Daniele Cantini, research associate, Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich

Ethnography of a university? The University of Jordan as an institution, and how to study it

The paper discusses the possibilities of making sense ethnographically of a complex and multi-faceted institution like the university and educational institutions in general. More specifically, the paper presents the case of a public university in Amman, analysing its political and social relevance in the Jordanian developmental discourse, and addressing the impact of globalization. The ethnographic research takes the university as a vantage point to look at continuities and changes in the ways in which youth in Jordan are socialized, citizenship is built, and differences are created and sustained. The university is thus highly relevant for discussions of citizenship, civic consciousness, and the role of the contemporary state, and therefore located at the centre of questions of legitimacy of knowledge and power, allocation of positions in society, and entrance into the labour market.

The paper argues that institutions such as the university above all have a semantic function to confirm and re-confirm certain orders or states of affair and to establish the reference for their evaluation. Institutions consolidate “what is” and “what is valuable” as true and valid for all circumstances in public discourse and thereby construct reality. But institutions are highly ambiguous things – “at once necessary and fragile, beneficial and abusive” (Boltanski 2011). There is an urgent need to understand ethnographically the actual conditions and the context that shape what the universities can be, and what they can contribute to.

The university presents an ambivalent and contested space, since from one point of view it is a place of legitimacy and at the same time a place in which some form of opposition might emerge, and is therefore carefully guarded both physically and from an organisational perspective. But the possibility of opposition and critique originates from the very essence of the university as an institution. Here opposition is not only political, but also more significantly played out as struggles for dignity, freedom and autonomy.

Daniele Cantini is currently research associate at the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of Zurich, Switzerland. He earned his PhD in social anthropology at the University of Modena and the University of Milan-Bicocca in 2006, with a thesis on the Jordanian university system and its students, and obtained the Abilitazione Scientifica Nazionale in Social Anthropology in Italy in 2017. He has been an affiliated researcher at the Centre d’Études et de Documentation Économiques, Juridiques et sociales (CEDEJ, Egypt), a postdoc and then senior research fellow at the Research Cluster "Society and Culture in Motion" at the University of Halle-Wittenberg (2011–2016); and has led a German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF)-funded project on doctoral studies at Egyptian universities. In 2016-7 he was research associate at the Orient-Institut Beirut, Lebanon, an institute of the Max Weber Foundation. He is the author of Youth and Education in the Middle East: Shaping identity and politics in Jordan (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016).

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