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Field Notes: The Making of Middle East Studies in the United States

reviewed by Ibtesam Al Atiyat August 10, 2018

coverTitle: Field Notes: The Making of Middle East Studies in the United States
Author(s): Zachary Lockman
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804799067, Pages: 376, Year: 2016
Search for book at Amazon.com

The opportunity to review Zackry Lockman’s Fieldnotes: The Making of Middle East Studies in the United States presented itself at a crucial moment in my career as a sociologist whose research focus has been the Middle East. Last year, colleagues at my college demanded I confess where I stand on the right of Israel to exist in response to my protest against a secret lecture held on campus featuring the policy director of AIPAC. Colleagues reduced my intellectual posture to a personal, ethnic idiosyncrasy (I am the sole “Arab” on campus). I realized that my role as Middle East studies (MES) faculty is conditioned by the school’s political rather than intellectual interests; that the entire function of the program on campus is to sound contemporary and politically in vogue. My experience is far from an anomaly. At a time when dark money is invading higher education, institutions and conservative politics are creeping in under the guise of yet another identity-based studies. The threat to Middle East studies is no longer coming from outside academia but from within the very higher education institutions that ought to expose and critique ideology rather than promote it. I questioned the legitimacy of the field itself. I decided to stop teaching MES courses and withdraw from the MES program. I became convinced that it was time for Middle East studies as well as other regional and area studies to cease to exist. Area studies reflect the vagaries of geopolitics; they not only invite ideology but appear to be a creation of it. Their very organizational schema codifies not intellectual principles but the logic of shifting borders and the political disputes that drive the shifts. This results in tendentious scholarship that we celebrate as offering new perspectives. The very existence of MES is ideological. At its core it presumes the existence of an object modeled on that of the natural sciences. My refusal to teach MES was based on an intuition that no matter the methodology, no matter the amount of critical dismantling, the very distinction of the object itself reinforced an illusion: that the Middle East is a natural rather than an ideological object.

Zachry Lockman would disagree. He is deeply committed to the field of Middle East studies. In two different books: Contended Visions of the Middle East and Field Notes, he seems to be intent on amplifying the intellectual as well as institutional prestige of this field. He begins by charting the field intellectually in his Contended Visions, and now in his Field Notes (which he encourages us to read as a sequel), he diligently weaves a narrative of the MES evolution from the 1920s to 1980s. By tracing its origins, the field is established and defended. To create the story of MES’ origins, Lockman follows a distinct and meticulous methodology in which he analyzes every shred of archived document, meeting minutes, and correspondences on campuses and at major private foundations that he associates with the rise of MES. The field has its own internal development, he argues, which he treats as exempt from the external influences it has always been accused of being a byproduct of. Hence, contrary to the common understanding, he contends that MES arose not as a byproduct of the Cold War or the birth of the security state in the U.S., but as a result of purely intellectual as well as institutional shifts within the fields of social sciences and the humanities in the U.S. It was the development workshops, conferences, and publication programs that were spearheaded by Social Sciences Council and the American Council of Learned Communities that inspired the rise of area studies, MES included. The “wartime exigencies” and post-war developments transformed MES as well as other area studies (which were considered less serious fields, mere branches of the humanities), elevating them to the more eminent status of social science. He argues that the field developed exclusively internally and is not, as is often thought, a function of the U.S war machine.  

He shows that the early interest in MES in the U.S. did not originate in public higher education institutions sponsored by public funds, but began at private universities (Princeton in particular), supported by leading private foundations: Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. His proof: the field routinely produced knowledge that frustrated rather than helped policy makers; the field was diverse and lacked the ideological unity one would expect had it merely served policy. It was to an extent autonomous, and this autonomy even jeopardized its future. Early founders, according to Lockman, worried less about its subordination to policy interests and more about the quality of its scholarship and scholars. It was ultimately this exclusively academic and internal conflict that led to the changes in the field.

The changes in social sciences and humanities in the U.S. that gave birth to area studies and MES in particular were also accompanied by an influx of financial support from private foundations. Ford was one of the leading foundations that allocated huge sums of money to support area studies programs on U.S. college campuses across the nation. Here is one of the book’s main problems. Lockman never problematizes the early connections between American capitalism and its hegemonic expansion. Although he admits and describes in detail in Chapter One the different intents and changing agendas that drove foundations’ funding, he never draws any meaningful connection between the flourishing of American companies, the rise of foundations. and the rise of the U.S. as a hegemonic empire. He fails to see a deeper relation between the complicity of the foundations and foreign policy itself. He also fails to acknowledge that foundations supporting MES had any interests, and seems to take them at their word they are merely disinterested charities. He mentions in passing that Ford, for example, was concerned about its public image at a time when the public in the U.S was questioning the corrosive effect of its financial empire. This is a missed opportunity to explore the complicity of knowledge and power, of the complex relation between the hegemony exercised by massive corporations through their foundations and geopolitical policy. Foundations’ money boosted area studies and helped their creation. They also jeopardized their development due to fluctuating amounts of money foundations were willing to give.

Despite budget cuts and intellectual challenges posed by the critique of orientalism and modernization theory, the field was able to survive. Lockman attributes the survival of the field to internal self-critique and self-correction. The field was flexible enough to absorb the critique of orientalism, women’s and gender studies; the concerns of newer and younger generations. To look for the coherence of Middle East studies and understand its ability to survive, he suggests that we turn to the infrastructure of the field: networks, publications and scholars who keep the field alive. We must abandon, according to Lockman, the early vision the founders of area studies had: of interdisciplinary scholarship that would transcend the boundaries between science and the humanities. We must also abandon any search for theoretical uniformity. What gives MES its coherence, he argues, is “the fact that those engaged in it, while doing a great many different things in intellectual terms, all relate to part of more or less the same geographic space and are involved with a common set of institutions and networks” (xviii). The infrastructure of the field and the dedication of committed scholars are all that the field needs and will need to continue and justify its relevance.

Towards the end of the book, Lockman recognizes the threats and intimidation MES scholars experience on many college campuses in the U.S. The fear of the accusation of anti-Semitism or of being an Islamic apologist are the key threats to MES scholarship in recent years. He saw those threats as external when in fact that have always been the constitution of the field itself. The questions of its very purpose do not concern Lockman. His mission is single minded: he wishes to debunk the single notion that MES is a direct function of governmental Cold War and security state programs, as if these are the only two conceivable influences on the field. The book is indeed essential to the field; however, scholarship must not merely reproduce in its own identity the same fictive identity of the object it studies. Rather it must adopt a critical posture towards it and towards its own legitimacy. It is time for scholarship to reassert its jurisdiction; rather than study areas as natural objects, the scholar must analyze the forces and question the legitimacy of the concept of areas, and turn a critical eye towards the procedures which impregnate areas with geopolitical significance.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 10, 2018
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22466, Date Accessed: 8/16/2018 9:38:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Ibtesam Al Atiyat
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    IBTESAM AL ATIYAT is Associate Professor of Sociology at St. Olaf College. Recent publications include the article "A Refugee by Other Means" in Peace Review.
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