The Politics of Middle East Studies from the Viewpoint of Anthropology

By Jessica Winegar, Lara Deeb,
Submitted to Session P4315 (Exploring the Field: New Perspectives on Middle East Studies in the United States, 2016 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
The Politics of Middle East Studies from the Viewpoint of Anthropology
This paper analyzes the politics of Middle East studies in anthropology via analysis of discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within the institution of the American Anthropological Association. It examines resolutions brought forward by AAA members at the Annual Business Meeting in relation to other resolutions and statements passed by the AAA membership and/or Executive Board since the early 1970s. It draws on the resolution texts, archived minutes of the Association Executive Board and Business meetings, commentary in Anthropology News, and ethnographic interviews with over one hundred anthropologists of the Middle East/North Africa. The paper compares the early 1980s language used to support and oppose these resolutions, and others related to Middle East conflicts, with that of the 21st century. With this diachronic view, we identify both patterns and inconsistencies in these arguments and in the criteria used to evaluate what issues are appropriate for AAA commentary. We argue that there is a trend towards greater administrative control over procedures related to political statements, which involves reliance on increasingly de-politicized technocratic mechanisms and particular administrative connections for expertise. We also argue that far from a planned conspiracy against members’ Palestine activism, this history also reveals bureaucratic amnesia. Nonetheless, we call attention to a major difference in how this conflict, and issues involving the Middle East in general, are treated as compared to issues linked to other geographic contexts. This difference has, at times, resulted in anthropologists’ disillusionment with their professional association. In sum, the fate of these resolutions and statements suggests that within the AAA, the Middle East – particularly Israel/Palestine – is treated as, and is seen by many members to be, an exception.