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Adventus Amicorum (9) – The Middle East from the Perspective of Anthropology


The 9th lecture of the salon series “Adventus Amicorum” was held by the Institute of Area Studies, Peking University (PKUIAS) on November 6. Prof. Andre Gingrich, a member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and a retired professor at the University of Vienna, delivered a lecture titled “The Middle East from the Perspective of Anthropology”. The lecture was moderated by Zan Tao, deputy director of PKUIAS Other guests who participated in the discussion included Zhang Yongle, deputy director of PKUIAS; Zhang Fan, associate professor at the Department of Sociology, PKU; Zhang Zhe, associate professor at the Department of Sociology, PKU; Prof. Liang Yongjia from Zhejiang University; and other PhD students from various departments of PKU.

After a brief introduction and welcome by Zan Tao, Andre Gingrich began his speech with some remarks on the current conflicts. He suggested that it was necessary for academics to keep a cool and sober mind in the current complicated and difficult situation; it was especially important for social anthropologists to remain humble and modest, always remembering that their role was to study the everyday life of small communities in networks of families and neighbors, not to analyze the present or even predict the future.

Prof. Gingrich continued by discussing his fieldwork in the Middle East. He emphasized the need to acquire good language skills and an awareness of the prevailing cultural traditions in the region. Using his six years of fieldwork as an example, Gingrich pointed out that because Arabic-speaking parts of West Asia saw three very complicated military conflicts during the last decade, Palestine and Israel became privileged sites for ethnographic fieldwork in the Arabian Peninsula. However, the current escalation of violent tensions made it highly unadvisable to continue any fieldwork efforts on the ground.

When it came to the current conflict, Prof. Gingrich shared his personal views as a professional anthropologist. He suggested that apart from top-down perspectives that emphasized the conflict, there were other available perspectives, such as bottom-up and international diplomatic perspectives. Anthropologists could contribute their insights into the everyday lives of ordinary people in the region, focusing on their practices, experiences, fears and hopes. The long-term perspective offered by anthropology could be useful because none of the leaderships involved in the current conflict seemed interested in a cease-fire, a quick resolution, or a short-term end to the war, he said.

Prof. Gingrich pointed out that if we looked from the bottom up, as reflected in the anthropological analysis of the last 10 years, we were confronted with the fact that local people not only wanted to live together in peace, but were able to do so. Experiences of neighborly relations existed on both sides. In their daily lives, one did not find the same kind of permanent hatred that has been often observed at the levels of leadership. On the contrary, one would find a desire for peaceful and stable continuity of neighborly relations. He concluded that with the example of peaceful coexistence in Singapore and Switzerland, conviviality and interaction between people of different languages and faiths was possible in the Middle East if the right conditions were created.

As for the solution to the current crisis, Prof. Gingrich said he believed that international diplomacy would have a greater role to play. Gingrich expressed great regret that the European Union failed to support the two-state solution. He also warned that unless new leadership emerged on both sides, diplomatic efforts would become even more important than they were now.

Prof. Gingrich concluded that peace and justice were not only self-evident principles for the international community of scholars, but also a dream for the people of the region. It was the experience of the people on the ground that should be counted on for a better perspective, he said.

In the discussion session, Liang Yongjia compared the situation in Israel with that in Singapore, suggesting that the coercive measures of authoritarian governments often were able to solve problems that radical and egalitarian societies found difficult to address. As for the current conflict, voices from both sides were needed, and it was necessary to pay close attention to what was happening on the ground, rather than just following media coverage. In this regard, anthropologists focused on people’s everyday lives and the issues that the international community hadn’t paid much attention to. Therefore, their work deserved wider dissemination.

Zan Tao said he shared the same orientation and opinion as Prof. Gingrich. He admitted that it was very important to consider the bottom-up perspective, but he suggested that as scholars, we should not only describe the situation or give a narrative, but also find the mechanism of how people at the bottom interacted with each other.

Zhang Zhe noted the paralyzed situation of daily life in Gaza, in response to which Gingrich mentioned the distinction between “black anthropology” and “white anthropology”, saying that he felt there had been a little too much black anthropology in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and perhaps in other areas of social science as well, focusing more on suffering than on reciprocity. He suggested that there should be more “white research” and more attention to the situation of paralysis, which was largely caused by rigid leadership on both sides.

Zhang Lisheng agreed that solutions and prospects for peace could be found in the efforts and maneuvers of ordinary people on a daily basis, as they were generated there. This idea resonated with the Chinese term “minjian”, which did not necessarily have to oppose the authorities, but acted as a intermediate zone, where top-down and bottom-up perspectives could meet and interact.

Zhang Fan asked how to do fieldwork in such a context, how to connect anthropological observation on the ground with larger political processes or dynamics at the top, and how to define the term “everyday life.” Gingrich suggested that we could do online research with the help of technology, such as video calls and online interviews. He explained “everyday life” using Max Weber’s use of the terms “routine” and “routinization”, which focus on the reproduction of a given system.

Zhang Yongle raised some questions about the political legitimacy of the State of Israel and the contradiction between orthodox Zionism as its legitimate foundation and the citizens against it. Gingrich admitted that there were many elements of contested legitimacy surrounding the existence of the Israeli state, and that it was necessary to put the contradiction into a wider background of the academic tradition dealing with the revival of nationalism and radical nationalisms.

The lecture ended with a lively discussion among scholars and students.