Specialist on modern Iran joins teaching faculty
UCLA Assistant Professor of Sociology Kevan Harris. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

Specialist on modern Iran joins teaching faculty

Sociologist Kevan Harris will be teaching in the International Development Studies Program.

"It's important to look at processes as they actually occur and not at what they lack, not as something else, and therefore not to look at outcomes by what doesn't exist. That's my bête noire with the whole approach to Iran generally.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, January 14, 2016 — Kevan Harris, a comparative historical sociologist and expert on modern Iran, has joined the faculty of the UCLA International Institute. Harris has a joint appointment with the Institute, where he will teach courses for its International Development Studies (IDS) program, and the department of sociology.

Harris arrived at UCLA in fall 2015, where his enthusiasm for his colleagues and new academic home has already led him to become a member of the faculty advisory boards of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Program on Central Asia and the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History (of the history department).

The sociologist, who says he likes to keep one foot in the development field, is looking forward to teaching students in the highly competitive IDS program. He will begin with the course “The Economics of Developing Countries” (Intl Dv 130 ) in winter quarter, followed by a senior seminar on the same topic in the spring. Concurrently, he will teach a two-quarter comparative historical methods class for graduate sociology students.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” he comments. Coming from historical sociology, he notes, “I'm equally comfortable reading economics or political science or history. . . . I think that there's room for a synthetic approach that brings together lots of new findings and tries to recombine them in a way that addresses the big questions.”

After completing his Ph.D. in sociology at The Johns Hopkins University, Harris used a postdoctoral research fellowship to turn his dissertation into a book: "The Martyrs’ Welfare State: Politics and Social Policy in the Islamic Republic of Iran," University of California Press forthcoming.

The sociologist notes that humanities and social science specialists who work on Iran need help in conceptualizing their research in a way that engages their respective disciplines. As he explains, “I had to teach myself and learn the hard way that just because you work on Iran, doesn't mean a sociologist cares — even though Iran might be in the newspaper. You have to find a way to make [your peers in the discipline] excited about your project in their world.”  

Comparative historical sociology and the study of Iran

Unlike many Iranian-Americans, Harris was not raised in communities with thriving diasporic communities, growing up in Kentucky and then Chicago (where he completed a B.A. in economics and political science at Northwestern University). Nor did he learn the language, myths and stories of Iranian culture “at his father’s knee.” He largely discovered it himself by going to Iran.

Although he had to learn Persian as an adult, he found it all the more rewarding. Perhaps his greatest good fortune was to arrive in Iran as a sociologist — i.e., expected to de-naturalize himself from the social world — with no preconceptions about the culture and its values. He soon discovered that people who study Iran, and Iranians themselves, tend to view their society as unique — an exception. Sharing stories with fellow graduate students who returned from other parts of the world, he found they all had their own tales of exceptionalism.

“So I thought, wait a minute!” says Harris. “I could have ended up, and been rewarded for, working only on Iran and working on Iran as kind of a unique outlier,” he recounts. “But for me, that was useless because I needed to explain all the things I saw, as opposed to just accept them and say, ‘Well, that’s the way it is.’”

Many countries explain their position in the world by focusing on what they are not, he explains. “We don't have this, we don't have civil society, we don't have special export zones, we don't have the right political culture. Whereas a comparative historical sociologist would say, it’s important to look at processes as they actually occur and not at what they lack, not as something else, and therefore not to look at outcomes by what doesn't exist. That’s my bête noire with the whole approach to Iran generally,” says the scholar. “It behooves one to look at things in comparative ways and to historicize them — whether they're cultural practices or institutions or theological pronouncements or everyday interactions.”

Comparator cases for Iran. Harris uses a number of comparator cases for modern Iran. The country can be looked at fruitfully as a post-revolutionary regime, he says, where “people who had been relegated to the margins of society all of a sudden could make demands on people of higher status” in ways very similar to Russia (or Mexico) of the 1920s.

“People from other backgrounds who had few connections to the state in the Shah's time were all of sudden connected to the state: either fighting in a war or joining up the state or casting aspersions against the khan in their villages.”

Another useful approach, he says, is to compare Iran’s experience of its eight-year war with Iraq to that of countries who have lived through equally long wars. In fact, Harris’s forthcoming book looks at how that war involved a huge group of Iranians in a kind of warfare-welfare contract in which the children of soldiers who fought in the Iran-Iraq War became the educated and politically active generation of Iran we read about today.

Other comparators include Brazil and India — states that, like Iran, attempted to build a self-sufficient industrial base. That base in Iran, he points out, is currently the focus of outside investors eagerly awaiting the lifting of U.N. sanctions.

Harris cautions against looking for oneself in the things one studies, noting this penchant is a recurrent problem with scholarly work on Iran. That approach, he continues, gets a researcher into trouble “because you're going to discount whole swathes of the social world. You'll see it, and then you'll ask someone who's like you to explain it to you.” Instead, he insists, “you have to put yourself in other people's trajectories and other people's heads, even people you don't like. That's what sociology is good at — trying to understand how people make meaning out of their own worlds and what the world looks like to them.”

Large-scale mobility study in Iran

Harris is now working on a huge project that promises to attract the interest of sociologists, historians and political scientists worldwide: a large-scale survey that will look at social stratification and mobility in Iran over the past three generations. The planned survey is the kind of “bread-and-butter social survey that has been done in other countries, such as countries in Latin America, or in China, South Africa and Turkey,” he notes.

The survey will seek to shed light on the disappearance of the peasantry, the effects of the massive expansion of education on Iranian men and women, provincial and ethnic variations in social mobility, and even differences in political participation (the survey will be conducted after the 2015 elections for Iran’s national parliament).

“No one's done anything like this in 35 years in Iran,” he explains. “We want to do it to show that such a survey can be done; second, that it can be done with very rigorous practices; and third, that it will be something of public value to everybody.” Prior to making survey results public, he plans to hold workshops in Sweden and invite Iranian academics to work with him and his colleagues on reviewing the data.

Asked if he anticipated problems with implementation, Harris laughed and said, “Of course. But I learned from my friends inside Iran that if the reason you don't do a project is because someone out there might be offended or might politicize it, then nothing would ever happen.”


This story was updated in summer 2017.