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Measuring the Past: Mixed Methods in the Study of Historical Change across the Middle East

Session III-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Rather than pitting qualitative and quantitative approaches to Middle East Studies against each other, a generation of scholars are being trained anew to integrate the insights of idiographic historical inquiry with the nomothetic search for patterned social phenomena. This panel features four papers from young scholars which apply this ecumenicalism of "mixed methods" towards key questions in the historical study of the 20th century Middle East. Papers will emphasize the limits and potentials from moving from "words" to "numbers" in the use of archival data, hypothesis testing, and historiographical conventions. Using the cases of Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and Iran, this panel will make explicit the shift away from a methodenstreit in MENA studies towards a reflexive and rigorous pluralism in our field.
Political Science
  • While numerous scholars have focused on how political leaders in the Middle East have discouraged the military from intervening in politics, often called coup-proofing, there is far less scholarship on what happens within militaries themselves following a coup. Regardless of their outcome, coups unsettle the military by either politicizing the ranks or prompting removals and even trials of military personnel. They upend the military hierarchy, undermine the chain of command, and damage unit cohesion. How, then, do military elites attempt to reestablish internal order? To answer this question, this paper analyzes and compares the cases of Egypt and Syria. Egypt witnessed a coup attempt in 1967, led by Field Marshal ʿAbd al-Hakim ʿAmir, the former commander in chief of the military. After suppressing the coup attempt, President Gamal Abdel Nasser purged, reorganized, and professionalized the military, ushering in a period of unprecedented presidential control over the armed forces. A few years later, in 1970, Defense Minister Hafiz al-Asad led a successful coup in Syria. In order to entrench himself afterwards, Asad enacted many of the same policies toward the military as Nasser, but he also stacked it with his coreligionists. Asad subsequently ruled Syria with the support of the military until his death in 2000. As events, both coups brought about the consolidation of authoritarian political power in relation to the military. Yet there is little to no analysis of what transpired in the Egyptian and Syrian militaries at these critical junctures. Up until now, scholars have been hampered by a lack of data, relying mostly on memoirs of former state officials. But these memoirs, while crucial, are necessarily limited as they were published decades after the events of interest. For this paper, I tap into a new set of Arabic-language sources and leverage innovative methods — both computational and comparative-historical — to highlight the patterning of contemporaneous perspectives of military elites after coups in Egypt and Syria.
  • The social scientific literature on historical institutions links historical property rights and their protection to a range of redistributive outcomes. Few studies, however, have directly assessed the redistributive effects of property privatization reforms pursued by European administrations in late-colonized states. This paper brings qualitative and quantitative data from the colonized MENA region and the case of Jordan to bear on an understudied but wide-spread phenomenon: the widespread conversion of collective lands into private holdings under colonial land settlement programs. Building on historical work by Fischbach (2000), I argue that the colonial-era settlement of private property rights were economically regressive; despite titling a large proportion of the rural lower and middle classes, the private property regime accelerated the fragmentation and devaluation of the small landholdings that resulted from the process of private titling. At the same time, the process of dismantling collective land tenure was bureaucratically intensive and increased a locality’s legibility to the state (Scott 1998). I observe that in communities where collective (musha’a) tenure was dismantled earlier, state provision of public schools and government employment occurred earlier. This analysis draws on over two years of fieldwork in rural Jordan. I quantitatively test the redistributive effects of colonial land reform using an original dataset of property rights settlement in Jordan villages from 1933 to 1956 (N = 489). The data includes the area under each tenure regime (private, collective, state, or waqf), as well as the start and end dates for property title settlement in most localities. I test the relationship between land tenure and redistributive outcomes in three ways. First, I use household surveys to show that in areas where collective land tenure institutions were historically prevalent, household and individual wealth and landholding is systematically lower, ceteris paribus. Second, I compare inequalities of wealth, educational attainment, and access to government employment between cohorts by exploiting the variation in land settlement implementation across localities. Third and finally, I document the extension of infrastructural power into these communities following property settlement reform by tracing the expansion of public schooling from 1921 until the decade after reforms. I also present interview evidence and historical process tracing based on private and government documents from the Jordan National Archives. By economically disempowering the peasantry (fellahin) and extending the state’s infrastructural power in those localities, Jordanian colonial property reforms set in motion patterns of dependency and economic inequality that persist to the present.
  • What have been the long-term social and political consequences of land reform in the Middle East? Perhaps no postcolonial region experienced higher degrees of top-down redistribution of land parcels outside of East Asia, and land reform in states such as Egypt, Iraq, and Iran was the subject of numerous monographs during an earlier period of scholarship within Middle East studies. Yet two generations later, the long-term legacies of land reform are less understood. Using a newly digitized dataset culled from 9 provincial reports published by Iran's Ministry of Agriculture from 1977-1983, this paper asks two key questions. First, as opposed to the scholarly historiography of Iran's land reform (1962-1973) which tends to generalize from 1-2 provinces, what are the degrees of variation of land redistribution between and within provinces as evidenced by these newly available data? These 9 provinces make up the majority of Iran's rural population. Can any patterned variation in expropriation of landlords be determined, and how does this relate to ethno-linguistic, geographic, and agricultural characteristics of these sub-regions? Second, do patterned variations in Iran's land reform from the 1960s correlate with post-1979 trends under the Islamic Republic such as fertility change, migration rates, educational attainment, and voting patterns? In other words, does variation in land reform provide a lens to understand the continuity and change of social life in Iran across the revolutionary divide? The paper will provide an initial assessment of these questions in preview of an upcoming larger research project focusing on long-term social change in Iran.
  • Cross-national studies of authoritarian politics find a strong association between elections and regime stability. This is particularly the case in contexts where ethnic- and identity-based divisions are politically salient and incumbent autocrats develop coalitions that comprise large, or dominant, groups. But in many cases, oppositional elites wield considerable power: they command significant electoral support and regularly challenge incumbent autocrats in legislative institutions. This article accounts for opposition strength in terms of the electoral behavior of minority groups and their ability to use ideological labels to appeal to out-group voters. Over time, this strategy increases the likelihood of minority group success and incentivizes candidates who run with ideological labels to oppose incumbent autocrats once in the legislature. Drawing on new data from Kuwait, an oil-rich Arab Gulf monarchy that has held regular elections since 1963, the article explains the endogenous origins of the Kuwaiti opposition. With the onset of mass politics in 1981, the ruling Al-Sabah family's reliance on dominant groups provided it with an important set of allies that promised legislative compliance. However, in response, candidates representing minority groups began using Islamist, liberal, and populist labels in elections. The durability of the Al-Sabah's alliances eroded and oppositional activity became a persistent feature of legislative politics in the Kuwait National Assembly.