CfP No Country for Anthropologits? Contemporary ethnographic research in the Middle East

Call for Papers — Deadline 1 May 2018

University of Zurich

Institute of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies (ISEK)

2-3 November 2018


Mustafa Akcinar, Aymon Kreil, Shirin Naef, Emanuel Schaeublin

Many parts of the contemporary Middle East are confronted with war, sectarianism, transnational interferences, uprisings, and a comeback of authoritarian regimes. This brings about various difficulties for ethnographic research as a practice of knowledge production based on the immersion of researchers in given social contexts and the subsequent writing up and publishing of texts:

Restrictions of access limit the possibility to carry out fieldwork. Local and transnational researchers have troubles accessing communities in different places. The risks of living there for 12 to 18 months (which is required for ethnographic fieldwork) include political instability and different forms of state repression. They are not easy to assess and can have far-reaching consequences for personal lives.

Writing is equally affected by these developments. Many settings leave little place for non-partisan standpoints, as narratives on the situation become arenas for competing claims of legitimacy. State and non-state institutions are often suspicious of forms of discourse that evade their control and hegemony. At the same time, political protestors may expect researchers to act as their spokespersons. This creates subtle or more direct kinds of pressures to write about certain topics rather than others or to exercise self-censorship.

The ‘destabilization’ of countries in recent years was followed by an increase of military presence and the division of territory into securitized (‘green’) and less secure ‘zones’. In such times, contextualized and nuanced accounts of the situation of different communities – which go beyond the narrow sphere of ‘policy analysis’ – are more important than ever. In theory, this is what ethnography at its best should provide.

The international conference No country for anthropologists? Contemporary ethnographic research in the Middle East explores the obstacles to do ethnography in the Middle East and take them as the starting point for reflection upon the role of anthropology with a view to the Middle East of today. To tackle the issue, the conference will revolve around four main axes, addressing the interrelated questions of:

  1. The possibility of ethnographic research for local and foreign researchers. This axis aims at discussing the impediments and incentives to research in the region, including discourses framing the perception of researchers (‘information war’, fears of transnational interferences, citizen activism, etc.); the institutional settings of research (conditions of funding, research grants, etc.); the threats to researchers and the attempts to co-opt them politically; the impossibility to access certain places and communities due to various forms of risks; and the relation between local and foreign researchers.
  1. The positionality of researchers and their interlocutors. This axis seeks first to reflect upon forms of guiding researchers’ attention, different kinds of institutional pressure, and the role interlocutors in the context of inquiry ascribe to researchers. How do these aspects affect fieldwork practice? In parallel to this line of questioning, the aim is to critically consider the relation between researchers and their interlocutors, the agendas they possibly have when communicating with each other, and their different kinds of vulnerability.
  1. The shaping of alternative methods of inquiry. This axis explores possibilities to circumvent the impediments to ethnographic modes of inquiry. This involves interrogating the anthropological understanding of fieldwork as a site for long-term ‘participant observation.’ Possible alternative methods include the use of digital sources as ethnographic material, the reliance on micro-situations to make a fragmentary portrait of a situation, reckoning with the incompleteness of ethnographic accounts, or collaborative approaches blurring the roles of ‘author’ and ‘interlocutor’. In this axis both the limits and potentialities of such alternative methods of inquiry will be discussed.
  1. The practice of ethnographic writing. The restrictions and concerns mentioned above directly affect the practice of ethnographic writing. In contexts of violence, it is often difficult to avoid taking sides, and hesitating to do so can appear as a sign of cowardice or betrayal. The need to advocate for oppressed groups has its flipside when research becomes part of discourses asserting moral truths or exclusively reproduces the narratives of certain interlocutors purporting to represent oppressed groups. Moreover, writing about certain themes can increase the vulnerability of local communities or entail legal consequences for people and institutions involved in transferring money to contested areas. This axis addresses issues related to writing ethnography, such as self-censorship, the nature of topics that researches do not mention in texts, techniques of anonymization in writing, and the afterlife of ethnographic texts. Based on these discussions, we seek to reconsider the critical power of ethnographic writing and the ethical challenges it gives rise to.

Participants are invited to discuss these issues on the basis of concrete case studies. We welcome contributions from all theoretical directions and regional areas of interest. Contributors should send an abstract of maximum 250 words and a short CV by 1 May 2018 to Emanuel Schaeublin ( Applicants will be notified by 15 May 2018 of the decision. Subsequently, participants will be asked to provide their draft paper (max. 6000 words) by 15 September 2018. It will then be circulated among the participants.

CfP Representations of Change: Time, Space, and Power in Qualitative Research on the MENA Region and Europe


Since the start of the 21st century seemingly unpredictable change, in all its different guises, has fueled the preoccupations of academic and non-academic publics. The financial crisis, the ‘Arab Spring’, protest movements in southern Europe, the rise of Daesh and right-wing populism, as well as the environmental crisis all make it very difficult to rely on Francis Fukuyama’s theory of “end of history”, which now seems to merely reflect the euphoria of liberal elites following the collapse of the Soviet Union (1992). Such examples of historical assessments should teach us to be cautious of blind spots when we write about our times.

The ‘turning points’, ‘crises’, ’revolutions’ and ‘transformations’ being announced and debated on a regular basis only represent the most visible elements of the conceptual and theoretical apparatus that economists, political and social scientists, as well as scholars from the humanities, deploy to grasp a wide array of social, political, economic processes of the past 20 years. The grand narratives they refer to in order to decide which elements are relevant for understanding change are often out of touch with empirical inquiry. Furthermore, theories describing modernization, individualization, secularization and democratization, for instance, offer broad schemes of interpretation and generalization, but the coherence and strength of their philosophical underpinning only gives a limited account of the intricacies of observable situations.

For example, nowadays, many consider the events in Egypt and Syria, heralded as revolutions and moments of fundamental change by many scholars in 2011, as yet another example of the region’s supposed resistance to change. The situation seems to have reversed to the familiar scenarios of autocratic regime or war. Likewise, many recent processes in Europe, most spectacularly the Brexit, appear to observers to be a return to national paradigms that were thought obsolete. Endorsing such assessments is not neutral. They have their own impact on the social and political environment. Statements on change or lack thereof are always performative. They have effect on the configurations even when they pretend to merely describe them. They have deep implications on the way regions are being represented, which in turn can impact political and economic relations.

In a previous workshop (Snapshots of Change: Assessing Social Transformations through Qualitative Research) that took place at the University of Zurich in 2015, we focused on the methodological tools researchers can develop to study change. This new workshop, entitled Representations of Change: Time, Space, and Power in Qualitative Research on the Mena Region and Europe and to be held in 2018 at the Philipps-University Marburg, intends to reflect more closely on the webs of power affecting both the researcher and ‚the researched‘ when they intend to represent change.

Main topics

We invite papers that address any of the following three major aspects:

1. Metaphors and grand narratives of change

What terms and metaphors do we use to represent change? What does, for example, a concept like ‘social acceleration‘ (H. Rosa), ‘overheating’ (Th. Hylland Eriksen), or a popular metaphor like ‘Arab Spring’ imply? What role do ’turning points’ play in delimiting the scope of our research, and how do we conceive such turning points? What narrative strategies do we use in writing about change and which concepts of temporality do they imply?

2. The power to represent change in academia

Who is legitimized and granted the authority to explain, define, describe or narrate change, as well as identify potentials of, or necessities for, change? More specifically, how do the power structures of academia influence the way we write about change? Which range of autonomy can Academia claim toward other sources of discourse on change? Who has the power to name social and political change? And what is the role of social science in the current regime of historicity in defining the relation and coherence of past-present-future (F. Hartog)?

3. Research encounters and the study of change:

This section addresses what appears as a blind spot in much of social research: How do the researchers’ social situations, their political and other belongings, influence their choice of subject, representations of change, methodology and sampling strategies? How do the representations of time and space that ‘research participants’ use when they speak about change differ from those of the researchers? Which common language can they rely on when they refer to the past, present and future in assessing change, and where may misunderstandings arise?

Submission guidelines

The presentations should be supported by concrete examples. An abstract (150-200 words), a CV and a list of publications should be sent to the organizers

before the 4th of September, 2017.

The workshop language is English.

Costs for travel and accommodation will be covered for the participants.

This workshop is a jointly organized by the Research Network “Re-Configurations” (funded by the BMBF), the Leibniz-Research Group “Figures of Thought | Turning Points” (both CNMS, Philipps-University Marburg) and SQUARE / University of Zurich.

Organization and proposal selection committee

University of Marburg (main conveners):

  • Dr. Felix Lang:
  • Dr. Christoph Schwarz:

University of Zurich:

  • Dr. Yasmine Berriane:
  • Dr. Aymon Kreil: