"the Beatles-like reception of Immanuel Wallerstein by curious throngs of students is a pedagogical Ponzi scheme"

The sociologist’s Iranian stardom was something to behold. One student, after hearing Wallerstein lecture to a thousand listeners at the University of Shiraz, nearly decapitated himself craning his neck into a mini-bus to emit an arcane question about theories of geopolitics. An esteemed female professor in Tehran rhetorically asked Wallerstein in front of 40 scholars whether he believed that men could sincerely hold feminist positions. A young sociologist in Isfahan fished for gossip on what Slavoj Zizek was like in person. “I met Gorbachev, too,” Wallerstein responded. “Why don’t you ask me about him?”

A drawback of being a celebrity scholar is that complex ideas sketched across decades in books and articles are blurred into a Rorschach blot. Consequently, we learn more from the viewer than from the ink. A public intellectual of such stature had not visited Iran since the cerebrally intoxicating days of Muhammad Khatami, when Jürgen Habermas, Richard Rorty and Antonio Negri commanded large audiences. A decade later, the tour of a Jewish-American social scientist who knew both Frantz Fanon and Talcott Parsons represented an opportunity in the post-Ahmadinejad era. Wallerstein became weapon and foil for all sides of Iran’s new political calculus.

Even though the non-governmental Iranian Sociological Association arranged the visit, Rouhani’s aides ensured that the trip looked official. A supposedly discreet encounter at the Center for Strategic Studies, Rouhani’s former think tank, soon blared itself on state news with the headline, “The American Sociologist’s Visit with the President’s Cultural Adviser.” The center-left newspaper Sharq ran an interview with the optimistic lead attributed to Wallerstein, “Today Dramatic Transformations Have Occurred in Iran.” Over the next several days Sharq and Etemad published numerous Rashomon-style commentaries: Wallerstein as Africanist, New Yorker, Marxist, anti-Marxist, critic of orthodox social science and canonical social scientist. The interpretive competition aroused interest beyond narrow academic circles. In what was likely an intended effect, many people came to see the spectacle.

Read More | "The Sociologist Has Left the Building" | Kevan Harris | Middle East Research and Information Project