Can there be an ethical Middle East political science?

A Syrian refugee boy sits outside his tent at a small Syrian refugee camp in Ketermaya southeast of Beirut, Lebanon, on March 14. (Hussein Malla/AP)

What are the ethical obligations of an academic studying today’s Middle East? Have the Arab uprisings changed how scholars must weigh ethical and moral concerns in their research? How should academics incorporate their ethical commitments into their social scientific research agendas or policy advice? How should they respond when faced with severe moral atrocities such as the human costs of the war in Syria? Is there an obligation to take sides?

These are not the usual questions that are supposed to occupy the professional life of political scientists, who spend more time contemplating research design, replicability and statistical significance. But of course, they do. Ethical decisions underlie virtually everything we do. The challenge of incorporating ethics into academic political science was a major theme of this May’s annual conference of the Project on Middle East Political Science. The thoughts of 10 first-rate scholars on the subject have now been published as a symposium in the POMEPS Studies series (available for free download here).

It’s easy to see why many academics would prefer to avoid engaging with ethics. It isn’t just the ethos of dispassionate science which pervades today’s political science, although that certainly does create professional disincentives. A lot of what passes as “ethical” discourse in the foreign policy debate, and especially about the Middle East, is more like political grandstanding or glorified identity politics. The first 73,000 op-eds and political speeches thundering on about moral clarity are enough to turn anyone off of the language of morality. So is the all-too-frequent tendency to use ethical language as thinly veiled identity politics, in which one side is right and the other side is evil, and all who disagree must be shamed and condemned. Many political scientists are simply turned off by the misuse and abuse of the language of morality in public discourse.

The popular misuse of ethical language doesn’t allow us to turn away from the ethical questions, though. Virtually everything which political scientists study, from Islamist politics to democracy promotion to interventions in Iraq or Syria to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is deeply saturated with ethical dilemmas and moral commitments. As Jillian Schwedler notes, “It is hard to find an issue related to the Middle East or Islamic world that isn’t saturated in tense debates about what’s ‘wrong’ with the region, how to ‘fix’ it, and indeed what the world ‘should’ look like. We cannot avoid engaging these normative claims even while we reproduce the (false) veneer of scientific objectivity.” Faced with those ethical underpinnings, Wendy Pearlman poses the question bluntly: “Is our overriding goal to make a contribution to an academic discipline rather than to do good in the world?” When, she wonders, “is it ethically appropriate or inappropriate to take an open political stand, or cross the line from scholarship to advocacy?”

I believe that there is an alternative way to frame this question, however. As citizens and as engaged intellectuals, we all have the right – indeed, an obligation – to make moral judgments and act based on those convictions. As political scientists, however, we have a unique set of potential contributions and constraints. Political scientists do not typically have anything of distinctive value to add to a chorus of moral condemnation or declarations of normative solidarity. What we do have, hopefully, is the methodological training, empirical knowledge and comparative insight to offer informed assessments about alternative courses of action on contentious issues. Our primary ethical commitment as political scientists, therefore must be to get the theory and the empirical evidence right, and to clearly communicate those findings to relevant audiences – however unpalatable or inconclusive they might be.

My own thinking about how ethics and moral principles could be incorporated into International Relations theory was profoundly shaped by a workshop organized a decade ago by Richard Price in Vancouver which included key constructivist thinkers such as Martha Finnemore, Kathryn Sikkink and Christian Reus-Smit. What I took away from Price’s project, ultimately published as “Moral Limit and Possibility in World Politics,” was that an ethical approach to world politics depended fundamentally on getting the causal theory right. My own chapter focused on the Iraq sanctions debate, and how to assess the competing ethical claims of harm to Iraqi civilians from sanctions and from Saddam Hussein’s regime. That left me painfully aware of the inevitable ethical trade-offs, the murkiness of the available evidence and the urgent need for careful causal analysis.

This perspective turns the dichotomy between social science professionalism and moral action on its head. If ethical research and policy advice requires above all getting the causal theory right, then foregrounding ethical questions does not in any way undermine commitments to rigorous social science. There is nothing easier than mounting a moral high horse and demanding that something must be done in response to the horrors of the world. Good political science is harder, but hopefully makes for more effective action in the world.

The purpose of social science, if it has any, must be to inform our decisions about the likely effects of our actions. Favoring human rights is nice, but promoting human rights effectively requires a solid theory of how human rights norms and ideas change. Almost every ethical question, then, is also a causal question: Will war crimes tribunals reduce the incidence of war crimes or won’t they? Will boycott and divestment campaigns undermine support for and change the behavior of rights abusing regimes or won’t they? Will military intervention reduce or increase civilian suffering? When faced with a mounting apocalypse in Syria, it isn’t enough to say that the United States must do something. Truly ethical action demands serious grappling with the best available evidence about what different courses of action might produce. Arming Syrian rebels or declaring a no-fly zone might be an ethical choice if a rigorous look at the theory and evidence suggests that it will reduce suffering or shorten the war, but not if analysis suggests that such actions will most likely make a civil war longer, bloodier and harder to resolve. Ethical action isn’t possible without serious analysis of the consequences of those actions.

I believe that political scientists have an ethical responsibility to engage with the public discourse and to try to inform policy decisions with their research. There is a nearly infinite amount of commentary, opinion and analysis in today’s gloriously open internet-shaped public sphere. Political scientists writing in places like The Monkey Cage should hopefully be able to introduce this methodological rigor and comparative analysis into those arguments. They won’t win the day often or easily, of course. Where there is an opportunity to contribute, however slightly, to shaping policies and attitudes more likely to produce ethical outcomes then it must be taken.

Not everyone agrees, of course. If there is no chance of policies really being changed, they fear that policy engagement will simply put the political scientist in the service of power. In the POMEPS symposium, Laurie Brand warns that a clear divide should be maintained between research that informs debate on important issues (which is core to the scholarly mission) and research in the service of specific policy objectives (which, she argues, is “at the least a violation of professional ethics”). Jason Brownlee goes further, arguing that “Middle East political science scholars should turn away from proposing policy implications and aspire to be less implicated in programs that are inimical to basic desiderata of freedom and equality.” In an excellent essay last year, Bassam Haddad despairs at the ability of scholars to say anything useful about Syria anymore. For all these thoughtful reservations, I do not feel that an ethically engaged scholar can or should refrain from joining the public and policy discourse on such issues. Remaining silent, thus ceding the field of debate to others less reticent, is an ethical choice as well.

What about the practical ethics of research in today’s Middle East? One of the most urgent themes running through the POMEPS symposium concerned how Western scholars treat people from the region they study. Scott Weiner, a George Washington University doctoral candidate, emphasizes the importance of getting the story right, an ethical imperative of accuracy in research, which is itself dependent upon an honest, mutually transparent relationship between the scholar and those she studies. Pearlman, who has spent the last few years documenting the experiences of Syrian refugees, shakes her head at “Syrian activists receiving queries from researchers who are crude in addressing them as data sources rather than human beings who have endured horrors.” Sheila Carapico, then at the American University of Cairo, and Brand each look skeptically at the “academic tourists” who relied on Egyptian scholars and activists to quickly gather facts about the revolution but denied equal credit to their interlocutors. How can this abuse of our peers be avoided?

We also need to take seriously the extent to which our research might put our interlocutors at risk. With activists being jailed across Egypt and murdered in Syria, how should academics balance their research interests with the protection of those they meet? Sarah Parkinson points out the growing problems with simply protecting our information and the anonymity of our interlocutors. The fact is that “researchers simply cannot promise confidentiality given contemporary U.S. law and are ethically obligated to take this fact into account.” We often treat the Institutional Review Board (IRB) as a nuisance. As Nathan Brown argues, however, the ethical considerations at the heart of the IRB should be central to how we conceive of any research project. Richard Nielsen recounts the horrified response to a “proposal to randomize the framing of requests for fatwas from Muslim clerics online. What if my experiment resulted in clerics advocating violence? Could someone be harmed or killed as a result of my research? Was it ethical to deceive clerics by representing my request as a genuine religious question?” He abandoned the project. These questions of moral judgment in research in conflict zones are not new, of course – Lee Ann Fujii’s “Research Ethics 101: Dilemmas and Responsibilities” is a good place to start.

This also means taking seriously the thoughts, identities and views of those from the region we study. As a long-time Habermasian, I believe that ethical political judgment must include the equal opportunity to speak and be heard by all those affected. This cannot just mean becoming a loudspeaker for local narratives, however. As Schwedler observes, “Of course the primary goal in our research is to get the story right, but that typically means pushing up against other versions of that story (or against stories that say that our story is irrelevant).”

But there is rarely a single, obviously true story to be told, and our interlocutors in the region are struggling with the same dilemmas and uncertainties. Take the June 30 protests and July 3 military coup in Egypt, which tore apart academic and political relationships. A very significant number of Egyptians absolutely bought in to the argument that June 30 was a second revolution, which would restore democracy and rescue Egyptians from the evils of the Muslim Brotherhood. They were absolutely furious with Western scholars and analysts who refused to see events through that lens and instead saw a typical military coup. Most of us involved in those arguments could share thousands of “revolution not coup” e-mails and tweets. But Egypt’s political situation a year later, with thousands of political prisoners, ever-tightening control over media freedom and the return of the old elite, overwhelmingly confirms the cautions of those Western analysts. Would the ethical thing have been to go along with their convictions and amplify their voices, when the social science evidence strongly suggested that the military coup would create a more authoritarian and repressive regime?

Ethical commitments cannot and should not be walled off from our academic research agendas, then. How to effectively incorporate ethics into those agendas remains a highly contested question, though. Schwedler argues compellingly that every choice we make about what to study, how to study it and how we present our findings is built upon often unacknowledged ethical judgments. I believe that getting the theory right and effectively communicating those findings to relevant publics are themselves an ethical imperative for political scientists. Download the free PDF of the “Ethics of Research in the Middle East” symposium and join the debate.

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
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