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Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Ethnography of a Selected Region - Near and Middle East

Course Code:
Course Not Running 2015/2016
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Full Year
This course will introduce students to the study of the Near and Middle East, through a variety of interconnected topics that have been important in the anthropological literature on the region. The course uses material on countries such as Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but will also include literature on Muslims in South East Asia and Europe. It seeks to balance ethnography and theory, drawing attention to contributions made to wider debates in the discipline.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

On successful completion of the course, students will have acquired the following skills:

  • General intellectual and research skills: Through the programme of seminars, classes, and course assignments, students will learn to assess data and evidence critically from manuscripts and digital sources, solve problems of conflicting sources and conflicting interpretations, locate materials, use research sources (particularly research library catalogues) including on-line resources, and other relevant traditional sources.
  • Subject specific skills: Students will be exposed to a range of themes in the societies and cultures of the Near and Middle East which are critically examined within an anthropological framework.
  • Practical skills: Students will learn to communicate effectively in writing; retrieve, sift and select information from a variety of sources; listen and discuss ideas that are introduced during seminars; practice research techniques in a variety of specialised libraries and institutes.
  • Transferable skills: The course will encourage students to write good essays; structure and communicate ideas effectively both orally and in writing; understand unconventional ideas and think critically about ‘commonsense’ assumptions.

Scope and syllabus

This course introduces anthropological approaches to the Middle East, through ethnographic and theoretical readings. Ever since Edward Said’s critical text, Orientalism, anthropology’s approach to the Middle East has been critically attentive to the interactions between institutions of knowledge production and political power.  The course explores the historical, cultural, and political forces that have circumscribed how "the Middle East" is an object and agent of knowledge production. This problematic remains a framing question throughout this course.  We shall discuss the currents of social change spurred by imperialism, anticolonial and nationalist movements in the 20th century, as well as media developments of the 21st. The (not-exclusive) emphasis on ethnographies of Palestine/Israel in Term 1 encourages students to think rigorously about “politics”: the state and its institutions, the making of hegemonic orders or the “horizons of the taken for granted,” disciplinary regimes, techniques and technologies, the micro-politics of subject formation (including a focus on gender and the body), and practices and domains of resistance.  Teaching in Term 1 will be primarily discussion based. These seminars will be organized around three overlapping topics: orientalism and the relationship of knowledge and power; nationalism and the state as institutions shaping social identities; the organization and implementation of political power, and modes of resistance to it.  

During the second term, the course will explore diversity, complexity, and dynamism of social life in 'the region'. It shall discuss a range of social forms and identities produced, consumed, contested, and reconstructed by and about the peoples of this region. For this purpose, it shall survey ethnographic materials and review how general theories are applied to specific localities and everyday contexts. 

It will begin with the politics of anthropological knowledge: 'the Middle East' as a political-scholarly construct and emergence of an anthropologist's Middle East. The course will then turn to nomads, tribes, villages, and cities. These are dynamic social forms that have been both reified and debated by anthropologists when framing the social landscape of the Middle East, so we will consider the ways in which people in the region themselves seek to understand, explore and experience village and city life, through the display of wit and irony, as well as local forms of travel, for example. From the dynamic world of social forms, the discussion will move to emergent social identities: (re)production and transformations of religious identity and authority; role of Islamic pedagogy in negotiating Muslim subjectivities in a contested modern world; historical and anthropological surveys of Islamic and secular education in order to blur the boundaries between traditional/modern and Islamic/secular as well as revise Orientalist notions about Islamic education; shifting intellectual styles and changing political roles of Ulama; emergence of new kinds of religious intellectuals (e.g. Media Muftis) and modern pieties; youth identities, their re-writing and negotiating of normative rules, notably through the display and consumption of ‘popular culture’, especially music; alternative secularities and civilities through reviewing contemporary presence and potential of 'secularism' and 'civil society' in the Middle East.

Method of assessment

The written exam will count for 70%. 2 pieces of coursework will count for 30% (15% each) towards the final mark.

Suggested reading

  • L Abu-Lughod - Writing women’s worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
  • Y. Navaro-Yashin - Faces of the State (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002)
  • G. Starratt - Putting Islam to Work (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
  • Z.Mir-Hosseini - Marriage on Trial (London: I.B.Tauris 1993).
  • D Eickelman - The Middle East: an anthropological approach (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Revised edition, 1989).
  • D.Eickelman & J.Anderson (eds) - New media in the Muslim world (Indiana UP 1999).

Class lectures and discussions will assume that you have a basic understanding of the historical outlines of modern Middle Eastern history.  Useful texts for gaining this understanding:

  • Cleveland, William L. 2009. A History of the Modern Middle East. Fourth Edition. Westview Press.
  • Gelvin, James. 2011. The Modern Middle East: A History. Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Esposito, John. 2005. Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Smith, Charles D. 2012. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Eighth Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, Palgrave Macmillan.