Von | | Bildung, Gesellschaft, Im Fokus, Mashreq, Tunesien.

Scenes from academia in 1350 - and today? Picture: Wikicommons/Public Domain Scenes from academia in 1350 - and today? Picture: Wikicommons/Public Domain

What’s research got to do with authoritarian politics? Why are “innovative policy-approaches” so darn unpolitical? And what’s the point of discussion after all? Inadvertently, a Winter School about transformative changes in the MENA-region gave many answers. By Johannes Gunesch.

Dies ist die englische Übersetzung eines Artikels, der vor einigen Wochen bei Alsharq erschienen ist. Die deutsche Version gibt es hier.


“The MENA Region in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology” – under this promising title, early career researchers were invited for a Winter School, which took place in Tunis at the end of February. The aim was to “broaden horizons” and “gain in-depth knowledge of the region”. At least this is how the organizers put it, whose announcements and statements I also take up in the following quotes.

As my PhD-thesis is about the resonance of the Egyptian uprising in international relations, I found the call for applications to the Winter School immediately appealing. When I received the official invitation, I was very happy to participate. I also learned a lot – but mostly about how “the Middle East” is subordinated even when “mutual exchange” is sought.

This claim is big, maybe overly sweeping. Thus, it is crucial to zoom in: “Dialogue” is becoming ever more difficult, and the conditions for democratic change increasingly narrow, when scientific work is exposed to the demands of the market. As the Winter School demonstrates, this happens despite good intentions – which not only makes the whole business so delicate, but also affects the journalistic and political education work of Alsharq.

Who, what, and how?

But step by step: The Winter School was organized by the International Association for Political Science Students and the Center international de formation européenne. Both organizations are committed to promoting the interests of students through “sustainable higher education” and “cultural exchange”. After earlier seminars in Venice, Kiev or Rabat, this Winter School invited students to Tunis to make all sorts of valuable experiences, personal as well as in terms of their research.

This is definitely important and has a lot of “potential”, as we were taught in the welcome speech. After all, it is “us” who can take up and hopefully push forward the demands for democratic change that have been initiated in so many places since 2010/2011.

About 30 people participated in the Winter School. There were people like me who specifically applied for it. Then there were students of an MA-program between Tunis, Rome and Nice. Moreover, a few students from the host university took part in some sessions. Tellingly, most participants came from, or are currently living in Western European countries. While there were BA-students as well as post-docs, many professed some kind of “regional” focus and others had no background with “the Middle East” at all.

The Winter School was divided into two or three parts. The first part consisted of lectures on “Democratization and regime-change”, “Political economy and economic reform” as well as “Security and power-politics”. This was supposed to help account for social, political, and economic factors as well as their influence on the transformative processes across the region. Then, in order to “apply this knowledge”, so-called policy labs were designed for the second part. At the same time, research labs on research methods, ethics and interview practices were held for another part of the group.

“Innovative” and … what else?

The presentations of the first part were held by Tunis-based academics, politicians and representatives of non-governmental organizations. Then, “coaches” from Germany and Wales were specifically invited to lead the policy- and research-labs (all of them men, in case you were wondering). As such, the regional-experience of these “coaches” remained an open question: one had to do with “innovation and digitalization in different policy sectors”, the second one, a self-branded “political innovation consultant”, has a “special interest in China and the Middle East”, the third had previously researched organic patents and agricultural regulations in the United States.

In the meanwhile, my goodwill was increasingly strained. Yet, this is not about blanket criticism. In reflecting about the role of those “coaches”, the conditions that make them “experts”, as well as the consequences of these circumstances, I do not want to construct simple opposites: neither do I want to romanticize “locality,” nor do I reject authority altogether. But I believe that it speaks a very clear language that the organizers had the opportunity to design the Winter School in the way they deemed right – and then decided for exactly these formats with exactly these people because they considered it “innovative”, “exciting” and “helpful”, as it says in the program.

Marketplace of not so great ideas

The aim of the Policy Labs was to tackle “urgent policy challenges in the MENA region” with a “design thinking approach”. For preparation, introductory texts and small tasks were sent to the participants. Subsequently, three groups were formed, which worked for two days to produce “prototypes” for projects on security, participation and political economy.

In this course, “design thinking” was introduced as the “newest method for policy-making”. On the one hand, it animates deliberate simplification, whereby a creative idea is “pitched”, the details of which are to be developed later. On the other hand, it purposefully seeks to put “the human in the center” and neglect “technocratic hurdles”. All this does not only sound totally unpolitical but it actually is.

As such, all three presented projects wanted people to take individual responsibility for things like higher education and professional training, which otherwise fall into the realm of the state. Also, questions of feasibility, which pertain to political negotiations, did not matter. While participants did also point that out, they were instructed by a stopwatch to continue. Lest we forget, time is money and one works best under pressure.

No critical potential

As the research labs were also aimed at marketing, they were equally unpolitical. Thus, it is no coincidence that the instructions for “good research” were presented in the tone of positivistic self-assurance: “objectivity”, “generalization”, “facts”. After all, our economy of attention determines the “value” of knowledge by how quickly one has something to say, preferably on as many topics as possible. It’s about being heard, defining the discourse. Towards this end, differentiation, historical background, context and power relations are often unnecessary ballast. In the research-labs, this is reflected in three cases:

First, “facts” instead of relations: We were encouraged to research and verify “facts”. For this, there are elaborate methods, no question. But what are “facts” when there are different views on what happens, when events have different meanings for different people, and when there are various factors that shape events as much as their perception? That is to say: It’s not just about determining “what is”, but also about understanding how developments unfold and how they are talked about. This is because any critical potential is lost when we do not concern ourselves with how things could also be different. Unless this happens, “the Middle East” is addressed as an isolated object; and the “failure of the revolutions” is determined as if that was a foregone conclusion, taking us back to square one of “Arab exceptionalism”.

Second, emotions as a systematic error. In order to create “facts”, we were repeatedly advised to avoid “bias”. “Bias” was attributed to all factors that undermine the “objectivity” of research: In the broadest sense, all emotions and affects. But both scientific work and its subject matter are social processes, whereby people come into contact with each other, not machines. This not only fundamentally calls into question the assumption of “value-free” research, but also warrants an understanding how emotions are used to make politics. For example, authoritarian politics spread fear and terror. Pretending that this could be neglected in favor of an artificial “objectivity” makes scientific work the vicarious agent of the restoration. This, I think, anybody who (well-meaningly) studies “stability policies”, “counter-terrorism” or other forms of authoritarian rule should be aware of.

Third, ethics to check off. Importantly, the research-labs introduced participants to the requirements of responsible research practice. Basically, this is about how to ensure the safety and integrity of researchers, interlocutors as well as co-generated information and materials. What this requires, in particular, is often very different from country to country. For example, there are “institutional review boards” at British universities, but hardly any at German ones. That said, limiting the discussion on “research ethics” to a checklist artificially restricts responsibility. For neither is research and especially qualitative/ethnographic work a linear affair; nor can power relations be neatly summed up or even dissolved. The ominous “field” is thus not a separate geographical and temporary entity to be entered and left again; and responsibility means more than getting information from “refugees” or “elite politician”, as our “coach” characteristically sketched his understanding.

What space for discussions?

To be sure, organizing such an event is not easy, especially when people with different backgrounds and expectations attend. Also, I am aware that you can certainly see everything differently. As such, it might even be helpful to approach the “region” in a non-political and ahistorical way. Instead of presupposing a certain access, be it on the basis of an emotional relation or a theoretical construction, relevance can then be argued for. This helps to get a first overview and makes comparison easier. Moreover, I can understand that some views are so hegemonic by now that they are taken for granted or even natural. Criticism is then either dismissed as rebellious or irrelevant. After all, it is important to solve “the great problems of the Middle East”. Should we then continue as usual and hope that everything will be fine?

I think not, and for three reasons in particular: The first is that the Winter School addressed young people to “determine the future”. To take up the organizers on this, it is important not to uncritically adopt old views. As such, it may be part of the “problems of the Middle East” how and by whom “solutions” are devised. The second reason is that the Winter School sought to address the upheavals of recent years through the socio-political changes they have triggered. In my opinion, this also includes questioning academic work and the associated requirements, expectations and hierarchies. And the third reason is not merely to demand “dialogue” and assume its possibility, but also to think about the many factors that often make this much more difficult – all good intentions notwithstanding, as was the case with this Winter School.


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