What’s under a streetlight? Reflecting on Anderson 2006

In thinking about Anderson’s 2006 essay “Searching Where the Light Shines”, it is useful to begin by interpreting the analogy that she uses to frame the piece. An unfortunate man looking for his key in all the wrong places stands for a common error that many Western social scientists commit when trying to explain the political dynamics of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Anderson identifies a very wide variety among these social scientists. The theorists and schools of thought that she makes reference to all focus on different types of actors and dynamics in the region, emphasize both similarities and  dissimilarities between Western and MENA societies, and arrive at both optimism and pessimism for the future of democracy. Despite these differences, Anderson argues that all fail by “searching where the light shines”. What this means is that each of these models only analyze events and processes in MENA by comparing them to events and processes in our societies and our own history. As the analogy goes, these theorists are therefore only looking within the arbitrary limits that they have set, and missing the information outside of those limits – as the central joke goes, the man’s key is not where the light is shining, but on the far side of the street, outside of the light’s reach. As Anderson quotes Mitchell, “[there] is a significant loss if [we persuade ourselves] that the only worthwhile ways of engaging with” its history as “particular instances of the universal stories told in… the West” (208). Applying that logic to some of the theories that Anderson mentions provides us with warnings if particular pitfalls that we might stumble into if we are not careful.

There are a few such examples that we ought to take particular note of. One is that particular theorists over-emphasize the nation-state in categorizing the political organizations of the region, ignoring forms. In the view of Anderson, this issue has plagued American policymakers for some time (192). This idea “[suggests that] … kinship, kings, cliques, [and] clients” are “unfit subjects for… research”, even when these entities and systems are as important, if not more important, than national identity (207). Because the nation-state is the key political unit in Western society, we read it as such in MENA, even though other political units play a crucial role. A similar issue emerges in the comparison of MENA to the West through the lens of religion (i.e. through the comparison of Christianity and Islam). This occurs in different ways. Some theorists have argued that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with democracy (197). This view is an over-simplification, as there are currently democratic Muslim-majority in the nations, and Muslims have been avid participants in, and advocates for, democracy inside and outside the region. This comparison can be problematic when it is favorable towards Islam, as well. In defending Islam, some scholars have analogized it to Christian democratic parties in Europe (197). Anderson does not explicitly identify it as such, but this frame likely has problems of its own. Islamist movements ought to be analyzed in terms of what they are in practice, not of the extent to which they are or are not an Islamic shadow of Christian developments. Simply because the parties here that identify with our dominant religion behave in a particular manner does not mean that parties in a different society, and of a different creed, will behave the same way. The comparison becomes even more stretched when it is made between political parties and different types of organizations. Theories that begin by expressing MENA issues in Western language are always going to erase important nuance.

Could the 2010-11 uprisings have changed these dynamics? We would certainly expect that particular schools of thought would become more dominant. Pessimists arguing that the region will never experience democratization probably gained confidence. There is probably more focus on coercion as well, particularly towards cases where there is an open challenge to the regime. Anderson herself might have come to different conclusions in a post-2011 context than those that she came to in 2006. However, the underlying thesis of her essay is not challenged by the uprisings. Per Anderson, dominant paradigms of analysis of MENA change in response to events. Where US interests are being affected, and how those interests are presently being affected, changes how analysts examine these issues. This is most succinctly put by the observation that MENA issues “might have been merely scientific curiosities during the 1990s” but “became major policy dilemmas after [9/11]” (189). As given issues become more or less important, American perspectives change. Per Anderson, this occurred throughout the twentieth century as well, as American perspectives on democracy, as well as American emphasis on democracy, shifted. While the uprisings might have caused another such shift, they do not change the underlying instability. To continue the streetlight analogy: the angle of the light may have been shifted a few degrees to the right or left. But the size of the area it illuminates has not changed, and therefore, neither has the size of the area it leaves in darkness

To avoid or compensate for these issues, we have to be self-critical. We have to ask ourselves constantly whether we are investigating the region on its own terms, or if we are merely investigating it as a twisted reflection of ourselves. We have to challenge ourselves to think in new ways about new concepts. Most importantly, we have to be aware of what we are trying to accomplish. It bears noting that Anderson’s analogy has some problems on its own. The searcher would not be in their predicament if they weren’t desperately looking for that one key. We must accept that there is not a singular explanation for why democracy has worked, or failed, in MENA. We have to be careful to avoid becoming overly focused on finding the “key” to this issue, on becoming so fixated on finding a single magical answer that we erase the complexity inherent in the issue of democratization. Otherwise, we’re going to spend a lot of the time walking around in a circle, though it might be a well-lit one.

This post refers to Dr. Lisa Anderson’s 2006 article “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East”. Here cited: | Anderson, Lisa. “Searching Where the Light Shines: Studying Democratization in the Middle East.” Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 9, no. 1, 2006, pp. 189–214. [Web].






One response to “What’s under a streetlight? Reflecting on Anderson 2006”

  1. Ed Webb Avatar
    Ed Webb

    Very thoughtful commentary!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *