BEIRUT: While Syrian-Palestinian sociologist Sari Hanafi’s election last week as the first ever Arab vice president of the International Sociological Association is a reason to celebrate, it is also a bitter reminder of the lack of Middle Eastern participation in the social sciences. While the ISA boasts up to 7,000 members, only five Arabs from Lebanese and Saudi associations attended this year’s World Congress of Sociology in Yokohama, Japan, compared to 76 from Israel, 16 from Iran and 45 from Turkey.
“It’s not cultural, it’s got nothing to do with the Arab Islamic culture, it’s something to do with the institutional culture,” said Hanafi, a professor and chair of Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut.
He said that academic institutions needed to offer more support to those studying social sciences, and that Arabs themselves needed to be more involved in their fields of research.
“It is very rare to find people who are really relevant locally and carry out conversations with their peers in the discipline,” he told The Daily Star.
Although he acknowledged the lack of financing was another reason preventing greater participation, he said that did not need to be a hindrance. He also pointed to the fact that papers could be presented in one of three languages: English, French, or Spanish, and that papers for one of ISA’s two journals, International Sociology and Current Sociology, could be submitted in Arabic.
“There’s really no excuse ... It’s a question of resources but it’s also a question of awareness,” he said, adding that it was about promoting the importance and purpose of social sciences.
“The presence of Arabs is not only extremely important scientifically if we want to engage in science and technology in the world,” he said. “It’s also ... to say there’s a message we want to deliver to the world.”
Hanafi, also a member of the Arab Sociological Association and the Arab Council for Social Sciences, said he was hoping to bring in at least 10 Arab members during his four-year mandate.
Growing up at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus and coming from a lower middle class family, the sociologist originally enrolled to major in civil engineering at Damascus University to please his family, but decided to obtain another degree in sociology in 1987 for his own sake.
“I was at that time very politicized; I wanted to change the world,” he laughed.
Hanafi left to study in France after he got a scholarship, getting his Master’s degree from the University of Strasbourg and then his doctorate from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris in 1994.
“Why France? Because I like Michel Foucault, I like Gaston Bachelard, and I’m interested in the philosophy of science. So I completed my studies in sociology in France and now I would say I am not only incapable of changing the world, I can barely understand my surroundings,” he joked.
Hanafi said his work in France made him more aware of how the state encouraged its citizens to study and learn, how it listened to their expertise, and its support for organized discussions, all of which was largely lacking in the Arab world.
Despite having now conducted approximately 40 consultancies for NGOs and the U.N. on various topics, he said none of them were for an Arab state or organization.
“This shows that we have a real problem here, that social sciences are not taken seriously by the decision-makers,” he said.
Hanafi said conservative religious groups were looking to delegitimize the social sciences in the fear that they may show evidence contrary to their ideals.
“In times of turbulence, in times of identity crises, in times of uprisings, you need to rationalize the public’s afflictions. You need to bring expertise to that,” he said.
Yet while he can be very critical of Arab societies, he maintains a long-standing commitment to the socioeconomic rights of Palestinians refugees. Hanafi, who also holds French nationality, lived in the West Bank’s Ramallah until Israel began limiting his stays and eventually asked him to leave.
“I had barely any time to pack my stuff. I was a visiting professor for a while in France until I applied to different places and I got in at AUB. And I am so happy to be here, it’s a very interesting place to be in the Arab world,” he explained.
“There is time for research, for freedom of expression, at least at my university, but unfortunately less and less from Lebanon, which was an oasis of freedom of expression. I am very worried of the increasing censorship in Lebanon.”