and South Asianist research could be very useful for Middle East anthropology to think through, particularly with the new geopolitical interest in youth in that region. Analyses that challenge assumptions about sectarianism in the Middle East could benefit from those that challenge similar assumptions about ethnic conflict in Africa. And greater emphasis on intersectionality within feminist theories, often emerging from South Asianist work as well as from work within the US context, might push Middle East anthropologists to connect their analyses of gender to class, race, and sexuality in addition to the common intersection of gender and religion.
In addition to this theoretical synergy, Middle East anthropologists now increasingly engage with forms of multi-sited ethnographic research that involve following transnational circulations, whether population movements or other transnational phenomena that link sites physically, imaginatively, figuratively, and virtually. Most fruitfully thus far, scholars have begun to explore labor migration, for example of workers from South Asia to the Arab Gulf, of Lebanese entrepreneurs to West Africa, and of Arab notables to South and Southeast Asia. CSSAAME could encourage this new area of scholarship focused on communities located at the intersections of regions, who maintain multiple kinship, social, and economic ties across them in their daily lives.
Anthropology of these three regions would also benefit from some comparative consideration of a number of transnational phenomena that are becoming the subject of exciting research within and outside the discipline. Most pressing among these are carbon economies and their effects on societies, mega-cities and new forms of urban life and urbanization, cultural production and consumption, circulation of mass media across regional contexts, corporations and their effects on transnational relationships and local economies, resource management and sustainability especially in relation to water and food, resource privatization and the selling of land to other nations, and natural disasters. While work on Islam has long considered similarities and differences in practices and movements across these regions, such comparative thinking could be extended to work on Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism as well. And at the intersections of scholarship and activism, discussions of contemporary politics in Palestine and Israel could benefit from careful comparison to apartheid in South Africa and partition in South Asia.
In recent years, Middle East anthropologists have embraced collaborative models of research, including projects that link anthropologists with scholars from other disciplines, groups of anthropologists doing research on a single topic in one locale, and collaborations with “native informants.” Yet hardly any of this research is conducted in a deliberately transregional way. CSSAAME could facilitate such expansion of scholarly networks and advancement of new research models by actively seeking to publish scholarship produced by these new research collaborations. Such an initiative would add considerably to our knowledge of not only transregional connections but local processes and experiences as well.
Finally, the comparative thrust of CSSAAME provides a unique opportunity to consider how disciplinary interests get formed in relationship to regions. We need more meta-analysis of the kinds of questions or research foci that anthropology, and other disciplines, take up in different regions. CSSAAME could promote research that assesses (and compares and contrasts) what scholarship in specific regions contributes to particular disciplines and theoretical approaches, as collections such as Africa and the Disciplines and our forthcoming Anthropology’s Politics work to achieve. Such a project would allow scholars to see the strengths and weaknesses of how subfields within disciplines,and disciplines more generally, are formed in relationship to region. It would also help us continue the projects of decentering Euro-American theoretical models and generating theory from ethnography itself. From the perspective of Middle East anthropology, there is much to be gained from the comparative work that would be generated by new post-area studies approaches that nonetheless take area seriously.
Deeb, Lara, and Jessica Winegar. Anthropology’s Politics: Discipline and Region through the Lens of the Middle East. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, forthcoming.
Deeb, Lara, and Jessica Winegar. “Anthropologies of Arab- Majority Societies.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 537 – 58.
Marcus, George. Ethnography through Thick and Thin. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Bates, Robert H., V. Y. Mudimbe, and Jean O’Barr, eds. Africa and the Disciplines: The Contributions of Research in Africa to the Social Sciences and Humanities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
© 2013 by Duke University Press