GoAbroad Interview

Dr. Sari Hanafi - Sociology Professor & Department Chair

Dr. Sari Hanafi

Sari is currently a professor of sociology and chair of the department of sociology, anthropology, and media studies at the American University of Beirut. He is also the editor of Idafat: the Arab Journal of Sociology (Arabic). Sari is the Vice President of both the International Sociological Association and the Arab Council of Social Science. His last co-authored book is Knowledge Production in the Arab World: The Impossible Promise.

You career in the field of sociology goes far beyond your role as a sociology professor at the American University of Beirut. What inspired you to study sociology and develop a career in the field?

Basically, I started by majoring in civil engineering. I lived in a turbulent time in a refugee camp as a Palestinian refugee, but also under authoritarian Syrian regime, which developed in me a feeling of revolt. I saw in sociology as a discipline a tool that could help me to change the world, to talk like Karl Marx, but in fact, I barely understood it until now. So, I double majored in both disciplines.

Professionals meeting in Dar al Hadara

During a talk in Dar al Hadara

I then went to France following the intellectual footprints of Michel Foucault, Mohamed Arkoun, and Pierre Bourdieu from my higher education. My Ph. D. dissertation was about the Syrian and Egyptian engineers as socio-professional groups. I was fascinated by those professionals who expressed commitment to their society beyond their technical role. 

You are a published author, sociological researcher, and editor of the Arab Journal of Sociology. How do you use these facets of your professional career to better educate your students?

Research is a very important tool for teaching. Students are attracted by examples that I brought from my current research on Palestinian refugee camps and knowledge production in the Arab world. I share with them my research projects that “got off on the wrong foot”, include: use of inconsistent or inappropriate methodology; challenges in collecting data from “hard to find” populations; difficulties in gaining research approval or access to the field, and time restrictions and/or disastrous interviews. I also connect them to the current research and literature review from the region. As an editor of the Idafat: the Arab Journal of Sociology, I am exposed to many of these research pieces and I have used them to bring examples beyond Lebanon.

Dr. Sari Hanafi speaking at an event

Speaking at an event

Many Lebanese students tend to live in what I call a “myth of uniqueness”, considering that Lebanese case is exceptional and cannot between compared. As one Lebanese sociologist proudly told me, I should throw my conceptual baggage out once I reach the Beirut airport (i.e. I should expect to observe social phenomena that cannot be compared to other places). More generally, those who argue for the cultural specificity and exceptionalism of Lebanon or to the Arab region no longer have a valid argument. The consequences of exceptionalism are regarded as a digression from the real debate on societies, politics, and culture in the Arab World.

One question I have been debating with my students for the past four years on my course on transitional justice at AUB is whether freedom and democracy are universal aspirations or Western values not transferable as such to other societies. My students always bring up the case of the Arab world as the living proof that not all people, regardless of culture and religion, aspire to be free and living under the rule of law. For them, Muslim countries with their autocratic or theocratic regimes are just content to live that way, under the stick of dictatorship. What we have been witnessing in Tunisia settles that!

Dr. Sari Hanafi receiving the Kuwait Award

Receiving the Kuwait Award

As a sociologist, what do you think the most beneficial part of study abroad is?

Studying abroad is part of the process of helping our students to understand the importance of comparing their society with other ones, and also to learn other corpus of literature and other debates.

Study abroad facilitates also the adoption of cultural relativism. 

What makes study abroad in Beirut unique from study abroad in other places around the world?

The veteran Journalist of Guardian Robert Fisk has a metaphor about Lebanon. He said Lebanon is a beautiful car whose wheels are square. Can it work? Well, it works, with a lot of contradiction. In Beirut, many things are unpredictable and this is the beauty of this city and the whole country.

I have a bias toward the American University of Beirut, which is known for its beautiful campus and vibrant student life. Scientifically, this university is considered the leading one in the Arab region. Usually our international students enjoy the exchange program, and some even request from their university to stay one more semester than initially planned. 

Cemetery in Lebanon

Field visit with students to a cemetery

How do you help students connect what they experience outside the classroom with what they are learning inside the classroom?

I push my students to engage with issues related to actuality. My department and the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship has a weekly series on the movement protesting the garbage crisis in Lebanon. Sit-in classes were organized and students were encouraged to reflect upon this movement. For my class in migration, I take my students to a Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut every year, and we meet with popular committees and some NGOs. They discuss the situation and get to feel how people in this deprived area live. I encourage them indeed to be agents of positive social change in local, regional, and global communities.

In what ways does AUB help expose students to the lesser known sides of the Middle East?

AUB exposes students about the mundane life of different social classes in Lebanon and the Arab world, beyond the dominant image of the region as burning land of jihad, extremism, and violence. Usually I explain to my students that training them to critical think means that they should postpone their normative statement to the end.  This will be beneficial to all students, including the international ones.

I help students to develop a critical lens with which to view the world, while recognizing their social and cultural positionality within it.