May/June 2015 Issue • Volume 43 • Issue 4

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International Perspectives

The Arab Council for the Social Sciences: A Reflection of the Current Arab World

Mohammed A. Bamyeh,
University of Pittsburgh

Speakers, participants, and attendees who made the ACSS Conference in Beirut a success

The Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS) has been many years in the making. ACSS was officially established in 2008, and in March 2015 it held its second biennial conference in Beirut, Lebanon, where it is also headquartered. Its mission is to promote and improve the quality of the social sciences in the Arab World, defined as the 22 member states of the Arab League, including Palestine.

Led by Seteney Shami, a former program director at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and by an elected board of trustees (to which I was recently elected), the ACSS has, in a short period, made its presence felt in a region where social scientists rarely meet across the region, and where there has been a perennial lack of a sense of  “scientific community” that sets common standards for research.

Since its inception, the ACSS has sponsored a small grants program to bring together young researchers from the region, as well as Arab graduate students and junior faculty employed in the West, to work in collaborative environments on broadly defined themes of common interest. These include, most recently, the public sphere, inequalities, popular mobilization, as well as the “paradigm factory workshops,” where key terms relevant to the study of the region (for example “sovereignty” or “nationalism”) are redefined on the basis of empirical research and case studies. More recently, the ACSS has started a full-fledged postdoctoral fellowships program.

Building Community

One of the main accomplishments of the ACSS thus far is contributing to an emerging sense of community among Arab social scientists. The crucial nature of this goal is evident partially in the Council’s fundraising strategies. For example, both its major conferences were based on targeted fundraising, with a goal of helping all participants, who typically do not have travel funds from their institutions, attend the conference and mix with other social scientists they would otherwise never have an opportunity to meet. This strategy has allowed for a great variety of representation in the ACSS meetings, where one meets social scientists from the Sudan or Yemen, for example, or researchers based in rural areas in the Arab World who are often isolated from metropolitan research environments.

The ACSS defines social sciences in broad and flexible terms: they include traditional disciplines, such as sociology, political science, economics, psychology, anthropology and history, but also interdisciplinary areas such as women’s studies, urban studies, development studies, and other emerging areas of focus.

Report on the Presence of Social Science in the Arab World

One of the main projects currently undertaken by the ACSS is the first comprehensive report on the presence of social sciences in the Arab World (full disclosure, I am coordinating this). The report is intended to provide the foundation for a series of future biennial reports. The report measures and evaluates the presence of social sciences in universities, research centers and think tanks, scholarly and cultural periodicals as well as mass-circulating magazines, regional newspapers, civil society, and the public sphere in general. It is scheduled to appear this summer in Arabic, English, and French; a draft summary was presented at the March ACSS meeting.

We found that there has been a tremendous increase in the number of institutions that house social sciences in the region, especially over the last two or three decades.

This report does in fact show the ACSS to be one aspect of a growing presence of the social sciences across the region, the magnitude of whose growth we did not know before. We found that there has been a tremendous increase in the number of institutions that house social sciences in the region, especially over the last two or three decades. For example, we found that 70 percent of the current universities in the Arab region did not exist at all in 1991; that research centers have experienced more than a sevenfold increase in their numbers since 1981; and that the number of Arab scholarly periodicals has more than quadrupled in the same period.

Surprisingly, this enormous growth seems to be independent of national wealth; we see it in both rich and poor countries alike. It appears that the ACSS itself is part of the phenomenon of the increasing institutional thickness of social sciences in the region. It is probably also part of another phenomenon—the growth of civil society in the same period. This is sometimes seen as part of the larger cluster of factors associated with the Arab Spring and its unfolding, complex, and not well-understood dynamics.

Within ACSS meetings and workshops, one finds a vibrant questioning environment that is not distant from the general mood in the region. While part of the ACSS constituency, particularly in the Maghreb region, (in Northwest Africa, west of Egypt) asserts the universality of the norms and practices of social sciences, there are those who think that the best social science generates its own problematics, theories, and methods on the basis of deep immersion in regional or local specificities. The ACSS itself does not take a stand on these issues. In preparing the Report, we considered objections that saw it as inadvisable to include the public sphere and newspapers, for example, in our survey of social science content in the public sphere. Some have argued that social science exists only in research-oriented environments. However, many others have been inspired by Michael Burawoy’s call for “public sociology,” which, for them, seem to better a social environment characterized by popular mobilization, regional instability, civil wars, population displacements, authoritarian reactions, foreign occupation, and recent disasters that encourage social scientists to contribute to their public understanding.

In addition, one of the significant historical realities of Arab social sciences is that they have often been exposed to input from popular genres of knowledge, such as literature or public philosophy. It is not unusual, for example, to find a novelist who has a PhD in sociology. This has greater relevance when we realize that many Arab social scientists do not necessarily work at universities or see the universities as their natural home. Increasingly, it seems, civil society organizations and think tanks of all kinds have become important employment opportunities for Arab social scientists.

In sum, as a vehicle for coordinating common projects, fostering better quality social science, and providing a greatly needed sense of community among social scientists in a changing region, the ACSS is a very welcome addition.


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