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Review of Connected in Cairo in Arab Studies Journal

August 2, 2012

“Participant observation being the messy kind of data gathering practice it is, I don’t really select my informants. I am a guest in their world … and it is my hosts who select me.”

There’s a new review of Connected In Cairo in the Spring 2012 edition of the Arab Studies Journal

The review is by Shane Minkin, an assistant professor of history at Swarthmore College (where my brilliant colleague Farha Ghannam also teaches).

Minkin praises the writing and organization of the book, which she says reads like a “pleasant jaunt” through pre-revolution Cairo.

The bottom line of here review, though, is that:

While enjoyable, the work suffers from a lack of methodological clarity. Additionally, it employs an expansive definition of cosmopolitanism that ultimately encompasses all things elite. This broad application ultimately muddles the meaning of cosmopolitan and leaves the reader unsure of the boundaries of its application.

By “lack of methodological clarity” she means that she is dissatisfied with my discussion of how I selected my informants, how their words and actions were distilled into data, and how I derived my analysis from that data.

I can’t really say much to refute this. I am not a fan of detailed “methods” sections in books; I tried to describe the contexts through which I knew each informant as I introduced them. This is an approach I probably picked up in my career as a journalist and while I think it makes my work more readable, a purist might well see it as just a bad habit.

The thing is, participant observation being the messy kind of data gathering practice it is, I don’t really select my informants. I am a guest in their world (albeit a working guest) and it is my hosts who select me. Rigor is something introduced in the analytical stage, when I start sorting through my reams of information and asking myself: “What questions can I credibly ask of this data?”

As for the issue about definitions, I think there is a significant misunderstanding. Minkin paraphrases my approach to cosmopolitanism thus:

He defines cosmopolitanism as the action, language and social infrastructure of the upper and middle-class classes in Cairo, who have access, monetarily and through their “modernity” to transnational goods and foreign (Western) language education.

In other words, Minkin describes me as saying that cosmopolitanism is a kind of cultural attribute or possession of some particular group of people.

In fact, I don’t mean to describe cosmopolitanism this way at all. I write:

Cosmopolitanism…is conceived here as a set of practices through which the Egyptian upper classes and those with upwardly mobile aspirations construct themselves as transnational elites whose unequal control over Egypt’s economic and political resources is justified by their modernity, and whose modernity is in turn revealed by their cosmopolitanism… (p. 7)

Cosmpolitanism is, in other words, not an attribute, not something people have, it is a practice, something people do.

I use the semiotic concept of indexicality–meaning something by being connected to it–as a way to theorize this conception of cosmopolitanism. People make connections through their bodily comportment, language, and especially consumption and display of goods, that connects them to the wider world outside Egypt. There are different orders of indexicality expressed as styles that have different values in different social fields.

There are wealthy and powerful elites who do not possess much cosmopolitan style (especially among the military caste), and there are lower middle class people who do. One of the tricks is, though, that since the most valued cosmopolitan style is rooted in displays of consumption, those with more disposable wealth are more easily able to master these styles.

Anyway, that misreading aside, it’s nice to see another review of the book. I am flattered by the length of the review–1600 words over six pages (Most journals I’m asked to review for limit me to 800-1000 words). Minkin uses the space to write a lengthy paragraph or two detailing each chapter.

References

Minkin, Shane. 2012. Review of Connected in Cairo: Growing up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East by Mark Allen Peterson. Arab Studies Journal XX(1): 178-183.

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