COVID's generational impact on MENA scholars
The new wave of the Middle East Scholars Barometer looks at COVID, research ethics, public engagement and much, much more!
For the last two years, Shibley Telhami and I have been running the Middle East Scholars Barometer. Twice a year, we survey as broad a group as possible of academic experts on the Middle East, drawing on the membership of the Middle East Studies Association, American Political Science Association, American Historical Association, and the Project on Middle East Political Science. The first three rounds focused on their views on important policy issues and regional political developments such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Iranian nuclear deal, the Abraham Accords, and the prospects for renewed popular uprisings across the region.
This fall, we decided to do something a bit different. Instead, we asked the scholars about the profession itself. We’ll have an article coming out soon which highlights some fascinating finding about threats to free speech and views on boycotts of Israel - I’d love to share those here now, but I’m going to wait - and we will be posting the full questionnaire and results soon. Here, I wanted to share some fascinating results about things happening within the profession, and some intriguing differences between political scientists and other disciplines. The survey had 513 responses, a 32% response rate, after being in the field for two weeks.
Here’s the highlights:
COVID’s Generational Impact: We all know that COVID and escalating repression have created real obstacles to MENA scholars doing field research. But exactly how bad was it? Bad. 68.4% of the respondents reported COVID-related limitations on their field research, and 55% said they changed their research project in response. What’s more, 31% overall (and 38% of political scientists) said that they faced limitations due to governmental restrictions or visa denials. There’s some disciplinary differences here: over 65% of political scientists changed their research project, compared with 47% of scholars from other disciplines. And it’s generational as well. An astonishing 81% of graduate students and 76% of non-tenured assistant professors faced COVID disruptions, and 60% of each group changed their research in response. Just think about what that means for junior scholars desperately trying to publish to build the CV needed to get jobs and get tenure.
At least senior faculty and administrators are aware of these unprecedented disruptions impacting a whole academic generation, right? And they’ve sought to do something to mitigate them? Less than you’d think. Only 35% of the respondents say that their institution added time to the tenure clock and only 11% received extra funding to help them adapt their research methods. Accommodations for child care during extended school closures? 3.5%. Yup, you heard that right. And only 1.2% of political scientists got any institutional help with child care. That’s outrageous - and is likely to have harmed women disproportionately, as a survey conducted by Marwa Shalaby, Nermin Allam and Gail Buttorff anticipated last year.
How Scholars Adapted: If so many scholars had to figure out how to adapt their research to COVID lockdowns and closed countries, how did they do it? Here, there’s delightful diversity, both within and across disciplines. A lot of scholars naturally gravitated towards online methods. Among the political scientists, 25% fielded an online survey, 30% conducted interviews digitally, and 27% carried out social media analysis. In a world of digitial authoritianism and surveillance, that carries a lot of risks of course. But it also clearly helped scholars to at least somewhat close the distance - keeping in contact with friends and interlocutors in the countries they study, tracking online political discourse, joining WhatsApp and Telegram activist groups, and much more.
One adaptation has raised some questions across the field about potential exploitation: over 20% of scholars reported beginning collaborative research with in-country partners. Done right, such collaborations offer tremendous opportunities to develop enduring scholarly relationships, incorporate scholars from the region fully into academic networks, and build research capacity in countries which traditionally lack such an infrastructure. Done poorly, however, such collaborations could become exploitative, with Western-scholars outsourcing the risk of research to locals, setting the research agenda and taking all the credit. Which was it?
It’s hard to know for sure based on a handful of survey questions, of course. But the results were somewhat reassuring. Roughly 70% of political scientists with a research partner in the region reported that their partner was of equivalent academic rank, and 60% said that they planned the research together. Less than a quarter said that their in-country partner just collected the data and then they analyzed it. On the downside, 20% each said they either hired a non-university based research assistant or used one without financial compensation. Half said that their partner was listed as a co-author, and about a third acknowledged the research partner by name. We’d need to dig deeper to find out exactly what’s going on in all of these partnerships, but at least this gives us some unique information about disciplinary practices.
Research ethics: There’s been a big push within political science in recent years to take research ethics seriously. Our Advisory Committee member Lisa Anderson has been running a major program, Research Ethics in the Middle East and North Africa (REMENA), aimed at advancing those discussions. At her suggestion, we included a question asking the scholars whether and with whom they had discussed research ethics, beyond an IRB submission. The most interesting finding was that 70% of political scientists reported having such conversations about the ethical implications of their research practices, compared with barely 50% of scholars from other disciplines. 58% of the political scientists said that those conversations had been with academic colleagues, which speaks well for REMENA and the broader discipline’s efforts to prompt such self-reflection; less than 10% discussed them with university administrators, which kind of speaks for itself. Only a third of political scientists said they discussed such concerns with colleagues in the country being studied, which seems like an area we need to work on.
Who’s Our Audience? I’ve long been committed to public scholarship, and have sought to encourage MENA scholars to engage effectively with the broader public, whether through the late lamented Middle East Channel or the Monkey Cage, or any other public facing outlets. We were curious to see how our colleagues saw the audiences for their research, whether they engaged directly with governments, and more broadly how they had disseminated their research findings. The results were quite interesting.
Naturally, 93% of respondents said that their academic discipline was the audience for their research, with 84% adding the broader Middle East Studies community. No surprise there. 43% hoped to reach the policy community, broadly defined, with a huge disciplinary divide: 64% of political scientists and 28% of non-political scientists. But the disciplinary divide went the other way when it came to the broader public: 60% of non-political scientists sought to speak to the broader public against only 48% of political scientists. Huh. But then when you look at how they have actually disseminated their research, things look a bit different: 50% of political scientists, compared to 35% of the other scholars, have published an online post about their research in the last three years. Maybe that’s the Monkey Cage effect? 40% of the scholars have appeared on a podcast too, which is higher than I’d have expected; I wonder how many of those appearances were on mine!
What about governments? Roughly half of political scientists have either consulted with government agencies about policy issues related to their research or tried to, compared with only 20% of scholars from other disciplines. One intriguing finding: only 2% said that they had tried to engage with government agencies and been unable to do so. Maybe that says that the barriers to access are partly self-imposed? Or maybe it’s because the process is locked in a feedback loop, where scholars don’t try to engage because they think they won’t get access so it isn’t worth the effort? Hard to know based on this one set of questions, however suggestive the answers.
Stay Tuned for More! Those are the main findings from the profession-facing half of the questionnaire. We have some pretty juicy results to report from the other half of the questionnaire related to free speech and boycotts, but you’re going to have to wait. I’ll blog about the other half of the findings after they are published. Keep your eyes out for it!
Abu Aardvark's MENA Academy is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.