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The Research Network Reconfigurations studies the current societal change in the region “Middle East and North Africa” (MENA). The “Arab Spring” serves as the starting point from which to analyze political, economic and cultural reconfigurations. Events since 2010/11 revealed a few conceptual weaknesses of MENA regional studies, such as too narrow a focus on political elites and institutions, or ahistorical and essentialist examinations of religious and cultural factors. Therefore, the goal of the Network is to apply more actor-centered perspectives, to address the historicity of current processes and to develop a system based on research of similar upheavals in other world regions. Drawing from the expertise available in Marburg, the projects of the Network were developed along four interconnected research fields.

  • Research Field 1: History from Below

    The ‘Arab Spring’ was unforeseen by a large percentage of the MENA regional studies scientific community. Up until then, research on contemporary Middle East societies was studying the reasons for the lack of democratic transition and apparent stability of authoritarian systems was emphasized. The overall focus was on the political elite and the formal structures. In contrast, the Research Network Re-Configurations is examining the agency and impact of subaltern actors in recent history and today, concentrating on the organizers and leaders of the uprisings of 2011. Moreover, the Research Network places emphasis on developments happening below the level of the political elite and separate from institutionalized power relations. Civil society actors, practices of everyday resistance, and the formation of semi-autonomous social spheres play a pivotal role in Re-Configurations research.

  • Research Field 2: Re-Configuration of Cultural Memory

    The second research field deals with contemporary re-configurations of cultural memory in different countries of the region, behind the weakening of earlier grand hegemonic narratives reflective of corresponding authoritarian regimes. Despite the resiliency of authoritarian structures or lapses into civil war and state failure in a group of MENA region countries, civil society actors are increasingly contributing in the fields of art, literature, film, and architecture, thereby transcending officially sanctioned remembrance cultures. Even in the fields of education and in media, civil society actors are being heard. Through an analysis of these developments and an examination of the struggle to define cultural memory, conclusions about how profound societal and political change in the countries of the region really is can be drawn.

  • Research Field 3: Political transformation processes and transitional justice

    The third research field addresses the transformations in the MENA region since 2011, tying together formal structures, state institutions, the political elite, and civil society actors in a wider historical context. To the extent that these transformations are about political change in the wake of public protests and opposition movements anticipated by ruling elites, there are clear linkages to the first field of research. The difference in this research field is based on changing relationships between state and society; in other words, this research field observes the contextualization of state action and elite politics as a result of negotiation processes with various societal actors under authoritarian conditions. Therefore, not only systemic changes (‘regime change’) are perceived as political change, but also, in a broader sense, figurations of domination over formal political structures. Consequently, forms of ‘contentious politics’ or ‘ patriarchal bargains’ in the struggle of political hegemony are detectable.

    In the third research field, particular attention is paid to the dynamics of political change after violent conflict. These dynamics are a result of widespread political repression in the MENA region before the ‘Arab Spring’ and a result of the ensuing course of revolts and developments; they are manifested in the form of truth commissions, special tribunals, historical commissions, and similar instruments of transitional justice institutionalized in different regions. Processes of transitional justice have only been initiated in a few countries (Morocco, Iraq, Tunisia) with different and mixed outcomes. The most significant example of a post-revolutionary TJ-process is the Tunisian truth commission: the result of an interaction between international actors and various fractions of the political elite.

  • Research Field 4: Trans-regional interdependencies 

    The fourth research field of the Network examines transregional influences and actors in the context of re-configurations in the MENA region. This research field implies a questioning of the regional term ‘MENA’ and stresses the importance of a critical debate within area studies of the MENA region. This results in adopting emic perspectives on regional self-perceptions and etical re-constructions of spatial contexts beyond established meta-geographies. In this research field, transregional and intra-regional entanglements on different levels are also addressed as conceptual and methodological challenges of a trans-regional perspective in academic knowledge production. Transregional dimensions and global contexts are clearly revealed in processes of media exchange and in the fields of education. They are of great importance in understanding comparable protest dynamics in different regions and they help explain current flight and migration movements.

The goal of the second phase is to build upon empirical findings and to move towards more conceptual and methodological considerations of reconfigurations in political and societal structures.

  • Analytical Axis 1: Space

    Developments in the MENA region since 2011 have tested the conceptual suitability of terms like “territorial state” and “global regions” that fail to address complex processes (META 4/2015, „Area Studies“). A refined conceptualization of “space” should take on a multi-scalar perspective and be transnational and transregional (i.e. connecting metropolitan cities with peripheries and regional areas with various localities). Moreover, space should be understood as a historically manufactured product based on collectively shared representations like names, symbols, and maps.

    The ideas of space that were applied in different epochs form a reservoir of reference points, which may be reactivated and repurposed within new power configurations, especially after previous hegemonic structures are shaken. With these conceptions of space in mind, the Network re-conceptualizes the MENA region as a space that consists of interwoven “arenas” of human interaction, as clusters of dense social relations.

    For example, new spaces of economic exchange are constantly emerging and norms, values and identities are being renegotiated through various forms of cooperation. A de-territorialized conception of space also includes the post-national "intermediate place", "transition space" or "third space" of cultural memory and production. Finally, the emergence of the digital age has radically altered how spatial and temporal modalities of interaction structure and form social negotiation processes, and therefore its affect must be taken into consideration.

  • Analytical Axis 2: Generation

    Since the “Arab Spring”, which was celebrated as the result of youth protests, the question still remains to be answered: what biographical patterns have processes of engagement and disengagement followed? The phenomenon of “youth” here is less defined as a clearly quantifiable phase of life, and more as a psychosocial sphere of opportunity. Although youth originate from social and familial generations that came before, they must be qualified by means of self-interpretation and self-representation.

    The task of the Network will be to successfully combine various discussions, in the traditional disciplines and in regional studies, of the concept “generation”. In extension, the “generational” aspect of temporality will have to be systematically connected to space and representation.

  • Analytical Axis 3: Representation

    Actors communicate in conflict- and cooperation- forming negotiation processes by using words, symbols, images, narratives and performances. Through such “representations” actors produce meaning (Hall). These representations become resources that can be used to structure reconfigurations of social interaction systems. New social interaction systems, in turn, reconfigure these representations.

    In the second phase we will focus on aesthetic representations of authority, resistance, justice and martyrdom. These are all central motifs of political discourse that reflect and simultaneously structure political reconfigurations. In addition to these aesthetic representations, forms and functions of regional and territorial representations by political actors, especially regarding new quasi-states, will be studied by the Network. Moreover, we will take into account representations of space and order that economic actors utilize in their current and long term negotiations. By grasping territorial boundaries as narratives of history passed on and renegotiated inter-generationally, we systematically relate space, generation and representation to one another.