3 Questions for Sari Hanafi

  • Post published:June 12, 2023
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How did you get into Sociology?

I grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp haunted by a duality: oppressive Israeli colonial practices and authoritarianism in Syria. I had first enrolled in Damascus University studying civil engineering, however, that did not satisfy my political idealism:  I wanted to change the world! Now, of course, I barely understand it. I then enrolled into sociology while doing my civil engineering studies. As in 1986, I was arrested by the Syrian authority after demonstrating for the Day of Land in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, an intelligence officer told me: “Your entire group fills less than one bus; you can easily be taken to prison!” Authoritarian states have always underestimated the importance of such“bus people” – whether defined as dissident intellectuals or, more generally, as an enlightened middle class. I took refuge in Foucault’s analysis of the microphysics of power and bio-politics.

What makes you sociologically curious?

I was quickly aware of how refugees and citizens in the Arab World were governed – not by the rule of law but by the law of rule. It is the construction of specific spaces (refugee camps, slums) that haunts my sociological work, but it is also infused with a desire to go beyond. Thus, in July 2008, I organized a regional workshop on “Governmentality, Resistance and the State of Exception in the Arab World”. Due to my work in this field, I introduced the work of the political philosopher Giorgio Agamben to Arab readers and wrote an introduction to the Arabic translation of his book “State of Exception”.

During my early work, I was obsessed with the concept of domination and only later realized its limitations and the way it was practiced in the Arab World and beyond. For instance, I developed critical views on how the postcolonial discourse in the region has been too simplistic, and incapable of comprehending changes in the Arab world. Many Arab uprisings so far have failed, not simply because of postcolonial domination but because of deeply rooted and protracted authoritarianism that used torture to political opponents in a systematic way, and because of the lack of trust on the part of people who are in the process of learning values such as pluralism, democracy, freedom, and social justice. While I value postcolonial theory, I criticize how this discourse has morphed in different areas of the world and undermines the unfolding social love, agape and convivial practices among social actors. Sociology reminds us of the complex nature of social phenomena and the importance of actors’ agency. Power does notalways come from authority and hierarchy (through the domination and competition mechanisms), but also through collaboration, overabundance and care.

What challenges does sociology face as a science?

This question requires answers on different levels:

First, there are methodological challenges. Throughout the history of sociology, there has been a strong positivist trend using quantitative methods and separating fact from value. Max Weber’s famous problematization of the relationship between them is mistranslated by the notion of “axiological neutrality.” I do think that sociology flourishes through a balance between using quantitative methods and qualitative ones including ethnography opening its boundaries to embarrass hermeneutic and phenomenological approaches.

Second, there are theoretical challenges. The legitimized founding fathers of sociology originate from the Global North and, for long, our sociological cannons were composed of texts authored by Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and Parsons, etc. This occurred at the expense of integrating contributions from the Global South as well as by female scholars. 

Third, there are coordination challenges. The production of sociological knowledge and higher education has been commodified.  We witness an increasing benchmarking of research output by standards that are often embedded in the academic landscape in the US, and the Global North, and then spread everywhere. Yet these developments are in danger of disconnecting universities from society. Therefore, Michael Burawoy, former President of the International Sociological Association (ISA), emphasized in the 1990s that research activities should not only exist in publications in academic journals, which target peers. Instead, sociologists should also target policymakers and the different publics with more instrumental products. Such coordination of sociological knowledge opens a path for serving civil society. 

Fourth, I’m not sure that we can reduce sociology to simply a science. I agree with Alain Caillé who suggested that sociology should emphasize the three epistemological imperatives –descriptive, conceptual and interpretative – which allow to observe the world “as it is” but needs a fourth imperative – a normative one. Not to cite more than three intertwined phenomena, we witness 1) increasing trends of inequality, precarity and exclusion, 2) more hierarchical polarization of society and 3) people moving to the Right. Yet, sociology, as all social sciences, faces the challenge that they cannot leverage normativity in society. I propose to redress this entanglement by proposing what I call Dialogical Sociology in my forthcoming book. This approach is based on a political (communitarian) liberal project and grounded in an amended version of Rawlsian political liberalism. It can claim distinctiveness as its utopia starts in the reality of existing social and political arrangements and interactswith the civic sphere (in the sense of Geoffrey Alexander). Thus, this Dialogical Sociology is rather a methodology that connects sociology to moral and political philosophy (and this is also part of my current agenda as president of ISA). It considers values that sociology, as a normative science, defends are sociological and not simply philosophical themes, meaning that these values cannot be reasoned independently from how we experience them. 

Sari Hanafi is a Professor of Sociology, Director of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies, and Chair of the Islamic Studies program at the American University of Beirut.  He is the President of the International Sociological Association.