American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2016

International Perspectives: A Coup Against Scientific Autonomy

Cihan Ziya Tugal, University of California-Berkeley

Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul, Turkey

The Turkish government's ongoing crackdown against scholars who signed the Academics for Peace petition (as discussed in the March/April Vantage Point)—the majority of whom are social scientists, especially sociologists—is the perpetuation of a (partially) academic war by other means. The political implications of the petition crisis are straightforward. Courts and universities are prosecuting and interrogating hundreds of academics who have signed a peace petition. These academics also face death threats from civilians and mafia leaders. Four of them are already in prison and more could join them. Thanks to its increasing chauvinism, the Islamic regime is able to mobilize nationalists, weed out disloyal Islamists from the universities, and scare everybody within its own ranks to further obedience. Moreover, the government's actions against academics are not unique: they form part and parcel of a broader trend that also threatens journalists and lawyers among others.

However, there are also important academic dynamics at play. The Turkish state was founded on a sociological discourse. Much of that history is still with us today. Sociologists in Turkey claim a reputation slightly higher than other social scientists. Televised debate programs frequently feature sociologists and their expertise has a magical aura that would bemuse American scholars. Partially due to this history, sociologists from Turkey have a presence on the global scene that goes well beyond Turkey's economic and political standing. Political, demographic, and economic factors have also contributed to this overrepresentation, as the fickle economy and ever-uncertain political situation (combined with the youth bulge) have pushed the post-1980s generations to seek PhDs in the West in unprecedented numbers.

Sociologists concentrated in (and trained by) so-called "elite" public colleges (such as Boğaziçi University and Middle East Technical University) have been oriented to international debates as much as to the local scene. By contrast, those at Istanbul University, Ankara University, and similar colleges (though still deeply influenced by Durkheim and other Western thinkers) have written for national audiences. This is not a simple contrast (e.g., some of the sociologists at the more nationally oriented departments come from politically more powerful families when compared to those at the "elite" colleges, who however have disproportionately greater amounts of cultural capital), and it is further complicated by the explosion in the number of provincial universities, which staff many Islamist sociologists, not just nationalist ones.

Mainstream vs. Critical

The internationally oriented end of the spectrum has its own internal divisions, mostly between those who are relatively more positivist and others imbued with critical discourses. Despite the lack of a complete overlap between political positions and these academic locations, the more mainstream sociologists have stood for Turkey's liberal integration with world markets and the European Union, whereas the critical end has called for a radicalization of liberal democracy (very much along the lines of the political theorist Mouffe's proposed strategy). This is an important break from the decades before the 1980s, where revolutionary and socialist ideas used to have a strong hold over the intelligentsia.

The rise of a new generation of sociologists following the 1980s has added further color to the picture. Both nationally and Arab-oriented, but solidly built on Western roots, these Islamist sociologists blend Heidegger with Islamist thinkers to advance authenticist theoretical claims (but not rich empirical analyses). If left to the devices of the field, Islamist sociologists would remain in subordinate positions. Some prominent Islamist political scientists and sociologists have served as top advisers of the government. Despite this extreme boost in political capital, their cultural/academic capital is still quite low when compared to internationally oriented scholars. The unfolding coup is, in part, a rash attempt to win the academic game: these scholars have chosen to avoid the very long and arduous process through which such political capital could be converted to cultural capital, and instead depend on a political intervention that will diminish cultural capital (as such) in society overall.

The Turkish state was founded on a sociological discourse. Much of that history is still with us today. Sociologists in Turkey claim a reputation slightly higher than other social scientists. Televised debate programs frequently feature sociologists and their expertise has a magical aura that would bemuse American scholars.

The Turkish petition crisis is therefore an academic coup, which attempts to simplify the oppositions and subordinate them completely to broader political battles. An important stake in the battle is simplification: the regime and its scholars are trying to spread soundbites. For instance, referring to academics as "Westoxicated sociologists." This theater certainly "hides" many realities. Many of the academics who organized the petition drive do not come from the elite; they still have many popular links, especially with the Kurds; increasingly more sociologists at "elite" colleges originate from the subordinate classes; and the regime's scholars are thoroughly "Westoxicated" by Heidegger and other ultra-rightists. But it also produces many real effects, as much as any other performative "state act."2 For instance, liberals and radicals are further pushed to seek refuge from Western professional associations and NGOs, boosting the image of an alienated scholarly caste. As importantly, anti-establishment feelings among the populace are channeled into a fury against scholars (rather than against the government's own practices that reproduce national and global establishments), further consolidating the regime's nationalist and anti-elitist credentials.

A House Divided

Another act of alchemy is the very division of sociology into two camps. Between 2002 and 2010, the mainstream liberals and some critical scholars were not only enthusiastic supporters of the governing Islamic party, but built the arguments that secured it—the Western and upper/upper-middle-class legitimacy.3 They are now pushed into an unequivocally anti-regime corner, severed from Islamist sociologists (who today prefer the company of nationalist scholars). The petition crisis signals a tipping point not only for the field of sociology as a whole in Turkey,  but for the relations within the internationally oriented group as well. By blowing this crisis out of proportion, the regime has pushed mainstream sociologists to (grudgingly) follow the lead of critical ones. This has given the younger generation (some of the authors of the petition) a bigger voice than they would have if the field had operated autonomously.

The collapse of scientific autonomy (which was never "complete") cuts both ways. It is likely to produce an impoverishment of the social sciences by over-staffing universities with regime-friendly yet unqualified sociologists. Internationally oriented sociologists are likely to lose their basic liberties, jobs, academic freedom, personal safety, and resources to do research, and could also pay an additional price through an ("anti-regime") instrumentalization of whatever research is possible after this point. Due to both the regime's increasing totalitarian tendencies and the decreasing autonomy of the field, it will be extremely difficult for sociologists to concentrate on theoretical and methodological precision in the foreseeable future. While Turkey presents many world-historical puzzles for sociologists (e.g., the transformation of the most liberalized Muslim society into a primary leader of the extreme right-wing turn in world politics) and continues producing sociologists of the highest caliber, it is simultaneously making independent research by these very sociologists all the more impossible. Parallels with the opportunities and difficulties experienced by interwar German and Italian intellectuals are worth noting.


  1. I would like to thank Deniz Yükseker for her comments.
  2. See Bourdieu's On the State (Polity, 2014) for an analysis of "theatrical" state actions, which have solidly real consequences.
  3. I have analyzed the impetus behind this support in The Fall of the Turkish Model (Verso, 2016), which gives the lie to simplistic perceptions of Turkish society as fundamentally divided between the secular and the religious.