Northwestern University in Qatar this month set up an institute to promote research in countries of the Global South and enhance academic cooperation between them.
The university’s dean and chief executive, Marwan M. Kraidy, said the Institute for Advanced Study in the Global South aimed to tackle the under-representation of the South in global knowledge production.
It will harness traditions from the liberal arts, media, communication, and journalism to promote the local creation of evidence-based knowledge, he said.
Kraidy, who is a former professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, talked to Al-Fanar Media about the institute. Following is an edited version of that conversation.
With many research centres in the Gulf, what makes this institute different?
We are working to make this institute reflect the distinctive nature of NUQ.
To stand out you need to focus on what makes you distinctive. NUQ is an American liberal arts university … located in Doha, a confluence of continents geographically, diplomatically, and culturally.
One of our priorities is to improve and amplify the research university and give back to the community we work in. It is an institute in, not about, the Global South.
What are the main interests of the new institute?
We will work on traditional academic research and produce peer-reviewed articles. At NUQ, we have filmmakers who produce feature films, drama, and documentary films; others who design digital games; and journalism faculty who write journalistic work.
What do we mean by evidence-based storytelling?
What do we all have in common? We tell stories that contribute to knowledge production. Everything we do is evidence-based and follows the most rigorous and more advanced standards of academic excellence. Storytelling is to improve our style to tell our stories and make them more accessible to more people.
“The Global South is a historical, political, cultural category, but most importantly, an empirical vastness that connects countries that in the past have been disconnected from each other.”
Does that mean taking knowledge out of academic silos?
I don’t believe in academia as a silo. We have undergraduate fellows who will join and produce multimodal research. Some can be putting ink to paper. Other modalities of knowledge production include documentary films. The work will be very scholarly and academic, but storytelling means expressing research results in better ways. It is a very student-focused institute.
Is it to challenge and counter Euro-centrism and stereotypes?
It is always a way to counter Euro-centrism. Anything that challenges, will by definition challenge stereotypes. Look at the journals, a vast majority is published by scholars – but when you look at who is publishing it, you realize that the larger group telling the story is people telling stories about others.
This takes us to ask what we mean by the Global South?
It means a multiplicity of things. In some ways, it’s an inheritor of the notion of the Third World, clearly a Western creation of the cold war that divided the world into the West, the Communist East, and the Third World. So, let’s define ourselves despite the geopolitical legacy and shared colonial histories.
Does the Global South include only poor countries? In that definition, a lot of countries in the Gulf and Asia are not. The Global South is all of the above, but bigger than the sum of its parts. It is an analytical category that looks at a variety of histories, power relations, and focuses on the experiences from the South. If we have a student writing on Pakistan, we encourage them to convey how this feels like from a Pakistani perspective. Until recently, a lot of Pakistani history was written from the perspective of the British, as a lot of Algerian history was written from the perspective of the French.
As a professor of communication, how do you assess Western media coverage of the Middle East? Is it impartial and objective?
There is no such a thing as impartial media. It is an ideal, but it does not exist. Clearly, media everywhere are shaped by the interests, ways of knowing, and ways of seeing of the people who operate them. I think there is precision, truthfulness, fairness of representation, exactness in the way you report things, but no objectivity because you always report it from a certain perspective.
“Data is very important, but what is much more important than data is knowledge. … Knowledge is data that is analyzed, interpreted and synthesized.”
Will the institute attract scholars from other parts of the region?
The institute first and foremost is focused on the NUQ community. It is there to amplify the research done by our students. In Doha, there are already several universities, a lot of interesting scholars. We will be working closely with our partners within the Qatar Foundation and the Education City.
Can we tackle the problem of under-representation of scholars from the Global South by publishing their works in English or bilingually?
A lot of intellectuals, thinkers and writers think that to be heard you have to publish in English, French or German. Here, we are going to publish our research in English, Arabic, and multiple languages. We are talking about multilingualism rather than bilingualism. If you have a piece about journalism in Senegal, it would be published in English, Arabic and maybe Wolof.
Some say our main problem is the lack of data and statistics in the Middle East. What do you think?
Having data is very important, but what is much more important than data is knowledge. … Knowledge is data that is analyzed, interpreted and synthesized. You can have all the data in the world, it will not help you do anything unless it is analyzed, integrated into comprehensive analytical frameworks.
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What are the ways of knowing in the South?
Every part of the world has its traditions that developed historically, out of human curiosity and out of necessity, to understand the world around them. In a few hundred years of colonialism, a lot of ways of knowing in the non-Western world have been denigrated in favour of Western science and medicine.
Does that mean all medical ideas are equivalent and are equally sound? No! But do we have to look for what Arab scholars have written in Arabic about certain phenomena? Yes.
If you look at the literature of media development in the Arab world, we have people publishing in English, French, and Arabic and they almost never talk to each other. We need to explore what ways of knowing are valid without restricting ourselves to the three or four dominant languages or university systems in the world.
How do you assess the impact of digital tools on research?
Digital technologies have made research both better and worse. It made research better by giving researchers access to people, conferences, and colloquia that they would otherwise have to spend thousands of dollars and days of travel to attend. Now it is a click. We need to maintain that even after the pandemic.
“There is no worse enemy to knowledge creation than rush, hurriedness and speed. I am afraid we are losing some of that in the digital era.”
Second, look at email. It is a fantastic way to share data quickly. Instead of mailing a box of printed research, you can attach the file and send it over.
However, the speed that digital communication allows is oftentimes much faster than what is required for top-level analytical research. Excellent research takes time. A typical great book may take 10 years. Now people think, I just write something and post it online and this is research.
There is no worse enemy to knowledge creation than rush, hurriedness and speed<. I am afraid we are losing some of that in the digital era.
What will be the main impact of your institute?
Many people who are interested in the Global South, in the Arab media, the connections between the Arab world and Africa, Asia or Latin America, will find a home. The main impact is to boost and amplify the research going on at NUQ to bring together communities that exist but are currently fragmented.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.