On narrowing and redefining research

After a year of deliberation, I may have finally decided what to write about for my thesis.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I’ve been in Egypt for almost a year now, studiously working towards my MA in Middle East Studies. The supposed capstone of my time here at AUC—my thesis—now looms ahead somewhat menacingly. I get to spend the next several months researching and writing what will end up being my largest research project to date. It’ll also set the foundation for my (hopefully) future PhD plans.

There’s only one problem: I don’t quite know what I’m writing it on.

At BYU I double majored in Middle East Studies/Arabic (MESA) and Italian—an odd mix of modern history, political science, and renaissance poetry. Most of my research focused on finding literary and historic connections between the Middle East and Italy. I looked at the role of Sufism in the birth of Catholic mysticism, especially with Jacopone da Todi and St. Francis of Assisi. I looked at the Young Ottomans and their reliance on Mazzini’s Giovine Italia ideology. I even presented a paper at a conference about the role of Mohammed in Inferno XXVIII in Dante’s Divine Comedy, connecting it to proto-orientalism.

Fun times :)

At the same time, though, there was an inherent conflict in my research interests. I wrote my MESA capstone paper on the media coverage of the 2006 Israel/Lebanon war, where no Italian literature was involved :). I love media—I’m obsessed with the news, the internet, blogs, Twitter; anything shiny, new, and exciting.

I started my MA with the assumption that I’d have to choose one of these tracks—history or media. I dove headlong into the history track, writing a huge literature review on the history of the Italians in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. Large Italian communities in Cairo, Alexandria, and Ismailiyya sprang up after Napoleon’s 1798 invasion. Thousands of Italians were born and raised abroad in these cities, and many took part in the Egyptian nationalist movement, considering themselves more Egyptian than Italian, thus earning themselves the nickname mutamasirun (those who try to be Egyptian).

I was excited about this research until a new shiny thing took my attention away—Twitter. I started using Twitter more or less full time in January, which then introduced me to the large Egyptian Twitter community. Many of the Egyptian twitterers are also activist bloggers who have been arrested multiple times. I began to see the power and potential of the internet in political reform and change in the Middle East and switched research gears to focus on the Middle Eastern blogosphere. It was fascinating stuff, but I felt like I had turned my back on history :) Further complicating things, I had an amazing history seminar last semester that resulted in some awesomely fun archival research. I had a blast writing the paper. The primeval dichotomy of history vs. media reared its ugly head again.

Since I’m nearing the end of my MA, I’m looking at different PhD programs to go to once I’m done here. There are lots that look at bloggers and politics—even ones that look at bloggers and politics and the Middle East—but none do it with a historical approach (fancy that… blogs have been around for something like four years and it’s not history yet :) ). I sent out dozens of e-mails to different professors asking about graduate programs and my potential research. Most responses were confused; history != new media.

However, one professor at Cornell responded positively. He studies media in modern Egyptian history, specifically in the time period of my Italian mutamasirun.

I think I may have found a way to bridge the history/media studies gap. Now I just need to figure out exactly how to do it.

Awesome. :)

So, sorry bloggers—I’ll keep following you as a tangential fascination, but my heart lies in history.