Politics in Middle East and North Africa Research Paper

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This research paper provides a selective overview of the development of Middle East politics as a field of study. It identifies a number of the more prominent themes and questions that have shaped the study of Middle East politics, with a particular focus on research trends in comparative politics and comparative political economy. The article also emphasizes how the relationship between the study of Middle East politics and the social sciences has changed over time, and points to some current tensions in that relationship. It concludes with a brief, speculative observation about where the relationship between the social sciences and the study of Middle East politics is headed at the turn of the twenty-first century.

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The study of Middle East politics has deep historical roots in the social sciences. The Middle East—defined here to include the region that stretches from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east, and from Turkey in the north to the Arab Peninsula in the south—has figured prominently in a tradition of political and sociological-comparative research stretching from Max Weber to Karl Wittfogel, and Immanuel Wallerstein. Broadly defined, this tradition has sought to understand why capitalism and democracy emerged first in the West, and how the initial appearance of these forms of economic and political organization in the West affected the developments of non-Western parts of the world. For well over a century, social scientists have drawn, in particular, on the experience of the Ottoman Empire to study political institutions, social structures, and economic arrangements perceived as explicit counterpoints to those that sparked the rise of capitalism and the transition from absolutist to republican systems of rule in the West (Anderson 1979).

This tradition, in which the experiences of the Ottoman Empire and the Arab states that formed in its wake are used as counterpoints to European experiences—often negative counterpoints—has had a lasting impact on the study of Middle East politics. It established a focus on absolutism, ‘predatory rule,’ despotism, and authoritarianism as central themes in social science research on the Middle East. The legacy of this tradition has been decidedly mixed. On one hand, authoritarianism and personalistic modes of governance remain prominent issues in the study of Middle East politics today—appropriately so given political conditions in the region (Heydemann 1999, Weeden 1999). Less positively, this legacy is expressed through research in which individual behavior and collective outcomes are understood in terms of deeply embedded cultural constraints—an essentially authoritarian political culture, for example—that reinforce patrimonialism, undermine prospects for democracy, and impede the development of institutions capable of securing economic growth. Such culturalist assumptions reinforce the impression of Arab (or Muslim) politics as exceptional. They diminish possibilities for integrating Middle Eastern cases into broader comparative frameworks, or applying to social and political processes in the Middle East theories and methods that have been used productively in other settings. In practice, moreover, culturalist research has rarely escaped the tautological quality of many theories that rely on culture as an explanatory variable. Largely for this reason, culturalist arguments are less prominent in the study of Middle East politics today than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.

After World War II, with the rise of the USA as a superpower, and the not unrelated emergence of comparative politics as an established subfield of political science in the USA, the study of Middle East politics made significant contributions to a number of important research programs in the social sciences. These included theories of political development, political decay, and praetorianism (military rule), as well as theories of dependent and peripheral development (Keyder 1987, Abdel-Malek 1968). As early as 1956, for example, economic historian Charles Issawi studied the relationship between economic development and democracy in the Middle East, predating the more general work on this topic by Seymour Martin Lipset (1960). Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East (1958) also influenced the subsequent development of modernization theory. His study was cited by Lipset, and was noted, as well, in Almond and Coleman’s The Politics of the De eloping Areas (1960), a volume that exerted considerable influence in the USA on the study of politics in the developing world for much of the 1960s and 1970s, both as a model to be followed and as the object of criticism. Samir Amin’s Accumulation on a World Scale: A Critique of the Theory of Under Development (1974) was an influential contribution to debates about the role of the industrialized North in imposing conditions of underdevelopment on the postcolonial states of the South. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) originated outside the social sciences, but has had a profound and widespread impact on the study of Middle Eastern politics and is central to the rise of postmodernism within the social sciences more generally. Said’s work, along with the writings of postmodern theorists such as Michel Foucault, has generated significant interest in discursive and interpretive methods in the study of Middle East politics (Mitchell 1988), and revitalized research on power and authority in relations between the Middle East and the West. Other important areas of research in which the Middle East has figured prominently include the study of nationalism, state formation and state–society relations in the developing world; religion and politics; and social revolution—themes that continue to inform research on Middle East politics today.

For much of the postwar period, therefore, the study of Middle East politics, especially in the USA, developed in a close and interactive relationship with the field of comparative politics, and with other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. During these years scholars of Middle East politics, like their colleagues who worked on other regions, made considerable progress in exploring such concerns as the experience of colonialism and how it influenced the trajectory of political and social life after independence; state formation, the construction of national societies, and the formation of national markets; the political economy of industrialization in the Middle East, and the region’s incorporation into a global capitalist system; the role of new military elites and the rise of single-party authoritarian regimes; the incorporation of workers and peasants into the political arena and its effects on coalition building and regime formation; the rise of import substitution industrialization as the dominant economic development strategy in the region and the growing role of the state in the economy, as well as the relationship between private sectors and regimes that often pursued, and coercively implemented, highly redistributive social policies; the effects of regime type on a wide range of economic, social, and political processes; the rise of state-corporatist models of interest representation, and more recently the revitalization of ‘civil’ societies as sites of political contestation.

While these issues were prominent in social science research on Middle East politics within the USA, and provided the empirical foundations for theoretical developments in the field, research programs in Europe followed a somewhat different trajectory, less with respect to themes and issues—European scholars, like their colleagues in the USA, engaged issues concerning the state, modes of governance and power, the politics of economic development, and processes of social formation—than to methods and conceptual approaches. Disciplinary boundaries loomed less large among European scholars of Middle East politics, who preserved closer links between history and political science than became the case in the USA, especially from the 1980s onward. It is also the case, however, that European traditions of linguistic–philological and Orientalist scholarship, as well as the legacy of having ruled the Middle East as colonial powers, were more evident in the concerns of European research programs than in those that developed within the USA. In addition, during the postwar period, the work of European scholars reflected a more assertive engagement with various strands of Marxist political theory than was evident in the Cold War atmosphere of the USA. This was manifest most productively in the development of a rich tradition of labor studies among European, especially French, scholars of Middle East politics. More recently, the presence of growing Middle Eastern communities within Europe has sparked considerable interest in issues such as the dynamics of migration from Muslim societies to Europe; the experience of immigrant life among Muslims in Europe; the politics and political economy of a greater Mediterranean region that links, in particular, North Africa and southern Europe; as well as the impact of expanding Muslim populations on social relations and political processes in largely Christian European states.

Within the Middle East, as well, research trends were and remain heavily influenced by the experience of colonialism. Higher education systems tend to be organized along lines similar to those found in the country that exercised colonial authority in a given place, with scholars in North Africa and Lebanon socialized into French modes of training and scholarship—as well as French academic networks—while training, research, and professional socialization of scholars in Egypt and Jordan reflects (though to a more modest degree) the influence of British rule. However, the most powerful influence on the study of contemporary Middle Eastern politics by scholars working in the Middle East is the repressive political environment found in most Arab states, and the resulting lack of financial support, data resources, and independent institutions capable of functioning as sponsors and promoters of social science research. The research environment in the region varies, however, and scholars in the Arab world continue to work, against the odds, to produce high-quality social science. In recent years, active and vibrant research communities in Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and Lebanon (among others) have established significant research programs on democratization, Islam and politics, civil society and the role of new social movements, the politics of economic liberalization, as well as regional and international relations. The state of social science research on Middle East politics in Israel reflects the influence on Israeli scholars of trends in American social science, including an emphasis on quantitative and formal methods. Work on Middle East politics also benefits from a more open research environment than elsewhere in the region. However, Israeli research programs also reflect the effects of the protracted and persistent Arab–Israeli and Palestinian–Israeli conflicts, both as a filter that shapes the perspectives of researchers, and as a focal point of research programs themselves.

Since the early 1990s, and still in keeping with broader trends in the social sciences, scholars of Middle Eastern politics have focused attention on issues of gender, economic and political informality, local level politics, identity politics, civil society and the dynamics of social movements (Singerman 1995, Norton 1996). They have sought to integrate the experience of the Middle East into larger debates in the social sciences around such questions as authoritarianism and democratization (al-Naqib 1991, Salame 1994) and the comparative political economy of development (Waterbury 1993, Waldner 1999). Inevitably, however, the study of Middle East politics has also emphasized that which is distinctive about the region. Three aspects of Middle East politics have received particular attention from researchers over the past two decades.

First, the relationship between Islam and politics, and the dynamics of politics in Muslim societies more generally, have been and remain subjects of considerable interest (Eickelman and Piscatori 1996). These became especially prominent in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the increasing visibility of militant Islamist movements and organized Islamist political parties from Morocco to Afghanistan. Second, the social, economic, and political consequences of the oil boom of the 1970s on Middle Eastern states and societies has also sparked a considerable body of research in Middle East comparative politics and comparative political economy that focuses on the fiscal sociology of the state. Perhaps the most enduring contribution of this research can be found in theories of the rentier or distributive state (Luciani and Beblawi 1987, Chaudhry 1997) that explore the political, institutional, and social implications of circumstances in which states and governments generate a significant share of their revenue from the sale of natural resources, and are not dependent on the direct taxation of their citizens. Whether representative forms of governance can emerge where taxation (the direct extraction of resources from citizens) is low remains a matter of considerable interest in the study of Middle East politics. With the decline of oil prices in the 1980s and 1990s, the question of whether, and under what conditions, states that have not historically developed the capacity to tax might do so has also received some attention.

Third, and not entirely unrelated to work on the political economy of oil, researchers in a number of disciplines and fields, writing from a variety of (often contending) perspectives, have developed research programs focused on the state in the Middle East. Again, this work has been situated largely within political science, and in the subfields of comparative politics and international relations, but has been a core concern of scholars in the Middle East and in Europe, as well as in the USA. Here too, moreover, the state as a conceptual category has been approached from a wide range of perspectives, including many that have subjected the category to sustained critical scrutiny. Within comparative politics, one persistent debate has addressed the question of the exceptionalism of the Arab state; whether culture and history (the absence of an experience comparable to the Enlightenment, and the resulting lack of differentiation between religion and state are most often cited in this regard) combined to produce a distinctive form of state, one that defies ready comparison with states in other regions and, moreover, requires distinctive conceptual tools and a special analytic vocabulary if we are to make sense of it. Increasingly, however, researchers tend to operate on the contrary assumption and view the Arab state as simply one variant among a range of state forms. States in the Middle East are shaped by and subject to the same social, economic and political processes that affect states everywhere, and there is a recognition that these processes are filtered through and experienced within particular historical contexts, institutional legacies, and cultural frames of reference that give state formation in the Middle East a distinctive quality (Zubaida 1989, Ayubi 1995). This starting point permits the development of research programs that draw on and contribute to general theoretical frameworks, while accounting for both intra-and interregional variations.

In addition, questions about and critiques of the state in the Middle East have also served as the basis for a number of productive research programs. A concern with the fixity or fluidity of state borders in the case of Israel and Palestine served as the basis for Lustick’s general theory of how state boundaries change (1993). Mitchell (1991) has used Middle Eastern cases to explore how the impression of a boundary separating the state and society operates to construct stateness as a general attribute, and how this attribute is mirrored in (and, in his view, distorts) research on the state in political science. Migdal (1987) also drew on a nuanced understanding of the state in the developing world, including the Middle East, to explore how societies maintain a measure of autonomous power in the face of states that seem to possess an extraordinary capacity to intervene in and shape societies.

In international relations, the contingent quality of state sovereignty in the Middle East, and the impact on state consolidation of regimes that were at times highly responsive to transnational, pan-Arab ideologies, pose important challenges to neorealist theories of the international system. Pointing to the fluid, fragmented, and contested quality of stateness in the Middle East, scholars of international relations, both those more sympathetic and more critical of neorealism, have used Middle Eastern cases to question the neorealist assumption that states are like units that operate as unified actors intent on maximizing their security in an anarchic international system. They have worked to develop theories of inter-state behavior that account for variability in the nature of state interests, and extend more weight to economic considerations, and to the role of norms, ideas, and institutions as determinants of policy making (Barnett 1998, Mufti 1996).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, the study of Middle East politics stands in uneasy relationship to the social sciences. Within political science, sociology, and certain subfields of economics, significant research programs have emerged to explore processes of democratization, the transition from state to market-based modes of economic governance, and the deepening of economic globalization. Yet as noted earlier, the Middle East remains largely authoritarian, despite limited political openings in some states. The transition to markets has been partial and slow. Linkages between domestic and global markets vary considerably but typically are weak. Economic performance also varies widely, and though trends in the 1990s were positive, overall performance levels remain low. The effect of these conditions has been to limit opportunities for integrating Middle East cases into some current research agendas, notably but not exclusively in the subfield of comparative politics. In contrast to general trends in the discipline, therefore, the study of Middle East politics at the dawn of the twenty-first century has tended to focus less on democratization and democracy than on understanding how persistent authoritarian regimes adapt to changing domestic and international conditions; less on the transition to and consolidation of markets than on the limits of economic reform; less on the impact of global economic integration than on barriers to globalization; less on developmental success than on persistent obstacles to development. Work on these questions has been profoundly important in explaining political outcomes in the Middle East and holds out significant theoretical value for the disciplines. Yet they are, nonetheless, reflective of how the everyday, lived experience of politics in the Middle East has moved the study of politics along paths that differ from those that are grounded in the experiences of other regions in the developing world.

Methodological issues have also constrained the inclusion of Middle East cases into broader research agendas. Generally, the study of Middle East politics rests on the use of case-specific, macro-historical methods rather than the formal or quantitative methods that are now more broadly applied to the study of politics in other regions. The reasons for this are several, but the methodological orientation of research on Middle East politics results, in no small measure, from the lack of data resources that are needed to undertake quantitative research and from a research climate that is not conducive to data collection and dissemination. Thus, while the continuing development of various institutionalist approaches holds out considerable potential for linking region and discipline, and for cross-regional comparative research that incorporates Middle East cases, prospects for building robust research programs that make use of quantitative and formal methods for the study of Middle East politics are limited, at least at present.

Despite these concerns, current tensions in the relationship between the study of Middle East politics and the social science disciplines should not be overstated. Certainly, it should not be permitted to overshadow the presence of a large number of creative, analytically focused, and highly productive research programs both inside and outside the USA. As noted, researchers on Middle Eastern politics have made good use of and contributed to the development of new institutionalist methods. Comparative macro-historical research coexists comfortably with case-specific but theoretically generalizable research programs that apply a wide range of methods—from archival, discursive, and interpretive to public opinion polling; from network and social movement theories to moral economy and rational choice—all of which are being used to ask important questions about contemporary political life in the Middle East and to engage the analytic concerns of the disciplines. Through attention to the dynamics of political institutions and institutional change; the organization and dynamics of local-level politics and social networks; business–state relations; the relationship between gender, power, and politics; the impact of new information technologies on political life; the formation and transformation of identities; new approaches to the study of culture and politics, and to the role of norms and ideas in political behavior—a list that is far from complete or comprehensive—scholars of Middle Eastern politics are pursuing research programs that not only resonate across regional boundaries but express increasingly sophisticated theoretical perspectives. On this basis, there is reason for optimism that the relationship between the study of Middle Eastern politics and the social sciences is now (again) becoming interactive, reciprocal, and mutually constructive.


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