for autonomous sociology

The Making of ‘Autonomy and Symbolic Capital in an Academic Social Movement’


The European Journal of Turkish Studies (EJTS) has just published my article ‘Autonomy and Symbolic Capital in an Academic Social Movement: The March 9 Group in Egypt’ (open access), as part of a special issue on demobilization at universities in Turkey and in other countries.

What It’s About

The March 9 Group for University Autonomy is a small group of Egyptian university professors who have campaigned, since 2003, against the regime’s interference in academic affairs and campus life. The article suggests that the group’s survival for such a long time under Mubarak, and its limited successes, depended on the involvement of renowned academics, on participatory democracy, and on the avoidance of conflicts between professors. I suggest that all these assets became liabilities following the revolutionary uprising of January 2011, and that this is why the group has largely demobilized.

Why I Did It

In August 2012, when I was a post-doc at the National University of Singapore, I started to plan a long-term research project on the autonomy of Arab academics and on their ability to reach non-specialist audiences as intellectuals or activists. I wanted this project to include something on the March 9 Group. Jordi Tejel, the editor of this issue of EJTS, then invited me to contribute an article to the issue. In order to meet the publication deadlines, I suggested a small-scale study focusing on March 9. This would allow me to start working on the issues I was interested in, while producing an article in the time available.

What I Like About It

Social movement theory hasn’t paid much attention to activists' prestige, but during my own experience as an activist (in London, long ago), it seemed to me that social movements were keen to involve prestigious activists. So I’m glad I finally had a chance to do a study that deals with this aspect of activists' careers. I’m also glad to have written about events that I see as historically important and that might otherwise have been forgotten. And since my PhD was about intellectual projects that I see as basically misguided, it was a pleasant change to study a group whose work I respect.

What I Wish I Could Have Done

Some of the activists I interviewed belong to families that have produced generations of well-known activists, and I wish I had had the time and space to explore that phenomenon further. I also would have liked to include the perspectives of Muslim Brotherhood members who were involved in these events, as well as the views of non-activist academics.

What Next?

Since I had to do this study in a limited amount of time, I did it using methods I was very familiar with. I think the need to publish quickly tends to limit the autonomy of research, because it discourages the researcher from taking the time to learn new techniques, and favours the reproduction of well-known, low-risk methods. Next I’d like to a research project involving techniques, especially quantitative ones, that I’m less familiar with.