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When We Assess Democracy In Egypt, Whose “Democracy” Are We Measuring?

September 15, 2015

“Bread, freedom, social justice!” What’s your definition of democracy?

Yesterday, after a lecture on ethnographic fieldwork, a student came up to me to discuss the anthropological concepts of ethnocentrism and relativism, which were first raised in an on-line lecture on the anthropological perspective, and then again yesterday in my discussion of methodology.

“What does an anthropologist do,” the student asked, “when you encounter a society that doesn’t recognize its own problems. For example, what if a society is oppressed, but doesn’t recognize that they are oppressed?”

I wondered if he was speaking of the United States, but it turned out he was thinking of–you guessed it–the Middle East.

If you ask people in the Middle East if they want democracy, they will say yes, he asserted. But if you ask them specific questions about each of the defining principles of democracy, they don’t actually want them.

“For example, if you ask them if they want gender equality, they’ll tell you no,” he said.

“What if instead of asking them whether they want gender equality, you were to ask them what they mean by democracy?” I asked.(And yes, I recognize the problem of his ready characterization of a monolithic “they” but…one thing at a time.)

“It seems to me that any definition of democracy must have gender equality as a fundamental component,” he replied

“Of course it seems that way to you,” I said. “You get to define democracy, and then you get to determine who fits your definition. That is exactly what the lecture refers to as ethnocentrism.”

“I want gender equality for Egypt, too,” I said. “I have a lot of women friends, and colleagues and former students, and I think it’s important. I also want gender equality for women in the US. But my values–which are culturally shaped– don’t constitute a universal definition.”

“The relativistic question would be, ‘what do Egyptians seem to mean when they say they want democracy?’ And then you could measure their progress toward that.”

“Of course,” I continued, “there isn’t one answer. There are many different senses of what democracy means floating around in Egypt and part of your analysis would be trying to make sense of that.”

To be fair, I knew exactly where the student was coming from.

“Democratization” — the transition from a less democratic to a more democratic society — is a key concept for many political scientists. As with many concepts in political science, it seems to be used simultaneously as a goal, and as an analytical term. We want to understand political processes of democratization in order to be able to create policies that will better promote  democracy.

As an anthropologist, I find the work on democratization as it relates to my field areas very problematic because it almost by necessity begins with an a priori definition. We define democracy–usually as what the US has, or aspires to–then measure other societies against this. Once we have our a priori definition, we can measure a society’s “progress” toward or away from this definition,

There’s a whole journal devoted to work in this area, and I read pretty much every article about Egypt published in it.

As a professor of International Studies, I even teach this stuff–although I always try to pass on to the students a little of my own skepticism. Thankfully, I don’t have to teach this approach in my anthropology courses, which is why he and I could have that conversation. This is why I love liberal arts education.

I also recognize the practicalities my student–a senior political science major who wants a future in politics and policy making–is facing in trying to take anthropology seriously. When Deb Spitulnik-Vidali and I wrote our chapter on ethnography for the The Sage Handbook of Political Communication, we recognized that

although ethnography has been employed by communications scholars since the 1960s, and is gaining vogue among some political scientists, it is almost entirely absent from professional publications in political communication. Roudakova’s (2009) account of the changing agency of journalists in postSoviet Russia is one of the very first ethnographically-based research articles to be published in a political communication journal.

There are several reasons for the relative absence of ethnographic methods in political communication studies, including:

  • ethnographic studies require more time than most political scientists want to commit (and than their institutional expectations will allow them to commit), and
  • ethnographic studies do not easily lend themselves to immediate policy outcomes.

On the other hand, McNabb (2004) proposes that the intimate, comprehensive description associated with ethnography can provide fuller details about how institutions operate and how political decisions are made, as well as “deep background information for long-term,strategic public policy forming” (398).

And we wrote:

Most importantly, ethnography has the capacity to produce new, unanticipated empirical information about political communication from which questions for subsequent quantitative research can be generated.

In other words, before you measure democratization among the Egyptians, spend some field time learning the range of meanings Egyptians ascribe to democracy. Only then will you really know what to measure.


McNabb, David E. 2004. Research Methods for Political Science: Quantitative and Qualitative Methods. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Roudakova, Natalia. 2009. Journalism as  prostitution: Understanding Russias reactions to Anna Politkovskayas murder. Political Communication, 26(4): 412-429.

Spitulnik-Vidali, Deborah and Mark Allen Peterson. 2012. “Ethnography as Theory and Method in the Study of Political Communication”. Sage Handbook of Political Communication. Holli A. Semetko and Margaret Scammell, eds. Pp. 264-275. Sage Publications, Ltd.

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