Book review: The Political Science of the Middle East: Theory and Research Since the Arab Uprisings edited by Marc Lynch, Jillian Schwedler and Sean Yom

In Middle Eastern political science: theory and research since the Arab uprisingseditors Mark Lynch, Jillian Schwedler and Sean Yom bring together contributors to give an ambitious overview of the concepts and case studies that have emerged in the literature on the Middle East and North Africa over the past decade. This rich collection will be a comprehensive resource for students, policymakers and researchers seeking a detailed understanding of the region’s politics, writes Betul Dogan Akkas.

Middle Eastern Political Science: Theory and Research Since the Arab Uprisings. Marc Lynch, Jillian Schwedler and Sean Yom (eds). Oxford University Press. 2022.

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Edited by Marc Lynch, Jillian Schwedler and Sean Yom, Middle Eastern political science offers an ambitious overview of the concepts and case studies that have emerged around the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) studies literature over the past decade. The authors point out that the book has three purposes: first, to analyze new directions in Middle Eastern studies after the Arab uprisings; second, to cultivate the immense theoretical contribution of regional expertise within political science; and third, “to bear witness to the importance of intellectual collaboration” by including nearly 50 researchers. It is crucial to see researchers from diverse countries and backgrounds working together in the midst of a global pandemic. This collective intellectual effort sets a good example for graduate students by bringing together different approaches to collaboratively produce knowledge.

The collection begins with Lynch’s introductory chapter, “The Political Science Project in the Middle East: Research Agendas for a Maturing Field,” which outlines the overall purpose, content, and structure of the book. Lynch says there is little agreement on the uprisings in the Arab world, which are either lauded or understated: “There is no consensus […] on when and how the Arab uprisings started and ended (if they did) or on the real importance of the Arab uprisings” (3).

While the Arab Spring has been overstated and overstudied in Middle Eastern literature and everyday politics, its impacts are still evident. Rather than focusing solely on the outcomes of democratic protests, contributors argue that the Arab revolts had a direct impact on knowledge production in the region. In the words of May Darwich et al, ‘The MEIR [Middle East International Relations] The subfield has responded to the dizzying deluge of events with a remarkable outpouring of important and innovative new research. The Middle East has been at the forefront of broader international relations research on issues ranging from proxy wars and identity politics to the evolution of grand politics” (86).

Soldier on a tank in Tahrir Square, Egypt, with a group of protesters on a tank in the background

Image Credot: Cropping of “Army Trucks Surrounding Tahrir Square, Cairo” by Ramy Raouf licensed DC BY 2.0

The concepts of “change” and “post-Arab Spring regional politics” are conceptually and instrumentally addressed in the chapters, which guide this knowledge production and enrich field studies of the region. The book does not comment on the results of the protests or dislike “parachuting scholars” “writing after only a brief time (or even no time) in the field” (5). Instead, the chapters present conceptual and methodological reviews of the literature on the Middle East. In addition to these discussions of practices and research agendas in the study of the MENA region, the book provides in-depth and up-to-date reviews of bigotry, political Islam, public opinion, the military, protests , Political Economy and Development, Identity Politics, Migration and Local Politics.

In Chapter Twelve, Lisa Anderson talks about the strain on the field and in the academy. In the same vein as the first chapter, it concludes by summarizing the main themes of the book and offering reflections on the practice of political science in the Middle East. Anderson defines Middle Eastern political science as representing “triumph over adversity” (281). The purpose of his chapter is to provide a guide to reading and studying the MENA region in order to illustrate changes in Middle East politics and the practice of policy research in the region. According to Anderson, states are weakened, resulting in the decay of institutions, the disappearance of ideologies, and the rise of personalistic leaders who “express the anxieties and aspirations provoked by the failures of the old order” (285).

Anderson also emphasizes the role of societal actors in research on the Middle East. According to her, societies are at risk: “What was once seen as an incomplete and largely apathetic Arab or Middle Eastern ‘street’ has proven to be both complex and, as the 2011 uprisings showed, politically salient. (286). Combining the unique nature of society with global trends requires a better understanding of the “norms and practices by which people in such circumstances define, access, distribute and use what they value” (288). Research on the Middle East and North Africa will benefit from recognizing the varied practices and changing nature of regional politics “to forge a new political science, better suited to an era of momentous change, mobility at different scales of space and time, of identity, and of belonging” (288).

The edited volume covers several themes that merit attention at this stage. While the book deals with alliances and conflicts, proxy wars, intra-regional conflicts and military interventions are three main areas that do not receive a specific chapter. Considering the Israeli occupation, the wars in Yemen and Syria as well as the internal conflicts in Libya and Iraq, the military tensions in the region could have had one or two more chapters.

Middle Eastern political science contributes significantly to the field of MENA studies as it not only provides guidance on regional research practices, but also offers in-depth and advanced analysis of the topics covered. For anyone interested in reading an in-depth discussion of specific research sub-areas in MENA studies, the book is a comprehensive resource. Students, policy makers and independent researchers seeking to understand regional politics in detail in relation to the concepts and themes detailed above will find a rich collection.

Sharon D. Cole