The College of Arts and Sciences welcomes Randa Serhan, the new director of the Arab Studies Program and assistant professor of sociology, to American University. Serhan gives insight into what intrigued her to pursue a career as a sociologist and ultimately direct the Arab Studies Program at AU.
What initially sparked your interest in sociology?
Having grown up with a sociologist father, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint when my interest in sociology began. I was reading Weber and Marx before I could understand them in an effort to emulate my busy dad. My interest was piqued in the aftermath of the invasion of Kuwait when my world was turned upside down and my family was displaced from Kuwait to war-torn Lebanon. I needed to make sense of what just happened to my family and friends, but to also to understand my new tumultuous surroundings.
Initially, I wanted to be a psychology major, then I considered political science, and even business, but finally came to realize that sociology was the one field that would allow me to explore all my diverse interests.
What honed your interest to your more specific areas of research: Arab studies, immigrant communities, and citizenship?
This is very much related to my interest in sociology as a discipline. I had led a sheltered and very serene life until I was 17. In Kuwait, I went to international schools (British then American) where my classmates were from the most diverse of backgrounds. We didn’t care where others came from or what religion they practiced at home, since all that mattered is that we were all “expats.” Moving to Lebanon gave me a rude awakening for one’s religious sect, family name, village of origin, and certainly nationality determined how one would be treated, who their friends were, and which neighborhoods they could frequent. Nonetheless, being non-Lebanese, I was not an expat but rather a refugee (being Palestinian). Lebanon didn’t have expats at the time. My thoughts were still fuzzy on this, but I couldn’t understand why I needed to identify by anything besides my interests, hobbies, and career choice.
Later on living in Canada and subsequently the United States, I began to ask why people migrated and how and if people’s allegiances changed. I wanted to know the difference between outsiders and insiders. As such, for my dissertation, I studied a young immigrant community in New York and New Jersey who originated from the West Bank. My focus was primarily on the second generation, those born and raised in the United States, and how they formed their identities and sense of belonging.
Upon graduation, I accepted a position at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Having been away since 2001, I noticed qualitative changes in how youth were relating to their countries both in Lebanon and in the Arab Gulf (which I visited). To me, these Arab youths were relating to their countries like immigrants rather than indigenous inhabitants. In other words, I felt that the young were relating to their countries like outsiders either trying to get in or not thinking of themselves as full members. As such, I began to apply the same questions that I had constructed for the second-generation immigrants in my American study to Arab youth in Lebanon and the Gulf.
What brought you to AU?
I was drawn to AU because of the dual opportunity it offered me to develop an Arab studies program without compromising my chosen career path as a sociologist. I am an assistant professor in sociology who gets to expand upon an area of interest; I couldn’t ask for more at this stage.
Equally important is that the College of Arts and Sciences decided to house Arab studies in sociology, which allows the program to go beyond the scope of policy and politics where it usually is in most institutions. While policy and politics are essential, sociology can accommodate them and add the social and everyday life understandings of the Arab world. It’s important to know the larger structures, but as we have learned in recent months, the familial networks and the mundane are just as significant.
As a political sociologist, I always think of the interactions between the government and the people in any question I raise about a society. At times, I am interested in answering policy questions. At others, I want to know and explain a society and a people just for the sake of understanding.
What are you hoping to accomplish at AU?
I hope to continue developing my position as a sociologist, who is keen on political sociology and sociological theory. I also hope to take the Arab Studies Program from a minor and certificate to a major and perhaps beyond. I am arriving with a lot of ambition, energy, and ideas and I want to see them come to fruition in the Arab Studies Program. This means fostering relations with faculty across other disciplines, and other Arab and Middle Eastern programs in the region. AU already has the faculty resources needed to make Arab studies a success, and it just needs some concerted effort that I hope to provide.
I believe the time is ripe for expanding everyone’s understanding of the Arab world, and that the program at AU will only add to the field rather than duplicate what other well-established centers on Arab and Middle Eastern studies at Georgetown, George Washington, and Columbia have achieved.