Rethinking national fact in the Middle East: Jordan as a case study

Contemporary knowledge production around Jordan is marked by the social, intellectual and/or ideological backgrounds of scholars, the evolution of research interests, as well as the closure of other parts of the region due to border issues, crises and conflicts. From the end of the 19th century onwards, the rise of biblical studies has led to an increased interest in the Transjordan region among archaeologists and ethnologists. Archaeological work and research into folklore were supported by the British government during the Mandate Period, as was expert knowledge. From the 1950s onwards, interest in human and social sciences in the region developed, with Jordan becoming an ideal vantage point for the study of geographical mobility and refugees, with the development of research on Palestinian camps, notably, but also in the analysis of the tribal phenomenon. Meanwhile, wars in Lebanon and the Gulf, followed by the Arab revolutions, reshaped access to Middle Eastern territories, and with it Jordan’s place at the heart of academic production. Furthermore, since the 1950s and the independence of the Kingdom, the gradual development of Jordan’s university system has led to the strengthening of an Arabic-language human and social sciences tradition around Jordan, making up, notably, the greater part of urban studies, work on the Ottoman period, questions on migration, as well as anthropological and tourism research.

Since around a decade ago, Jordan has held an increasingly important place at the heart of research in the Middle East, particularly thanks to its accessibility, and especially among young researchers. Jordan is becoming a field of study ‘by default,’ as a result of the stability of the country; but this rich and little-studied territory is also an interesting field of study in its own right. In this context, this research programme aims to encourage reflection on the production and evolution of social sciences in times of ‘crisis’ in the Middle East. Research into the ‘Jordanian national identity’ constitutes, then, an entry point into comprehending the transformations occurring at different levels (local, regional, global) in this part of the world, and the approaches employed to understand them. Jordan provides an interesting case study: relatively recently created, and with a high proportion of refugees and migrants among its population, it is a place where a sense of national belonging cannot always be taken for granted. The country, then, offers an unusual heuristic quality which can shed light on issues that are often less perceptible elsewhere.

At once considered a ‘stable’ country in a region that is facing multiple crises, and as a state that has been in ‘transition towards democracy’ since the 1990s, Jordan appears to be an exception. As such, the country is a fertile territory in which to interrogate notions of ‘crisis,’ ‘transition’ or ‘destabilisation,’ terms so often used to qualify this region. This is especially the case, since modern Jordanian history has been marked by repeated waves of migration from Palestine, Iraq, Syria, or around the Gulf, creating a country at the crossroads and, simultaneously, a sounding board for the numerous challenges faced by the region. Jordan offers, too, a textbook case of the economic change and environmental transition at work in the region, in a context where resources are scarce and where political and economic dependencies influence the orientation of policies and reforms. Security and regional stability issues take on a particular meaning in this ‘buffer’ country, as one can observe, notably, in policies relating to refugees or indeed political opponents.

An introduction to the theme through the topic of ‘Jordanian national identity’ provides a point of entry into several current political and scientific debates regarding the Middle East, modes of belonging, citizenships, transformation and State borders. It allows, too, for interrogation of the representativeness or singularity of the Jordanian case. This means taking Jordan seriously, in terms of what it teaches us about practices, theories and concepts in our disciplines, and about itself. This project will contribute to the decompartmentalisation of Jordan by questioning what this reveals about nodal economic and social dynamics. The programme and training offered (meetings, workshops, webinars) will allow us to think of areas for comparison with other national situations, while raising questions about the concepts often applied here (‘rentier state,’ ‘authoritarian state,’ ‘tribes’).

This research programme, supported by the Institute of Mediterranean Societies in Transition (SoMuM), aims to build a multidisciplinary and international research team of 13 Master and Doctoral students.

Research topics

Candidates will be considered with particular interest where demonstrating a level of reflection on the question of Jordanian national identity:

  • Through modes of belonging (tribal, religious, ethnic, national)

The relatively recent creation, in 1921, of the Transjordan Emirate under British mandate, on territories which until then had formed part of the south of the Ottoman-ruled Bilād al-Shām, has often led research to consider the construction of the Jordanian nation as artificial and/or fragile. This approach sometimes intersects with that of migration phenomenon studies, which have often questioned the place of migrants or refugees at the heart of Jordan’s national discourse and its society. The interaction between State and modes of belonging has been studied from several viewpoints, notably with regard to tribal, ethnic or religious belonging. Here, the range of modes of belonging for Jordanians, or people living in Jordan, will be investigated, questioning national identity according to complexity of discourse and experience, and to discuss their social, intellectual and cultural mechanisms over the long term.

  • Through citizenships and social questions (rights, commonalities, representations)

Protest movements of various magnitudes regularly contest Jordan’s political regime (citing monarchy, corruption, authoritarianism) and the reforms launched around thirty years ago which aimed at economic liberalisation and the advent of a ‘post-rentier’ social contract. Reforms which, as in other countries in the region, have seen the erosion of the social safety net and the deepening of socio-economic inequalities. In this context, research involves interrogating the multiple forms that acts of citizenship can take, claims to rights, and the implementation of alternative forms of solidarity, and what these tell us about representation and political participation in this country and at a regional level.

  • Through transformations and State borders (collapse, resilience, reconstitution)

In a region where the State is principally described through a rhetoric of crisis or transition, the Jordanian political system has cultivated an image of stability which seems at odds with its neighbours. However, the political authorities are characterised by practices of authoritarianism, cronyism and neoliberalism reminiscent of other situations. As such, Jordan is an interesting case study when it comes to contributing to debates on the transformation of the State and the hybridisation of political systems. Research will, for example, be able to focus on the strengthening of public authority in certain sectors, in the delegation and privatisation of other functions, which are traditionally attached to the State, or indeed in the relationship between local and central control.


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