NotaBene .

"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 isnt 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.