SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Culture and Society of the Near and Middle East

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

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. In Term I, the course will consider how anthropologists encounter ‘Islam’ during their field research and how it has informed legal debates. ‘Islam’ will be scrutinised against the background of its multiple and contextually variable entwinement with particular fields of social and political life. We shall explore issues of gender and the body in relation to public morality, the concerns of states, and secular embodiments of controversies over ‘Muslim’ dress. This discussion will pave the way for considerations of different types of marriage, states’ framing of marriage rules in relation to questions of citizenship, and the socio-political and historical factors which influence legal judgments in divorce cases. Legal issues will also inform explorations of fatwa councils and apostasy cases in the framework of 20th/21st century politics. The control of the public sphere which is often at stake here will also feature in discussions of space in relation to body comportment, social hierarchies, and spatial (re-)arrangements in the context of fluctuating configurations of power. Other topics are contests over memory and history and ethnocidal violence among social intimates.
In Term II we shall debate 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 II 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. Whereas in Term I teaching will include a lecture in addition to seminars, teaching in Term II 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.

Method of assessment

The written exam will count for 60%. 2 pieces of coursework will count for 40% (20% 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).
  • M.Marsden & K. Retsikas, eds. Articulating Islam: Anthropological Approaches to Muslim Worlds (Dortrecht: Springer 2013)
  • P. Werbner et al, The Political Aesthetics of Global Protest (University of Edinburgh Press 2014).

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.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules