Anderson Reflection

September 20, 2023

In the article “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East,” Lisa Anderson seeks to understand flawed reasoning and approaches on behalf of American political science scholars studying democratization in the Middle East. Anderson notes the failure of political science scholars to understand why democratization has not taken hold in MENA, even when other regions of the world demonstrate prominent democratization trends. To understand such failure, Anderson evaluates the flawed methods of political scientists in studying the region.

One mistake she notes is that US political scientists consider the events in the Middle East in Western terms, leading to misunderstandings regarding democratization and policy within the regions. To remedy this issue, we must first rethink our understanding of democracy, and separate it from the American politicized version of democracy. By analyzing how our bias impacts our understanding of the word, we can separate that from how democratization fits into MENA. If this occurs, then we can look past the biases IR scholars held in the past. Expecting politics, ideologies, and history in the Middle East to perfectly translate to Western ideas and methods of understanding would allow for faulty analysis. If this is the case, we also cannot expect the events within the Middle East regarding democracy to translate to countries compared with them.  


History and culture, or failure to adequately consider the effects of such, are another reason for failure Anderson attributes to Western political scientists. By focusing solely on other countries’ success or failure in implementing democratization, scholars fail to study MENA and the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism. Ignoring the cultural and government history of a region, especially when it includes economic exploitation can have long lasting impacts on a region. Anderson is calling for a more holistic approach to studying the region. In addition, some consideration should be given to cultural aspect such as religion and Islam in the region. However, we should be cautious of biased assumptions on the basis of culture when analyzing democracy and MENA.  As students, we should start by familiarizing ourselves with the region’s history and what evidence we have of cultural values beyond theories. Our textbook “Political Economy in the Middle East’ recently spent a considerable part of the chapter analyzing the influence of the Ottoman Empire and colonialism. This suggests there are two ways in which we could improve upon the past actions of political scientists as scholars. First, we can learn more about the region beyond analyzing its types of governments. Second, we can analyze quality political science work when available and test theories when we have contradictory evidence. For example, we can test the theory that cultural civil society in the Middle East is not interested in democracy or not suited to democracy with evidence such as polling that might disprove that theory. 


Therefore, by avoiding the mistakes of previous political scientists, we can attempt to eliminate the “parochialism” that damaged the scholarship of earlier theorists.


The Arab Spring was undoubtedly an important time in the Middle East regarding democratization. Political mobilization, especially for democracy by civil society, changed the region drastically. It is very likely to disprove many theories in which political scientists doubted the desire for democracy within the Middle East. It also very likely changed ideas surrounding how prominent or effective authoritarian regimes are in the region. However, it is difficult to say whether the massive change in the Middle East changed the perspective of scholars in the West. Our best method of action as students will be to learn from the mistakes of previous scholars to improve our studies. 


Anderson, Lisa. 2006. “SEARCHING WHERE the LIGHT SHINES: Studying Democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science 9 (1): 189–214 

3 Responses to “Anderson Reflection”

  1.   Ed Webb said:

    This is thoughtful and nuanced. One point of detail: studies of democratization are usually carried out by comparativists, not so much IR scholars, although there is some overlap and some scholars work in both subfields of political science. Our course is in comparative politics, not IR.

  2.   leeale said:

    Really great and intricate response.

    What do you think a nonbiased and non-Western analysis of MENA authoritarianism could look like in Anderson’s view?

  3.   Annie Elliott said:

    Thank you so much. This is a great question, but a surprisingly difficult one to answer. This difficulty seems to be the case because perfect objectivity is impossible, especially in a world of misrepresentations. So, to be as objective as possible, we need to be more attuned to when we think with bias and do our best to leave those tendencies out of the classroom. In addition, by leaving bias behind scholars might better understand in totality what is happening in the region. This issue of bias as narrowing is why I was so interested in the word “parochial.” As for a non-Western analysis, I think Anderson would say some of the things I have mentioned: filling in knowledge gaps in geography and history, understanding what democracy would ideally look like in MENA, and analyzing the causes of authoritarianism using reliable sources. This is not to say that there isn’t quality comparative political work on MENA in the US, but I would say that it is important to have a scholarship free of politics and bias.

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