Challenges of social sciences in the periphery. Interview with Iranian sociologist Ladan Rahbari

By Edmar M. Braga Filho


One of the main topics we have discussed in Circuito Acadêmico is the question of inequality on production and circulation of knowledge. Last year, Iranian sociologist Ladan Rahbari published an article that deals with this matter, Peripheral position in social theory. Limitations of social research and dissertation writing in Iran, and was reviewed here. Rahbari gave us an interview by e-mail, clarifying some of the topics addressed in her article, including the external limitations faced by Iranian social scientists, and the articulation local/global. The Portuguese version could be found here . Enjoy the reading!

Could you tell us a little about your academic trajectory and which are the issues of your research and of your interest?

Social sciences are not popular subjects of study in Iran. This is mostly due to the unstable job market for the graduates of social science disciplines, but also because the general lack of knowledge about the significance of this branch of knowledge in the society. Successful high school graduates are expected to study either in one of the many branches of engineering, or pursue studies in the medical sciences. I rebelled against the system and studied Italian literature at the University of Tehran, and then switched to anthropology for my Master’s degree at the same university. I loved anthropology, but because at the time I graduated there was no doctorate program in anthropology, I had to switch to sociology in my doctorate program.

I had started my studies on gender since I was a BA student and kept on working mostly on gender politics and violence against women ever since. Some issues of working on gender politics are common with issues faced by other branches of social sciences. For instance, there are too many red lines created by the socio-political structures of the country that prevent these disciplines from developing. Social sciences criticise and question the current social order and that makes them targets of attack by the benefiters of the order. Iranian researchers are usually government clerks, servants to the system, since universities and research centers mostly belong to the public sector. This has dramatically affected the quality of the researches. The Iranian social science also suffers a lag in conforming to the global currents. This is due to both internal and external factors about which I have discussed in my paper. Studies on gender and especially gender politics face the same difficulties; but because they are in relation with the prevalent religious discourse in the country, they are considered even more sensitive socio-cultural issues.


Then, there are issues regarding publishing your work outside the Iranian scientific community; the problem of language is an important one. Mastering in another language is not always easy and the linguistic deficiencies that come up when you want to translate your work from the native language to English always exist. The positivist approach is very strong in Iran and doing social research is usually defined by positivist approach and methodology; while this is not necessarily the case outside the country; so it has been hard to do the kind of research that is suitable to be published inside and outside the country.

In your article “Peripheral position in social theory” you mentioned three external factors which contribute to the peripheral status of Iranian associations. The last one is about the political-economic situation of scholars and of the country itself. In this respect, how important do you think is the creation of scientific networks and scientific communities with other peripheral countries?

As you know, the last factor refers to the dominant political limitations, which are not necessarily knowledge or academia related in genesis, but eventually affect one’s position in the academia; such as restrictions on Iranian nationals’ movement, or a distorted image of the representatives of the Iranian academia; for the reason that everything is political. I have discussed earlier and also in my paper that Iranian academia suffers from certain internal issues; but there is good work being done too and it seems to me that the external limitations are also making it hard to resolve those internal issues. How can we conform to global currents if we are deprived of access to the global communities? That is why Iranian academicians become successful when they start working overseas.

I believe that networks and communities created with other peripheral countries could form a new trend of research; the kind of literature that already exists. The peripheries have always been dealing with global sociology, even before the centers started realizing that such a concept exists. The centers always had their hegemonic approach, which has focused on the production of knowledge according to their contexts and even today, with all the debates about the global sociology, there are still voices that call for the “empowerment” of the peripheries. Ironically, the peripheries have always had to take a more global approach than the centers because they imported the theories and concepts created in the centers, they read the books and articles produced in centers and translated them and always had to see the larger world before they see their own societies and their position in it. This is an important basis for the formation of such communities. These communities would also help us articulate our dialogue techniques with the central countries, since we are all second degree citizens of this global community and to claim our place in the global community.


The knowledge production trends in the peripheries are different from the centers. We do not have the bestseller brands in the knowledge market; but it is also essential to maintain dialogue and interaction channels with the centers to build a global sociology. The global sociology is possible if we can see the local and understand its position in the world, which includes both centers and peripheries. Forming dialogue between scholars from the central and the peripheral countries would bolster both the local and the global understandings of the social realities since local and global are understandable only in relation with each other.

Is it possible, and how, that making theory and concepts inspired locally could become global? How do you articulate, in this case, global and local?

Local issues have inspired many theories and concepts now globally addressed, tested and applied. Many projects that start as local turn in to global projects above national or local objectives. As Burawoy suggests, three factors that can help unite sociology and form a global sociology are a common project, a community, and a common language. So far so good, but the problem of the current perceptions of the global sociology is that the projects, communities, and language have already been established under the centers’ hegemony. Now, to prove this existing centers’ hegemony is similar to proving that “racism” exists to those who do not suffer from it. I have had a few interesting conversations with sociologists coming from the centers who do not feel that this sort of hegemony exists at all.

Just because we have collectively aimed to out rule an idea, that idea does not disappear; and it will certainly necessitate more than just holding events in the peripheries or making our research groups multi-national. We usually call an association global when it covers several geographical locations on the world map. The problem is that the debates over the global sociology have started in rich central countries and by scholars coming from the centers. The idea of the formation of a global sociology is thus another construct of the center spreading itself through the same pre-existing knowledge channels. While the global approach was previously being practiced by the peripheral countries without being named the global sociology, now that the centers have shown attention in the concept, it is being heard, debated, and tested by peripheral scholars, who have been following the lead of the central theorists in the peripheries.


As I discussed in my paper, what defines the global/local today is the geopolitics of space rather than empirically testable realities and differences; although they might exist but they are not the basis for such distinction. It is not accidental that poorer countries are the peripheries in the geography of knowledge. Again, I acknowledge the importance of the quality of the knowledge produced in these countries but I also emphasize that the knowledge produced in the peripheries is too unknown by the centers to be assessed as weak. The global is formed by constant communication between diverse political unities; this communication is however, not necessarily in the form of dialogue.

How do you evaluate the development of the Iranian social sciences? Do you foresee an autonomous, creative and original social science in your country in the near future? What are the roles of the new generation of social scientists in this process?

There has been a huge increase in the number of university students in the last few decades in Iran. This ever-increasing quantity has not brought about improvements in the quality of education; there have been speculations that it has been otherwise. In post-Islamic Revolution Iran, universities were developed to delay young people’s entrance to the labour market in a war-torn country. The lag did not help because the huge educated young population now demanded better working conditions. The unemployment is a real issue. In 2012, in 22% of Iranian families, all family members were unemployed. It is also estimated that 20% of social science graduates are unemployed. In such an unstable job market, researches are even more prone to conformism with the prevalent socio-political discourses. As Burawoy has suggested ‘civil servants’ whose research, in most cases is expected to be compatible with governmental and predetermined objectives.


The social sciences are developing in Iran, mostly in quantitative aspects; but the development of the disciplines demands more than increasing student population and research numbers. A significant change requires both changes in the educational system in a large scale, and also establishing continuous communication with the global scientific communities. As for the new generations of the social science, the role is what it always has been during decades of social sciences’ history in Iran: to try to stay loyal to sociology despite the ever-growing red-lines and limitations in the country. The new generations have already been bringing out change to the socio-political structures, mostly by resisting against the conformist ideology. About the external issues, it is quite the same thing. Of course, in this regard it falls less on the individuals in a certain country to try and change the internationally fixed system. These issues can only be solved collectively and demand collective will and effort by centers and peripheries alike.   


Some Ladan’s works

Challenges of a Global Sociology: Centers and Peripheries in Geopolitics of Sociological Theory





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