The Evolution of Identity and Social Conflict in Networked Jordan

A meme for the “Huwaytat” tribe created for social media connects the family to their martial past.

Geoffrey Hughes is a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellow at ACOR and an anthropologist and lecturer at the London School of Economics. He is residing at ACOR during summer 2017 while he pursues his project entitled, “Nation and Agnation: Kinship, Conflict, and Social Control in Contemporary Jordan.” His essay below is a brief introduction to his current research. 

As I’ve developed an interest in tribal dispute resolution in Jordan, I’ve grown accustomed to older men counseling me that the time to conduct such research has passed. As they are wont to tell me, “the youth these days don’t sit and listen in the diwān the way they used to: they’re on their phones, on Facebook, WhatsApp, and I don’t know what else.”

Such men are absolutely correct in noting that the men’s room or diwān isn’t serving the same function that it used to. When I first arrived in rural Jordan back in 2006, the latest in information technology was satellite TV which, like Jordan’s newspapers and the venerable public television station “Jordan TV” that had preceded it, primarily focused on national and international affairs. The Internet was widely available in urban areas but hardly ready to hand in villages. If you wanted to know what was going on in the neighborhood or the next town over, your best bet was to visit your neighbors.

Smart phones changed all of that. As pocket-sized computers diffused into the hands of every cab driver, teacher, and farmer, we all became journalists and publishers after a fashion. Local goings-on, including domestic disputes, tribal clashes and football hooliganism, could be reported in real time—and those reports could be consumed in real time. A new tier of online publisher emerged and, in 2012, the online news sector came under increased government regulation when sites were asked to register with the authorities. Jordanians who had long turned away from the diwān for the latest on international affairs like the military occupations of Iraq and Palestine suddenly found that they might learn more about the latest hyper-local conflicts more efficiently from Khaberni or Jo24 than their neighbors.

A meme for the “Showabkeh” tribe connects the family to its patriotic love for the Jordanian nation.

In some ways, this is all of a piece with a broader story about the changing nature of the global economy and its politics. The 20th century was an era of mass production and, hence, mass society. From clothes to cars to information, most people consumed the same narrow range of options that were predicated on economies of scale. By the end of the century, though, the whole nature of innovation had shifted. As the geographer David Harvey put it, the large-scale assembly lines of the 20th century epitomized by Ford Motor Company had given way to “post-Fordism.” Everything suddenly had to be specialized and niche. These days, if you can imagine it, someone somewhere is probably selling it. Moreover, the “local” has seen a resurgence amidst the more widely remarked upon phenomenon of “globalization.”

Today, people in Jordan (as elsewhere) can’t seem to put their phones down. But what are they looking at? How is it changing how they think about themselves, their communities, and social conflict more generally? Over the course of this summer, I will be exploring these questions through interviews, observation, and the analysis of media itself, like the tribal memes that accompany this article, which my young rural Jordanian interlocutors frequently share on social media.

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My suspicion is that these technological changes are shifting the locus of conflict and identity away from the national and international scales that so dominated the 20th century and returning them to the more local scales that defined the horizons of the older rural men who feel their customs and traditions are vanishing.

A meme for the “Adwan” tribe boasts, “we’re not arrogant, but our history doesn’t allow us to be humble.”

This need not be a bad thing either. Under the modern state system that emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, all of the complex manifestations of human conflict had a tendency to be boiled down to two primary categories. When conflict emerged among states, it was war. Otherwise, it tended to be classified somehow or other in terms of “crime,” which was ultimately defined as a conflict between one or more individuals and a state, sometimes acting on behalf of a victim. Other ways of thinking about conflict between individuals and various sorts of groups were pushed to the side and the feelings and needs of victims and communities alike risked being obscured. Increasingly, though, scholars in the West are exploring forms of “alternative dispute resolution” where victims are compensated and their needs are prioritized in a process designed to end in reconciliation, much as people in what is now Jordan have been doing for centuries.

Certainly, tribal law is far from perfect. It is male-centered, gerontocratic, and it can lead to runaway violence if not carefully managed. But when the old men say that, “prison is loss,” they may be onto something. Conflict need not always be figured as solely between states or between individuals and the state. In fact, it’s possible that people in the West could even benefit from studying how people in other parts of the world have long had far more flexible ways of thinking about social conflict and how best to manage its ebbs and flows.

If nothing else, at least Westerners might learn to swallow their pride and look to other cultures for alternative models of development with the same openness and modesty that Jordanians bring to their analyses of their own society and those they encounter elsewhere.

Written by Geoffrey Hughes

As an NEH fellow, Dr. Geoffrey Hughes is investigating how agnation (the principle of common genealogical descent via shared male ancestors) shapes how Jordanians conceptualize and manage conflicts over inequality, social difference, and social hierarchy. He has previously researched the role of tribalism in informal dispute resolution mechanisms in Jordan.







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