And the winner is....
The field of MENA Political Science!
This weekend I went to the American Political Science Association annual meeting, my first in-person conference since the before times. I’d like to report on the exciting panels and intellectual discussions, but honestly I mostly spent my time either in individual meetings or else walking around Montreal (which is truly stunning this time of year). The worst part of the conference was the sheer number of people from the MENA region (and from all over the world, of course) who proved unable to get visas to Canada, leading to multiple panels either collapsing or being severely depleted. That’s beyond the control of the APSA organizers, of course, but it still put a damper on an otherwise wonderful opportunity to reconnect in person with so many people and to recover that communal spirit so important to our research community.
The highlight of the conference was the presentation of awards by the MENA Politics Section. This was the first APSA business meeting since the end of my three year term chairing the Section, and it was great to see the new team led by Stacey Philbrick Yadav keeping the great work of the Section going. (Pssst. If you’re an APSA member working on the Middle East, you should really join the section - it’s free for graduate students and members from the MENA region, and pretty cheap for everyone else.) I had absolutely nothing to do with any of the prize selections. For those of you with a literary sensibility, this is called foreshadowing.
First, the books. The organizers this year opted to divide the award into two categories: best book by a senior scholar and best by a junior scholar (a somewhat arbitrary divide - one of the senior scholar awards went to the winner’s first book, and one of the junior scholar awards went to the winner’s second book but <shrug emoji>). What’s more, the committee opted for co-winners in both categories. That’s four great books! Luckily, I had already read all four books and recorded podcasts with all four of the winners, so I can say with genuine pleasure that the committee made some outstanding choices.
For the senior scholar award, the first winner was Khalid Mustafa Medani for Black Markets and Militants (Cambridge). Here’s how I reviewed it in June: “a genuinely fresh look at the rise of Islamist politics in the 1970s. He does this by shifting the theoretical lens from religious, organizational and political factors explored in much of the literature to political economy and variations in state capacity. And he does it through his choice of case studies, comparing Egypt not to Tunisia or Jordan but to Sudan and Somalia. The result is one of the freshest and most challenging books on political Islam that I’ve read in quite a while, with a wealth of new empirical detail and a bold reframing of the theoretical lens through which we view Islamist politics.”
I also had Medani on my podcast, you can listen to our conversation here.
The next winner was Mona el-Ghobashy for her terrific book on the Egyptian uprising, Bread and Freedom (Stanford UP). Here’s what I said about it a few months ago: “Mona el-Ghobashy’s Bread and Freedom offers perhaps the single best narrative of Egypt from 2011 to the present which has yet been written. Her finely grained, beautifully crafted storytelling reveals the sheer complexity of the revolutionary period and the multiplicity of actors trying to navigate a profoundly uncertain environment. Her focus on this radical uncertainty recalls Charles Kurzman’s account of the Iranian revolution, undermining any linear narrative by which any single actor - the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, or anyone else - either predicted or controlled the course of events. The radical uncertainty of a “revolutionary situation” has profound implications, particularly when coupled with incipient violence and existential identity fears.” You can listen to our podcast conversation here and read the full review:
I recorded podcasts for the next two books honored by the awards, but didn’t review them here because I hadn’t relaunched the blog yet.
First, Raphael Lefevre’s Jihad in the City (Cambridge UP) won for its incredibly rich and detailed exploration of the rise and trajectory of the “Islamic Emirate” and the Tawhid organization in early 1980s Tripoli. His narrative of the micro-level drivers of the emergence of Islamist activisim, rooted in neighborhood politics and local political economies, challenged grand narratives and macro-level theories alike. His invocation of the unique character of certain cities and urban neighborhood memory over ideology and doctrine rang true to the story he told.
Finally, Avital Livny’s Trust and the Islamic Advantage uses a wide range of survey research and ethnographic observation to offer a new mechanism to explain the success of Islamist political movements and parties. She argues that interpersonal trust rather than doctrine or personal faith best explains the appeal of Islamism, and tests her proposition with a wide range of empirical data and exceptionally careful specification of the observable implications of various propositions.
That’s the books. The next category was articles, and I can’t help to just be really proud that two exceptional George Washington University PhD’s were among those honored by the Section - along with a couple of other terrific friends of POMEPS. First, Sarah Parkinson won the overall best article award for her exceptional Comparative Political Studies article “(Dis)Courtesy Bias.” Parkinson has long been a leading voice in the discipline of political science for taking research ethics seriously. In (Dis)Courtesy Bias, she shows all too convincingly how a failure to do so in the context of war zones and marginalized but over-researched populations can have major negative effects on data quality and the validity of arguments. She shows through her deep experience how such populations learn to tell interviewers what they expect to hear or craft narratives in ways which can easily distort the interpretation of findings. It’s a must read for anyone doing field research — and you can listen to our conversation about it here.
Honorable mention in the best article category went to GW alum Lisel Hintz’s “The Empire's Opposition Strikes Back: Popular Culture as Creative Resistance Tool under Turkey's AKP," published in the British Journal of Middle East Studies. Hintz uses a wide range of pop culture sources, from hip hop to television serials, to open a fascinating and novel window into the cultural politics of Turkey’s battle over democracy and incipient authoritarianism. There are few scholars out there using popular culture for political science research more creatively than Hintz, who has shown again and again (beginning with her outstanding dissertation which became a terrific book) how such often neglected sources can help to explain important political outcomes.
The Section also awarded two additional prizes. The prize for best fieldwork went to another GW alum, Dina Bishara, for her article “The Generative Power of Protest: Time and Space in Contentious Politics,” also published in Comparative Political Studies. Bishara drew on more than 100 interviews and nearly two years of observational research in four countries to develop novel insights into the different types of protest activity. Her work shows powerfully the importance of going beyond the simple counting of event data, the size of protests, or even their slogans, and should be influential with students of contentious politics for years to come.
Finally, the prize for best dataset went to Neil Ketchley and Thoraya al-Rayyes for their article “Unpopular protest: Mass mobilization and attitudes to democracy in post-Mubarak Egypt,” published in the Journal of Politics. This article does an incredibly good job of matching Arab Barometer survey data with a carefully constructed geolocated protest data set in order to how convincingly how exposure to protest over time diminished popular support for protests and undermined the appeal of the post-2011 would-be democratic transition. Ketchley and al-Rayyes’s exemplary, careful and creative research offers counterintuitive findings on a critical question. I’m hoping to have podcast conversations with all of these authors in the coming weeks!
Finally finally, the Section awarded prizes for Best Dissertation. The winner here was Jannis Julien Grimm for his dissertation on the Rabaa Massacre, which has already been developed into his fantastic book Contested Legitimacies. When I reviewed that, here’s what I had to say: “Jannis Julien Grimm centers his new book around the aftermath of the military coup and the Rabaa massacre, building around the puzzle of how many Egyptians “defended the massacres as a legitimate police operation against terrorist forces.” In contrast to Ghobashy’s granular reconstruction of the lived experience of politics under existential uncertainty, Grimm attends to the dueling symbolic universes underlying the absence of moral shock over the Rabaa massacre and the underappreciated successes but ultimate failure of the Anti-Coup movement.”
Honorable mention went, yes again, to GWU PhD: Steven Schaff, for his dissertation “Litigating the Authoritarian State: Lawful Resistance and Judicial Politics in the Middle East.” Schaff uses a variety of methods to dig deep into the politics of law and the courts, offering an original and important set of insights based on careful observation and methodological innovations. I’m sure it will be appearing as a book sooner rather than later, and can’t wait to feature it here once it does!
I’m incredibly proud of all the recipients, and incredibly impressed by the creativity, rigor, and accomplishment of their books, articles and dissertations. They demonstrate by example the vitality and depth of the field of Middle East Political Science today. Kudos to the Section leadership and the committees which read all the submissions for their thoughtful choices. And, just to complete the callback to the foreshadowing, despite the amazing success of GW alums I had absolutely nothing to do with the award selections… just pride at their accomplishments. See you all at the next APSA annual meeting!
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