By: Zachary Lockman and the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI)
The origins, historical trajectory, and contemporary politics of Middle East studies (and of area studies more broadly) in the United States have in recent years received increasing scholarly attention. In part this development reflects growing interest in the genealogies of academic fields and disciplines and in their funding streams, institutional arrangements, research agendas, demographics, and cultures, as well as their relationships with the post-Second World War U.S. national security state. The outcome has been a fuller and richer understanding of the history of Middle East studies and of its evolving politics of knowledge. But of course this field has attracted particular attention for additional reasons. For one, the region on which this academic field focuses has for the past half-century been a central arena of U.S. political and military intervention, often with disastrous consequences for those on the receiving end of American power; so naturally there’s been interest in understanding the relationship between U.S. power in the Middle East and academic knowledge about this region. In addition, for much of the same period, scholars, institutions (including university-based Middle East studies centers and the Middle East Studies Association), and funding sources (especially the Title VI program) in this field have been (and continue to be) subjected to attack by nonacademic entities whose goal it is to silence critical scholarship and advocacy, especially concerning the question of Palestine and U.S. intervention in the region. The fact that Middle East studies as a field remains embattled and controversial in ways that make it distinctive among its sister area studies fields has also generated critical analysis. The books that follow explore various aspects of the complex histories and politics of U.S. area studies and/or Middle East studies.
Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Random House, 1978). Though Said only devotes the final forty or so pages of his magnum opus to a discussion of how (as he saw it) Orientalism shaped post-Second World War Middle East studies in the United States, this is obviously a foundational text – though also a complex, polemical and sometimes elusive one.
Zachary Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism(Cambridge University Press, 2010) and Field Notes: The Making of Middle East Studies in the United States(Stanford University Press, 2016). Out of modesty, I am hesitant to tout my own work, but I’d like to hope that one could do worse than launch into engagement with the history and politics of this field by reading these two (rather different) books. Contending Visions, which I’ve been known to jokingly refer to as “Orientalism Made Easy,” offers (among other things) a broad overview of the rise of Middle East studies in the postwar United States, the field’s engagements with Orientalism, and modernization theory, and challenges to those intellectual paradigms; it concludes with a (now out-of-date) discussion of critiques of and assaults on U.S. Middle East studies. Field Notes has a very different focus: inspired by (among other things) recent scholarly work on the role of the great foundations in shaping twentieth-century American academia and on the institutional histories of specific disciplines and fields in the Cold War era, it seeks to offer a detailed account of the visions, anxieties, funding decisions, and field-building practices that gave rise to and shaped U.S. Middle East studies into the 1980s.
David Szanton, ed., The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines (University of California Press, 2004). This edited volume offers an array of useful perspectives on the origins and evolutions of a number of area study fields and on their often fraught relationship with the disciplines – an issue that has vexed area studies since its inception. I’d call particular attention to Timothy Mitchell’s valuable discussion in this volume of Middle East and area studies in relation to the trajectory of the social sciences in the twentieth-century United States – even though I take issue in Field Notes with his specific account of the genealogy of U.S. Middle East studies. Like the Szanton volume, Ali Mirsepassi, Amritu Basu and Frederick Weaver, eds., Localizing Knowledge in a Globalizing World: Recasting the Area Studies Debate (Syracuse University Press, 2003), offers a set of interesting and often insightful essays on area studies and its fate in what was in the 1990s often framed as the “era of globalization.”
Osamah F. Khalil’s America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State (Harvard University Press, 2016) provides a provocative analysis of the relationship between U.S. power in the Middle East and the production of expertise about this region over the course of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. There is much to learn from Khalil’s work, though I approach some of the same issues quite differently in Field Notes. In this connection I would also note Matthew F. Jacobs’ valuable study Imagining the Middle East: The Building of an American Foreign Policy, 1918-1967 (University of North Carolina, 2011), which explores some of the same terrain as America’s Dream Palace, as well as Nathan J. Citino’s important book Envisioning the Arab Future: Modernization in US-Arab Relations, 1945-1967 (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
With a much more contemporary focus, Anthropology’s Politics: Disciplining the Middle East (Stanford University Press, 2015) by Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar zooms in on a particular discipline by exploring how politics, as well as gender and racial hierarchies, have affected the work of anthropologists who focus on this region.
There are many more books and articles that merit mention, if space allowed. However, since it is good to get out of our Middle East studies ghetto once in a while, I will conclude by suggesting three other (very different) titles that may help provide some perspective on our own field by seeing how things look from other academic locations.
One is David C. Engerman’s Know Your Enemy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Soviet Experts (Oxford University Press, 2009), which provides a rich history of Russian/Soviet studies in the Cold War United States. Then there is White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell University Press, 2015) by Robert Vitalis, which innovatively elucidates the centrality of race and empire to the early history of IR as an academic field in the United States. Finally, I would recommend the late Benedict Anderson’s A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir (Verso, 2016), an absorbing autobiography by a very influential scholar which includes a useful account of the author’s engagement with a very different area studies field, Southeast Asian studies.