This is part of the MENA Politics Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 2, Fall 2019. Download the PDF of the full issue here.
Social science scholarship on the Middle East and North Africa has witnessed a dramatic expansion of public opinion polls and survey research over the past twenty years. For one, the sheer number of scholars engaged in this type of research has grown remarkably. These scholars come from a growing number of research institutions across the United States and the Middle East, building on the works of scholars associated with the University of Michigan who have dominated public opinion research in the past. We have also seen a significant thematic expansion of systematic individual-level scholarship, reaching beyond traditional research topics. Middle East area specialists will notice the opportunities arising from survey research complementing qualitative, elite-level interviews, while political scientists with greater interest in methodological concerns will recognize the innovative strategies employed by scholars to tackle significant challenges posed to survey research in the region. This special section presents contributions that introduce some of the pertinent topics and show trends, opportunities, and challenges in this emerging research program.
One important trend in current research using survey material is the increasing number of country-level projects that have gained in importance compared to research using cross-country data, such as the World Value Surveys, the Pew Research Center, and the Arab Barometer Project. In this special section, five papers present research using original material from country-level surveys, while Nadine Sika’s contribution on the interplay of contentious activism and popular trust in political institutions stands alone as a project drawing on a range of countries. This focus on smaller samples in survey research comes with opportunities and challenges. On the positive side, country-level projects typically generate comparatively low costs and hence remain feasible for a large number of scholars. Moreover, scholars have added to a thematic expansion of the research program. While broad regional or global projects have contributed to the conventional topics prominent in survey research—including popular perceptions of democracy, electoral behavior, ethnic diversity, and the role of religion in society—smaller-scope survey research has advanced to designing more specific surveys and questionnaires that speak to discreet theoretical debates.
Apart from methodological accounts, contributors to this special issue have explored specific issue areas in comparative politics and security studies. Lindsay Benstead, for instance, explains electoral voter preferences during Tunisia’s democratic transition, arguing that the Islamist Ennahda Party has deployed social service provision for political gains more effectively than its political competitors. Nadine Sika finds that participants in contentious activism harbor trust in specific political institutions, but not in others. Matt Buehler explores popular support for a nuclear power program in Morocco. Yael Zeira studies the participation of Palestinians in protest activities against Israeli occupation. And Sharan Grewal tracks protest participation in Algeria over time and explains why protesters remained in the streets even after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation.
Thematic expansion and the focus on individual countries certainly come at a price. On the one hand, individual country-level survey projects are hardly ever designed as longitudinal studies and—unlike works based on data by the Arab Barometer or the World Value Surveys—typically cannot provide any insights on developments over a longer period of time. Additionally, as of now, the growing number of individual projects do not appear to generate substantial cumulative knowledge—perhaps in part for the lack of a centralized data repository for survey research in the Middle East—raising questions about the comparability and external validity of findings.
In general, the Middle East and North Africa remains a challenging region to conduct empirical research on the ground generally and survey research in particular. High levels of authoritarianism, restrictive state-society relations, and violence in political conflicts constitute an important context factor, raise ethical concerns, and possibly generate respondents’ preference falsification emanating from question sensitivities and interviewer effects. The region’s lack of political openness and stability in conjunction with significant variation in the availability of a professional research infrastructure has prompted a clustering of survey research across a select number of countries that have remained more survey-friendly than others, including Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, and Qatar. And yet scholars have found ways to conduct systematic individual-level research in more difficult settings including Algeria, Yemen, the conflict environment of Iraq, and the refugee population in Syria’s neighboring countries.
These obvious challenges have also inspired methodological innovation—and it is in this area where the contemporary research program on the Middle East promises to make a noteworthy contribution to social science survey research more broadly. As Sharan Grewal shows, social media networks appear to be an appealing strategy to reach out to populations in closed authoritarian regimes. Yael Zeira, in her study of protests against Israeli occupation, developed a research design aimed at mitigating social-desirability bias and recall bias among respondents. And finally, Justin Gengler invites us to reflect more generally on the impact of survey research on society. He presents findings from an opinion poll among Qataris, asking about their attitudes toward such opinion polls.
-Holger Albrecht, The University of Alabama
Categories: NEWSLETTER: Volume 2, Issue 2