Managing Editor of Jadaliyya, Kylie Broderick, sat down with the founding director of Arab Council for the Social Sciences, Seteney Shami, during the ACSS annual conference to talk about networking, knowledge production, and scholastic communities across the Middle East.
Seteney Shami has been with the Social Science Research Council since July 1999 and is the director of the InterAsia Program as well as the Middle East and North Africa Program. She also currently serves as founding director of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS), a regional nonprofit organization headquartered in Beirut, Lebanon. She received her doctorate in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. Shami’s most recent publication is a co-edited volume (with Cynthia Miller-Idriss) entitled Middle East Studies for the New Millennium: Infrastructures of Knowledge (SSRC and NYU Press 2016). A forthcoming volume is co-authored with Mitchell Stevens and Cynthia Miller-Idriss entitled Seeing the World: How U.S. Universities make Knowledge in a Global Era (Princeton University Press 2018). Seteney Shami has taught at Yarmouk University, UC Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Stockholm University. She served on the editorial boards of several publications, including Central Asian Survey, The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, Cultural Anthropology, Ethnos, and International Migration Review.
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Kylie Broderick (KB): My name is Kylie Broderick, managing editor of Jadaliyya E-zine. I sat down to talk with Seteney Shami, director general of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, during the middle of its fourth annual conference in April 2019. ACSS is a groundbreaking and relatively young organization aiming to bring together both bourgeoning and already established social scientists across the Arab world in order to foster new scholastic communities and research that works in the field. During the conversation, I asked Seteney about ACSS, its vision, its growth, and a brief description of her own personal journey. Here is that conversation.
KB: Since we are at the ACSS conference right now, can you tell us what it is about?
Seteney Shami (SS): Okay, so the Arab Council for Social Sciences has a conference every two years. So, part of the purpose of the conference is to showcase the work of the grantees, the current grantees of that time. And part of it is to solicit papers through an open call for papers and to give an opportunity for researchers around the region and globally to come and present on their work for us to get to know them, for us to see the kinds of research priorities in different regions and different parts of the countries, and for people to network and to get to know each other. This one is fairly big. It has been growing every year, and we are at about three hundred participants at this conference. But we do not want it to grow too big so that it is able to maintain the interactiveness, the sort of exchange and networking and people getting to know each other, not too corporate, not too huge. I mean, you know, academic associations in the United States or internationally often have several thousand people, so you tend to stick in a small group and do not actually get to meet anyone new. And one of the main functions of this conference is for people to meet each other. We are following the sort of big conference format of fifteen-minute paper presentations, which is, of course, unsatisfying for the presenter, for the audience, and for everybody, but is one way to accommodate the numbers. And really, we have very few channels for people in the region to know what kind of research is being done around the region. Because we may have the journals, but they do not circulate. We do not have the kinds of depositories where people can check out what people are writing about. We do not have the information flows. So, it is very hard for someone sitting in Jordan to know what a Moroccan social scientist is working on or for someone working on migration in Lebanon to know if there is anyone in Tunisia working on migration and so on, despite the growth of digital resources and websites and electronic platforms and so on. So, there is more information flow than there used to be ten years ago, certainly more than there was twenty years ago, but still not enough to really map and to know what colleagues may be doing in different parts of the region.
So that is one of the important functions of this conference. It is also a chance for people to share their work. We definitely focus on the younger generation of researchers. You may have noticed that the average age is quite young and for many, it is their first opportunity for them to participate in a conference, it is their first time presenting a paper in this conference style. So, it is an important experience in a young scholar’s career, and we are very happy if this is a platform and if ACSS enables young researchers to have this experience.
Finally, of course, there is a theme for every conference, and the theme is selected carefully by the board of trustees based on a lot of discussions based on consultation with various people. Our themes have been quite different in each conference, and this is carefully thought through because we want to signal that we are open to all disciplines, and we are open to all themes and fields and so on. This particular theme of borders and ecologies enables us to move into disciplines that work on the environment, that work in development, that work in planning. Our keynote was actually a planner, not a “social scientist” in the strict sense of the term. But I think her presentation was clearly relevant to social sciences as well as to the arts and to the cultural fields. So, we try by varying the themes across the conferences not just to address the important thematic priorities or important issues facing the region, but also to signal our interest in different disciplines and different approaches and different kinds of interdisciplinarity.
KB: Could you tell me how the program has grown or changed in the past four years?
SS: Originally, according to our bylaws, we have to have a general assembly meeting of our members, because we are a membership association, every two years. And so originally at the very beginning, the idea was “okay, we will have a small conference in conjunction with the general assembly meeting,” which is sort of a business meeting where the election of the board of trustees and so on—because we are accountable to our membership. So, the idea was that there would be this intellectual aspect to the meeting in addition to the business meeting. But then the demand—and this is true of all our work whether in grants, training workshops, anything we do—the number of applications we get is really big. We put out a call and get hundreds of applications for the conference, for example, and so the conference has been growing and the purposes of the conference, from having a sort of small intellectual activity on the side of the business meeting has become the other way around. The business meeting has become sort of in conjunction, one session in the bigger conference. So, the board of trustees decides on a theme, as I mentioned they try to address an openness to different topics, they try to signal an opening up of new research agendas, and they try to signal through the theme a sort of broad understanding of the social sciences. Then we put out a call. We see what we receive, and it has always been the case that some aspect of the call is not sufficiently addressed through the papers and abstracts that we receive and therefore it becomes clear that this is an underdeveloped area of research that needs more nurturing and more incubation. And so, we try, through the keynote, through the special sessions, to address those issues which we feel the papers do not cover sufficiently. So, there is a theme, but it is always very broad and gives people the ability to address the theme from this particular interest and so on. And that comes out of a long process of discussion and consultation and writing the call and circulating the draft and so on. It is a very interactive process with the board of trustees and with an organizing committee that we formed especially for the conference.
KB: So as an organization, how do you think ACSS has impacted the field of social sciences, particularly as it relates to the region?
SS: We are young. We are in our seventh year, so it is a bit soon to assess impact, although our donors keep asking about that, and so we have to say something. But I think the issue of a research community and an intellectual community is really the missing link in the academic and intellectual landscape of the region. Everyone can speak eloquently about the problems of the universities or the problems of fields or the problems of disciplines or why the region is not producing intellectually as it should and this and that, but we feel that a major missing piece of the landscape is the nurturing of intellectual community. It was not always like this, but there was a rupture, and it was a rupture that emerged out of a multitude of factors. Political repression was one, but changes in educational systems including the massification of education, including the focus on STEM research, and the push by policy-makers in the direction of STEM, as well as a generation of institutions in the region that did not encourage the younger generation that became closed circles and closed clubs and things like that. So, all that led to a kind of rupture or fragmentation of intellectual communities that exist and established a lack of a sense of community within a country, let alone across the region or subregion and so on. There are some exceptions to this, of course: there are circulations, there are groups that feel well-connected to one another within certain fields like economics where there have been institutions that have nurtured that kind of networking and intellectual community and so on. So, I think in terms of impact, this is a felt impact and it gets expressed at the conference. We just had a general assembly this morning and people talked about, you know, exaggerating things to a huge extent in saying things like, “ACSS has made the borders disappear,” and, “Here we are as the Arab world, all together,” which is huge because our theme is on borders this year, so that was very poetic and nice to hear. I can put it in a simpler way. In the keynote presentation during the Q&A period, you have people standing up and speaking in all these different accents. So, you have one question in an Egyptian accent, one question in an Iraqi accent, and one question in an Algerian accent [that no one understands]. I mean you do feel that it is cosmopolitan, that this diversity comes together and is able to engage in a conversation—and there must be limits to that conversation and whatever—but I feel like that is an impact. We have also funded, by now, over 270 grantees and we have enabled 270 people to do research. We are starting to increase our publishing outputs. There is definitely an impact—but this impact we provide nowhere matches the needs, and that is the problem. The needs are huge and manifest, and I wish there were at least ten more organization that worked in these same areas. And we do get, sometimes, people telling us they are inspired now to think on a national level or on a smaller scale to organize something similar and that is wonderful to hear. So, there could be that kind of impact, as well as an organizing model.
KB: I know that you are really short on time, but could you just talk briefly about how you came to be the director general of ACSS, what your personal and professional trajectory was when you decided to move in this direction?
SS: When I finished my PhD, I began teaching at a university in Jordan, which is where I am from, and I taught there for a long time at Yarmouk University. What happened, unexpectedly and not at all in a planned way, was I came into Yarmouk University, which was a new university at that time, and at that time it had a dynamic leadership, and anthropology (which is my field) did not really exist in Jordan, so there was excitement in creating a department of anthropology. I ended up being part of a dynamic group of archeologists and anthropologists and set up a graduate institute for anthropology and archeology. So that got me to this sort of organizing and institution building mode which I then discovered I had a liking for, partly because I like working collaboratively and being part of a team, and I am not the lone scholar who wants to sit in their office. So there is that, but the other part is because I feel very strongly the way it helps me understand my own discipline or understand the purpose of knowledge production or raises questions about epistemology and so on in a way which you do not have to do if you are working in a research project or teaching, or so on, where you can continue to do things the way you have been taught to do or the way the field determines you should do them or whatever. So, I had to ask, “Why are we teaching anthropology in Jordan?” And that made me question anthropology in a way I would not have had to if I was not trying to design a program and a curriculum and so on.
I miss teaching, and I would love to stay in a university setting, but the situation of universities in the region is not very good so that pushed me out of the university at some point, so I started working with regional programs that gave fellowships and grants and tried to build intellectual communities and so on. And these programs were funded by organizations that were interested in higher education and in research. The problem with those [programs] is that they were always finite. They were always, you know, five years, three years, two years, even ten years, but they always had an end. You would see the energy and the network you had created dissipating. So, many of us who had been part of a network called Middle East Awards—which was run out of Cairo and had a twenty-five year old history over its lifetime—and I became the director of ME Awards for three years in the 90s—many of us who had worked in that network after it got defunded and had to end would meet at various places and say, “What a pity that ME Awards had to end!” and, “Really, could we not have something in the region that does what it did but is sustainable?” It was really out of those conversations and out of that felt need and that nostalgia for a time when there was this kind of community and this kind of circulation in the region that led to the ACSS. So, six or seven of us started to come together and ask, “What can we do? What can we help develop? What can we build?” At that time I was working at the Social Science Research Council in New York where I still keep a hand, a foot, a finger—I do not know—which was a model for what can be done and how a non-university or an inter-university, which is how I like to think about ACSS and SSRC as an inter-university institution, like what role that kind of institution can play. And what it can do that universities find more difficult to do because universities are slow moving beasts; they are heavy structures. So, organizations that can build on what is happening in the universities but can be more nimble, be more agile, and move more quickly—especially in areas of interdisciplinarity, which is very difficult to achieve in universities although it is changing with centers, and so on.
So, the SSRC was a kind of inspiration, the ME Awards was kind of an inspiration, but ACSS ended up becoming its own form of organization. For example, SSRC is not a membership organization, so it is not accountable to a membership board or a general assembly and so on. So, there was a long planning period and I did not intend to be the director at all. There was not some kind of master plan like, “Oh, I will set this up and then I will run it!” It was not at all like that—but there were two things that happened. By the time the concept became clear and there was a plan with the work of this committee, as I mentioned, of like-minded individuals we got funding, we got the money to start up this organization. And we got calls for directors to apply for the job of director and there were very few responses and they were not the right kind of people. It is a job that requires that you have the academic abilities and training but at the same time have fundraising experience and have management [experience]—not unique but also not widely available. So, this was partly why I felt like, “Okay, we have done all this work, we have planned this whole thing, and it should not fall apart because we cannot find someone to direct it.” But the other thing that happened was, honestly, that the Arab uprisings started. I was in New York at the time, and I felt personally that if I am going to go back to the region, which I always regretted at some level leaving, what better opportunity and what better time to come back and be part of something which is about reshaping the public sphere and is about reshaping our ability to speak as a region?
Of course, we have had setbacks and dissolutions and disappointments and all of that and maybe we will get upset in a few weeks again about Algeria and Sudan and so on. But what that shows us is that it is not over. I mean the pessimism of, “It is over! And now the authoritarians have come back with a vengeance and everything is terrible again,” something [about that sentiment] has been broken. It is going to take a long time perhaps to figure out how it rebuilds itself, but there is no going back, I do not think there is a going back. And I think it gives an opportunity for social sciences—I mean it is not social sciences in this kind of professional academic meaning—but really in the sense of these ways of thinking about the world that help you articulate past and present and future and give you a vocabulary for trying to deal with past and present and future and help you deal with past and present and future. I mean a role for social sciences in that meaning of the word is hugely needed on one hand and an opportunity for social sciences in the region to reinvent itself [on the other hand], because it has lost that function for many reasons we could talk about. And so, it was the chance to be part of something like that and it was not an easy decision. I had a six-year-old at that point, he is now twelve and thriving in Beirut and that is fine but it was not an easy decision but on a personal level, it was a great decision.
KB: Well, it is inspirational.
SS: Thank you.
KB: I would love to keep asking you questions about knowledge production and the importance of analyzing these flows, but I know that you have to go. It’s the big weekend! So, thank you so much for talking to me.
SS: Thank you. No, thank you.