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Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Culture and Society of the Near & Middle East

Course Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 1 or Year 2
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, 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.


This course is available to students on degrees in MA Area Studies as a minor only.

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; study a variety of written and digital materials in libraries and research institutes of a kind they will not have used as undergraduates.

Scope and syllabus

After an introductory session, the course starts with a critical review of Edward Said's classical study "Orientalism" which centres on the epistemological and moral issues concerning explorations of the "Middle East". 

The course then moves to analyse issues of Islam and gender, focusing on body management, the politics of dress, space and marriage, both in terms of practices and legal prescriptions. With regard to these topics, some relevant films will serve as a basis for class discussion. The course proceeds with sessions discussing matters of textual authority and the law, looking at the issue of fatwas and apostasy cases; the significance of the "new media" (such as the internet) for greater civic pluralism and political awareness, and controversies about historical truth and issues of ethnic violence and nationalism. 

The first term concludes with a discussion of the aftermath of “Orientalism”, focusing on the responsibilities of scholars and issues of censorship. Most class discussions will be preceded by both a one-hour lecture on the topic. 

The second term of 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.