- Field Notes: The Making of Middle East Studies in the United States by Zachary Lockman
More than a decade ago, Zachary Lock-man published a masterful overview of the “state of the field” in his Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism (Cambridge University Press, 2004). He recommends we read his new book, Field Notes, as a companion volume, and he is right: they are very different but complementary perspectives on the practice of history. Contending Visions emphasizes the ideas and intellectual debates that have shaped the American study of (and policy toward) the Middle East; Field Notes examines the individuals and institutions — particularly those at foundations and universities — that incubated and disseminated those ideas in the early years of the development of area studies, from the 1930s to the 1970s.
For readers of a certain age and professional formation, the experience of reading Field Notes may be a bit like rediscovering your high school yearbook and looking over the faculty pages: you encounter names you had not recalled in years, and when you find your old physics teacher, you realize that he was also the coach of the soccer team. So it was for me at least, as I read about the early days of the Social Science Research Council’s Committee on the Near and Middle East, established in 1951; I rather wished I could convene my graduate school chums for an evening of reminiscing about J. C. Hurewitz, Majid Khadduri, Charles Issawi, and the many other worthies of the founding generation who populate these pages.1
More important, however, is Lockman’s conclusion, which he is too generous to draw as starkly as I: the institutional builders were not the intellectuals of the field — and the institutions suffered for it. The protagonists in Contending Visions — those who actually had a vision of the Middle East and a view to how understanding it should be approached: Hamilton Gibb, Albert Hourani, Bernard Lewis, and Edward Said — played little or no role in the construction of the centers, departments, and programs that shaped generations of American social scientists, humanists, and policy advocates. The early institution-builders, many of whom came out of wartime government service in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), were pragmatic, confident in the conviction that more information and analysis of the Middle East was wanted, but in many ways diffident, almost timid, about the ends to which such analysis should be put. Hence the many funny, self-deprecating ways in which they admitted failure: Lockman quotes Columbia political scientist (and founder of the university’s present-day School of International and Public Affairs) Schuyler Wallace as noting in 1952 “his satisfaction that for the third time in his life he had been present at the birth of a new professional term” (p. 122) and Columbia historian Richard Bulliet lamenting in 1984 the likelihood that no “new funding will reinvigorate and revalidate outgrown concepts of Middle East studies, … the penetration of Middle East scholarship in the disciplines and overall university communities will remain stagnant, mediocrity will continue unabated and we will all find ourselves in one hell of a mess ten years hence” (p. 240). [End Page 171]
Although Lockman’s story ends in the late 1980s, he foreshadows the “hell of a mess” anticipated by Bulliet and he implicitly offers an explanation. The fundamental flaw in the efforts to realize the ambitions of the institution-builders was their self-imposed need to avoid giving offence. Lockman catalogs the reliance of the university-based centers on major foundations for funding, the apprehension of the founders of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) that the Israel-Palestine dispute might infect its collegial ranks, the aspiration of many Middle East studies scholars to clout in US policy circles. All of this contributed to a noncommittal reticence about the issues of most import in the region that ultimately, and inevitably, proved self-defeating. Those...