The scholar Muna Al-Ghuraibi welcomes the new freedoms that social scientists in Saudi Arabia now enjoy, but believes the field remains too theoretical in its teaching and research methods.
Benefiting from her postgraduate studies in political sociology at Australia’s University of Sydney, Al-Ghuraibi wants to identify modern research methods and employ them in social science research to understand the cultural changes Saudi Arabia has experienced following the recent decisions to open up its society and diversify its economy.
Al-Ghuraibi, who is a professor of social studies at King Saud University, was among the first Saudi women to study abroad in 2011. In an interview, she told Al-Fanar Media that her doctoral studies abroad had re-crystallised her understanding of the role of sociology, through the diversity of its issues and topics, and ways to link its research to other sciences.
“By nature, I tend to think analytically and critically more than memorising,” she said. “My studies of sociology abroad and participation in international conferences satisfied my curiosity and enhanced a more profound critical sense.”
Cultural Change in Saudi Arabia
“The future of theoretical faculties at Arab universities depends on the development of curricula, as well as changing the image of the social sciences in decision-making circles and in society in general.”Muna Al-Ghuraibi
A graduate of Saudi public schools, Al-Ghuraibi earned a master’s degree at King Saud University in 2000 with a thesis on young women’s attitudes toward modernity in Saudi Arabia. Seventeen years later, she got her Ph.D. degree at the University of Sydney with a dissertation on “The Role of Social Capital in the Formation and Activation of Civil Society Organisations in Saudi Arabia”.
The Saudi scholar’s return to her homeland coincided with the openness measures under Saudi Vision 2030, which included many reforms that promote the role and status of women in public life.
As a political sociologist, Al-Ghuraibi felt concerned that the rapid changes might lead to conflicts between different ideologies. However, she thinks society was ready for this change, and showed a high degree of resilience at the level of institutions, groups, and individuals.
The new openness was reflected in Saudi scholars’ choices of research topics in areas that were previously unexplored, such as women’s empowerment, women and gender studies, environmental studies, and social responsibility. This also led to the inclusion of social scientists in decision-making centres, said Al-Ghuraibi.
Al-Ghuraibi sees women’s empowerment in the kingdom as a channel for revitalizing progressive ideas. True empowerment, she says, is concerned with quality rather than quantity. For example, she calls for attention to making sure that newly graduated young women, especially those in jobs that require experience in decision-making, are well trained in the skills they need to avoid making costly mistakes in the workplace.
In addition to her teaching duties at King Saud University, Al-Ghuraibi is a member of many committees and units at her university and outside. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Saudi Social Studies Society, which publishes a refereed research journal and organizes conferences and seminars to discuss new issues.
She has also established a sociological café, whose meetings discuss social issues, and has concluded several cooperation agreements with public and private agencies.
Linking Theoretical and Practical Studies
Al-Ghuraibi recommends linking theoretical studies to field research in the teaching of social sciences in Saudi universities.
“The educational outcomes of theoretical majors do not meet the needs of the labour market, because practical training was not taken into account in their education,” Al-Ghuraibi said. Weaknesses of a too-theoretical approach include “a lack critical thinking skills among some students, and a lack of research, at school, on new issues related to changes in society.”
“The educational outcomes of theoretical majors do not meet the needs of the labour market, because practical training was not taken into account in their education.”Muna Al-Ghuraibi
She also calls for reviving what she calls the “sociological imagination”, which she says scientific research methods have discouraged. The ability to use the sociological imagination frees the researcher from the formal constraints of science in the interpretation and analysis of a given phenomenon, she said.
She also points to the need to support interdisciplinary studies to better understand reality, and the importance of moving towards qualitative research methods to explore social issues more deeply than is possible with quantitative research alone.
The Future of Arab Theoretical Faculties
Al-Ghuraibi thinks that the ways of teaching social sciences in the past created a gap between theory and practice. She calls for strengthening the practical aspect, in lectures and in students’ research.
According to a 2015 report by the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, titled “Social Sciences in the Arab World: Forms of Presence”, Saudi social scientists previously focused on research on family issues and crime, and avoided political sociological issues. The report noted that one-fifth of 1,037 research papers published by Saudi sociologists between 1970 and 2013 focused on “crime, delinquency, and social control”. In contrast, there were only two papers on social conflict and one on the employment of foreign workers.
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Al-Ghuraibi also calls for links between Saudi schools and universities to enhance students’ critical thinking and introduce them to the social sciences in ways that avoid the older stereotypes.
“The future of theoretical faculties at Arab universities depends on the development of curricula, as well as changing the image of the social sciences in decision-making circles and in society in general,” she said. “This will enable specialised scholars, each in their own field, to be involved in decision-making.”