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  • Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900–1950
  • Monica M. Ringer
Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900–1950. By Cyrus Shayegh (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2009) 340 pp. $49.95

In this exhaustively researched study on twentieth-century Iranian modernity, Shayegh weaves together the twin stories of science and modernity—how Iranian scientists adopted, introduced, and developed science to promote modernity, or as Shayegh put it, how “the modernists, in cooperation with the state, sought to employ biomedical science to tackle social problems, strengthen Iran, and recast it into a united, fit, [End Page 493] modern society” (2). The book also tells the story of how these middleclass medical scientists shaped the contours of how modernity was defined, promoted, and addressed when its unfortunate side effects appeared. As Shayegh explains, “The redefinition of health and disease embodied the Iranian modernists’ broader understanding of modernity as an inherently paradoxical era. It reflected the tension between the hope for progress driven by science-based strategies of social control and individual self-control, and concern about the incessant dangers of modern life and the difficulty of creating the conditions required for modernization” (195).

Chapter 1 explores the historical antecedents of modern science in Iran, and why the postconstitutional period witnessed the full-fledged importation and adoption of Western science, as championed by an emerging middle class. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the reasons why science emerged at the center of this new middle-class claim to social authority as well as status, “how originally Western scientific knowledge was adapted to form the cultural and economic capital of a modern urban middle class in Iran. Utilizing its expert authority to define the very meaning of modernity, that class emphasized is distinctness from other strata” (2).

In Chapter 4, Shayegh argues that despite their ardent promotion of modernity, medical scientists also understood its fundamentally transformative effect on Iran—not all of it welcome. Shayegh carefully explains, however, that they believed science, specifically medical science, could mitigate the ills that emerged and promote a stronger, healthier body politic. To give an example of their awareness of problems inherent in modernity, “Authors of both general and specialized texts believed modern life to affect the mental health especially of urbanites. Modernity was promoting drug addiction and venereal disease. Communication and transport technologies were speeding up life at a dangerous pace. And a new economic culture was turning time into an increasing precious commodity” (102–103).

In this context, Shayegh examines the connections between this scientific middle class and other intellectual and social groups. Did this class overlap with others or face competition for authority and status from nonmedical intellectuals and literati, as well as the larger group of ulama. To what extent was the project of these scientists adopted by the state? Clearly the state sponsored and promoted science and “modernity.” But were there differences between the state project and the ideas of this professional middle class?

Chapter 5, which charts the rise of the fields of hygiene, eugenics, and genetics and their induction into the service of Iranian demography, is a particularly valuable contribution to our understanding of how Iran was understood as a “body” to be treated and protected by medical science. Chapter 6 explores the belief that the profession of psychology offered a way to promote the mental health of the country and, ultimately, a healthier body politic. That Iran was conceived as a body politic, in a [End Page 494] profoundly medical sense, is well known. Shayegh’s contribution is to elucidate the standpoint of medical science—how different medical fields and professions viewed Iran’s “body,” adding an important dimension to our understanding of how and why political language had a medical component during this period in its deep connection to new notions of citizenship, nationalism, national identity, and popular sovereignty.

In a meticulously constructed argument, Shayegh avoids the simplistic binary opposition of modern/traditional—the presumption that modern equates with progress—instead preferring to look at perspectives on modernity and on its collateral costs to Iranian society. Another strength of this book...


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pp. 493-495
Launched on MUSE
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