Identity as Analytical Category: Ten Years of Knowledge Production on Syria

By: Harout Akdedian

March 24, 2021

Religious and Sectarian Identity in Syria

Since the onset of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the literature on Syria witnessed an unprecedented proliferation. This emergent body of knowledge, predominantly dedicated to documenting and explaining the Syrian conflict, represents, in and of itself, an alternative history to that of the conflict. It represents the history of knowledge production on Syria over the last decade. The tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising, therefore, also represents a 10-year outpouring of publications, expertise, and policy discussions which continue to evolve. As Seteney Shami and Cynthia Miller-Idriss remind us, knowledge and power exist in an intimate and complex relationship, and “examining this relationship as it evolves in particular contexts, times and spaces remains a critical and urgent task.”

This essay is incapable of canvassing the evidential foundations needed for such a comprehensive enquiry. Rather, the aim is to highlight a specific expression of a knowledge crisis on Syria during the conflict: that of “identity” as an analytical category.

Post-2011 Knowledge Production and the Local Turn 

According to the 2015 report of the Arab Social Science Monitor, out of 732 articles in 8 leading Arab peer-reviewed periodicals between 2010 and 2014, a whopping 33% deal with questions either directly addressing the Arab Spring and revolutions (13.3%), or related themes such as politics (7.7%); displacement and poverty (5%); democracy, citizenship, and civil society (6.4%); and sectarianism (1.4%). Similarly, the rate of press and satellite channel coverage of the Arab Spring in the Arab region is reported as the most discussed topic during the same period of time. The necessity to observe and analyze social change and social reality in moments of crisis introduces urgency in finding adequate methods and frameworks. 

Simultaneously, the same report indicates that among the 732 articles published in the same 8 Arab scientific peer-reviewed periodicals, “field studies, including both pure field studies, and those framed theoretically, do not exceed 22% of the total articles,” with Majallat al-Ulum al-Ijtima’yyah and Al-Majallah al-Ijtima’iyyah featuring the majority of those works with as many as 50% of their publications grounded in field work. In addition, of all the research methods mentioned in these publications, direct observations (7.3%) and direct interviews (6.6%) only comprise 13.9% of total mentioned methods. Since 2011, while there has been a growing need for scholarly documentation and analysis, field access has remained limited, even for researchers and scholars from the region. Due to this reality, emergent knowledge about Syria took a sharp local turn as scholars and researchers predominantly focused on the limited areas they have access to. 

Emergent knowledge about Syria took a sharp local turn as scholars and researchers predominantly focused on the limited areas they have access to.

In addition to convenience and field accessibility, the local turn in Syrian studies is a reflection of conflict dynamics in Syria. Over the past 10 years, Syrians underwent highly contrasting shifts, and the trajectories of change have been different in different provinces. The militarization that ensued from the popular mobilization against the Assad rule took different forms in Syria’s different localities. Through distinct features of class structure; rates and demographics of poverty, unemployment, and education; scales of destruction and patterns of internal and external migration, each locality offered different conditions and conflict dynamics. These led to different trajectories of change and rupture. In light of significant pre-2011 deficiencies in knowledge about Syrian localities and the sociopolitical transformations therein, the local turn in research agendas on Syria since 2011 (think tanks, research centers, Ph.D. dissertations, and so on) contributed greatly to a more detailed description of emergent realities. 

The aggregate outcome of this turn is multifaceted. In the Syrian context, where knowledge—journalistic and academic alike—is securitized and suppressed by existing power structures, visibility and documentation are much needed. Analytically, however, as Shami and Miller-Idriss point out, snapshots and caricature images of events, incidents, and local developments became equivalent to analysis. In other words, studying the locale while disregarding broader processes—such as dynamics of state atrophy, economies of war and attrition, predatory regional power dynamics, and violence and order in civil wars—may lead to “fetishizing” locality. Localities, no matter how isolated, cannot be assumed to be separate categories or levels of analysis as even their isolation could have an impact on, or be the outcome of, broader and trans-local processes. With this in mind, the local turn in knowledge production constrains researchers and scholars to answering broad questions about the Syrian conflict through the lens of the “here and now.” The misleading propensities of such approaches are nowhere more apparent than in treatise about identity that focus on its formulations during the conflict. 

Identity as Analytical Category 

According to the same 2015 report of the Arab Social Science Monitor mentioned above, out of the 732 articles in 8 leading Arab peer-reviewed periodicals between 2010 and 2014, sectarianism only featured at a 1.4% rate. Despite featuring at such a low rate in the Arabic-speaking social science communities, themes such as sectarianism, radicalization, and fundamentalism in relation to Syrian society and culture featured prominently in broader communities of knowledge, Arabic speaking and beyond. Indeed, questions about the role of religious and sect-based identity in the conflict emerged in response to local developments, such as the rise of ISIS and widespread endorsement of sectarian ideation and strategies of mobilization or power consolidation in Syria (by state, pro-government, or opposition forces alike). However, discussions about identitarian politics and ideation often included causal inferences about “identity” and sociopolitical behavior at personal and collective levels, which promoted dehistoricized narratives of society and culture in Syria. Such inferences also project reified and essentialist narratives about social groups and about the role of religious or sect-based differences in the ongoing conflict. 

Discussions about identitarian politics and ideation often included causal inferences about “identity” and sociopolitical behavior at personal and collective levels.

“Identity” as a category of enquiry into causality fundamentally conflates all practical distinctions between “the self-ascribed or imposed identification of social, political, and ideological actors with historical and social reality,” and, by default, generates misleading tropes regardless of the conclusions provided. The discovery of representations of the self or of others in sect-based codes and labels in the “here and now,” or at any random moment in the past, cannot be considered as evidence of a much broader metaphysical force or dominant culture that informs personal and communal actions in the social, cultural, and political fields. Haidar Saeed candidly points out how similar notions in the Iraqi context too seem to be grounded in what he describes “popular folklore.” Public vernacular and spontaneous expressions in everyday life should be rather considered for what they are: spontaneous expressions of conditions in place

Of course, emergent antagonistic perceptions and reimagining of other groups, specifically during armed conflict, may inform, in tandem with other factors, sociopolitical behavior at the personal level; this does not imply that subjectivities end up divorced from the influence of social reality and command a static unidirectional causal capacity. It is for this reason that questions about what maintains, reproduces, reinforces, or undermines such perceptual processes take precedence over questions about the role of identity. The role of identitarian politics and subjectivities primarily depend upon the forces and elements that promote and utilize them. 

From this perspective, subjectivities are not self-sustaining and self-perpetuating localized catalysts of sociopolitical behavior.

Conceptually, therefore, what seems most needed is a structuralist approach that addresses gaps of knowledge about institutions, resources, power relations, social structures, and aggregate processes that shape modes of perceptions and influence social subjectivities. From this perspective, subjectivities are not self-sustaining and self-perpetuating localized catalysts of sociopolitical behavior. Rather, they are social constructs and are a function and expression of broader conditions at play. 

Syria and the Future of Social Science

Looking at sect-based actors through their organizational features, spatial limitations, constituent networks, and actual interpersonal connections and exchanges allows decoupling religion, sect, and sectarianism for more nuanced understanding of their correlations and boundaries while also providing empirical foundations for dynamic analyses that avoid boxing knowledge production in the “here and now.” 

Paradigm shifts in communities of knowledge are bound to occur due to shared commitments to critical reflection. However, with the rate at which social scientists, those with field access and academic research grants, have been siphoned away from the academic field (and particularly from social sciences) and closer to thinks tanks, policy centers, research centers, and journalistic outlets, such shifts remain difficult to sustain in the body of knowledge on Syria.

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