Teaching Scientific Anthropology in the Arabian Peninsula

Woodrow W. Denham

Sharjah, UAE
22 September 2002

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I teach anthropology and sociology at a university in the Arabian Peninsula, and have worked in various countries and universities in this region since 1989.   The setting makes my perspective on teaching scientific anthropology to undergraduates a bit different from what it would be if I taught at a secular university in the USA. Think of this as a field report from a long term, total immersion participant-observer.

The Setting.     The following is a very broad stroke - some might say simplistic -summary of attitudes and values in this region as they pertain to teaching science in social science classrooms, but there’s a lot of truth here even if talking about it is politically delicate. Some of my phrasing is deliberately elliptical. For a different but complementary approach to the same topic see the United Nations Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report 2002, especially Chapter 5 (online references / URLs appear below).

If your task is to teach scientific anthropology in the secular West in the 21 st century, you do so in a context that takes for granted some of the basics of science.   You live in a tradition that encourages discussion and debate, that accepts hypothesis testing as a legitimate activity even if it may not always use that name for it, that approves of consulting nature rather than consulting the ancients in order to learn about the world, that accepts the idea that scientific change may be viewed as progressive rather than degenerative.   This doesn’t mean that your task is easy, but at least you have somewhere to begin.

If your task is to teach scientific anthropology in the Arabian Peninsula, you cannot take any of these conditions for granted, and indeed the context in which I work embodies the antitheses of these common 21 st century secular Western assumptions.   The following comments certainly do not pertain to all people at all places and times in this region, and indeed some students who attend expensive Western style private schools in the major cities arrive at university prepared to deal with Western ideas. But such is not the case for those from government schools.

In this region decisions usually come down as pronouncements from “the authority” – from sacred texts, rulers, teachers, judges - and discussion and debate among students and other ordinary people are not encouraged. The recent open discussion between Colin Powell and his dovish forces and Donald Rumsfeld and his hawkish forces concerning how to deal with Iraq is viewed here not as an open political debate in which both sides present strong cases for and against a proposition (read “hypothesis”), but rather as “proof” that Americans don’t know what they are doing and are quarrelsome to boot.   What I view as American democracy in action, they view as incoherent squabbling among people whose dirty linen is hanging out. There may be an element of truth in their position, but it misses the point of the debate.

Hypothesis testing generally does not apply in this setting.   The very idea of proposing alternative explanations or competing interpretations is problematic. The sacred book contains the truth. If you want to answer an important question, consult the sacred book.   Consulting nature would be foolish - appearances are deceiving and ordinary people make mistakes. If you want the truth, get it from the ancients.

The idea of doing scientific research that might advance human knowledge is viewed with skepticism.   The Golden Age of human existence occurred about fourteen hundred years ago, and everything that has happened since then has been downhill, a worldview based on degeneration rather than progress. Conducting scientific research takes one ever further from that Golden Age. Certainly many people from the region do science and do it well, but by the standards of the conservative majority they are not advancing the human condition but rather are contributing to its further decline.

The Western idea that all of us are somehow responsible for our own lives, our own actions and our own knowledge does not apply. This is a fatalistic world where people fundamentally are not responsible for what they do or do not do, or what they know or do not know.   If we were meant to have scientific knowledge about human evolution or about statistical differences in language skills between males and females, that information would appear in the sacred book. Since it doesn’t, why am I trying to clutter their minds with that kind of stuff?

Perhaps most importantly, it’s not their job to figure things out.   Critical thinking skills are severely attenuated by a public education system that is based almost exclusively on memorization, and any attempt to impart critical thinking skills beyond trivial problem solving is seen as religiously and politically subversive. As a student or faculty member, one’s job is to memorize and repeat the truth, not to question or analyze the natural world.

Cultural relativists might note that these problems are common in some form the world over, but the nature, scope, power, pervasiveness and synergy that they display in this region are by no means universal.

Teaching Science in this Setting.     In this context, and in accordance with my contract, I do my best to teach scientific cultural anthropology or scientific sociology (or anthropological science, or social science or whatever we decide to call it). All courses are introductory, and most of the students will never take any other social science courses.   So if they don’t learn some social science from me, the chances are good (or bad) that they’ll never learn it anywhere.

I face fundamental philosophical problems having to do with the nature of knowledge, man’s place in the universe, and lots of related topics suggested above that you might be able to gloss over in a secular Western university.   But I can’t gloss over them.   If I avoid them or try to take them for granted as I might in an American university, whatever I say in the classroom becomes utterly incomprehensible, a bizarre fairytale or word salad.    So I must begin at the very beginning.

First I characterize science as the study of how things work and religion as the study of why things work as they do, and make it clear that we are concerned only with how things work.   I never tread on religion.

Next I focus on structure and function:   how things are built and how they operate at one point in time.   I introduce ground transportation in our city as the case study, and use anatomical and physiological analogies or models to “explain” structure and function. Then I focus on change, again using ground transport in our city but now examining its history.   Here we discuss models of growth and development, cyclical models, evolutionary divergence models and conflict models.  

So the first few classes focus broadly on theory and the history of social theory, use data that the students already know intuitively from driving here, and introduce alternative ways to think about, describe and explain a real-life situation:   how their own world it built, how it works, how it changes through time, how different people can look at the same set of data and produce different ways to make sense of it. There’s nothing at all sophisticated about this approach and it blissfully ignores much of the argumentation that has occurred in the social sciences in recent decades, but there is nothing especially risky about it either.

Next I turn to the idea that science has four major objectives - description, explanation, prediction and control – and I deal with field methods, experimentation, data analysis and hypothesis testing.   The case study (a thought experiment – we can’t do fieldwork here for lots of reasons) begins once again with a social science phenomenon with which everyone is intimately acquainted; namely, an argument at a supermarket.

Description.   What constitutes an adequate description of an argument at a supermarket? How can we collect the data – pencil and paper, video camera, tape recorder, measurements of ambient temperature and air quality, descriptions of the roles of the people who argue as well as their sex, age, etc.   How much can we record about such an argument without imputing any motives or otherwise trying to get inside the participants’ heads?   Can we interview the participants for more information? Here as elsewhere in this part of the course, we concentrate on problems of validity, reliability and replicability.

Explanation.   With an armful of data to analyze, we can make some guesses that might help us understand what happened and how it happened.   The objective is to propose competing hypotheses and rule out the ones that don’t work as an approach to identifying those that might work.   Maybe the employee just got fired?   Maybe the customer had a headache? Maybe it was a frantically busy holiday period?   Maybe the air conditioner failed and everybody was too hot?   So we learn to frame, test and reject hypotheses, just as a physician rules out a range of possible diagnoses before treating a health problem.

Once we rule out the irrelevant hypotheses (not a holiday, nobody got fired, etc.) we can do some precise tests of the ones that survive.   Indeed the A/C was not working when the argument occurred.   So let’s make some predictions and test them.   Do arguments typically occur more frequently in supermarkets when the A/C fails?   So we collect some more data, maybe looking beyond supermarkets to other “anchor” stores in huge shopping malls of which there are many here.

And then we analyze the data – simple statistics to describe the stores, the arguments, the correlations (if any) between increasing air temperature and increasing frequency of arguments.   And so on.

Prediction.    If we find some kind of positive relationship between air temperature and frequency of arguments, we might make a grander prediction:   When the A/C breaks or the temperature goes too high, we’ll see more arguments. Then we can test it.   If it holds up, we’re onto something. But we have to make sure the problem isn’t poor air quality rather than high air temperature since a defective A/C can produce both.

Control.    Now for the payoff.   Let’s assume we demonstrate conclusively that arguments are increasingly likely to erupt as store temperature increases.   Supermarket managers might like to know the highest temperature they can maintain without increasing the risk of arguments.   As social scientists (maybe even social engineers) we can control the temperature.   We can experiment to see just how high we can set the thermostat, thereby reducing operating costs, without generating arguments among staff and customers.

By this point we have covered the basic ideas of structure and function, change, competing explanatory models, data collection, statistics, hypothesis testing, prediction, control, replicability, experimentation, etc.   By advocating parsimony at all times, we assiduously avoid the convoluted conspiracy theories that are so popular here. Although we have touched on some of these topics only lightly, we have learned a lot about the nature of science (social or otherwise), we have built up a common vocabulary, and we have had experience with case studies of driving and shopping in our city.   And we haven’t hit a hot button yet.

From this point onwards, we go through standard chapters in the textbook, looking at each of them from the perspective developed above, in part to understand the topics of the chapters, in part to develop more familiarity with a scientific perspective.   What kind of data bears on the topic of the chapter: demographic, economic, political, kinship; observations, field or laboratory experiments, interviews, etc.   How can we collect and analyze the data?   What are some of the competing models of structure-function and long term change that social scientists have proposed for each domain?   How can reasonable people come up with such radically different views of whatever we happen to be discussing? Finally, how can we apply these ideas to understanding and controlling our own lives in our own city, for we can be absolutely certain that the textbook, whatever its social science discipline, doesn’t say a single word about this city.   In fact it probably doesn’t say more than three or four words about the entire Middle East, and whatever it says about the Middle East probably is wrong.

Outside reading is important.   Operating on the assumption that people pay more attention when the topic is relevant to their own lives, I ask the students to examine the National Transportation Safety Board’s Aircraft Accident Brief (i.e., final summary) of its investigation of the crash of EgyptAir 990, the flight that went down in the Atlantic Ocean about 60 miles south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on 31 October 1999.   Everybody here is keenly aware of that crash as a political issue, the NTSB investigation is a classic example of rigorous hypothesis testing, the topic lies squarely on the interface between the social sciences and engineering, and the NTSB report deals exclusively with what happened and how it happened without passing any judgments with regard to motivation. For those who want to look at politics and religion as well as scientific hypothesis testing, the website also provides a link to the report of the investigation submitted by the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority (think of it as a competing hypothesis).

In this region, topics such as cultural evolution, male-female roles, politics, religion, race and prejudice, social stratification, etc., are intrinsically risky to discuss in public.   In this difficult environment, I survive as a teacher primarily by focusing tightly on what I consider to be the central question of science: How does it work?  


Online References

Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority: Investigation of the Accident of EgyptAir Flight 990 http://www.ntsb.gov/events/ea990/docket/ecaa_report.pdf.

National Transportation Safety Board Aircraft Accident Brief: The Crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 http://www.ntsb.gov/events/EA990/default.htm

United Nations Development Program: Arab Human Development Report 2002 http://www.undp.org/rbas/ahdr/CompleteEnglish.pdf

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