SUMMARY:This roundtable addresses a set of methodological, ethical, and logistical issues involved in social science work utilizing primary sources to generate datasets about micro-dynamics of contentious political mobilization in the Middle East. It brings together a group of scholars who have relied on fieldwork and archival materials to develop a systematic understanding of the contours of political action across the region in contemporary and recent times. The participants discuss various aspects of their research and invite MESA participants to engage in a broader dialogue about the promises, limits, and prospects of studying contentious politics in the region.
After the end of the brief interregnum generated by the Arab uprisings, conducting research on societal, political, and economic issues in many Middle Eastern countries has become increasingly perilous. With few exceptions, many ruling regimes have developed an expanded and vague notion of “national security” to restrict and manipulate citizen access to information and crack down on many different forms of civil society activism. In an environment characterized by the rise of post-truth politics, research on even seemingly innocuous topics such as public health and environmental concerns is viewed with suspicion, if not treated as subversive. Consequently, scholars face unprecedented challenges in interviewing individuals about their political views and activities, having access to official and subaltern archival documents, and conducting participant observation in local settings.
In the face of these challenges, an increasing number of scholars have shown ingenuity and prowess to generate and disseminate knowledge about how ordinary individuals continue to pursue collective right claims, and contest elites as well as how states achieve top-down mobilization. Participants in this panel have all conducted original research along these lines in a variety of settings including Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Kurdistan. They generated (a) biographical data about participants in both non-violent (e.g., demonstrations, hunger strikes, boycotts) and violent (e.g., armed insurgencies) forms of contentious politics; and (b) event data about the frequency, size, nature, and goals of collective activities in contentious politics.
In this roundtable, they offer insightful perspectives about the creative strategies they employed to generate these datasets, summarize logistical obstacles they faced (i.e., stonewalling or harassment by authorities), reflect upon the impact of their own identity on their ability to gather information (i.e., positionality), and discuss ethical implications of their research for people they study and broader social justice and democratic struggles.