On October 31, the Middle East Center cosponsored a talk featuring Kevan Harris, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UCLA, on “The Islamic Republic of Iran through the Lens of the Welfare State.” Drawing from his most recent publication, A Social Revolution: Politics and the Welfare State in Iran (University of California Press, 2017) as well as a new, nationally representative social survey conducted in Iran in 2016, Professor Harris argued for a reframing of state-society relations to more thoroughly account for post-revolutionary social change in Iran.
Explanations for social and political dynamics in Iran after the 1979 revolution tend to rely on the idea of a “rentier” state, in which the government buys off a portion of the population in exchange for allegiance or quiescence. More broadly, analyses of oil-producing states in the developing world stress how welfare policy is successfully used as a “bribe” to stabilize political systems from popular pressures. This argument would make sense if all states formed in similar ways and proceeded along similar paths of development. It would also make sense if the origins of welfare systems in wealthy democratic states were as uniform as the rentier-state paradigm portrays them to be. In reality, state formation has varied quite widely over time and place, including the formation of welfare states.
In the Islamic Republic, elite competition and popular mobilization intertwined to expand social policy after the 1979 revolution, then again following the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
To do so, Iranian politicians created or expanded an array of corporatist organizations often with social-welfare benefits at their center. Yet recurring intra-elite competition produced a dynamic whereby corporatist bodies became sites of bottom-up inclusionary claims from groups such as students, women, villagers, and professionals. As different elite segments reached out to newly mobilized social groups in order to trump or check their rivals, often by expanding access to parts of the social contract, new political opportunities arose. In this sense, the power of Iran’s civil society –celebrated by journalists, intellectuals, and academics, yet rarely theorized– represents an unruly outcome of revolutionary state-building.
Kevan Harris is a sociologist studying development, social policy, and political economy of the global South. His talk was cosponsored by the Middle East Center, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies; the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization; and the Department of Sociology, University of Washington.
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