Higher Education

Higher Education as Subject and Object of Critical Discourse

The importance of universities can hardly be overestimated, given their massive growth in numbers and the share of the population attending them. They are supposedly the hub for the knowledge a society disposes of: they ought to produce, collect, authorize and disseminate knowledge and question it, set standards of expertise, certify professional status, and induce innovations in all kinds of policies, by way of research, education, advice, critique, and public debate. Therefore, higher education and the social sciences have been a research focus since 2010, when the OIB supported a conference on the role of social sciences and humanities in different Arab countries at the DAAD premises in Cairo. We look at universities as arenas for expressions of social and institutional continuity and change; and, of course, as partners in scholarly exchange. We address them in cooperative projects in Egypt and Lebanon including partners in the region and Germany, applying mostly anthropological, sociological, and historical perspectives.

In the Middle East, post-independence universities have typically assumed very official roles in legitimizing power structures and the official knowledge; they were expected to produce useful science, knowledge and graduates, according to the needs set by the governments. In the past twenty years, the situation has partially changed: the establishment of many new universities and mass access to them have altered the status quo in often unpredictable ways – confirming existing notions of legitimate knowledge and of established powers, and at the same time creating the conditions for their critique.   


This research cluster looks at universities’ relation to polity and society from different angles: as producer and as attractor of critical discourse. The research cluster currently comprises two ongoing research projects. In History Writing at Lebanon’s Universities: Dynamics of connectivity under the impact of reform, innovation and political turns, Jonathan Kriener explores practices of history writing at different university institutions. How do historians write about the recent decades of Lebanese history since 1967 and what references to they draw upon? To what kind of historiography do their institutional environments enable them? How do universities facilitate and channel knowledge production in a post-conflict society with authoritarian and liberal, secular as well as religious political visions and practices, where the academic field is highly dependent on the political one?

In Higher education and citizenship in Egypt – an anthropological critique of the crisis narrative, Daniele Cantini looks at the ways in which the discourse of the crisis of education in Egypt is posited by different authors, from different theoretical, political and moral viewpoints. The goal of this research is to discuss how significance is made through a resort to the crisis narrative – how different modes of organization and reforms are introduced, and how social actors adapt their evaluations to the changing context. The project investigates the ways in which the state, through the education sector, functions and evolves, between social and economic considerations, both local and internationally-oriented.


In the past years, two third-party funded projects have explored social sciences at Egyptian and Lebanese universities under the aspect of borrowing and lending of concepts of science and education, as well as dynamics of knowledge production at Egyptian public universities.

The project Local, Regional and International ‘Borrowing and Lending’ in Social Sciences at Arab Universities, a cooperation between the Ruhr University of Bochum and the OIB funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, explored opportunities and constraints for social scientists concerning education, research, decision making and local, regional and international connectivity at a sample of universities in Lebanon and Egypt.  It focused on the interplay between institutional and individual autonomy.

The project Knowledge Production at Egyptian Public Universities explored the conditions and possibilities of producing knowledge at the doctoral level in different departments in Cairo and Alexandria. It ran between 2013 and 2016, when it was concluded with a conference in Cairo, and was a cooperation between the MLU Halle and the OIB, funded by the BMBF. The project inserts itself in the emerging interest for non-hegemonic social sciences, and for theories from the south, contributing with an ethnographic analysis of the actual, and changing, conditions that young researchers are met with in Egypt. Its results are now being published, in Arabic in Idafat, a peer-reviewed sociology journal published in Lebanon, and in English in an edited volume.


Conferences for the now concluded third party funded projects have been organized in Bochum in July 2013, in Beirut in February 2014 and in Cairo in March 2016.

The researchers involved in this research cluster are actively participating at international conferences, most recently at the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies and at the European Association for Social Anthropologists. In the coming month, a panel on the university in the region has been co-organised at the MESA, and a theoretical paper on the role of the university in the region will be presented at the forthcoming Arab Council for the Social Science conference in Beirut (March 2017). The research cluster will be holding a workshop at the OIB in June 2017.

Recent publications include an article about connectivity of Lebanese social scientists,  an ethnography of the university in Jordan, and an edited volume on ethnographic explorations of private higher universities. we are currently preparing a special issue of Idafat (Arabic journal for the social sciences) as well as an edited volume in English, to publish the result of the knowledge production project, and a joint monograph about the situation of social scientists in Egypt and Lebanon after the uprisings there in 2005 and 2011.