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"Theoretical anxiety": use and misuse of "Western" concepts and theories in studying the "East"

The current paper explores the uses and abuses of "Western" concepts in studying politics and communication in the "East". Accepting the premise that the "East" is a construction that might have many possible referents, I analyse several cases of academic research on protests in Eastern Europe, the MENA region and in China and emphasize the problems of "mechanically" applying "Western" theories (again a complex notion I comment on) to these contexts without sensitivity to local history, culture and protest traditions.

The first case deals with my own difficulties in finding the right theories to analyze the Bulgarian 2013 protests and situate them in the wider anti-austerity mobilizations in Europe. The second case analyses in detail the phenomenon of "academic tourists sight-seeing the Arab Spring" discussed first in a highly influential article of Mona Abaza. Beyond commenting on the labour divide in international academic environment, I would like to analyse how techno-deterministic "Western" theories of "Internet and democratization" were not only applied to understand the Arab Spring but also to inspire and influence protesters. Yet, they failed to account for many of the crucial characteristics of these protests and accordingly for alarming future developments. Finally, I address research on protest and communication in contemporary China produced by "Western" authors and comment on the ways in which social movement and communication theories have been influenced by the empirics of European and American experiences and thus neglect Chinese trajectories of historical transformations.

All in all, I claim that the concepts we use in academic research are never "innocent" but are informed by particular historical experiences and debates that might make them unproductive (and occasionally misleading) for analysing other contexts. What is more, the persistent use of "Western" concepts to analyse the "East" as an empirical field reproduces epistemological inequalities - with nationals of some countries being the "subjects" of analysis and others the "objects". But what would "Eastern" social and political theories look like, and isn't there a considerable inequality between "Eastern" countries themselves? Thus, instead of renouncing "Western" knowledge, the paper urges for a greater attention to inequalities and for the "provincialization" of theory to include local histories and knowledge traditions that would enrich both "Eastern" and "Western" scholarship with novel approaches and insights.

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