Anthropology of Yemen Faces an Uncertain Future

The deteriorating security situation in Yemen poses methodological and practical challenges. But, research and scholarship is possible.

The tragic and deplorable collateral damages inflicted by the Saudi-Emirati aerial war on northern Yemen ultimately also include scholarship on this country, particularly the work of anthropologists. Starting in 2011, the political transformations set in motion by the “Arab Spring” initially led to an improvement of research conditions in Yemen; the political liberation of the country entailed a remarkable improvement in freedom of expression. I collected the empirical material for my 2017 book on North Yemen’s insurgent Houthis (also called Ansar Allah) during this period between 2011 and 2015, when people believed that they could confidently express their opinions, and when it seemed quite unimaginable that a similarly repressive political situation could return. I am convinced that it would not have been possible to collect the same empirical material after 2015. Since the Houthis seized the capital Sana’a in 2014 and the ensuing bombing campaign of the Saudi-Emirati coalition, Yemen’s political climate has deteriorated enormously. It is currently virtually impossible to obtain visas and it is questionable whether today’s rulers in Sana’a even know what a research permit is. The increasingly repressive and violent political climate has led to the cancellation of all scholarly research projects in the field at a time when exploring the situation on the ground would be particularly important.

Of all the countries on the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is one of the most fascinating. Yemen’s documented history, spanning back at least three millennia, is both splendid and troublesome, and renders the country a veritable treasury for researchers from a wide range of disciplines. Common depictions of the country as a “forbidden kingdom” are largely inaccurate. Except for a few decades in the first half of the twentieth century, when the North was under the isolationist rule of the Hamid al-Din dynasty, Yemen and its people maintained lively relations with foreign countries. However, the geographical location, weak infrastructure, rugged terrain, and a history of political and dynastic fragmentation and tribal tensions rendered research in Yemen a special challenge.

Due to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, anthropologists are currently facing only two options in methodology: historical anthropology and digital anthropology.
In the early 1970s, the end of the civil war between royalists and republicans combined with the opening of northern Yemen to the West brought about an upsurge in ethnographic exploration. Most of the great ethnographies of Yemen are based on long periods of fieldwork conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, some in remote areas such as Razih and Munabbih on the Yemeni-Saudi border. Anthropologists in the field benefited from the hospitality and helpfulness of the Yemeni people and their welcoming and often incredibly affectionate nature. “An insatiable longing will remain forever,” as one of those anthropologists told me reflecting on his time as a young researcher in the field. The overall number of anthropologists focusing continuously and seriously on the scholarly exploration of Yemen, however, has remained quite small—by my count less than a dozen. Large parts of the country and its society, culture, and history remain unexplored to this day.

In addition to the highly respected anthropologists in the English-speaking world, Austria has a long and productive research tradition in Yemen that dates back to the late nineteenth century and the South Arabian expeditions of Eduard Glaser and David Heinrich Müller. The Austrian research tradition was eventually institutionalized at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. In the past decade, the Academy’s Yemen-focus has attracted social anthropologists working on modern and medieval Yemen from around the world. Many of them have spent some time as guest researchers in Vienna. Despite the war in Yemen, and the apprehensions of funding organizations that tend to consider the exploration of Yemen to be unfeasible or outright dangerous or both, the Academy has managed to continue and strengthen its research focus. This is largely due to the trust Austrian (and European) funding organizations place in the research. Thus, a small but dedicated team of Yemen scholars has managed to establish itself sustainably in Vienna.

Due to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, anthropologists are currently facing only two options in methodology: historical anthropology and digital anthropology. In the past few decades, many anthropologists have shifted to historical anthropology: the application of methodologies and objectives from social and cultural anthropology to the study of Yemen’s historical societies. Long before the beginning of the current crisis in Yemen, a considerable number of anthropologists who began their careers with exploring contemporaneous Yemen turned to historical subjects. Historical anthropology has the undeniable advantage that it yields fascinating results without the hardships of working with living sources and in the field.

The government and policy and security sectors are also exerting a tremendous pull on scholars of Yemen by luring them with quick attention, media exposure, lots of money, and the feeling of being “influential”—all things that a scholar often has to do without.
Alternatively, digital anthropology and other distance approaches entail a profound transformation of fieldwork as face-to-face practices of both collaboration and “being in the field” are reshaped and redefined by new practices of communication and engagement. Through the widespread use of social media in Yemen, digital media have the potential to become substitute channels that enable the researcher to maintain contact and relationships with the increasingly inaccessible field. The shift from personal to digital encounters and communication does not necessarily signal a full methodological rupture with conventional forms of ethnography. Rather, it serves to maintain close contact between the researcher and the researched during the current turbulent period in Yemen. The shift to distance approaches, however, is a viable option only for those anthropologists with prior experience in-country, who intimately know the local environment and social setting, and who can rely on extensive contacts and social networks in Yemen. Junior scholars who have spent little or no time in Yemen face difficulties in building networks of good sources from a distance. In addition, not every research question is equally suitable for exploration from a distance; here too there are limits to digital anthropology.

The uncertain future of the country, the current impossibility of ethnographic fieldwork, and the difficulties in acquiring funding make focusing on Yemen unattractive to young scholars. The government and policy and security sectors are also exerting a tremendous pull on scholars of Yemen by luring them with quick attention, media exposure, lots of money, and the feeling of being “influential”—all things that a scholar often has to do without. It is also regrettable that there are hardly any social anthropologists from Yemen. Young people in Yemen prefer to study disciplines that offer them a wide range of professional opportunities, such as English or business administration. The longer the war lasts in Yemen, the more difficult it will become to attract new scholars to anthropological research.

Marieke Brandt is a senior researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. Her research focuses on tribalism, tribal genealogy and history, and tribe-state relations in Yemen. She is the author of award-winning Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict (2017).

Cite as: Brandt, Marieke. 2020. “Anthropology of Yemen Faces an Uncertain Future.” Anthropology News website, February 28, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1360

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