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  • Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900–1950
  • Afshin Matin-Asgari
Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900–1950. By Cyrus Schayegh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. 352 pp. $49.95 (cloth); $40.00 (e-book).

This book makes a valuable addition to a small, but growing, literature locating the emergence of modern Iran beyond the traditional framework of nationalist and /or Islamist historiography. In a rare departure, Cyrus Schayegh aims to narrate the rise of Iranian modernity in terms of class formation. Very few historians of Iran have focused on class, a notion marginalized in contemporary historiography at large. In addition to being pathbreaking, Who Is Knowledgeable is highly impressive in its use of source material and methodological sophistication. Schayegh solidly grounds his arguments in the early twentieth-century Iranian press, hitherto unused doctoral dissertations, university textbooks, medical treatises, diplomatic reports, and other archival material in Persian, French, German, and English. Covering close to a third of its length, the book’s eighty pages of detailed reference notes offer researchers a goldmine of information and insights.

Relying primarily on Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault, Who Is Knowledgeable defines class largely in terms of the dominant culture shared by its leading members. The book’s key concepts thus may be pared down to Bourdieu’s “cultural capital” and Foucault’s “biopower.” The first concept is central to the book’s first half, titled “Science and the Formation of the Iranian Middle Class, 1900 –1950.” Here, Schayegh tries to show “how modern science came to form the very basis of the modern middle class by looking, first, at that class’s cultural capital (higher education, a new mode of life) and, second, its economic capital.” The book’s second half, titled “Medicalizing [End Page 415] Modernity: Interactions between the Biomedical Sciences and Modernity in Iran, 1900 –1950,” focuses on “biopower” and “medicalizing strategies,” aiming to demonstrate “how neurophysiology and psychiatry were used to address technology-driven transformations of a traditional mode of life . . . how hygiene, eugenics, and genetics were recruited to tackle Iran’s demographic problems . . . [and ] the relevance of psychology for the quest for national and individual willpower” (p. 10). Schayegh’s emphasis on scientific discourse, as vital to the historical genesis of Iran’s modern middle class, is modeled after what postcolonial historians like Gyan Prakash and Zaheer Baber have proposed in the case of India. He thus uses the term “colonial science,” with the important caveat that in science, as well as in other aspects of global modernity, the colonial and semicolonial world’s relation to “metropolitan” Europe was not wholesale borrowing and importation. Indeed, one of this book’s arguments is that Iran’s nascent middle class “indigenized” global scientific discourses and practices to fit its own “local” and national needs. Schayegh also deploys Charles Tilly’s model of modernity as an interactive network of global and “local” relationships, rather than an amalgam of self-contained national histories. In what follows, I will briefly trace Schayegh’s application of the above-mentioned theoretical apparatus in a chapter-by-chapter overview of the book.

Chapter 1, “The Historical Background,” begins with the argument that “in the wake of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution (1905–11), an emerging modern middle class argued that earlier reformist focus on politics had failed. True change, the new creed held, would come about only through profound sociocultural reforms—and modern science was the key that would unlock that door” (p. 13). Here, Schayegh presents the book’s thesis as the answer to a perplexing set of problems in Iranian historiography regarding modern revolutions and state, nation, and class formation. This bold assertion, however, leads to two major expectations. First, one would expect a comprehensive overview of historians’ debates on class, and of its application to Iran, prior to the application of Bourdieu’s definition. Arguably, the absence of a more comprehensive overview of the debate on class remains the book’s main analytical shortcoming. This is the case especially since the author’s discussion of class remains mainly, and often solely, limited to the cultural...


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pp. 415-419
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