Bridging the gap between area studies and the social sciences

The growth in research on distributive politics speaks to core issues associated with the allocation of state goods and services, as well as patronage politics and resource transfers from elites to citizens.This work has developed with an eye toward the quantitative turn in political science which makes use of a variety of forms of data, including economic data. The study of distributive politics makes use of a rich variety of sources, including government statistics like budgetary figures about public goods and census data, which are often available even when other forms of data are not.

This work also connects to existing literatures in political economy. In the process, it helps to more deeply incorporate the study of Middle Eastern politics into the study of political science. The concepts that are core to the study of distributive politics tend to be cross-cultural, and associated with financial incentives, economic transactions, and negotiations over how to divide scarce resources. In this literature, there is also a greater tendency to think about the political economy foundations of ideology, including religious ideology, rather than religious ideology as exogenous and disconnected from financial and other incentives. Middle East Studies has tended to be marginalized within the social sciences, at least in part, because of the unique role some scholars have attributed to Islam relative to other world religions.

This focus on the political economy of distributive channels also reconnects existing work with a previous literature about states and development that flourished before the study of political Islam became a major focus of scholarly attention. For example, Leonard Binder’s influential 1978 book, In a Moment of Enthusiasm: Political Power and the Second Stratum in Egypt, empirically demonstrates the role of Egypt’s rural middle class in sustaining forms of social stability. For the almost one million Egyptians in families that owned between ten and 50 feddans of land, state development policies provided important distributive benefits. As a result, these rural elite constituted a core constituency of the regime. Binder’s important work on the economic foundations of power demonstrated continuities in patterns of distributive politics which supported maintenance of Egypt’s political order.

In his 1983 book, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes, John Waterbury also takes up the issue of state distributive policies through an examination of the Egyptian bureaucracy and the economic relationship between the Egyptian state and its citizenry.

Like Binder, Waterbury is squarely focused on distributive concerns. Waterbury emphasizes the dynamic aspects of economic relationships as Egypt transitioned from state capitalism to more liberalized economic institutions. He describes the policy options open to Egyptian political actors as they undertook the difficult tasks associated with reforming the state-led economy. The recent scholarship on distributive politics in the Middle East builds connections to these major scholarly works through a focus on resource transfers, including decisions about the allocation of government goods and services.

In my own work on Egypt under Mubarak and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, I have sought to describe the ways in which public goods provision and patronage ties undergird authoritarian regimes. In both settings, I have characterized how changes over time in a country’s economic situation affect the cross-sectional distribution of resources. While the economic challenges that faced Iraq—due to both Iran-Iraq War costs and the international embargo of the 1990s—represented a more profound shock than those experienced by Egypt as a result of fiscal deterioration in the 1980s, each regime struggled to redefine its political coalition. The nature of those coalitions had important implications for how power was projected in both cases. Because the challenge of responding to economic shocks is a generic one, applicable to a wide variety of authoritarian regimes, Middle Eastern state responses can be considered in a broadly comparative context.

Although I have tried to make the case that the study of distributive politics can help to “bridge the gap’’ between area studies and general questions within the social sciences, such an approach overlooks important issues. Efforts to normalize the study of the Middle East through a focus on political economy issues and economic incentives have a tendency to underemphasize the ideological and personal religious commitments that are core to people’s beliefs and behaviors. In the process, studies focused on distributive politics tend to privilege transactional, economic concerns relative to other motivations. The social processes that govern political and economic interactions in Middle Eastern contexts are complicated; efforts to simplify these complex mechanisms of social analysis trade off thoroughness of explication for tractability.

Such an approach might also lead to the creation of an intellectual blind spot with regard to the societal actors that are the least integrated into state distributive politics channels. For example, women, religious and ethnic minorities, and societies’ poorest citizens tend to be underrepresented in these studies. Bureaucrats and politicians, on the other hand, are leading actors in the study of distributive politics. While ordinary citizens exercise personal agency in managing these interactions, they are less likely to be the guiding subjects of political action relative to studies of protest mobilization, social network construction, or identity formation. The actions and behaviors of political opinion leaders, including rising political entrepreneurs, receive relatively little attention in the growing literature on distributive politics.

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