Middle East Studies for the New Millennium: Infrastructures of Knowledge

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By: Seteney Shami
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Editor

New York: New York University Press. 512pp. $55.00, ISBN: 9781479827787

Volume: 5 Issue: 10

October 2017

Review by:

Sanford R. Silverburg, Ph.D

Catawba College

Salisbury, NC

Area studies has been a project study by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) for the past fifteen years.  The collective effort of the Council’s research and participants at various levels of academia have resulted in this published effort focusing on the general notion of area studies and more particularly on the study of “the Middle East.”  How one studies any region of the world can be sliced according to discipline, cultural affiliation or a myriad of cross-disciplinary approaches. With regard to the Middle East, the study of this geographic region by western scholars has recently come under attack as “orientalism,” a cultural approach indexed by western values and perceptions. A serious deterrent to the study of this area is the lack of appreciation by virtue of the lack of familiarity with the relevant languages of the region, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew, along with subsidiary ones, Kurdish and others spoken by the various minorities.

Under the able editorial work of Seteni Shami, the SSRC’s Director of the Arab Council, and Cynthia Miller-Idris, an education and sociologist specialist at The American University, they bring together a wealth of perspective and a sober reflection on how past and present social scientists have formed their craft in higher education.  The report is broken down into three distinct parts, initially focusing on standard academic disciplines, the relationship of the university and the region, and the last one covering the influence of political designs by domestic forces on area study.

Interest in the Middle East emerges periodically with the eruption of inter-state armed conflict, revolutionary activity, and of course, Islamic-based terrorism.  A great deal of attention is paid to the institutional structure of these organizations and their particularly goals in the region.  Discipline-oriented studies continue to search for how the combinations with area studies best fit.  One example potentially complicating the relationship is the prevalent focus of political scientists whose efforts are heavily on methodology.  A single chapter is devoted to the history of the role of sociology and how the academic approach today services the ends of understanding Middle Eastern societies, followed by an obvious commentary on the importance of the study of the Middle East and the weak connection to economics.  Even the description of the “Middle East” reflects greatly on the role of geography and an inter-disciplinary opportunity to study.  Part two examines education as a product of universities, beginning with a trend to introduce study abroad programs, supplemented by data of foreign students found in universities in the United States.  Arabic language interest is noted has increased significantly after the tragedy of 9/11.   A review of graduate study emphases, determined by the production of doctoral dissertations is surveyed.  There is also a chapter outlining the extent of Islamic studies across the many universities in the United States.  Part three delves into the controversial element of the study of politics, relevant to the region, and its many faceted impact on how academic study organizations side with on group or another. In the post 9/11 era, sensitivities can run raw and can have possible complicating results on area studies itself.  Historiography, it is shown, has made methodological improvements to “orientalist” approaches.  The role of the media in a democratic society comes under review, examining the issues of events preceding the war in Iraq and, of course, the Arab-Israeli conflict.  A concluding chapter is instruction to wit: As social scientist, we do not necessarily study a region, we study elements we can observe in the region.

This is a contribution to all those interested in the multi-faceted and varying levels of society in what we known as the Middle East.  It is also a tome that should find interest with administrations in institutions of higher learning who have programs dedicated to the study of the region or in which are in the process of contemplating introducing a serious effort for its study.  In addition to the erudition found in the essays themselves, the review contains a valuable asset found appended to each essay with reference material and a wealth of collected data dealing with education and the region.

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