Saturday, July 23, 2005

Expanding my knowledge base as an Orientalist

One of the very serious flaws cultivated by academic historians is moving everything down to a microscopic level. Hence you get monographs written on individual villages, single commercial commodities, solitary military battles and other exceedingly narrow topics. Many of which are of absolutely no interest to anybody outside a narrow group of specialists. Often lost in this ever proliferating publication of minute details is any sense of the broader outlines of history. I am trying to break away from this overspecialization and expand my knowledge base to see how different regions influence each other.

I have realized that like most other people dealing with the Caucasus and Central Asia I have approached it largely from the vantage point of the former colonial power of Russia and the USSR. I think that this Eurocentrism may have also been a problem for people dealing with other areas of Asia and Africa in the early years of independence as well. I have been trying to approach the region as an Orientalist rather than a Russianist or God forbid a Sovietologist. Hence I am very glad that my degree and my supervisor are actually in history of the Near and Middle East which is where most of the Muslim regions of the former USSR belong. I have also found that my work gets a much better reception from the Near and Middle East studies people than the Soviet studies people. Primarily because most of the Soviet studies people, particularly in the US, have romanticized the USSR and are still unwilling to properly criticize it. Certainly not to admit that it practiced racism or that it can be compared to regimes such as Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. In contrast the Near and Middle East studies people recognize that Russia and the USSR were colonial empires not substantially different from France and the UK in a number of key aspects. They also had ready analogies to understand Soviet ethnic cleansing in the experience of the Armenians in 1915 and the Palestinians in 1948. In contrast most Eurocentric and Russocentric scholars have vehmently resisted the idea of comparative history for ideological reasons.

Approaching Central Asia and the Caucasus as part of the greater Middle East rather than parts of an undifferentiated Soviet Russia of course has required me to attempt to broaden my knowledge base. I have realized that my knowledge of a number of relavent subjects is weak. Below I have listed some of the areas of my knowledge I am looking to expand.

Countries and regions geographically adjacent to Soviet Central Asia that have had important cross border influences. Most notably Iran, Afghanistan, Eastern Turkestan (Xinjiang) and Pakistan. I have done a little bit of reading in the last year on Afghanistan and Iran. I am very much looking for a good book on the history of Pakistan and the relationship the north western parts of the country have historically had with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Also a good book on Eastern Turkestan that deals with the region from the vantage point of Central Asia rather than Beijing.

The theology and social history of Islam in its various forms. I am particularly interested in how Sufiism fit itself to various anti-colonial struggles. Political Islam has taken alot of forms and the Wahhabist brand now receiving attention in the US has historically not been the most popular. Particularly in Islamic areas outside the Arab world.

The influence decolonization and civil rights movements had on subject peoples in the USSR. I think the common wisdom that there was no influence from such events as the Algerian revolution is bunk. I know for a fact having read a lot of Samizdat material that both the Crimean Tatars and Meskhetian Turks compared themselves to the Palestinians in the 1970s. Despite the best efforts of the Soviet government, the USSR was not a totally isolated bubble immune from the trends that shaped the history of the rest of the world. They could not keep all information of the outside world under control. It did seep through and the existing evidence shows that it did have some effect. Unfortunately it looks like I will probably have to write this last history myself since it is vehmently rejected by reigning orthodox opinion.


Chris Conway said...

One of the great things about being a generalist, and "broadening horizons" is the possibility of reaching a broader audience by addressing bigger questions. Also, I find that we need to stimulate ourselves into having new ideas by ambitiously venturing into territories we have not yet explored in our scholarship. It keeps us reinvigorated and interested, but also qualitatively impacts the scope, reach and contribution of our scholarship to the field.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Yes, I do find that reading about stuff that is totally new to me inspires me more than rehashed arguments or additional details to familiar stories. I am not a generalist right now. Most of my writing has been specialized. But, I feel that I should move towards a more general approach. Particularly since it is unlikely I will ever get a job in academia. The only place where details count more than solid narratives.

Chris Conway said...

I am wondering why you are so convinced that you will not get a job in academia in the U.S. Perhaps you could do a post about why you believe this is the case. I'm curious about your situation because you have been and continue to be such a prolific scholar. If you were trained in Europe (? I don't know this for a fact, correct me if I am wrong) maybe there's a cultural disjunction between academic systems, attitudes and cultures that is causing difficulties. Anyway, I hope you will enlighten us on your situation. (Or simply direct me to any previous post you have made on your blog that addresses your history and situation).