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Paying our dues
Academics need to do more to respond to Iran's democratic movement

By Mehrdad Valibeigi
April 27, 2000
The Iranian

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Mehrdad Valibeigi


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