A Sociology of Knowledge on Displacement and Humanitarianism

In this post, Dr Estella Carpi identifies the main points she and Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh raise in their contribution to the recently published Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of the Middle East, where they focus on the commonalities and dissimilarities across the academic literature relating to war-induced displacement and humanitarianism in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt.

If you find this post of interest, please visit our Thinking through the Global South series and the recommended reading and listening at the end of this post. 

A Sociology of Knowledge on Displacement and Humanitarianism

by Dr Estella Carpi, Research Associate, Southern Responses to Displacement Project, UCL

The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of the Middle East, edited by Armando Salvatore, Kieko Obuse, and Sari Hanafi, contains my and Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s contribution, a chapter on the sociology of knowledge of studies on war-induced displacement and humanitarianism in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt. Our comparative analysis of academic literature on this topic suggests that similarities and differences across the academic literature are not always motivated by specific forms of state governmentality. Importantly, in the framework of how academic knowledge production relates to political order, we show how postcolonial his­tory seems to only provide partial explanations.

Our chapter, ‘A Sociology of Knowledge on Displacement and Humanitarianism’  primarily emerges from the need to decentralize mainstream knowledge by shedding light on responses to dis­placement led by organizations, governments, informal groups, and individuals from across the Global South, including refugees themselves. It also emerges from our experience with teaching displacement and humani­tarianism in several international institutions and the responses received from different cohorts of students.

In our chapter, we depart from the Syrian “refugee crisis”, started by a popular uprising in March 2011, as it has now become a crucial watershed in international scholarly literature concerned with the Middle East. Indeed, the Syrian crisis has paved the way for a large number of studies focused on humanitarian governance, forced migrations, security and borders, migrant labour, and social integration in receiving coun­tries. In countries where the central state tends to emerge as authoritarian in the organization of society (e.g., Turkey and Egypt), such themes have been addressed differently from po­litical environments where the state has been considered absent and fragile and where political power is fragmented (e.g., Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). For instance, some forced migrants living in states where the “catastrophization” discourse is unlikely, have not always appeared in academic texts under the label of “refugees” but have instead been categorized as “migrants” since economic and climate-related migrations are both unlikely to be classified as “forced” in the global political arena. Indeed, in Egypt and Turkey, humanitarianism is not a usual analytical framework for the explana­tion of refugee governance and refugee experience.

Our chapter shows that postcoloniality does not explain such peculiar sociologies of knowledge. States like Lebanon have proved that, al­though domestic sovereignty is seemingly fragmented and delegated to more than one ac­tor, they can still curb or hold sway on assistance provision and its layered politics, for ex­ample, forbidding marches in support of refugee employment and living conditions. However, postcoloniality is a key variable in carving out a transnational sociology of knowl­edge of these localities. Identifying this sociology means meditating on the ways in which crisis is defined and understood in different political histories. In this respect, Lebanon is over-characterized by the catastrophe discourse, having a wavering political past and present during which governmental mandates have never lasted long, unlike many other states in the region. Nonetheless, we conclude that it would be incorrect to argue that Lebanon has historical­ly been more exposed to crisis than countries like Jordan, Egypt, or Turkey (also charac­terized by outbreaks of nonstate political violence and coups d’état), because “crisis” per se should have contextual and relativistic meanings and, at times, resides in the ordinary details of everyday life.

Against this backdrop, we define the “sociology of knowledge” as the relationship between the production of knowl­edge and the social context in which it develops and examine how knowledge is con­structed socially and what factors mainly influence such a construction. Since knowledge is contextual, it is shaped as much by the social and political positioning of knowledge producers as by their local, regional, and international environments. Academic cultures —not always overlapping with official “national cultures,” which are defined by the boundaries of the nation-state—frame such topics in a peculiar manner. In the effort to build a sociology of knowledge, we seek to identify the political and social factors that have been moulding international scholarship in the field of displacement and crisis man­agement. The need for a common language and to somehow embrace functional monolingualism has subtly justified the implicit demand to think and present ideas monoculturally. Such an Anglocentric mono­-culture risks emerging as the only valuable and acceptable one in defining “global knowledge” and concepts such as “humanitarianism”. As Fiddian-Qasmiyeh has argued, “exploring the principles and modalities of South–South cooperation, rather than promoting the incorporation of Southern actors into the ‘international humanitarian system’ via the localization agenda, presents a critical opportunity for studies of displace­ment and humanitarianism in the Middle East region”. As a result, the displacement and humanitari­anism literature need to transcend the state paradigm and focus on a larger variety of so­cial and political factors.

Here comes the endeavour of the Southern Responses to Displacement project: while most scholars have examined the work of the United Na­tions and of international institutions in the region, in our chapter for the Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of the Middle East, we instead highlight the need to learn from multilingual literature, especially that produced in the Global South, and from a deeper investigation of the principles and modalities of crisis management as developed by actors from the Global South. From our perspective, such con­siderations, while overcoming the nation-state paradigm, could also drive us toward an actual global sociology of knowledge.

If you find this post of interest, please visit our Thinking through the Global South series and the recommended reading below:

Carpi, E. (2021) Slavery, Lived Realities and Decolonising Forced Migration Histories: A transcript of an interview with Prof. Portia Owusu – Interview with Dr Estella Carpi and Dr Portia Owusu

Carpi, E. (2021) Slavery, Lived Realities and Decolonising Forced Migration Histories: An interview with Prof Portia Owusu (Podcast)

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Carpi, E. (2018) Humanitarianism and Postcoloniality:  A Look at Academic Texts

Carpi, E. (2018) Teaching Humanitarianism:  The Need for a More Responsive Framework:

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?[FE1] 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring refugees’ conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Southern Responses to Displacement: Background and introduction to our mini blog series. 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters[FE2] 

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective


Featured image: (c) El Maks, Boustashy Art photograph, Autumn 2004

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