Harris Offers a Different View of Iranian Politics Using Field Theory

January 26, 2015

In a public lecture hosted by CMDS on January 22, Kevan Harris, Associate Director of Princeton University's Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, offered a fresh perspective on modern Iranian politics using field theory. The theory, which is rooted in works by authors such as Pierre Bourdieu, Neil Fligstein, and Doug McAdam, focuses on the importance of fields as “constructed social arenas in which collective and individual actors with varying resources vie for advantage.”

Harris explained that by using field theory, he was able to overcome some of the many shortcomings of traditional views of the Middle East that rely on abstract notions of power and resistance in state-societal relations.

Building on ideas from his forthcoming book on post-revolutionary Iranian state and society, Harris painted a complex and nuanced picture of modern Iranian politics. By studying the media, intellectual, and political fields, Harris was able to identify key characteristics of Iran’s political elite, a group which has been able to take advantage of a number of material and symbolic resources to drive political change: the constitutional order, the ideological context of Shi’ism, economic and technocratic power, and popular mobilizations. While a “Persianized Sovietology” exists among the elite, Harris said that no single faction controls all of these resources and no Stalin-like figure has emerged.

Harris made a convincing argument for why “intra- and inter-field dynamics are a good explanatory device for change in modern Iran.”