BEIRUT—Despite the rapid growth of universities in the Arab world, the social sciences are only offered by 55 percent of them, a new report has found.
“This might be due to the fact that most existing universities in the region are relatively young,” said Mohammed Bamyeh, a sociology professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States and the author of the new report, Forms of Presence of the Social Science in the Arab Region. “After all, 97 percent of Arab universities—491 out of 508—were created after 1950,” said Bamyeh. He added that as many as 70 percent didn’t exist before 1991.
According to Bamyeh’s report, any growth in the social sciences has been at longstanding universities in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Tunisia and more recently in the oil-rich countries, such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar, that have young academic institutions.
The report, which was released as a draft last week during the Arab Council for the Social Sciences‘ second conference in Beirut, aims to analyze the presence of the social sciences in various scientific and public arenas in the region, including universities, research centers, the civil society and media.
“We hope that the report can serve as a practical and theoretical tool for anyone who might be interested in supporting and developing the social sciences in the region, including social scientists themselves,” said Seteney Shami, director-general of the council.
The report tries to survey the presence of the social sciences, and determine their potential and characteristics in the region, especially in view of the important social and political changes that have recently overwhelmed Arab societies.
According to the report, topics studied by social scientists vary according to the nature of their institutions. In universities, there is a great interest in sciences that are directly related to questions of modernization and development, such as economics. Anthropology and history tend to have weak presences.
“This may indicate that Arab universities address the question of modernity in a traditional manner that does not necessarily communicate in the public sphere about the role of historical factors, culture, and social traditions in the making of contemporary society,” Bamyeh said.
Independent research centers on the other hand seem to give more support to cultural studies and political science. But since universities have created half of the research centers in the region, they are also indirectly supporting those topics, the report noted.
In the public sphere, social sciences deal with the question of change in various ways. “We do not find enough attention to specific issues, such as education and youth,” the report’s author said. Arab researchers in women’s studies too often mimic the Western version of this academic discipline, instead of looking at the context of Arab societies and family traditions.
The report also said that the Arab social scientists have a weak common identity. Most research is done in isolation or at projects with separate research centers. “We do not observe initiatives that found a sustainable scientific community at the Arab level,” Bamyeh said.
But the report found some positive signs of strength.
Social-science research centers have increased more than seven-fold over three decades, it’s just that they haven’t kept pace with the overall expansion of universities. That increase “is intrinsically linked to the growth of interest in the role of civil society and the emergence of a new generation of Arab social scientists that universities could not incorporate,” Bamyeh said.
These centers show up in world rankings. The last 2014 Global Go to Think Tank Index report, mentions two Arab centers among the top 100 centers in the world: the Al-Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo and Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
“It’s now obvious that there is an institutional boom in social sciences under various forms, even though these forms differ in terms of how they are constituted or related to each other,” said Hoda Elsadda, a professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University and a co-founder of the Women and Memory Forum.
Still, she worries about the negative impact of “neo-liberal” policies adopted by some Arab governments today on the development of the social sciences. “Giving priority to profit, free market and privatization will transform knowledge into a commodity,” she said. “Moreover, neutralizing the university from what is happening in the society on political and economic levels will reduce the impact of social and human sciences.”
Adnan El-Amine, the founders of the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies, agrees with Elsadda that the social sciences are at risk. According to him, social sciences are facing three challenges today in the region: The commercial tendencies of academic institutions; the religious trend that is sweeping through communities, and partisan political interference. “Research has a natural relation with freedom, which is more important than its relation with financial resources,” El-Amine said.
* The full report is under review now and will be available this summer.