Focusing on the Arab World

Despite upheaval in the Middle East, Harvard continues to lack regional experts

The Government Department has not had a Middle East expert in its ranks since visiting Professor Emad Shahin left in 2009, and has not had a tenured position in the field since Nadav Safran retired about 20 years ago.

The department has approached the study of the region through a theoretical lens that draws upon its experts in fields like democratization and political movements.

Government Professor Steven R. Levitsky, a comparative political scientist, says that he will include material on the contemporary Middle East in his popular course, Government 20: “Introduction to Comparative Politics.”

“Gov 20 now includes a lecture on the Iranian revolution, a lecture on the prospects for democratization in post-Hussein Iraq, half a lecture on authoritarian stability in the Middle East, and part of a lecture on consociationalism in Lebanon,” he says. “There will be additional material on democratization in the Middle East.”

But he says that a Middle East expert would be an important addition to the department.


“Our inability in [the Government Department] to hire a Middle East expert has been a real problem,” he says.

Some professors say that the focus on theoretical studies does not offer a comprehensive understanding of the issue, particularly for undergraduates.

“If you want people to be theoretically informed, that’s fine,” Granara says. “Undergraduates need to learn the nuts and bolts of modern Arab politics, and they won’t necessarily find that in theory.”

Eva R. Bellin ’80 was assistant professor of government at Harvard before she accepted a position at Hunter College in 2003. Although hailed as an “expert” of contemporary Middle East studies by former colleagues at Harvard, Bellin says that she left because she did not expect to be offered tenure at the University.

“To be hired in a tenured position at Harvard you have to be an undisputed star in your discipline,” says Bellin, now a professor at Brandeis University.

Political scientists who study the contemporary Middle East face obstacles that “make it difficult to put together a portfolio that would establish the scholar as an undisputed star,” she says.

In addition to the challenging research environment and the difficulty of the Arabic language, Bellin notes that these scholars must be able to consider various methodologies within an already specialized discipline.

“Unfortunately the field of political science is divided along political and methodological grounds and this makes it doubly hard to build consensus around what constitutes excellent scholarship,” Bellin says.


This May, NELC announced that it would offer a Middle East Studies secondary field as an experiment and potential precursor to a new concentration in the fall. Professors hope that the new secondary concentration will accommodate the growing undergraduate interest in the region.


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