Paying our dues
Academics need to do more to respond to Iran's democratic
By Mehrdad Valibeigi
April 27, 2000
From a presentation at the 18th annual conference of the Center for
Iranian Research and Analysys (CIRA)
in Washington, DC (April 28-29). Mehrdad Valibeigi is a professor of economics
at the American University.
The dawn of the new period of democratic movement in Iran has expanded
the scope and the burden of responsibility by the expatriate Iranian scientific
community. To meet this new challenge, we social scientists have to be
critically examining our past performance, and sincerely increase our efforts
towards genuine and relevant research on all aspect of the Iranian society.
On this we not only have an obligation to our scientific codes of ethic,
but also have a responsibility towards the Iranian people who have financially
and psychologically invested in us as the messengers of hope and agents
of progress and innovation.
I say a critical look at the past because unfortunately, at least in
my own field of economics and political economy, I can think about only
a few significant and first-hand contributions by the economists and political
economists abroad. This is in spite the fact that there are more than 150
trained economists and professional academicians in this country alone.
Thus for example, based on the Economic Literature index of journal articles,
in the last 5 years out of a total number of 57 articles published in
respected and refereed economic journals, only 24 have been by Iranian
economists, 8 of which by one individual namely Dr. Mohsen Bahmani-Oskooee.
This is compared to the total number of 458 articles on Pakistan, 257
articles on Turkey, and 248 articles on Israel. With the exception of
a few outstanding books, the majority of the publications are often simple
collections of secondary data, repeating subjects, theories, and arguments.
I don't exclude myself from this category.
One of the main shortcomings of the majority of the current research
in the areas of history and social sciences in general is that they are
derivative, and at best investigative journalism. Instead of drawing conclusions
from primary evidence of actual conditions, they are based on other studies
or many secondary data and information. Another problem is the level of
generality and abstraction in the research and studies done in social sciences.
Such level of generality and scope of the subject under analysis does
not easily lend itself to historical or empirical verification. As a result,
and due to its level of generality, these studies have little predictive
power and often lack policy implications.
In order to overcome these shortcomings, the focus has to be shifted
from general and abstract research topics, to focused and concrete subjects.
The finding should be derived from objectively collected data, and first
hand data, they should enhance our explanatory and predictive power and
give some form of policy recommendation. This does not mean that either
descriptive, or logically coherent Grand theories of the revolution, or
political and social processes are not relevant or not important I believe,
however, that the emphasis on such generalized and broad subjects has to
be equality matched by a shift of emphasis on empirical research, with
concrete findings, policy recommendations, and applications.
There are several reasons for the above shortcomings. First, it is mainly
due to what, economically speaking, can be referred to as the opportunity
cost of doing research on Iran. The lack of sufficient and genuine research
on Iran can be partially blamed on the fact that the Iranian scientific
community here sees little financial rewards for the valuable time that
they spend on doing research on Iran. Choosing this subject a matter is
not equally helpful in career advancement or academic credentials. The
second problem arises out of the predicament of research by Diaspora in
general. Like many aspects of their lives the first generation of the Iranian
scientists abroad left their homeland with the aspiration of going back
and applying their knowledge to the tangible social, or political, or economic
phenomenon through a first hand experience and exposure to the surrounding
social environment and reality. However, prolonged separation from the
primary source of their aspirations, that is the people, their interactions,
their ideas, and their struggles, gradually alienated the researchers from
the very subject matter they came to study and learn about. This resulted
in either giving up research on Iran all together, shifting the focus our
time and energy on more tangible issues in the new homeland, or simply
pushing the Iranian issue to the secondary and pastime activity.
Fortunately, for the majority of the Iranian intellectuals abroad, this
period of hardship and confusion is coming to an end. Most of us have been
able to secure a position that provides a level of economic security.
Therefore, it is just a matter of extra hard work to refocus our attention
and try to incorporate our past aspirations with our newly acquired technical
expertise, not only to bring peace to our agitated souls but also to pay
our dues to a people who we are so deeply indebted to.
Following are some suggestions to overcome past shortcomings and pave
the way for a serious and sincere attempt by social scientists abroad to
enhance the state of research through increased contact with Iran.
1. Increased contact and cooperation with the universities in Iran.
This can be in the form of joint researches and effort with the academics
and students inside the country. Hiring of graduate students to collect
data and information and doing survey research through an intensive use
of the Internet can be a valuable tool in collecting first hand data.
2. Increased research and cooperation with the non-suppressive
organs and ministries of the government towards policy oriented research,
formulation, and implementation and evaluation.
3. Increase contact with the newly elected members of the parliament,
(if there will be a new parliament) and involvement in doing research towards
the drafting and introduction of new legislation.
4. Increased contact with the reformist media to support their
democratic movement and supply it with factual, objective, and scientific
data on various aspects of the contemporary society, politics, culture
and economy in Iran and around the world.
5. Prepare and maintain informative and instructive web sites that
can be directly related to courses taught in the respective universities
and institutions abroad. This can certainly include interactive courses
for the Iranian public and students.
6. Encourage and support translation of quality research papers
and dissertations to Persian. This can be part of collective efforts by
all academics and research organizations such as CIRA, Society for Iranian
Studies, and Iranian Heritage Foundation, and many other such organizations.
It is obviously easy to prepare a wish list of the things that need
to be done or improved, but to get it done is another matter. I am hoping
that with the election of new officers to the CIRA's board of director,
coupled with the new rise of optimism for the eventual dawn of democracy
in Iran, a genuine and honest attempt be made by all of us to materialize
few of the many goals outlined in the above.
It is now an established fact that the level of political knowledge
and exercise of democratic rights is highly associated with the level of
maturity and development of the civil society. The backbone of the civil
society is the associations formed by the intellectuals such as the writers,
artists, teachers, academicians and scientists. Although CIRA, SIS and
others scientific and cultural associations abroad are not centered inside
the country, I believe they are an integral part of the Iranian civil
society. The significant advance in global communication has strengthened
this association and sense of belongingness. And this indeed is a great
opportunity, particularly for this generation of Iranian social scientists
abroad who have the experience of having lived in both cultures and societies.
Dear friends and colleagues, I am confident that heightening our expectations
and our hope about the current democratic movement in Iran is not based
on a brief euphoria and or a short-lived optimism. The new movement is
the direct result of increased level of education, literacy, and political
awareness among the Iranian youth and women. It is also the result of increased
exposure to the outside world. Education and demystification of the dogmas
associated with various forms of ideologies in the name of religion, or
science, have played a pivotal rule in the increasing demand by the public
towards further democratization of the political system, and respect for
basic human and civil rights in the country. I think the scientific community
abroad can play a major and more intensified role in furthering the cause
of democracy in Iran. Thanks you again for your participation in our conference.