Implications of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) for the social scientific study of the contemporary Middle East

Scientific Essay, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 1


The implications of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) for the social scientific study of the contemporary Middle East

Over thirty years since its publication, and ten since the death of its author Edward Said, Orientalism (1978) continues to have a profound effect on Middle East studies; discovering the true or underlying implications of which will be the remit of this essay. Orientalism positioned Said as one of the founders and chief authorities in postcolonial criticism, opening the ‘floodgate[s] . . . that breached the authority of Western scholarship on Other societies’ (Prakash, 1995: 99); consequently work produced in the field since has often been in response to Said’s scholarship (Sullivan, Ismael,1991: 2). Through adopting Michel Foucault’s concept of discourse and Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemonic culture, Said’s study charts the concept of ‘Orientalism’* - the study of the Orient, especially the Islamic, and Arab world - as a ‘corporate institution’ (1978: 13) formed by the West, or ‘Occident,’ through encompassing ‘a set of generalizations, structures, relationships [and] texts’ (Schaar, 2000: 181) which created a discourse, in which the Occident deals with and defines the Orient. Crucially Said, embracing Foucault, emphasises the ‘closeness’ between this discourse and politics (Said, 1978: 96), arguing that Orientalism (knowledge) as a discourse was a vital factor in the Occident’s imperial conquests (power) and ambitions in the Orient.** Vitally, Said’s critique fundamentally pushed criticism of Orientalism out with the disciplinary boundaries of which it had been restricted previously (Sardar, 1999: 65-66). As such, the combination of the above has led Orientalism to become a canon in Middle East studies. Significantly however, an enduring question remains: with such a startling critique of Orientalism as an academic discipline, what does Orientalism imply, and thus what are the implications of Orientalism, for the social scientific study of the contemporary Middle East. This question, at the ‘core of the argument around ‘Orientalism’’ (Halliday, 1993: 145), is the impetus for this essay, and will be tackled through two undertakings. First, a full and concise explanation of Said’s theory and argument in Orientalism will be explored, with particular emphasis on the all-encompassing discourse Said attributes to Orientalism, which creates the dichotomy of Orient and Occident, East and West, “us” and “them”; as well as how this Foucauldian notion of discourse is seen vis-à-vis Western colonialisation and imperialism in the Middle East. From this, it will be shown what Orientalism implies to the study of the Middle East if Said’s theory is taken in its entirety as fact: the study of the Orient from the Occident will always be flawed. This essay’s second section however, will look critically at Said’s theory, using scholarly criticism to find faults and contradictions, in order to sort the wheat from the chaff . The consequences will be a discovery of what the real or underlying implications of Orientalism are for the social scientific study of the Middle East. Through this two pronged approach, Orientalism can be unpackaged, then placed back together again, filtering out the parts that do not stand up to scrutiny; thus allowing for the truest and most accurate discussion concerning what Orientalism implies regarding the study of the contemporary Middle East.

The Implications of Said’s Orientalism

For Said, ‘Orientalism is a style of thought based upon the ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident.”’ (ibid: 2). This style of thought, the acceptance of a distinction between Orient and Occident (with the Orient as the antithesis of the ‘civilised’, ‘cultured’ Occident, or West), encompasses a ‘large mass of writers’, including ‘poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists and imperial administrators.’ (ibid: 3); thus creating a ‘political vision of reality’ promoting a very real difference ‘between the familiar (Europe, the West, “us”) and the strange (the Orient, the East, “them”)’ (ibid: 43). Said argues that this discourse has existed from the time of Homer to Marx, right through to the present day. Thus a ‘corporate institution’ has been created by the West, which defines and deals with the Orient, ‘by making statements about it, teaching it, settling it, ruling over it’; in brief, a Western discourse ‘for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’ (ibid: 1-3). Therefore the Orient cannot be a subject that involves freedom of thought. Indeed Said states this explicitly when describing the modern ‘Orientalist’:

‘As a judge of the Orient, the modern Orientalist does not, as he believes and even says, stand apart from it objectively. His human detachment, whose sign is the absence of sympathy covered by professional knowledge, is weighted heavily with all the orthodox attitudes, perspectives, and moods of Orientalism that I have been describing.’ (ibid: 104)

Therefore an individual (from the West) cannot separate themselves from the orthodox perspective of the Orient; it is inscribed in their very being, and even those whose profession is to treat their subject with objectivity cannot do so. At the very core of the relationship between Orient and Occident is thus this dichotomy, a binary opposition holding the Occident in high regard, and the Orient as merely existing, and always in the formers shadow. The omnipotence of this discourse and dichotomy was such, that no writer could escape from it (Zarnett, 2008: 51). The implications of Said’s argument is thus: an individual from the Occident cannot truly write objectively about any aspect of the Orient, as their writings, even if written to be objective, will always be tainted with a negative (mis) representation of the Orient that has, and continues to be, dominant in Western discourse*. Therefore in brief, if Said’s argument is taken as truth and in its entirety, Orientalism implies that social scientific study based in the West, cannot provide accurate, objective study of the Middle East; and in regards to the study of the contemporary Middle East, a social scientist, is not only part of the prevailing dominant discourse, but any sources or literature they may use, will also be tainted by this discourse (Said, 1978: 176-177).

Furthermore the mention of imperialism (‘imperial’) in the earlier quote is an important one. With Said’s identification of a body of writing accredited as ‘Orientalist’, he also related this to the Foucauldian notion of discourse. Said argues that this ‘internally structured archive built up from the literature [about the Orient]’ (ibid: 58), ‘can be put to political use’ (ibid: 96); manifesting most obviously in the 19th and 20th century colonial enterprises of France and Britain in the Middle East, and most recently, America’s post-World War Two imperial ambitions. Thus through Orientalism, as discussed previously, the Orient has been fashioned as a negative reversal of the West and its culture; the link to power is that this literature formed the West’s knowledge of the Orient, and according to Said, this allowed the West to gain control over the East: knowledge equals power. Said shows this hypothesis in action:

‘England knows Egypt, Egypt is what England knows; England knows that Egypt cannot have self-government; England confirms that by occupying Egypt; for the Egyptians, Egypt is what England has occupied and now governs; foreign occupation therefore becomes “the very basis” of contemporary Egyptian civilization; Egypt requires, indeed insists upon, British occupation.’ (ibid: 34)


* As an important note regarding terms and to avoid confusion: Orientalism, is to denote Said’s 1978 book; Orientalism, denotes the academic discipline of studying the Orient from the position of an academic in the West (Occident); an Orientalist, is an individual who studies Orientalism; ‘Orientalist’ or ‘Orientalism’, are direct references to Said’s negative connotations of Orientalism as an academic discipline. For example: He was an Orientalist, regards an individual studying the academic discipline of Orientalism; He was an ‘Orientalist’, regards an individual who holds the negative views of the Orient that Said defines in Orientalism.
Furthermore the terms ‘Occident’ and ‘West’, will be used interchangeably in this essay; when discussing France and the UK, the term ‘Europe’ is also used. The term ‘Middle East’ is used separately at times from ‘Orient’, but the former can be regarded as part of the latter.

** Said, as he acknowledges, was not the first person to critique Orientalism as an academic field; however noteworthy is that he was not the first to discuss Orientalism as a discourse of power as well (see Hodgson, 1993; a collection of essays from 1940-60, albeit not through Foucauldian language).

* Said, near the end of Orientalism, claims that he does ‘not believe in the limited proposition that only a black can write about blacks, a Muslim about Muslims and so forth’ (Ibid: 322); yet this sentence contradicts Said’s argument throughout which puts across the notion that the Orient and thus the subaltern is misrepresented by the Occident, and that the former can only ever misrepresent the latter.

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Implications of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) for the social scientific study of the contemporary Middle East
University of Exeter
Research Masters in Middle East Studies
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Orientalism, Edward Said, Middle East, Occident, Orient, Social scientific study, Social Science, Orientalism (1978), Implications of Orientalism
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Matthew Vickery (Author), 2012, Implications of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) for the social scientific study of the contemporary Middle East, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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