Top Young Historians: 32 – James McDougall


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

32: James McDougall, 10-17-06

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor of History, Princeton University (since Sept. 2004)
Area of Research: Modern and contemporary history of the Middle East and North Africa, with broader interests in the French colonial empire, the history of Islam since 1700, and colonial and nationalist historiography.
Education: D.Phil., Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, 2002.
Major Publications: McDougall is the author of History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Middle East Studies 24, July 2006).
James McDougall JPGHe is also the editor of Nation, Society and Culture in North Africa (London and Portland, Frank Cass, History and Society in the Islamic World 6, May 2003, which was first published as Journal of North African Studies 8,1 (Spring 2003)).
McDougall is currently working on a number of book projects including: Fragments of empire. Everyday forms of colonialism in France and Africa;
(Book-length research project in progress) with Julia A. Clancy-Smith, Susan Gilson Miller, Kenneth J. Perkins, Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, and Mohamed el-Mansour A History of the Maghrib, (Cambridge University Press (under contract));
A History of Algeria, (Cambridge University Press (under contract)).
Awards: McDougall is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including:
Malcolm H. Kerr Dissertation Award (Middle East Studies Association of North America), 2003, Honourable mention.
Leigh Douglas Memorial Prize (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), 2003, Honourable mention.
Leverhulme Trust Special Research Fellowship, 2002-2004.
EU SOCRATES/ERASMUS research grant, Maison méditerranéenne des Sciences de l’Homme, (CNRS/Université de Provence), Aix-en-Provence, 2000.
British Academy / UK Arts and Humanities Research Board postgraduate studentships, 1998-2002.
Honeyman Prize (Best Finalist in Arabic, University of St Andrews), 1998.
Dudley-Morgan Prize (Best Finalist in French, University of St Andrews), 1998.
Additional Info:
McDougall is a member of the editorial committee of Middle East Report and of the editorial board of the MIT Electronic Journal of Middle East Studies He is a board member, American Institute of Maghrib Studies
He was Junior Research Fellow, the Middle East Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford, Nov. 2002 – Aug. 2004
He is also proficient in French, German, Arabic.

Personal Anecdote

The woman behind the post office counter at the shop around the corner, who had known my family for a while, was not impressed that I was doing a doctorate in history. I’d just graduated with my first degree and was back at my mum’s house for part of the summer, so it was reasonable for her to ask where I was going to be working now. I said I was going to Oxford to work on the modern history of the Middle East. `So, not going into the real world yet, then’, she said. Or something like that. `Not… the real world’ was what stuck.

In an important sense, of course, she was right. The professional study of history wasn’t high on the list of useful occupations for most people in the de-industrialized, not yet post-industrial, north-east of England where I grew up. Only a couple of generations previously, the suburb of semi-detached houses where my family lived had been the pithead of a colliery. Most of the town’s coal and other industry (especially, unusually, confectionary) had gone well before the crisis of British heavy industry and it was also saved by being a market town and commuter centre between bigger cities, so the near civil war of the early 1980s when the Thatcher government put down the miners’ strike, and the subsequent social and urban decay, didn’t affect us nearly so badly as they did other parts of the region. Nonetheless, there was a definite residual consensus locally about what counted as real work, what the useful upper limits of education were, and where the boundaries of reality lay, and with the sort of lower middle-class, individualistic aspirations that Thatcher’s children were meant to have (but also, fortunately for me, a romantic fascination for the life of a university that they weren’t), as an adolescent I had a different idea to the locally received one of what the real world might be. But it wasn’t so much my inability to grasp the significance of the persisting norms of an unraveling working class community within which I might, in a different decade, have been able to see myself that made me remember the comment. The point is rather that the real world was precisely what interested me. It was just that the bits of it I most wanted to know were elsewhere.

As an undergraduate studying languages and literature, textual criticism and hermeneutics seemed like obvious ways of understanding what made worlds real to people, and their application to history seemed to me (despite the fuss this was causing in empiricist Britain) equally obvious as well as fascinating. This didn’t mean disappearing from tangible reality into an immaterial jargonzone. It meant a serious effort to understand modern world, especially colonial, histories and their enduring consequences, the supposed incommensurability of African and Asian (and particularly Islamic) life-worlds and identities with those of ‘the West’, how narratives of the past function publicly to hold people together and drive them apart, how they reinvent for particular purposes things that happened quite differently, how they give new meanings to things people think they already know. It definitely meant figuring out how, in radically different but intensely interconnected places and languages, real people understand their realities.

One way of starting to do this was teaching second and third generation immigrant children in a Marseille secondary school (teaching was the official excuse; obviously I learned a lot more than I ever taught anyone, including about crowd control and tear gas—don’t get the wrong idea, it was the kids using the tear gas…). So was volunteering for a summer in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank, and getting to know the cities and countryside of France, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco by foot, taxi, train and bus. But it’s the same thing that I look for in the reading rooms of libraries and archives, and the same thing that has made moving to America, in an otherwise unpropitious time (was that put delicately enough?) a genuinely fascinating experience. The world, especially the one of relations between the two great mythical entities ‘Islam’ and `the West’ in which I’m (among other things) professionally most interested, has become very much more sharply real, and far more grotesquely absurd, in more people’s everyday lives over recent years than I certainly ever wished to see. And many other people, of course, are also more engaged in that real world (in one sense) than I would ever wish to be. I think, now more than ever, that what good historians do gives an infinitely better grasp of it—of the meaning and the falsity, the constructedness and avoidability, of the realities that are being created for us—than do most of the alternatives. What historians do serves other aims, of course, than the public imperatives of action in the world or the community norms of loyalty and acquiescence, and that’s also why it’s important; someone, and not only eventually but urgently, has to explain how any of this could have happened.

There was a poster common in Oxford windows just before I left for the US (distributed, I think, by the Quakers), that read `I am not at war.’ A refusal to face reality, a determination to avoid `the real world’? Or a courageous and principled insistence on an alternative one? The day after I received the email inviting me to submit my information for a feature on this website, I got a very angry and surprisingly graphic email from someone who’d managed to read an article I’d written as being Islamophobic and racist. (This, to put it mildly, surprised me.) I’ve had hatemail before (also surprisingly—I can’t for the life of me see what makes me worth it), but this was unusually virulent and twisted. It’s one thing to see texts as harboring multiple meanings their authors didn’t (know they) put there, but quite another to make someone’s meanings do a 180-degree backflip through your own set of overriding, obsessive fantasies and suppositions. But his too, unfortunately, is a real enough world. Piecing together the ways that people and communities shape and narrate their reality, with a careful and critical eye to how what really happened ends up meaning a dozen different and contradictory things, seems to me the great challenge to historians in our very bewildering time. And even if I do live in what can only be called the surreal suburban fantasy land of Princeton NJ, the work we do seems to me, at least, quite tangibly, satisfyingly, real.


By James McDougall

  • “‘The West’ and modernity, after the conquest, are inescapable, pervasive, insidious. But, precisely through their cataclysmic thoroughness, they no longer stand over `the non-West’ as `an absolute and devastating exteriority, nor as an eternal mastery’. To suppose so would merely be to reproduce the old, monologic account of the West’s sovereign agency, the `narcissistic projection of the Western will to power.’ Instead, as Abdelkebir Khatibi puts it, in Asia and Africa `Europe […] troubles our intimate being, […] inhabits it as a difference, a conglomerate of differences’ through which (i.e., both by means of, and to cope with, which) people in the colonial world themselves  JPG have struggled, acted and spoken. Nationalism did not arise from some ancient and indestructible life-force drawn from inexhaustible, secret wells of perennial Being, `this will-to-be rooted in the depths of time.’ `Authenticity’ did not precede `modernity’. It was an artefact painstakingly created, a doctrine elaborated out of the differences and divisions opened up in the social world, in political order and cultural hierarchy, in conceptions of civilisation and science, in the mapping out of space and time, by the operations of modern, colonial power itself. Algerians, like Indians and Africans, took up their `native status’ and the idioms in which it was defined, and reworked it; la personnalité algérienne, Hindutva, négritude. Established cultural forms and the internalised gaze of the coloniser were refigured together and put back into circulation in new forms, as the authentic past of the nation that pointed the way to its modern future. In a radically reshaped world, such practices seeking anchorage, seeking `the consoling play of recognitions’, all too naturally expressed themselves as authenticity/`originarity’ (asâla), as bearers of inalienable heritage (turâth), as the recovery of the past and the return to it (salafiyya). Historians should see through such cultural artefacts and recognise them for what they are.’ — James McDougall in “History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria”
  • “I don’t think it has changed the field. But it has made the public context in which the field exists even more politicized than it already was, and generally not in a productive way. 9/11 caused an enormous amount of attention to be directed toward the region and generated a lot of questions to which a lot of simplistic answers were readily given by commentators of all kinds. To the extent that this attention leads people to inform themselves about the region and about Islam, it’s a good thing. But it has also given renewed credence to a very dangerous set of more or less stereotypical ideas about Islam and Muslim societies, which have now been amplified by the mass media. People who study the Middle East may be a little more in demand than they used to be, but I think it has also become more difficult to articulate a balanced view of the region, of Islam, and of the roles that Western states have had in the region’s history. A public debate lacking historical depth of view is impoverished and open to manipulation. When the public want simple answers to complicated questions, it becomes very difficult to give adequate answers that are necessarily also complex. — James McDougall in a Princeton interview discussing how has 9/11 changed Middle Eastern History

About James McDougall

  • “…a work of brilliant originality, empathetically communicated and filled with historical nuggets that not only inform our understanding of the complexity of Algerian identity… but also provide a broader insight into how language, culture and identity pass through dynamic changes under conflicting political arrangements…” — John P. Entelis, Fordham University reviewing “History and the Culture of Nationalism in Algeria”
  • “This collection contains nine diverse essays on aspects of nationhood and culture in countries of the Maghrib – namely, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya Nation, Society and Culture in North Africa JPG— and offers an animated contribution to the study of African society. McDougall’s aim is to bring together a “highly varied array of new research by multinational scholars working on the region’, through which the ‘lived realities’ of North Africans’ immediate historical experiences can be independently and collectively understood…. This collection collection reassures us that present-day culture in the region is neither so skeletal nor so static. This is an excellent introduction to this part of Africa, aimed at a wide audience and with interdisciplinary appeal….In this worthy contribution to Anglophone studies of North Africa, the editor provoes readers to go looking for more.” — Joan Haig, University of Edinburgh reviewing “Nation, Society and Culture in North Africa”
  • “The volume’s lasting contribution lies in the methodological rigour, theoretical focus, and sharp empirical insights provided by this impressive amalgam of mutlinational researchers directing their attention towards the Maghrib’s representation of nationhood. In an age and in a region where political violence, civil unrest, and economic hardships occupy the headlines, close and careful attention in the historic roots of identity-formation. nation building, and cultural construction as understood and lived by the people themselves are too often lost, ignored, or bypassed. The authors of this volume refocus our attention to the ways in which Maghribis have sought to define their existences through culturally-specific frameworks of analysis that transcend the bounds of colonist constructions and imperialist designs.” — John P. Entelis’s forward in “Nation, Society and Culture in North Africa”

Posted on Sunday, October 15, 2006 at 8:13 PM

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