Geography of Middle East and North Africa Research Paper

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Middle East research has always been first and foremost ‘geography,’ as have most of the other regional and thematic sectors of human geography referred to here. In other words, it has always stayed closely bound to the theoretical and methodological developments of the discipline as a whole. It is only within this framework that a regional category like ‘Middle East research’ can be described as ‘specific’ or ‘different.’ This integration is crucial to the under- standing of many essential developments. Whether one thinks of the decreasing importance attached to map drawing as the geographer’s methodological ideal, the decreasing relevance of studies which restrict themselves to the morphology of the cultural land- scape, or of critical reflections on the meaning of ‘culturally specific,’ the essential impulses have always come from other sub-disciplines or from geography’s sister social sciences. Two characteristics of the institutional organization and staff composition of geography as a university discipline have contributed substantially to the perpetuation of this integration:

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(a) Essentially, geographical Middle East research has always been established at university institutes, rather than as independent ‘centers of geographical Middle East research.’ Thus, the institutional conditions have hindered fundamentally disparate developments.

(b) Only very few geographers have restricted their own scientific work to a single regional specialization such as ‘the Middle East,’ and the creation of specific chairs for Middle East research has been rare. Most scientists are also concerned with their own country of origin or with cross-regional topics, and indeed some have questioned the validity of the regional (as opposed to the sectoral) approach to scientific study in general. This common attachment to different sections of the discipline has also contributed significantly to the fact that geographical Middle East research has never developed along a fundamentally different path from the general discipline, whether conceptually or methodologically.

1. Concepts And Methods Of Geographical Middle East Research

Despite spatial proximity and an age-old tradition of economic and intellectual exchange, natural and cultural differences are factors that were decisive in establishing scientific interest in the Middle East. Although the various early reports by famous travelers may be invaluable as sources, if the strict criteria of methodical and systematic data collection and analysis are adhered to, then it is not possible to speak of ‘geographical Middle East research’ before the time of World War II. Many important earlier works must primarily be assigned to sister disciplines such as archaeology. ‘Natural difference’ and primarily ‘cultural difference’—with their thematic foci, conceptual premises, and methodical approaches changing considerably over time—have to date defined a loose framework for geographical Middle East research and given rise to two ‘axes of tension,’ at least one of which can be found in nearly all works:

(a) Without necessarily implying acceptance of an over-simplifying geographical determinism, the question as to how the specific natural environment in the Middle East affects space-shaping human activities has played an important role in many now ‘classical’ themes in Middle East research. This is especially apparent in research on nomadism or in agricultural geography, which deals with different patterns of land use and have to take into consideration the consequences of resource scarcity as well as distinguishing features of the agricultural social structure. This linking of specific Middle Eastern natural factors with the creation of spatial human environments—a link that is central to geographic interest—should not necessarily be seen as direct and causal, but instead regarded as intrinsic to the origin of whole social systems and societies. This subject attracts little attention today.

(b) A second axis of tension can be seen in the degree of significance attributed to the cultural foundations of space-shaping activity. A typical example can be seen in urban geography, where—expressed crudely—the Middle Eastern city is seen with the culturalist eye as ‘Middle Eastern’ and with the universal-functionalist eye as ‘city.’ Said’s (1978) criticism of ‘Orientalism’ directly affected some geographical models like that of the ‘cultural continents,’ re-emphasizing the difficulties of an appropriate approach to ‘culture.’ Even so his theses had far less impact among Middle East geographers than among human geographers in general where—predominately in the Anglo-Saxon world—an intensive discussion over the accusation of ‘orientalism’ was embedded within a broader debate on concepts of ‘culture.’ The general concentration of scientific studies on elements of material culture contributed significantly to the low level of resonance met by Said’s criticism, as did a questionable confidence in more ‘objective’— compared with other social sciences—research methods (Fisher 1981, p. 433).

A distinct empirical approach, which has contributed to a partial preservation of an empirical-descriptive attitude to materials, has always been characteristic of geographical Middle East research. Even today, it is almost impossible to find dissertations that are not based on first-hand fieldwork; and as long as interest in the historical and political aspects of the discipline remains underdeveloped, a broad and comprehensive treatise on the history of geographical Middle East research will not be written. It is only since the 1970s that it has been possible for the researcher to supplement his or her own independently collected material with publicly available data published by local authorities.

Apart from the decreasing interest in environmental factors of influence, one dominant ‘global trend’ can be recognized despite all diversity and difference. This is a decreased occupation with examinations of material culture, which were often primarily historically-genetically oriented. In place of this, focus is shifting to people, identities, patterns of action, and everyday life as well as to social groups, institutions, and social change. This thematic shift applies in general to all of the concrete fields of research mentioned below and has several causes. After a phase of extensive occupation with material culture, a basic consensus had been achieved on many open questions. Thus, it was possible to move on to consider variables that represent in different ways the basis for the origin and development of material culture. A second reason lies in the increasing public interest in problems of intercultural understanding. Geography’s sister disciplines, with the exception of anthropology, had also paid little attention to this topic and consequently a whole new field of research unfolded. Finally, the increasing acceptance of qualitative research methods created a suitable environment to look at the social foundations of human space-shaping activities. Whereas interviews in the early phases of geographical Middle East research served primarily as a supplement to drawing maps and therefore concentrated on ‘hard’ facts, today the whole spectrum of methods of empirical social research, quantitative as well as qualitative interviews, or participant observation, are important. Values, norms, subjective meanings, and references of sense that guide space-shaping activities have now been able to move into the foreground of analysis and evaluation. Working with interpreters has thus become increasingly difficult and more and more geographers have acquired their own knowledge of foreign languages.

2. Main Thematic Foci

The spectrum of thematic foci of geographical Middle East research is very broad and has been molded by different national traditions. These in turn have been decisively influenced by the historical roles as colonial powers of various countries in the Middle East, or by the absence of colonies in the case of Germany. Close contact to other human sciences is characteristic of many larger research projects, where the common denominator is often an approach that is ‘empirical’ and oriented on ‘the present,’ combined with a mutual ‘interest in material culture.’ Consequently, the dominant partners have been anthropology and sociology, archaeology and, in part, architecture town planning. Added to this are the important roles played by history and politics as well as by Islamic sciences and economics. Such cooperation, and the resulting familiarity with the approaches of other disciplines, has also contributed to the broadness of the field of geographical research topics. Sweeping statements about ‘research foci’ or ‘thematic shifts’ are thus only possible with reservations.

In the early stage of modern geographical Middle East research (up to the 1930s), extensive field trips to often largely unfamiliar target areas usually sought to collect as much information on different thematic topics as possible. Already in its infancy, this methodology generated descriptions of single cities and regions that—positively formulated—were characterized by an ‘integrating perspective’ but at least partly represented encyclopedic collections of facts. Even in 2000 (especially in Germany, but also in France), regional-geographical studies without scientific claim but based on material which has been collected and analyzed scientifically and methodologically make up a large part of all Middle Eastrelated monographs. They are an indicator of the continued demand for comprehensible basic knowledge and constitute a medium of transfer between an institutionalized Middle East research system and an interested public.

Moving away from this array of works dedicated to single regions, the geographical perception of the Middle East as the Lebensraum for the three lifestyles (‘genres de ie’), ‘farmer,’ ‘urbanite,’ and ‘nomad,’ was already guiding research before this trilogy had been explicitly expressed. ‘Patterns of agricultural land use by settled farmers,’ ‘city and urbanization,’ and ‘transformation of mobile lifestyles and economic systems’ became the early foci of geographic Middle East research. Of course, this description is a crude one, which lumps together extremely heterogeneous works within the same division:

(a) Works on agriculture and land use represent the earliest focus of geographical research; within French geography the link with the role as a colonial power is especially apparent. The temporal-spatial organization of agrarian land use, underlying social structures, and the relationships between rural and urban space as well as strategies, successes, and problems of agrarian reforms were among the subjects of important publications. Questions about the natural limits of habitable areas and shifting borders between the Lebensraum of farmers and nomads were often examined from a historical point of view and with some overlap with the field of physical geography. In particular, British geography dealt with questions of water use and irrigation, providing an anchor point for the discussion of water problems in the context of international conflicts, a theme that is now very important. As one of the most important practically oriented research projects, the ‘Khabura project’ in Oman—led by the University of Durham—became well known.

(b) As population growth accelerated and migration to urban areas began, the ‘urbanization’ theme complex became increasingly important. Today, this field probably enjoys the most extensive corpus of geographical work. Urban geographers found it much easier to draw on works done in other social sciences than did their colleagues in the field of agricultural geography. Internal division into different quarters, the function and organization of the bazaar or suq, changing social structures in the old towns, the organization and change of urban crafts, and the cultural-specific character of Middle Eastern cities in general are among the most important topics. Questions of town planning were often touched on here, but were rarely central. Urban geographical works and more broadly designed studies on settlement systems often have a strong historical bias and thus include archive research alongside fieldwork. Though functional and socio-spatial differences between old and new towns are often addressed briefly, the majority of works deal with the old cities without thereby reflecting their real importance today. Marginalized areas, bidonvilles, and gecekondus have become the subject of geographic interest since the 1980s and mainly in conjunction with the increasing concern in developmental problems.

Nomadism as a way of life and a type of economic system which is unfamiliar to central Europe and which underwent substantial changes during the twentieth century was also the subject of early scrutiny. Areas of distribution and regionally differing organizational forms, relationships with town dwellers and farmers, and the historical importance of nomadism were among the focal points of research, as were the threat to the nomadic lifestyle and the forced settlement of nomads.

A significant proportion of studies do not fit into this classification, and this is especially true for recent publications. They either cut across the categories and belong to all of them in various ways or represent enlargements of various kinds.

The group of works that were written from the point of view of economic and social development or developmental deficits is especially heterogeneous. They adopt widely different theoretical approaches and partly overlap with the study of culturally specific strategies of economic action already established in other social sciences. The spectrum extends from works on modernization and social change up to concrete development and planning projects. Overall, however, the occupation with modern economic sectors began late and hesitantly.

As a reaction to the explosive increase in international travel, research projects were set up which dealt with the numerous and diverse problems and opportunities of international tourism in the destination countries. Only later did the various forms of internal tourism in the Middle East receive attention.

(c) Projects on international migration were also less the result of processes within the discipline than of changes in the research subject area. They deal with motives and consequences in the countries of origin as well as in the destination regions, and thus sometimes have the character of ‘Middle East research outside the Middle East.’

(d) Questions of water use and distribution, which are gaining increasing importance in many international political conflicts and consequently meet rising public interest, have formed a growing proportion of recent geographical studies.

(e) Across all these thematic fields, a trend towards a strengthened focus on life world and routines of everyday life can be seen. Works dealing with gender- specific spatial activities and studies on the character of urbanity or public space fall into this category.

3. The Institutional Basis Of Geographical Middle East Research

There have always been various factors determining which geographers (for the first decades of the twentieth century it is perhaps better to use the broader term ‘geo-scientists’), from which countries, to what extent, and with which regional foci are engaged in Middle East research. This depends on the one hand on political constellations and the sharing out of colonial spheres of influence at the start of the twentieth century, and on the other to the financial resources and staff composition of particular faculties. As a whole, most impulses for geographical Middle East research came from French and German scientists. British and American studies were of secondary importance, as were Italian and Israeli works.

After World War II, more and more research by geographers from the Middle Eastern countries themselves were published, although these scholars had often been educated in Europe or in the United States and thus did not approach the subject from a completely new direction. Russian research concentrated mainly on the central Asian parts of the former Soviet Union, and Japanese geographers only began to work more frequently in the Middle East in the late 1980s. In addition, individuals from many other countries have carried out research projects without it being possible to talk about a real tradition of geographical Middle East research. Even in countries with a relatively well-established Middle East geography like France or Great Britain, however, the Middle East as a research area has played a more or less marginal role within the whole of the discipline. Fisher (1981, p. 433) for instance estimates the number of British geographers for whom the Middle East is the main area of interest at no more than 10–20 persons, which would equate to about 1 percent of the members of the Institute of British Geographers (IBG). Only in Germany does the geography of the Middle East carry a somewhat greater weight.

The fortunes of centers of Middle East research within these countries vary naturally in accordance with staff fluctuations, project financing, and indeed is substantially dependent on the political situation in the Middle Eastern countries under examination, as this can sometimes impede or even prohibit fieldwork. Lyon, Paris, and Tours should be mentioned as centers of French research; Berlin, Bonn, Erlangen-Nuremberg, Mainz, and Tubingen are important in Germany; Durham and London in Britain; while Tucson Arizona and Austin Texas lead in the United States. A regional specialization within the Middle East which has lasted into the early 21st century can be especially well seen in the case of French Middle East geography and its concentration on the Maghreb states. Up to World War II, German geographers worked mainly in Turkey, in Persia, and in southern Arabia. Similar specialization is less pronounced in other countries, and what little demarcation did exist gradually disappeared after World War II.

Interdisciplinarity has already been mentioned as characteristic of geographical approaches in general, and this is equally valid for the institutionalization of forums of scientific exchange. On an international as well as on the national level, geographers are organized in associations together with Middle East scientists of other disciplines: on the European level in EURAMES (European Association for Middle Eastern Studies), in France in AFEMAM (Association Francaise pour l’Etude du Monde Arabe et Musulman), in Germany in DAVO (Deutsche Arbeitsgemeinschaft Vorderer Orient), in Britain in BRISMES (British Society for Middle East Studies), and in the United States in MESA (Middle East Studies Association) and IAMES (International Association of Middle East Studies). There is however no international association exclusively for Middle East geographers. The situation is similar with journals: periodicals which concentrate thematically on the Middle East certainly exist at a lot of faculties, but articles intended for a broader readership are published either in specialist geographical publications without regional foci or in regionally focused periodicals with an interdisciplinary character. One internationally distributed journal has existed since 1998: the Arab World Geographer. This admittedly does not concentrate exclusively on the publication of articles concerning Middle East geography, but its thematic focus lies firmly in this area, and it might be that this publication will prove to be an important forum for Middle East geographers. The fact that this journal was created by Arab geographers for Arab geographers but is published in English and has an international editorial advisory board may be seen as confirmation of a long history of intensive contact between scientists studying the same culture from within and without.

Summarizing, it can be recorded that there are no indications for a development conceptually or institutionally separating geographical Middle East research from the discipline geography as a whole. A distinct empirical and interdisciplinary approach as well as a thematic focusing on economic and social development, problems, and opportunities of international and internal tourism, the acceleration in migration, the growth of cities, and the scarcity, use, and distribution of resources are characteristic for geographical research in other regions of the world too. The diminishing importance of isolated analyses of material culture and a trend towards a strengthened concentration on life-world and routines of everyday life go along with a rise in theoretical reflections and are still unbroken. The fundamental question about the future of a constituting ‘object’ for geographical Middle East research is closely bound to the discussion about the relativization or increasing relevance of cultural regionalization under conditions of ‘globalization’ and has of course to be left open here.


  1. Ehlers E 1984 German geography of the Middle East: Trends and prospects. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 19(2): 183–95
  2. Fisher W B 1981 Progress in the Middle East. Progress in Human Geography 5: 432–8
  3. Fisher W B 1983 Middle East. Progress in Human Geography 7: 429–35
  4. Said E W 1978 Orientalism. Routledge Kegan Paul, London
  5. Wirth E 1988 German geographical research in the Middle East and North Africa. In: Wirth E (ed.) German Geographical Research Overseas: A Report to the International Geographical Union. Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft/Institute for Scientific Cooperation, Bonn, Germany, pp. 93–132



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