Blog of the International Sociological Association (ISA)

Iranian Paradox – The Inverted Relation of University and Society

May 26, 2010 19 Comments

By Azam Khatam, York University, Toronto

Iranian social science is experiencing a new wave of ideological assault following the demonstrations against the result of the June 2009 presidential election, which turned into a widespread and continuing movement for freedom. Social Science universities have been accused of being Westoxicated, that is, provoking skepticism and brainwashing students with social and political theories formulated in western academies.  In one of the show trials, an important reformist confessed that he had been perverted by these theories and his theoretical mistakes had misguided his party’s agenda for change.[1] Still, it is doubtful that there is much truth in the charge that the social sciences had a serious impact on the movement for restructuring the political scene. As I will argue, the university is, indeed, involved in the current political transformation, but, given the ideological harassment it has faced since the 1980s Cultural Revolution[2], social science and its scientific community are at the margin of this movement.

Different fractions of Islamic Republic have adopted, more or less, developmental approach toward the production of knowledge,[3] encouraging the expansion of technical and scientific universities, research centers as well as overt and covert scientific exchange with the outside world.[4] At the same time social science academy has been under considerable pressure to Islamicize educational materials, to purge “unacceptable” professors and to request the stamp of approval; from religious authorities for its very existence. The result has been a weak academy, which the government rarely consulted to do research or make policy recommendations, at least until the late nineties. The irony is that the total number of university students as well as the number of social science students increased dramatically after the revolution. Indeed, while the population of the country has doubled in thirty years, the population of university students has increased 17-fold (from 160 thousand in 1978 to 2.8 million in 2007) and the number of humanities and social science students has increased 25-fold (from 52 thousand to 1.3 million).

The huge expansion of universities over the last three decades was not only the result of the developmentalist approach adopted by new Islamic technocrats, but was also due to the political meaning given to the expansion of higher education – to achieve social justice through a more balanced geographic distribution of cultural capital — in the period of reconstruction after the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). Social science faculties played an important role in such distributive educational justice, as they need less logistical support or expensive technologies to be established in small cities and even in remote areas. The expansion of higher education has provided the main opportunity for social mobility for the urban population, especially with the retreat of the pro-poor politics of the eighties. Universities produced the middle class labor force and stimulated middle class aspirations for social and individual freedom by providing an arena for encountering different life styles, beliefs and political attitudes.[5] 

Social science universities experienced a limited liberalization as the consequence of the decentralized structure of the expanding academy as Islamic reformers took power in 1997-2003. But these universities remained at the margin of the networks that produced critical social knowledge through formal and informal gatherings around small political groups, different journals and periodicals, research groups and NGOs, online magazines. This rudimentary public sphere was the basis of circles of intellectuals and scholars who became active in social movements. Actually the purging of social scientists who were deemed non-Islamic during the Cultural Revolution was less important than the ideological inquisition which became part of everyday life in the academy. Since the mid-nineties universities witnessed signs of cultural and political liberalization for a decade, but, still, they were never free from ideological and political pressures. As most of the social science graduates, except for economists, couldn’t find jobs in related fields, their participation in building the community of scholars has been limited, while, at the same time, scientific associations have faced difficulties in supporting the intellectual and institutional independence of their members.

In the final analysis, social movements and informal networks outside the university have been the crucible of important developments in social science. We may even say that civil society and its movements have promoted social science more effectively than the academy itself.  We can only hope that in the future there will be a more balanced relation between society and the academy..


[1] Kurzman, Charles, “Reading Weber in Tehran.” November 1, 2009.

[2] Farastkhah, Maghsood, “The difficult situation of having universities.” Interview with Etemaad newspaper (2009) Accessible through

[3] Khosrokhavar, Farhad, Shapour Etemad and Masoud Mehrabi. “Report on Science in Post-Revolutionary Iran—Part I: Emergence of a Scientific Community?” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies (Summer 2004), 13(2), 209–224

 [4] Lotfalian Mazyar, “The Iranian Scientific Community and its Diaspora after the Islamic Revolution” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 1 (2009). pp. 229–250,

 [5] Khatam, Azam 2010, “On Higher education, growth of middle class and civil society in Iran” (Roshde tabagheh motevast va jamee madni va amozeshe ali). Interview with the ISA e-bulletin. Accessible through

19 Comments → “Iranian Paradox – The Inverted Relation of University and Society”

  1. yanis 9 years ago   Reply


    It seems that you are not able to extract the structure from the events inside your society. You are talking about a diaspora. It means a community far from the real day to day touch of the society under discourse. It remains those who are standing inside Iran and genuinely actively do not create a resume to pack for an abroad job under any motivation. Why do not they make them involved in stacking traditions, literature, methods, bring up one generation, two generations of scholars who modestly without joining ignoble, “de-culturised” resource wasting actions of current affairs? Why all the time we are hearing harsh noises of fights from inside Iran while the other nations painstakingly with much less resources march through higher tiers of understanding. Why Iranians are always involved in betraying, treason, joining the alien forces, planning for overthrow of any regime? Why for two generations you do not shot your mouths and start to create foundations? Why do not you compromise to sacrifice your lusts of chaos in favour of attracting founds, creating plausible, feasible, acceptable projects? Why are you going to bed with rulers, in approaching them, in cooperating with them, in conflicting with them, in thinking at all about them? Do not know you that the nation of Iran besides having such a sophisticated prudent minds as you all, is target of other agendas such as creation civil wars, dis-integration, plunder of resources? Do not you know that Iran regardless of its government is the target of persecution, threat of death and harassment? Do not you know that when this goes and that comes “no rose garden is promised?” Haven’t you got that experience yet? Do not you read histories of “developed world?” I mean volumes and volumes of that to discover the structure of the development. Iran universities for decades are training people with the supposed goal of helping the native people but when they become graduate among a population of hundred percent illiterate-yes Iranians are hundred percent illiterate, you know that- they become so arrogant that under any pretext they leave those people into the hands of god and come here abroad happy with having the lowest jobs of the alien societies. Why do not you sit and think as a sociologist which one was created first chicken or egg and break this paradox in a practical way? Why nobody is old in Iran and everybody remains young as ever? You as a sociologist take this project from me and work on it.
    Your humble colleague in diaspora

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    Properties of angelica in cooking and its consumption method

    As mentioned, angelica has a very good growth in Iran and can be found in different areas such as rivers, Kandovan tunnel and good weather areas. Angelica seeds are rich in excellent flavor, which is why angelica is mostly powdered and used as a spice in foods. Especially in the preparation of pickles and the time of chopping potatoes and boiled eggs, which is one of the most popular and simple Iranian dishes.

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