Summary of the 'Approaches to Social Life in the Middle East' AMME seminar

The first AMME seminar of the fall semester focused on social life in the Middle East. The presentations given by Prof. Dr. Mohammed Shunnaq (Yarmouk University) and Dr. Tero Alstola together with Dr. Adrianne Spunaugle (University of Helsinki) gave an interesting insight into two very different perspectives on how to approach researching social life in both the ancient and modern Middle East.

Professor Shunnaq took an anthropological approach in his presentation on the tribal social structure of Jordanian society. During the first part of the 20th century the area of Jordan underwent many political changes, as Jordan transferred from Ottoman rule to being within the British sphere of influence before finally gaining independence. In these political changes the relationship between tribal culture and the state was integral. As the country shifted into a more centralized and urbanized society, the traditional tribal way of life changed somewhat. Grazing became more difficult because of borders, and nomads started choosing higher education and different careers. Slowly the pastoral way of life started disappearing. 

Despite that, the tribal culture stayed strong and affected the formation of the state. For example, land allocation was determined by tribal association. Rulers that came from non-tribal cultures gained popularity and trust by adopting Bedouin customs. Dr. Shunnaq also described identity differences between camel (east) and sheep/goat (west) herders and how these identities still affect people's attitudes towards different tribes. Even today the tribal social structures are a strong and important part of Jordanian society and culture. Jordanian people identify strongly with their tribal associations and value characteristics that are seen to be beneficial to the tribe. The tribal culture and traditions are viewed as a basis for the state and Jordanian cultural heritage. 


In the second presentation Dr. Alstola and Dr. Spunaugle gave us a peek behind the curtain of their current research project. They are using social network analysis (SNA) to examine the social structures of people in the Nippur region during the 6th century BCE. They examine texts such as the Al-Yahudu archive with digital methods. In their previous projects Dr. Alstola and Dr. Spunaugle have focused on centrality measures in social network analysis. Centrality measures help researchers identify e.g., how many direct connections a person in the network has, the distance between different people and how a person connects different parts of the network. When these measures were applied to the Al-Yahudu data, the results emphasized mostly the same few people.  

To gain a fuller understanding of the social networks, Alstola and Spunaugle needed to add more information to the data and apply more complex analyses. In these more complex analyses, they shifted their focus from centrality to clustering. Clustering approaches used in this project are based on cohesion and equivalence. Cohesion refers to how connected the network is and it can be used to identify cliques. For example, if each member of the group has a connection to every other member, the cohesion is higher than in a group where each member is only connected to one other member. Equivalence on the other hand identifies network structures that are similar to each other, that is, the social ties that one person has are either exactly the same or similar to the social ties that another person has. Equivalence can be used to create categories that conform to a certain structure. These clustering approaches are especially advantageous when applied to data from the ancient world. They can be used to provide more detailed information based on incomplete social data than the centrality measure focused approaches and can therefore be used to accommodate for the lack of data often present in ANE research. Clustering can also be used to challenge our established views on the social structure and hierarchy of ancient societies. 


The presentations and discussions gave insight into how both anthropological and digital methods of research can help us understand social life in the Middle East from different perspectives. Join us for the next AMME seminar on Thursday 20 October, when we will celebrate the Rosetta Stone bicentennial with presentations about deciphering ancient scripts! You can find more information on the next seminar here: AMME Seminar on ‘Rosetta Stone Bicentennial! Decipherment of Ancient Scripts’ (20.10.22) | University of Helsinki