Towards a Critical Arab Social Science

by | 8 Apr 2013

Abstract Arabic

What does being a critical social scientist mean in the Arab world today? Or to ask the question differently: How can social scientists think Arab societies critically following or amidst the upheavals of the last few years? Such questions do not demand prescriptive answers nor are such prescriptive answers possible. Rather, they work to open up a space of reflection that allows various social scientists to be critical in their own way in relation to the particular situations they are analysing. And it is to this space of reflection that I want to contribute here.

Perhaps it is useful to begin by making clear that ‘critical’ is not the same as ‘radical’. Critical is an intellectual quality of thought while radical is a political quality. There can be and indeed historically there is a certain affinity between critical thought and radical politics. Nonetheless the two should not be confused. This is important to stress in the highly politicised environment created by the Arab upheavals where it is not only one side of politics or another, but ‘politics in general’ that works like a huge all-consuming, colonizing machine. To be a critical social scientist does not mean being non-political but it involves the capacity to articulate a specifically academic politics. That is, the ability to carve a space that is free from what the French call la politique politicienne, the politics of those for whom politics is a vocation.

The politics of social scientists is not ‘against’ this politics but it refuses to be enslaved to it, refusing, for instance, to obey the narrow friend/enemy logic of such a politics. A critical social scientist has to ask herself: in what way is social science making a difference, offering something new, something that make politicians hesitate, and feel uncomfortable in the kind of truths they uphold, be they left or right, be they professional politicians or activists. This is where critical and radical can part. For a radical social scientist can easily provide tools and justifications for a radical politics without making such politics hesitate and reflect on itself. In what follows, I want to explore two intellectual traditions that have provided important tools for thinking such a critical social scientific stand. I will call them sociological and anthropological. But this is not so much to differentiate between disciplines as between critical analytical moments. Indeed, both the thinkers I associate respectively with the anthropological and the sociological moment, Bruno Latour and Pierre Bourdieu, are each known both as a sociologist and an anthropologist.

Bourdieu’s sociology is today the cornerstone of an important critical tradition that takes relations of power and domination in society as its object. For Bourdieu modes of domination always aim to reach a state of what he calls symbolic violence. This is the point where those who are in power manage to make their interest appear as if it is everybody’s interest. It is when this interest becomes the doxa, that is, when it becomes what is taken for granted and goes without saying, akin to what Gramsci called ‘common sense’: such as when people state that it is natural to be competitive and seek one’s own advantage, or, it is natural for men to dominate women, or that heterosexuality is natural compared to homosexuality, or that ‘Arabs like to be dominated by strong dictators’. Critical sociology comes to the scene aiming to show how what appears as ‘natural’ or as ‘fatality’ is born from within a process of domination. This is what Bourdieu calls the ‘de-naturalising’ and ‘de-fatalising’ function of the social sciences.

Because making their interest appear as ‘natural’ is part of the way the dominants dominate, a critical sociology that uncovers these processes is by its very nature on the side of the dominated. However, society is not made of one group of dominant people and a group of dominated ones. Among both those who are, in one specific relation, dominant and dominated there are also dominant and dominated. There are dominant and dominated, ad infinitum, so to speak, and social scientists should be prepared to keep on uncovering processes of domination, ad infinitum. Unlike those who want to end domination in the name of one group or another and therefore suspend their critique of domination when it concerns the domination of their own group, the critical social scientist never suspends her critique of domination. In order to be able to be such an endless ‘critical machine’ it is crucial for social scientists to establish their autonomy not just from the politics of a particular dominant group but their autonomy from politics in general, from the media and from the state and, of course, from various economic interests as well. This is why, for Bourdieu, such a critical sociology is itself dependent on a reflexive sociology of social scientists themselves as a social group and their position within the power structures.

Precisely to avoid homogenizing the dominant social forces in society, Bourdieu slowly moved from a usage of the category ‘dominant’ to talk about the ‘field of power’ within particular societies. A field of power is a description but also an invitation to see those in power as divided according to how much, but also what kind, of capital they possess (economic, social, cultural, etc…) and accordingly, engaging in varieties of struggles among themselves for the dominant position in the field of power. To see domination from this perspective is to avoid using easy and homogenising concepts as a substitute for empirical research — one cannot avoid noting that ‘neo-liberalism’ is used in this fashion today, operating as a facile explanatory principle of so many phenomena.

Bourdieu positions academics, and social scientists specifically, in the dominated space of the field of power. That is, by virtue of their possession of relatively high social and cultural capital, social scientists are part of the field of power of most societies. But the fact that they possess very little economic capital, and the fact that economic capital is a more valorised capital in the field of power, they end up being in a dominated position in this field. This, he argues, has meant that while social scientists can un-reflexively produce knowledge that is complicit in the processes of social domination, critical social scientists can also un-reflexively develop an empathy with dominated groups through a process of structural homology: that is, transposing their dominated status in the field of power into sympathy with those who are dominated by the field of power. The problem, for Bourdieu, is not so much the sympathy but the belief among, what he calls after Weber, ‘proletaroid intellectuals’ that the sympathy is a criterion of social scientific professionalism. As he states on a number of occasions: good politics does not necessarily produce good social science. Indeed, in a paradoxical way, social scientists can optimise the political impact of their writings by seeking autonomy from the political field.

Autonomy involves above all giving primacy to a social scientific interest that is distinct from political, mediatic or economic interests. Given the dependency of social sciences on funding from the state or from private sources this involves a struggle to insure that such funding respects social scientific autonomy. A mark of democratic institutions is their capacity to fund their own critique and social scientists have an interest in struggling to maintain such democratic ethos against the political and financial forces who see funding as a means of forcing social scientist to prioritise certain research over others, and needless to say, against those who use funding to affect the result of social scientific inquiry.

But autonomy is not only structural. It is also a cultural autonomy involving a struggle to protect social scientific reason from political and mediatic reason. It is for example to avoid modes of parliamentary political argumentation that Jeremy Bentham describes in his little known Handbook of Political Fallacies (1824). First among those for Bentham are what he calls ‘fallacies of authority (including laudatory personalities) the subject-matter of which is authority in various shapes—and the immediate object, to repress, on the ground of the weight of such authority, all exercise of the reasoning faculty.’ The second are ‘fallacies of danger (including vituperative personalities) the subject-matter of which is the suggestion of danger in various shapes—and the object, to repress altogether, on the ground of such danger, the discussion proposed to be entered on.’ Bringing such modes of debating into social science is in Bourdieu’s terms a weakening of the autonomy and specificity of social scientific reason.

Autonomy also involves an autonomy of style. I have also often noted among Arab social scientists a particularly male style of projecting intellectual authority that involve a certain way of ‘being serious’ that belongs more to a puritan religious field rather than the academic field. Terry Eagleton’s critique of this form of seriousness in his book After Theory is of particular relevance here. As he put it: ‘The puritan mistakes pleasure for frivolity because he mistakes seriousness for solemnity’.

Let me now move to the second critical tradition that I want to highlight and which has Bruno Latour’s latest work on multiple modes of existence as its most recent and important manifestation. It is also developed in the important work of the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. Finally, one should note that it is also inspired by the philosophical lineages that lead to Gilles Deleuze. This tradition begins with a sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, critique of the ‘sociological’ tradition delineated above. It argues that by being so centred, and even obsessed, with the demystifying and unveiling of hidden relations of domination and exploitation, the critical sociological tradition ends up giving ontological primacy to these relations and the resistance they generate. It can even go as far as considering such relations as the only social reality there is with everything else being secondary, superstructural, ideological or ephemeral. Without questioning the importance of such relations of domination, this second critical tradition emphasises the importance of uncovering those other spaces that escape them: spaces that lie outside power, outside governmentality, outside resistance and even outside modernity. Along with the domain of institutionalised power marked by the social scientific quest for causality, and therefore for repetition, for the foreseen, the existent and the actual, it aims to also uncover other realities marked by the unstructured and the contingent, the unexpected and the unforseen, as well as the possible and potential. It sees those as marking existing realities that are nonetheless eclipsed by the domination of the realities marked by power relations. That is, along with seeing processes of domination in a particular reality it also perceives processes of domination whereby one reality dominates over other realities.

If radical political thought is grounded in both an ‘anti’ and an ‘alter’ moment, that is, a desire to oppose existing oppression, domination and exploitation and an equal desire to create something better, it can be said that the first sociological tradition is more relevant to an ‘anti’ politics while the second tradition provides ammunition for an ‘alter’ politics. It is in this sense that I feel that both traditions are of importance in speaking to Arab social scientists as they find themselves confronted with old colonial modes of dominations in Palestine, new regimes of capitalist exploitation expanding throughout the region and new spaces of possibility opened up by the popular upheavals and transformations of the last few years. The two traditions offer an invitation for Arab social scientists where the struggle for autonomy is an important cornerstone of critical knowledge, and where speaking to the political involves not only an attention to the spaces of domination and resistance but an equally important search for spaces that are outside such cycles of power and where the possibility of alternative social orders can be grounded.

Let me first give a quick example of how a social science committed to uncovering power relations and one committed to uncovering other realities meet, the analytical tensions that this can produce, but also the possibilities that open up when working with both of them together. I will then move to another more political example to exemplify the way they speak to the anti/alter imaginaries of radical politics.

Let us go to northern Lebanon and explore a routine social interaction that one still encounters in some of the villages. In these villages class division is delineated by family belonging. That is, there are rich families and poor families and the families that are rich and those that are poor have been the same since the Ottoman time. And the members of the poor families work, and usually would have worked, for the members of the rich families as servants, as agricultural laborers, as cattle minders or drivers etc. also since Ottoman time. Despite this lifelong division, if you visit the village, you can still see members of the rich family sitting having a coffee with members of the poorer families working for them.

I have seen this in one of the villages where I’ve done fieldwork. I remember clearly, for example, as I was walking around the village, seeing a man, Michel, from the ruling family, that I had been introduced to earlier in the week, sitting on the balcony in front of his house having a coffee with another man whom I had identified as his chauffeur but whom I have not met before. When I said hello Michel got up and introduced me to his chauffeur, a man called Jeryes, by saying: ‘This is Jeryes, he works here. He’s also from here (the village), his family lives down the road from here.’ And then he said: ‘Jeryes and I grew up together, we are like brothers and our families have been like one since anyone can remember’. This might sound either odd, or artificial, or even hypocritical to someone not versed in village culture, especially when you get to know that Jeryes is more than just a chauffeur. He in fact is largely Michel’s servant, doing everything and anything Michel wants him to do, whether around the house, the field or anywhere else.

This is a very interesting situation that to me puts in tension the critical sociological and the critical anthropological dispositions of a social scientist I have talked about above. This is because, from a critical sociological point of view, what is happening here might appear as quite obvious: this person is using kinship categories to hide relations of domination. The critical sociologist’s desire to demystify power relations surfaced immediately and he or she might say: ‘sure, “like brothers” indeed, ha ha, who does he think he is kidding? I can see through this language of brotherhood and recognise that underneath it is a relation of domination. Nobody is going to fool me with any mumbo jumbo about brothers.’ A Marxist might even say: ‘here we have a situation where kinship terminology operates as an ideology that mystifies the relations of exploitation that exist between the master and his servant.’ What’s more I learnt that in fact Jeryes’ grandfather was also the servant of Michel’s grandfather. So one can cynically say: so much for ‘our families are like one family’… more mystification of relations of power.

The critical anthropological side in me, however, while agreeing with the sociological critique at one level, wanted to also understand the significance of this designation ‘we are like brothers’ from the point of view of Jeryes, and here, something else emerges. The first thing I noted after some time of knowing Jeryes is that he is not at all mystified by the language of brotherhood. He knows all too well that he is the servant of a rich man and that his family is and has always been dominated by Michel’s family. Nonetheless, Jeryes also genuinely appreciated that he and his rich master are ‘like brothers’. He enjoyed it when Michel said so and he said it on one occasion as well. Here I started realizing that notwithstanding the fact that Michel might well use kinship metaphors to reproduce the relation of exploitation that he has with Jeryes, still, kinship metaphors did more than that: they carved a space enjoyed by both Michael and Jeryes, where they related to each other precisely as brothers. It was a space outside the relation of domination.

Often, the critical sociological gaze, because it invests so much in uncovering relations of power, seem to be unable to see or even think the possibility of other forms of relationality and to think that what is a relation of power can be nothing but a relation of power. But a relation between two people is far more complex and multi-dimensional for it to be captured by a single definitional mode, no matter how important that is. So perhaps, the relation of power is the most important dimension of the relation between Michel and Jeryes but it is nonetheless not the only dimension. The language of kinship points to this other form of relationality. In the language of the Lebanese village, the space carved by the language of metaphoric kinship is often the space of honourability.

So, a critical sociological gaze will only see this space in terms of how it functions to reproduce power relations. To be sure, the space can and does function to reproduce power relations. But if this is all what a social scientist sees, she will be missing an important resource that people, and especially subjugated people, have, to constitute themselves as viable human beings outside the relations of dominations in which they are grounded. Saying that this space actually helps reproduce relations of domination could be true, but that does not mean that it is the only reason for it to exist. If one is writing a history of class relations, especially relations of patronage, in the Lebanese villages and sees nothing but relations of domination and instrumental forms of exploitation, one misses another important history which is the history of the decline of a space that is free from such instrumental relations and where people really did relate to each other like brothers and sisters. The critical sociological gaze that captures relations of exploitation is important but the critical anthropological gaze that captures the existence of other spaces or realities is equally important.

Let me give another quick example which highlights how this question of power — infused spaces/other spaces can have a significant relation to the anti and alter dimensions of politics mentioned above. For social scientists interested in Palestinian social life and its survival in the face of the scale and ferocity of Zionist colonization the question of resistance, what constitute acts of resistance and what constitute a culture of resistance, is of utmost importance. This resistance has been detailed by many good social scientists. But to what extent does the axis of ‘settler colonialism—resitance to settler colonisalism’ help us understand and provide critical ammunition for a Palestinian politics. Once again, and with the village example above, there is often a slide from ontological primacy to ontological mono-realism: from considering colonial relations of domination and resistance to this domination as the most important Palestinian political reality to considering them as the only political reality.

Resistance, important as it is both for political reasons and for individual questions of self-worth, is a psychologically demanding pursuit that can wear down people even when successful. A critical anthropological gaze will not only want to examine the various forms and dimensions of the existence of relations of power and resistance, but also how people find it important to shield themselves from both domination and resistance to domination. Here the concept of resilience and the reality, the practices and the culture, that it can delineate, might be seen as important. Resilience in physics, such as when we speak of a resilient substance, is defined in an interesting way. The definition speaks of the capacity of a substance to be subjected to a deforming force without it being deformed by it. This seems to me a crucial dimension of ‘practices of resilience’. For no matter what one thinks of the importance, sacredness, etc… of resistance, one cannot deny that it entails durable damage to the people and the social fabric that are engaging in it. Indeed it could be said that this is the tragic dimension of resistance. It is heroic, and it is indispensable. A viable life is impossible to think without it and yet it damages the viability of life. One does not have to think resistance and resilience as opposite. It can be perhaps usefully seen as a dimension of resistance by someone classifying it from the outside. Nonetheless, by the people experiencing it, it needs to be carefully differentiated from resistance as a reality.

With the risk of oversimplifying the matter let me provide what I think would be a clarifying example. In the household of a recently deceased Palestinian male martyr his widow has to make some choices in terms of how much to remember him and to make her children remember him which, of course, changes with time. Putting his photo on the wall is an act of remembrance, but it is also a celebration of his resistance and an act of resistance in itself. There might even be a shrine for him in the house ensuring that the children always remember the heroism of their father, inherit it, and participate in the culture of resistance he has been part of. But, let us say that at night the wife decides to always read the children some relatively apolitical children’s books and tuck them goodnight with a warm kiss that allows them to experience a sense of existence that is not subjectively governed by the death of their father; a sense of existence that is neither governed by colonialism, nor governed by resistance to colonialism. That is, she makes them experience a form of normality that children who are not subjected to colonialism and who have a martyred father also experience. This is what I would call an act of resilience. It goes without saying that it has a dimension of resistance built into it. But, if all what the mother does is engage in practices aimed at evading the fact of colonization – assuming such total evasion is possible – this would be seen as a form of treason by those who want to continue to celebrate the martyr of the father. Yet, it would be pathological if a family is all consumed by celebrating acts of resistance and does not give itself such spaces of normality.

As I said above, whether one wants to call resilience a different dimension of resistance or something other than resistance is not as important from an analytical point of view as it is from the political point of view of those who are engaging in resistance and who might worry about the co-opting potential that is present in acts of resilience. What is crucial for a critical social scientist is that it is an other space to the space of colonial domination and active resistance to domination. It is not a space governed by a foregrounding of the colonizing power that one needs to resist against. One can call resilience a space of heroic normality. By virtue of this, it is a space far more suitable for grounding an ‘alter-politics’: a politics concerned with the institutionalization of some kind of post-resistance normality. Resistance, on the other hand, is by definition haunted by what it is trying to resist and as such is the ground of an ‘anti-politics’. And as always, it is crucial never to think the anti- and alter-, resistance and resilience in terms of either/or but rather how to think both together. It is to such a task that a critical social scientist moved by both a critical sociological and a critical anthropological ethos can offer some contribution.

Let me conclude by raising another important dimension of the ‘anthropological’ or ‘cultural’ critique of the social sciences. It has to do with questions of mode of writing as opposed to what one writes about. This critique has also its philosophical inspiration in the work of Derrida but it is also inspired from a long tradition of feminist social sciences. The issue here is the social sciences’ modes of detailing and classifying reality, and their emphasis on what their language refers to as ‘the capturing of reality’. This kind of language makes them complicit with the dominant patriarchal forms of domination associated with taming, domesticating, controlling and exploiting otherness. The search for other realities where such relation does not prevail also invites us to think of a mode of writing that is not about capture, a writing with people rather than writing about people. Once again, this is not a question of either/or. It is difficult to imagine a mode of scientific knowledge that is not complicit with the logic of domestication. Yet such knowledge can be at least tempered with a desire not to reveal and unveil, which often makes something open for governmental capture even when it isn’t already so. A ‘writing with’ is a writing that is ‘with’ people in the same way one wishes someone: ‘may God be with you’. It is a with-ness that acts as a propelling force in peoples’ lives something that even the best critical social science, whether sociologically or anthropologically inspired, fails to do.

Ghas­san Hage is Future Gen­er­a­tion Pro­fessor of Anthro­polgy and Social The­ory at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne. He is the author of, amongst others, White Nation (1998) and Against Para­noid Nation­al­ism (2003).


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Join 4,680 other subscribers

We respect your privacy.


*fair access = access according to ability to pay
on a sliding scale down to zero.



Publish your article with us and get read by the largest community of critical legal scholars, with over 4500 subscribers.