Iranian Sociology and Its Discontents

I recently returned from the quadrennial International Sociology Association’s World Congress held in Gothenburg, Sweden.  It’s kind of like the World Cup of sociology.  There I sat in on a session organized by the Iranian Sociology Association, where a few presenters, including its president Hossein Serajzadeh, discussed the state of social science in Iran.  I have visited many sociology departments in Iran, both in Tehran and elsewhere, over the past few years, and the comments I heard at the session echoed my earlier experiences.  Sociologists feel that most of the problems of social science institutionalization in Iran stem from the state’s politicized relationship vis-à-vis the disciplines.

Given the recent intensification of state pressure on Iranian social scientists, including “early retirements” of some of the professors in the most prestigious faculties in the country, no one should dismiss the constrained atmosphere in which Iranian social scientists and students operate.  But is that the only problem with Iranian sociology?

Two of the presentations focused almost exclusively on institutional aspects of Iranian social science: its history, programs, enrollments, etc.  This is par for the course — I find that discussion of social relations in Iran often takes the form of “just the facts,” usually with a comparison between Iran and wealthy countries thrown in for good measure.  This time, Iran’s undergraduate and Ph.D. enrollments in the social sciences were stacked next to those of OECD countries like the US and France, as well as Turkey and South Korea — the perennial “model states” that Iranians compare themselves to.  Frankly, Iran didn’t look too bad.  But this type of comparison — deeply rooted in an exceptionalism that pervades both mass and elite society in Iran — displayed a lack of reflection itself.  Sociologists should try to question the standard frameworks and categories that others apply.  If we put Iran up against Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Indonesia, China, India, etc. — in other words, the large Third World countries that are more reasonable to compare with Iran given their common histories — what would we find?  I wager that many of the “backward” statistics Iranians often point to — not just on social science institutionalization but also in almost every other category — would fall neatly in the middle of the range that is observable in the former Third World.

Better yet, Iranian sociologists should be asking a deeper question: Why is this latter sort of comparison never made?  Confronting — and theorizing — that conundrum would call into question some of the most deeply held myths in Iran today, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum.  But that is the job of social scientists, because few other intellectuals are interested in myth-busting, especially when nationalism is involved.

To be fair, none of these characteristics are unique to Iranian intellectuals.  Exceptionalism is part of nationalist rhetoric from China to Poland to Madagascar, thus it is the least exceptional thing about Iran.  Intellectuals, historically, have been one of the main conduits for such exceptionalism, in as much as they see themselves as agents of the nationalist cause.  That tendency has produced some great work over the 20th century — Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery comes to mind.  Part of the job of successive generations of intellectuals, of course, is to take apart the bundle of myths that previous scholars embed in their analyses.  In Iran, this can be seen in the critique (or, sometimes, wholesale dismissal) of Ali Shariati which became prevalent in the 1990s.  I rarely, however, see Iranian social scientists reflect on what myths or assumptions are the most prevalent ones among Iranian intellectuals today.

One refreshing exception to this was the last presentation at the panel, by Shirin Ahmad-Nia.  She and her colleagues hinted that Iranian social science cannot recognize a range of social problems in Iran because it still relies on frameworks of understanding Iranian society within the antiquated paradigm of modernization theory.  Indeed, the large majority of Iran’s reformist intellectuals in the 1990s portrayed Iran’s problems as stemming from its trapped position “between tradition and modernity.”  That still forms the basis of rhetoric among many Iranian elites (and has done so, on and off, for the past 150 years).  Yet this too, is nothing exceptional — China’s social scientists are obsessed with modernization theory, for example.  So, I would encourage Professor Ahmad-Nia and her colleagues to reflect further on why Iranian intellectuals utilize modernization theory so, well, religiously.  We need, in other words, a sociology of Iranian intellectuals of the kind that Pierre Bourdieu did on the subject of French intellectuals.

In sum, many of the problems that Iranian sociologists noted about the state of their discipline in the country — a reliance on quantification of basic indicators instead of qualitative and critical analysis, a faddish and uncritical importation of the Western social science of the day, and an under-institutionalized training system — are not Iranian problems per se.  They are large structural problems within knowledge production in the global South.  Iranian sociology would mature greatly if they took this context as a starting point for their considerations.

Kevan Harris is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.  His research interests are the political economy of international finance, labor and social movements, and West Asia.  Read his blog The Thirsty Fish: <>.  See, also, Kevan Harris, “Are the Iranian Poor a Bunch of Welfare Queens?” (MRZine, 19 March 2010)

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