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Arab Spring Can Help Rethink Anthropology

We’re pleased to share this blog post from special AN reporter Émilie Sarrazin. She reports here on a Saturday afternoon session “Revolution in the Middle-East and North Africa: Anthropological Perspectives.”

Montreal Convention Center

Saturday afternoon, a four-hour session of the AAA Annual Meeting was devoted to the major uprisings that have taken place in 2010 and 2011 in many regions of the Middle East and North Africa. This session, titled “Revolution in the Middle-East and North Africa: Anthropological Perspectives”, aimed at challenging the explanatory models proposed by the media by offering more complex interpretations not solely based on political or economical rationales. More precisely, anthropologists discussed how identities, affiliations, symbols, and historical precedents played a role in shaping the ongoing events in the Arab World.

For example, according to Farha Ghannam, political corruption, underemployment and social media are non-negligible aspects of the “Arab Revolution”, but are insufficient to account for the unprecedented level of public mobilization unless the changes in thought and feelings of individuals are addressed. Also, the discussion of the form and rhetoric adopted by the revolutionary movement allows Mongher Kilani to study the “Arab Spring” as an anthropological revolution, which has in many ways redefined the participants’ identity and socio-political ideals. New perspectives on the uprisings were also offered through the study of the ways individuals made sense of the unfamiliar revolutionary reality, and how symbols were manipulated and appropriated by diverse parties as a means to negotiate and dispute power.

Moreover, the scope of inquiry was geographically and temporarily broadened through the discussion of the political realities and past uprisings of less mediatised regions like the Yemen, Jordan and the Emirates. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the session was not how anthropology can help rethinking the “Arab Spring”, but how the “Arab Spring” can help rethinking anthropology.  Some scholars have struggled to write about those seemingly incoherent events which are yet unresolved and into which they are much involved. This challenge has highlighted difficulties in the application of some anthropological tools; some forms of “revolution” might be necessary in the discipline.

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