Şerif Mardin: Sociological rebel with a cause

Though he pitched his tent on the periphery of his own academic community, Şerif Mardin commanded through the authority of an original mind

05 Ekim 2017 14:00

Şerif Mardin would have been able to describe the contradiction ruling his life much better than most of us ever could – the most patrician of academics, educated in the most elite Western institutions but who understood the class dynamics of his own society better than any social scientist of his generation. He was elitist and aloof – with a dry, wicked laugh which he used to mock not just others but himself-- but was able to depict the sense of exclusion felt by so many of his countrymen with breath-taking theoretical clarity.

He was educated at Stanford and John Hopkins. His doctoral thesis, published by Princeton University Press (1962) as The Genesis of Young Ottoman Thought, opened the eyes of a new wave of intellectual historians to the complex weave between empire and republic. He went through the texts to unravel the skeins of distinct political traditions that survived the Empire. And while this seems obvious now, his work contradicted the ideologues who wanted to depict the young republic as having sprung from an entirely fresh page.

Throughout his career, he inadvertently stepped on the toes of intellects less independent than his own. His innate independence led him to resist being recruited by those who would appropriate his work to support their own political camp. And, undoubtedly some toes he trod on deliberately. His insights were fresh and original. His depiction of a late Ottoman scholar who deliberately spilled ink on archival documents (in the conviction that knowledge was finite and that to read a document once was to exhaust its content) was a finely tuned rebuke to his own positivist community of social scientists.

His 1989 study of the influential provincial cleric Bediüzzaman Said Nursî undertook to explain how religion could be conjoined to a sense of modernity – and this, too, won him both enemies and false friends. To some, he had opened a Pandora’s box in suggesting religion was something other than reactionary superstition. To others, he was welcomed as a prestige recruit in their fight against the secularist old guard.

His occasional excursions into popular sociology were equally controversial. The expression, “neighbourhood pressure” he used to describe the particular mix in Turkish urban culture of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft might not seem exceptional. However, the notion that neighbourhoods policed themselves and could be a breeding ground for intolerance, was a proverbial sleeping dog he disturbed.

His first academic posting was to the political science faculty of Ankara University in 1954 where he stayed for two years. He returned to that institution in 1961 and moved to İstanbul’s Bosphorus University in 1973 where he instituted the study of sociology. Though grounded in the history and in the observation of his own society, he famously sought to escape the shackles of any one discipline. He was a sociologist but also a political theorist, a political scientist and intellectual historian-- a liberating approach which he brought to the young Sabancı University which he joined in 1999.

Like others who rejected home truths, Şerif Mardin was often more honoured abroad (including fellowships in Berkeley, Oxford or École des Hautes Études) than by his own academy. At the same time, he was far from cowed by scholarship from elsewhere nor impressed by those muscling their way into Ottoman and Turkish disciplines with a “here’s-one-I-made-earlier” bit of analysis.

He himself resisted the temptation to parachute theory into a Turkish context, though was more than conversant with both American and Continental schools of political thought. In 1973 he published in Daedalus – the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Science-- the essay “Center-Periphery Relations: A Key to Turkish Politics?” The question that title posed turned out to be largely rhetorical, as his contrast of centre and periphery still dominates Turkish political science.

The idea of social distance and the concentration not just on how power is exercised but how it is experienced, Mardin took from the work of the University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils. However, he re-worked it to make it his own. More pedestrian scholars took his work all too literally. The seesaw notion of a “strong state” vs a “weak society” (when one went up the other went down) became a cudgel for Turkish sociology to beat over students’ heads. Mardin’s formulation (as one of his brighter colleagues recently wrote) was Foucault before Foucault, Edward Said when Said was in short trousers. His centre and periphery was about the perception of power, not a google map from the throne to countryside.

His understanding of authority as embedded in cultural mechanisms (he was as interested in the rhetoric of Said Nursî’s tracts as their content) meant that his insights were of poor use to those who wielded actual political power. Instead he looked under the carpet of his own discipline and to see social science itself as a form of ideology. Where others of his generation sought to analyse the elements of community and social harmony—and the quest for identity-- he was far more interested in conflict.

He flirted with the New Democracy Movement in the 1990s, the abortive liberal reaction to corrupt patronage politics, he was never a policy wonk. In a 1995 interview, he dismissed the notion that he could ever be a politician, and that the one luxury of academic life-- the ability to speak one’s own mind-- was one he refused to surrender. Though he pitched his tent on the periphery of his own academic community, Şerif Mardin commanded through the authority of an original mind.

Şerif Mardin born Istanbul, 1927, died 6 September, 2017 Istanbul