Can there be an ethical Middle East political science?

In an interesting article on a topic this blog grapples with day in and day out, WaPo examines the conundrum facing researchers and thinkers who deal with the Middle East conceptually on a regular basis. The result is interesting food for thought. An excerpt is below, and those interested should read the full article:

What are the ethical obligations of an academic studying today’s Middle East? Have the Arab uprisings changed how scholars must weigh ethical and moral concerns in their research? How should academics incorporate their ethical commitments into their social scientific research agendas or policy advice? How should they respond when faced with severe moral atrocities such as the human costs of the war in Syria? Is there an obligation to take sides?

These are not the usual questions that are supposed to occupy the professional life of political scientists, who spend more time contemplating research design, replicability and statistical significance. But of course, they do. Ethical decisions underlie virtually everything we do. The challenge ofincorporating ethics into academic political science was a major theme of this May’s annual conference of the Project on Middle East Political Science. The thoughts of 10 first-rate scholars on the subject have now been published as a symposium in the POMEPS Studies series (available for free download here).

It’s easy to see why many academics would prefer to avoid engaging with ethics. It isn’t just the ethos of dispassionate science which pervades today’s political science, although that certainly does create professional disincentives. A lot of what passes as “ethical” discourse in the foreign policy debate, and especially about the Middle East, is more like political grandstanding or glorified identity politics. The first 73,000 op-eds and political speeches thundering on about moral clarity are enough to turn anyone off of the language of morality. So is the all-too-frequent tendency to use ethical language as thinly veiled identity politics, in which one side is right and the other side is evil, and all who disagree must be shamed and condemned. Many political scientists are simply turned off by the misuse and abuse of the language of morality in public discourse.

The popular misuse of ethical language doesn’t allow us to turn away from the ethical questions, though. Virtually everything which political scientists study, from Islamist politics to democracy promotion to interventions in Iraq or Syria to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is deeply saturated with ethical dilemmas and moral commitments. As Jillian Schwedler notes, “It is hard to find an issue related to the Middle East or Islamic world that isn’t saturated in tense debates about what’s ‘wrong’ with the region, how to ‘fix’ it, and indeed what the world ‘should’ look like. We cannot avoid engaging these normative claims even while we reproduce the (false) veneer of scientific objectivity.” Faced with those ethical underpinnings, Wendy Pearlman poses the question bluntly: “Is our overriding goal is to make a contribution to an academic discipline rather than to do good in the world?” When, she wonders, “is it ethically appropriate or inappropriate to take an open political stand, or cross the line from scholarship to advocacy?”


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