Workshop on “The Ethics of Political Science Research and Teaching in MENA”

Karen E. Young, PhD
Senior Resident Scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Visiting Fellow, London School of Economics and Political Science, Middle East Centre

In June 2014, I had the opportunity to participate in the APSA MENA Workshop in Tunis focusing on the theme of the Political Economy of Development. It was personally rewarding to be in a seminar with Helen Milner, one of my role models in the field. One of the reasons I chose to study comparative political economy was a course I took with Milner as a graduate student at Columbia University in 1999. The field is large, but we have a commitment to each other that should know fewer geographical and methodological boundaries. I think the APSA MENA Workshop program is providing an important forum for a new kind of mentoring and collaboration in political science worldwide.

Tunisian Beach

Following the workshop, our cohort applied for a collective grant from APSA and the Carnegie Corporation of New York to further some of our conversations and collective research. One of the most compelling topics among our group (a range of junior scholars in the middle of dissertation research to more seasoned lecturers), was the specificity of challenges for researchers and faculty based in the MENA region following the uprisings of 2011. We found that we shared a sense of insecurity, both about political change, but also about the nature of our positions within academic institutions and within the discipline. Doing political science had become more challenging.

We found new obstacles in learning to navigate political minefields inside diverse and contentious classrooms, in the lectures and syllabi we developed to try and explain the change unfolding all around us, and in the relationships we tried to maintain with research subjects. Complicating our research and teaching efforts was also a changing institutional setting within universities (and broader civil society), often creating unofficial signals about what kinds of research and funding would be welcome, and what kinds of topics should be off-limits. Some of our academic homes had become hostile to investigations of the Arab uprisings. For others, our individual research agendas became secondary to a broader push, often driven by media accounts of the Arab Spring, to understand the entire region through the lens of the few cases in revolution.

Satellite image of Middle East at nightWe formed a small group in Tunis and agreed to work on a proposal that would allow us the time and space to tease out some of our shared experiences of teaching and conducting field research in the region after 2011. We used our affiliations to create a joint workshop hosted at the Mohamed V University in Rabat along with support from the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre in June 2015. We opened our workshop to scholars outside of the APSA MENA Workshop program because we knew that many scholars were dealing with a sense that the research field was changing, and each country case presented some unique challenges locally. We also shared a concern that a news cycle approach to political change would leave many issues unexplored, and that a more holistic approach to research methods and a collaborative approach to research funding could be beneficial to all of us.

Our workshop in Rabat was a chance to vent and share our experiences, but it was also a mechanism to formally express our interpretations of challenges and changes in the field to a larger audience. We gained an important perspective from the local scholars and activists who joined us in Rabat. Their voices and accounts of “parachuting” research teams from abroad heightened our awareness of the inequalities in research design and production we often propagate unwittingly, and a reminder of the risks we all were taking in conducting field research among vulnerable populations. Our attempt to share information, our collective experience and to create recommendations for strategies to help others entering the field is reflected in the memos that we have published through the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics and Political Science. We hope that this exercise will build on earlier conversations in professional associations and working groups and continue in collaboration.

A workshop bibliography is available to download as well as memos by the workshop participants:

Alumni from the APSA MENA Workshop program who co-organized this workshop:

  • Nermin Allam, University of Alberta
  • Guy Burton, University of Nottingham, Malaysia
  • May Darwich, GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies, Hamburg
  • Ilham Sadoqi, Mohammed V University in Rabat
  • Karen Young, London School of Economics and Political Science

Additional instructors and attendees who joined the workshop:

  • Azzedine Akesbi, Transparency Morocco
  • Fouad Ammour, Rabat
  • Hassan Aourid, Mohammed V University in Rabat
  • Evren Balta, Yildiz Technical University, Turkey
  • Shmida Bouchra, Arabic Program Director, Rabat
  • Mohammed Drif, Master’s Candidate, Rabat
  • Maryam Elyachioui, PhD Student, Rabat
  • Meriem elHaitami, PhD Candidate, University of Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah
  • Driss Maghraoui, Alakhawayn University in Ifran
  • Mohammed Masbah, Carnegie Corporation
  • David Mednicoff, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
  • Abdelhay Moudden, Mohammed V University in Rabat
  • Ammani Naggare, PhD Student, Rabat
  • Sarah Parkinson, University of Minnesota
  • Rachid Touhtou, National School of Statistics and Applied Economics, Morocco
  • Saloua Zerhouni, Mohammed V University in Rabat