Neha Vora, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology, has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to launch a project to study American higher education in the Gulf Arab States.

Professor Neha Vora

Neha Vora, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology

The Catalyzing New International Collaborations grant allowed Vora to travel this March to Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates for preliminary research and to establish partnerships with institutions of higher education in these countries. Next year, she and co-researcher Natalie Koch, assistant professor of geography at Syracuse University, plan to submit a larger NSF proposal to study the impact of adopting the American model of higher education in at least two schools in each country.

The comparative study will explore how different countries in the Gulf have adapted American-style higher education as well as how that differs among various types of institutions (community colleges, national universities, and American branch campuses, for example). Vora and Koch are interested in all aspects of the higher education system, including the bureaucratic agendas and planning that go into establishing campuses, how administrators and faculty view American education’s role in the Gulf, and how the physical campuses and social environments influence citizenship and subjectivity.

“We want to understand the hows and whys of the proliferation of American-style higher education as part of Gulf countries’ attempts to move from petro-states to what they describe as ‘knowledge economies,’ which would derive wealth from human capital rather than finite natural resources,” Vora explains. “We are finding so far that the category of ‘American-style education’ is extremely heterogeneous and draws many different populations with different goals and unexpected outcomes.”

Vora notes that the study is not just relevant to the Gulf states, but to many American educational institutions as well. In the last decade, she says, many American campuses have partnered with “non-liberal states,” raising concern among U.S. faculty that their institutions’ commitment to liberal education could be compromised. There are few studies, though, of the on-the-ground impacts of these branch campuses, and, in fact, Vora and Koch’s preliminary research has revealed that everyday life on Gulf campuses is rather similar to their American counterparts.

The project partners well with Vora’s research for her second book, which will be an ethnography of the American branch campuses in Qatar. She previously received a grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation to support her research in Qatar’s capital city of Doha. Vora’s first book, Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora, explores the predicament of Indians and other South Asians who, she says, comprise the majority of Dubai’s population but are unable to obtain permanent citizenship in the Emirati state.

“As an anthropologist of the Gulf region, I have always been surprised by how readily these countries are dismissed as devoid of culture, full of repression, and generally unimportant—beyond oil and security—to understandings of how the contemporary world works,” she says. “My scholarship has tried to de-exceptionalize the Gulf and consider how processes of labor, migration, and citizenship, for example, are quite normal there when we look beyond the labels we have used to mark these countries as the antithesis of the West.”