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Are “the Arab revolutions” an event for Social Sciences?

Myriam Catusse, Aude Signoles et François Siino
p. 13-26

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1A number of recent (Bessin, Bidart, Grossetti, 2009) and older publications (Bensa, Fassin, 2002; Neveu Quéré, 1996) agree on one point: a social science ‘event’ is a challenging subject because of its contingency, its unpredictability, its founding or exemplary value. Sociology was built upon a search for general laws of society, while anthropology has endeavored to report on ordinary, everyday life and its possible underlying structures; as for History, the Annales School or the concept of micro-storia have emerged as strong alternatives to factual positivist history (Noiriel 1998). The discomfort and difficulty in featuring the ‘event’ in a scientific discourse, disconnected from Presentism and the singularity of the case study, is all the more perceptible as other narratives, particularly in journalistic and media fields seem more likely to draw on it and build it up. There are however, many examples that attest to the fact that social sciences have been affected by random and dysfunctional events. One thinks, of course, of those events that had to be analyzed to explain their significance, even their causality - either as unpredictable turning points (Abbott, 2001; Hugues, 1996), or as latent processes (studied as an historical sociology of revolutions), or as an exponentially constructed, mass-communications-mediated view of modern society (Nora, 1974) or as a "crisis" of complex systems (Dobry, 2009). But one also thinks of the changes that may have upset the works of historians (Bloch, 1949), and more generally, social scientists caught in the midst of wars and conflicts (Nordstrom, Robben, 1995) or less dramatic events that interrupted routines and transformed their work tools and inaugurated new fields of possibility and intelligibility. This is how, for instance, the study of social mobilizations became more preoccupied with the rationality of actors, during the student movements of the 1960s, a direction of research supported by those who wished to better understand (Pagis, 2014). Another example, widely discussed, was the influence of national struggles on the development of post-colonial and subaltern studies (Maurel, 2013).

  • 1 On this, see the contributions to thematic section 47 of the 2015 Congress of the French Political (...)
  • 2 As examples, concerning the European Union, the 2011 Project Funded under: FP7-SSH ... SSH.2013.4.1(...)

2As such, the wave of popular uprisings that swept southern and eastern Mediterranean societies beginning in December 2010 created an event. Without precedent since the independence movements of the states of the Arab world, this wave of events was perceived as a turning point and acceleration of history, a “revenge” (Badie, 2011) or even, an “awakening” (Nabli, 2012) of local society as if the events were reborn from a deep sleep under the yoke of dictatorships and various other afflictions. Evidence of this is found in the extensive use of seasonal metaphors, of Arab “spring”, “autumn” and even “winter” (Bozarslan, 2015) as signaling the entry of these societies into a new cycle. If we stick to the listing of research approaches proposed by M. Bessin, C. Bidard and M. Grossetti (2010: 33) the understanding of recent events may be viewed either as subjectivizing, a process in which the dominant view is the actors’ view, or as an objectifying view in which events are construed and interpreted as they are written. The references and comparisons used to describe these situations should perhaps be understood as a matter of temporalities and “series” (see N. Dot-Pouillard, in this issue): are they revolutions? Civil wars? A new Spring of Nations? A counter-revolution?1 In any case, the social demand for understanding these protest movements and times of crisis has intensified, as evidenced by the media coverage as well as, in the field of research, the release of funds dedicated to the study of political dynamics in the region2.

  • 3 Al., 2004; Calhoun and Wieviorka, 2013; and especially "oriental" studies, and the Livre Blanc (Whi (...)
  • 4 C. Raymond recalls that in 1996 the coordinators of the Bâhithât journal issue devoted to Human Sci (...)

3Amid this chorus of expert opinion and scholarly enquiry the social sciences have been called upon and put to the test. In 2001, the September 11 attacks in the United States paved the way for debates about the effectiveness of social sciences and Oriental research studies, criticized by Martin Kramer, the former editor of Middle East Quarterly (2001) for having been for too long entrenched in an “ivory tower”. After 2011, however the feeling that prevailed was that of a tower of Babel where discussions about regional news multiplied, and became incoherent and cacophonous. This was not solely the result of a multiplication of unpredictable “events” but also a result of the challenge to social sciences and the contribution of these sciences to collective action (Burawoy 2005) – in Europe and in France in particular3 but also in the Arab world.4 In this context, our present dossier proposes to examine concrete and compared experiences with a view to determining how this historical phase has shaken, if not revolutionized, the work of social scientists.

  • 5 This is also the case for social sciences in a context of war, see “War careers: personal paths, pl (...)
  • 6 Like European programs concerning projects mentioned in note 2
  • 7 There are exceptions: in France, in December 2012, the French Review of Political Science published (...)

4In the short term, social sciences may have seemed overwhelmed and disoriented. One of our first questions concerning the theme adopted for this journal was which disciplinary practices were concerned and how these should be differentiated. The American University of Beirut (AUB) study offered a bibliometric survey of the term "Arab uprisings" in English, Arabic and French journals. The study showed the undeniable domination of political science and international relations over other social science disciplines (Al Maghlouth, Arvanitis, Cointet Hanafi, 2015: 423), these were far from the only disciplines that attempted to grasp the reality of the moment. Indeed, it seems the uprisings coincided with and led to a moment of interdisciplinary exchange and in cases, even to a relaxation of disciplinary practices.5 This was first expressed in collective interdisciplinary programs set up to cross-reference scientific expertise in complex system dynamics6 focusing on political scientists, sociologists, historians, anthropologists, demographers, geographers, linguists and Islamic scholars (eg. Oualdi, Pagès el-Karoui, Verdeil, 2014; Burgat and Paoli, 2013). This trend produced an increase in publications in blogs and popular and online publications at the expense of publications in disciplinary journals.7 Researchers however, are also citizens, and go beyond their usual area of ​​expertise and comfort zone and use public forums to contribute their expertise to debates, even to public policy. In any case, their initiatives frequently challenge the status quo and lead to fertile exchanges between different fields of knowledge including political, scientific, cultural and diplomatic fields - but also in the very distinctive rationale of academia. (see M.A. Adraoui, in this issue).

5Furthermore, the work of social scientists may have seemed disoriented for several reasons. As we shall see in the pages that follow; this was due to the difficulty they encountered in predicting, even in using tried and tested tools efficiently for research and teaching practices that emphasize continuist readings. But above all, it was due to the very fact that research studies suddenly became “deprived of the Orient”. Indeed, for a short period of time, social processes in the region were no longer observed through an Orientalist lens but viewed, if not as commonplace (Camau, 1996), at least as comparable and not as resolutely singular. In the words of O. Roy (2013), “the East was disappearing” and, with it, the “major premise of Orientalism: Muslim exceptionalism”. The region, so often excluded from comparatist endeavors (Picard, 2006: 8), has become a popular destination for non-specialists of the Middle East and North Africa. However, as the uprisings described at first as pacifist, secular, cross-sectional and inter-class evolved in Libya, Syria and Yemen, into armed clashes and civil movements, categories of analyzes quickly became Orientalized again, and with them not only the atavism of societies observed under the microscope, but the world of social sciences.

6Thus as we raised the question of social sciences in the face of “Arab revolutions” and possible spillover effects between them, we sought to avoid the pitfall of hasty generalization which could only lead to rather commonplace comments. Three main questions are of particular interest to us, to which this issue will attempt to provide some answers. The first question deals with the “disciplinary imprints” (Audoin-Rouzeau, 2008) left by these social movements; the second challenges the sources used in the production of knowledge, at a time when new voices and languages are heard; the third one questions the relationship to knowledge of researchers as social actors.

Confusion in academic disciplines

  • 8 Regrettably we lack some points of view, including those of Islamology and geography, due essential (...)

7It was mentioned earlier, disciplinary fields respond differently to “events” in general and to the Arab revolutions in particular, which is why one of the initial objectives of this collection of essays was to extend the limits of research beyond the political lexicon, and more generally to specialists of the present time. Indeed, we have gathered in this volume contributions from sociologists, historians, political scientists, specialists in literary studies, socio-linguists, regional planners and anthropologists,8 each of whom has had to confront different situations according to their work and relations in the field, their access to primary sources and written and oral narratives, the more or less compelling need for immersion in the studied societies, but also the methods, models and tools they mobilize and in any event, the possibilities for adapting these constraints to the shortcomings of the period. Some authors represented in this volume independently adopted an interdisciplinary approach drawing on observations, readings and experiences and writing from multiple perspectives and confronting their disciplinary approaches.

8Beyond such introspection, one of the questions that unites the authors assembled for this volume is the transformation of the investigation on the ground in a context of multifaceted wars and in some cases, extreme physical violence. Indeed, in some situations, field studies have been denied to researchers (as in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya) or, at least, to institutionalized collective research or long-term investigations. Field missions, even short ones, have become risky – either because they are conducted without official permission from the home institutions, or because human risks seem real. As a result, researchers improvise a form of “remote anthropology” (see T. Boissiere in this issue), relying on social networks and where possible, on e-mail and telephone contact with existing networks from previous field work. While effective in securing primary data, such approaches make it difficult to contextualize the collected data and limit conclusions to discretionary inferences. No doubt, this is one of the reasons why the field of examination if more focused on the “margins” and/or on refugee populations – including the case for Syria. The contributors to this issue highlight two consequences: firstly, the need for “field disciplines” to invent new research strategies (for data collection, but also for rules of evidence); secondly, the risk of impoverishment, or at a minimum, of standardization of investigative techniques (and thereby of disciplinary dispersal).

9Another question that runs through the texts that follow is the question of temporality in the social sciences, that is to say, how do representations of the underlying time frame vary from discipline to discipline. Contributors to this volume speak of the loss of time markers as a result of the sharp break between an event’s “before” and “after”. As a result, event readings of a particular event are subjectivized or objectified (see Ch. Hassabo, M. Rey and T.Boissiere in this issue). For researchers working on the very contemporary, the question becomes one of what to do with research that was produced in conditions ante-revolutionary since the notion of the "present" already refers to a recent "past" now distant. This question echoes in a nearly symmetrical manner when compared with work done by historians working on earlier periods, for which this present intrudes on their “past” even threatening to destroy the material traces (archives, heritage institutions or cities themselves). (see Boissière and David, 2014; and V. Guéno, in this issue). Such back-and-forth and compressed time frames are all the more interesting considering that this dimension is rarely apparent when observers specializing in contemporary history consider that the elements of the recent past have meaning in terms of an unfolding “current history”, while classic historians consider that meaning is to be found, at least partly in terms of the past they are studying. Beyond the difficulty of comprehending the “event”, it is such present-past relationships of little consequence in normal times which are rendered problematic (see L. Dakhli, in this issue).

Reconnecting with primary sources

  • 9 See in particular Burgat (2006) and the ongoing work under the program supported by the European Re (...)

10This line of questioning opens or leads to renewal of interest in the question of the relationship with sources in social sciences. It has in the past been largely marked by the work of historians (Grangaud, 2008). Nevertheless, both empirically and analytically, the uprisings in the Arab world raise many questions about research practices and their impact on the knowledge produced, a subject addressed in a number of the contributions which follow. Two levels of concern are discussed here, on the one hand the question of access to sources located behind doors that seem to randomly open and shut; and on the other hand, in the chorus of public declarations for which these societies are a sounding board, with calls ranging from the demonstrators’ call for the “people” (ach-chaab) to the insistence on "Muslim dialects"9 and the development of "digital Arabism" (Gonzalez-Quijano, 2012), the acknowledgement of multiple sources, some of which are unknown and others barely audible is also at stake.

  • 10 See Dakhli, 2011; see for example the archives opened by the CEDEJ "Egypt in a revolution"; or in T (...)

11As we said earlier, from Tunisia where several acts of barbaric violence failed to prevent free elections, to Syria and Libya, countries who, for over four years have been caught up in a cycle of bloody civil violence, regional societies offer at best a range of uncertain access to land, archives, and actors. The very nature and possibility of research in those countries is conceived in radically different terms according to the context in which the research is proposed. The production of knowledge and access to sources thus occurs under difficult circumstances and at a moment when the need for confidence and scientific analysis are greater than ever. If new materials are discovered – advent of free speech or the new access to relevant archives – other sources are organized whether as online archives of the revolution10 or even, an electoral database unimaginable under previous regimes (Gana, Van Hamme, 2016, Rougier and Lacroix, 2015). However, how should the researcher interpret current issues and attribute meaning, beyond conjectural fact, when what matters is the transformation of everyday life for the researcher … and for his interlocutors who might otherwise disappear, or at any event, stiffen, move away or become estranged? What data can a researcher use to work when the present is bent on destroying all trace of the past while the future remains uncertain? What kind of source may be used as a basis for scholarly understanding of an experience of violence and suffering endured by a population subject to study? (see J. B. Pesquet in this issue).

  • 11 One thinks of the debates surrounding the Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian notebooks” (2012), written aft (...)

12A second level of investigation concerns how such “events” remind us that our sources are themselves socially constructed. In such a case, it is just as important to analyze the contribution of online activism (Lecomte, 2011), and more generally, the mediation war that rages at the heart of the revolution, as it is to take seriously the different voices which are raised. Not only is there confrontation between competing authorities drawing of different sources, the source of the predecessors (salaf) the source of religious referents (marja’) or even the voice of the “sentinels”, witnesses,11 etc., but they are all using language differently: there are those who speak with the rhetoric of protest (Alviso, 2013; Boëx, 2013; Bonnefoy and Catusse, 2013), others speak in local dialects, or employ differentiated registers (see Miller, El-Wer, Caubet, 2007 and C. Miller, in this issue). This is one reason why this volume has found space for cultural studies (see R. Jacquemont, in this issue) and linguistics, but also for work of an anthropological nature, studying the way the event was able, if not to revolutionize approaches, at least to contribute to shifting attitudes and make of local dialects and anecdotes, sources and objects that are not only legitimate but also innovative producers of information. If these trends were present in research practices well before 2010, it nevertheless appears that they are now more clearly positioned at the heart of academic disciplines.

Academic order

13Finally, the spillover effects of the Arab revolutions on the social sciences are mirrored in the organization of academic worlds.

  • 12 Writing blogs, for example, can be interpreted - among other things - as a strategy to try to parti (...)

14The question arises differently according to the academic fields of researchers, whether rooted in the countries where the uprisings took place or external to them. This point is rather difficult to document in the context of this study; indeed, despite widespread diffusion of our call for papers (in French and English) and the large number of proposals received, few researchers in the Arab world responded. One may theorize that, due to the strength of the event, they may have experienced a more or less durable “stunning” effect in their research, including in areas where academic and scientific activities were not materially compromised (see L. Chouikha, in this issue). A time when the classical academic production gave way to other types of intellectual expressions prompted by the immediate social context – including expertise complementing such political transitions (J.-B Le Moulec in this issue). It may also reflect citizen engagement, or forms of thought expressed through new ways of writing, more responsive and personal12, perceived as better suited to highly evolutionary crisis situations. This is also the case of countries where social movements did not immediately lead to major political changes, yet affected them one way or another; among those, the paradoxical cases of Algeria (K. Chachoua, in this issue) and Palestine (Romani, 2015; and A. El Sakka, in this issue), two countries that have historically embodied the “Revolution” and for which researchers and intellectuals now question the apparent standstill.

  • 13 The « French touch » questioned by Nonna Mayer political scientist at the plenary session of the Fr (...)
  • 14 On this, see the testimony of Florian Kohstall who has organized debates in Egypt, since April 2011 (...)

15Another possible theory draws on the narrowness of shared spaces between scientific communities. In the context of a movement toward the internationalization of social sciences, the challenge of making Francophone voices heard in progressively English-speaking academic spaces13 should not obscure the equal need to build a stronger debate with Arab social sciences, which is progressively redeploying around new research networks, such as the Doha Institute (2010), the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (2011) or the Jadaliyya electronic journal, published by the Arab Studies Institute. Indeed, these initiatives are taken by academic “locals” to ensure that the task of saying and analyzing “what is happening” is not left to the sole foreign researchers. Obviously, this is not a new trend, but the event heightens the desire of local academics to avoid being excluded from the narrative of their own history. [1] The challenge for such scholars is to (re)appropriate the readings and discourses upon the – specific – trajectories of their native cultures employing a normalized lexicon and universally recognized methods and tools – i.e., those of social sciences. Moreover, this would be done in a context where recent work highlights the increased marginalization of the methods of knowledge production, “publish locally/ perish globally or publish globally/ perish locally” (Hanafi, 2012) in which “local” researchers are called upon for their intimate perception of empirical reality, and often remain custodians of a “local”, barely visible knowledge, while “foreign” researchers are more likely to produce a global, comparative and theoretical knowledge, more consistent with the standards of international academic publications.14

  • 15 On this, see the workshop organized by doctoral students at the 12th Congress of the French Politic (...)
  • 16 This was particularly acknowledged during (recent) dissertation vivas and recruitment for CNRS rese (...)

16The final element to appear as central to the idea of knowledge is the role of researchers in civil society. A dramatic disruption of an academic field and a contingent requirement to review a field’s epistemology will impact individuals differently: a young researcher working on a thesis would confront a different set of problems than an experienced researcher with a well- established status. The texts that follow recount different experiences. For those engaged in a study that is both a defining event for their career and subject to temporality constraints (the theoretical three years required to write a thesis), any major change they may be called to work on poses a real problem. If such researchers were to fail to look beyond the current event, they would soon find themselves at risk of losing sight of the object of their research and prone to extend their research indefinitely. Conversely, those who pay too little attention risk presenting analyzes that will be perceived (even mistakenly) as being “beside the fact”, even when barely completed. Such individuals also run the very real risk of being denied access to the field, to the actors, places, archives, at a time when those young researchers try to complete the “basic accumulation” on which they will build their scientific capital (L. Debout, G. Du Roy, C. Steuer, in this issue)15. Obviously those whose academic careers are more advanced do not run such risks; in fact renewed public interest in a region undergoing transformation and the resulting social quest for information may offer them new opportunities, such as funding for research. Such inequality in personal status for situations in which academic fields have been disrupted is quite similar to the distinction mentioned earlier, between “local” researchers permanently settled in their field, whether nationals or not, and the “distant” researchers who are invited to conduct multiple short missions. Nevertheless, the texts collected here demonstrate that in French academia familiarity with the field has on the other hand served as original grounds for discussions whose theoretical ambition is firmly assumed.16

17Papers presented in this issue combine practices, fields of research, generations of researchers and disciplines and are organized in three parts. Part one concerns questioning research in action, and considering possible ways to write and describe events as it occur. What are the methods, tools, conceptual grids and analytical scales necessary to comprehend the rapid changes while dealing with the past-present relationship without being limited to a regressive reading in terms of causalities? Part two is more centered on disciplines, and shows how, through personal experience in balancing risk of too little or too much information, researchers try to make sense of things between new phenomena directly linked to revolutions, older social developments that suddenly emerge as a result, and the permanence of underlying social structures. Part three focuses on academic fields not directly but indirectly affected by the turmoil. This reflection includes information on the position and specificity of the knowledge produced by social sciences in relation to other types of producers and discourses, namely representations of expertise, politics and the media.

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1 On this, see the contributions to thematic section 47 of the 2015 Congress of the French Political Science Association (Association Française de Science Politique (AFSP)): "political crises", "democratic transitions", "regime change" ... issues and uses of political and scholarly qualifications".

2 As examples, concerning the European Union, the 2011 Project Funded under: FP7-SSH ... SSH.2013.4.1-2,Facing transition in the South and East Mediterranean areaempowering the young generation”, and the 2015 project INT-07-2015 of the Horizon 2020 Program “Towards a New Geopolitical Order in the South and East Mediterranean Region”

3 Al., 2004; Calhoun and Wieviorka, 2013; and especially "oriental" studies, and the Livre Blanc (White Paper) of the Scientific Interest Group (Groupement d’Intérêt Scientifique, GIS) on the Middle East and the Muslim World  beginning with an alarming perspective: "These fragile works are undergoing a crisis, a crisis of uneven gravity" (Mayeur- Jaouen, 2014: 5).

4 C. Raymond recalls that in 1996 the coordinators of the Bâhithât journal issue devoted to Human Sciences in the Arab world (Fayad and Nasr, 1996) argued, with a sense of provocation, that Arab social sciences were still in their training phase, a "pre-scientific" phase, while at the same time being prematurely threatened with extinction (C. Raymond, Introduction to the one-day program of Social Science Studies at war. Measures and practices of social science in a context of conflict (LabexMed / IREMAM / Ifpo, 19.06. 2015, Aix-en-Provence). See also Colonna 1991.

5 This is also the case for social sciences in a context of war, see “War careers: personal paths, places and time frames in the writing of war in Lebanon” a presentation by P. France at the one-day program of Social Science Studies at war. Measures and practices of social science in a context of conflict (LabexMed / IREMAM / Ifpo), 19.06. 2015, Aix-en-Provence.

6 Like European programs concerning projects mentioned in note 2

7 There are exceptions: in France, in December 2012, the French Review of Political Science published a special issue on "Arab revolutions" (Bennani-Chraïbi, Fillieule, 2012), and two successive congresses of AFSP in 2013 and 2015 also dedicated several debates and round tables to the subject ( and

8 Regrettably we lack some points of view, including those of Islamology and geography, due essentially to the vagaries of collective publication rather than to the lack of interest of these disciplines for the reflexive approach proposed here, as confirmed by various exchanges that occurred during the elaboration of this work, and recent geographers’ publications (Bennafla, 2015 ; Stadnicki, 2015).

9 See in particular Burgat (2006) and the ongoing work under the program supported by the European Research Council "When Authoritarianism Fails in the Arab World" (Burgat, dir.).

10 See Dakhli, 2011; see for example the archives opened by the CEDEJ "Egypt in a revolution"; or in Tunisia, experiences such as; or, in Egypt the collective work of Mosireen Askar kazeboon to establish filmed archives.

11 One thinks of the debates surrounding the Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian notebooks” (2012), written after two weeks spent in the besieged city of Homs.

12 Writing blogs, for example, can be interpreted - among other things - as a strategy to try to participate in a common search for meaning, faster than through the usual research distribution media, but whose rhythm, themes and study angles are left to the free choice and full control of the author / researcher (Bendana, 2012).

13 The « French touch » questioned by Nonna Mayer political scientist at the plenary session of the French Political Science Association Congress (AFSP) (University of Lausanne/IEPI/06/02/2015).

14 On this, see the testimony of Florian Kohstall who has organized debates in Egypt, since April 2011, entitled “Cairo Talks on Transformation and Change”, involving an Egyptian researcher and a German researcher (Kohstall, 2014 and Kohstall et al 2016) .

15 On this, see the workshop organized by doctoral students at the 12th Congress of the French Political Science Association (AFSP) in July 2013 in Paris (AD13): "Facing sudden upheaval in the field of investigation. To the test of the 'Arab Spring'”

16 This was particularly acknowledged during (recent) dissertation vivas and recruitment for CNRS research positions and / or faculty.

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Myriam Catusse, Aude Signoles et François Siino, « Are “the Arab revolutions” an event for Social Sciences? », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 138 | décembre 2015, mis en ligne le 18 décembre 2017, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL :

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Myriam Catusse

Directrice du département des études contemporaines, Institut français du Proche-Orient, UMIFRE 6, USR3135

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Aude Signoles

Maître de conférences en science politique à l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques d’Aix-en-Provence et chercheure associée à l’IREMAM

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François Siino

Aix Marseille Université, CNRS, IREMAM UMR 7310, 13094 Aix-en-Provence, France

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