2013: Knowledge Production, Ethics, Solidarity: Stories from the Field


Hosted by the Middle East Studies Initiative at Brown University, this closed workshop explores the tensions between academic practices and emancipatory politics, and how moral and ethical issues are negotiated during fieldwork. How can we balance political commitment with critical distance? What are our obligations to those we study? Can we imagine an ethical code that transcends disciplinary constraints? How to disentangle power relations between our questions and the questions those we study raise?

The workshop took place February 22-23, 2013.

About the Workshop

This closed workshop, ‘Knowledge Production, Ethics, Solidarity: Stories from the field,’ will be the first annual workshop hosted by the Middle East Studies Initiative around the general theme of ‘The Politics and Ethics of Knowledge Production.’  The aim is to generate a critical conversation among scholars from across the disciplines and area studies around the question of what it means to put intellectual work in the service of emancipatory politics, broadly defined.  Attendance is by invitation only, the aim being to keep attendance relatively low in order to promote in-depth, productive discussion.  The general format will consist of a series of roundtable discussions on pre-circulated papers between invited participants, with a larger group of attending participants.

Invited discussants of the workshop roundtable include Yousuf Al-Bulushi (UNC), Hazem Jamjoum (NYU), Sa’ed Atshan (Harvard) Chana Morgenstern (Brown), Yasser Munif (Emerson), Linda Quiquivix (Brown), Mayssoun Soukarieh (Columbia), Susan Ellison (Brown), and Eric Larson (Brown).  Amongst the discussants from Brown are: Michael Kennedy, Shiva Balaghi, Omur Hermansah, Sherine Hamdy, Ariella Azoulay, and Beshara Doumani.

Knowledge production invariably involves a myriad of political and ethical questions.  For those scholars committed to emancipatory aims, perhaps the two most important questions are: What constitutes emancipatory politics?  And who gets to define them?  Many of today’s dissident movements, for example, are adopting practices that create leaderless, self-managed spaces; that find new ways of producing and consuming knowledge; and that position sovereignty and self-determination as irreconcilable, rather than conflatable concepts. What are the implications of these “ways of doing and being” for social theory, political practice, and academic conventions of research, fieldwork?

It is a truism that scholarly production and established ethical codes are guided more by institutional imperatives and power structures than by emancipatory commitments.  These imperatives determine lines of inquiry; frame research methodologies; guide the selection of which times, peoples, and places are privileged and which ones are ignored. In academic settings, dissident movements are not seen as important knowledge producers in their own right; knowledge production, we are told, is the prerogative of professionals. In the humanities and social sciences, especially, the figure of the individual author shapes the notion of who owns ideas and who owns thinking. While individual examples of ethically and politically committed scholarship exist, the general drift has long been toward disengaged theory in the field, its insertion from the outside, as well as top-down prescriptive codes of ethical/methodological practice in teaching.

This workshop will critically examine how academic practices in the field are in tension with emancipatory engagements and how bottom-up moral and ethical issues can be made legible. Some of our guiding questions will include: How might we, as committed scholars, go about rethinking conceptual vocabularies, academic genres, and their fields of circulation? With whom should we be in dialogue? How can we balance political commitment with critical distance? What form of ethics does an emancipatory project dictate? What are our obligations to those we study? Should ‘subjects’ have a say in shaping the agenda knowledge production? What challenges do we come across when trying to disentangle power relations between our questions and questions those we study raise, and how might these tensions be resolved? Who are made to count as ‘the people?’ How can we imagine an ethical code that transcends disciplinary constraints?

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