The theoretical and methodological traps in studying sectarianism in the Middle East

Neo-primordialism and “clichéd constructivism” 1

Authored by: Rima Majed

Routledge Handbook of Middle East Politics

Print publication date:  April  2020
Online publication date:  March  2020

Print ISBN: 9781138047631
eBook ISBN: 9781315170688
Adobe ISBN:


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This chapter proposes some conceptual and methodological revisions to the study of sectarianism in the Middle East. It argues that although primordialism has been declared a “dead horse” in the academic literature since the 1960s, its remnants are still very clear in the literature on conflict and violence in the Middle East. The chapter warns against three common conceptual traps: (1) the assumption that sectarian identities are enduring; (2) the assumption that societies are divided into separate homogeneous “sects”; and (3) the assumption that sectarian heterogeneity breeds conflict and violence. These common misconceptions form what I call “neo-primordialism”. The chapter argues that adopting sects as a unit of analysis in the study of sectarianism is one of the most common methodological mistakes in the literature. In addition, it proposes to move away from the static approach in understanding sectarianism to a more dynamic approach that focuses on sectarianisation as a process that accounts for change and variation, linking identity politics to material conditions. Finally, the chapter provides some guidelines on how to teach or research the question of sectarianism in the Middle East.

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