Q&A with Ian McGonigle

December 6, 2017
Ian McGonigle at Jebel Shams
Jebel Shams, Oman

Ian McGonigle is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies.

Ian McGonigle at Jebel Shams
Jebel Shams, Oman
How did you become interested in Middle East studies?

It was a cold January evening in Cambridge England, when my friend arrived to my dorm room to invite me on a spontaneous trip to Marrakesh. Within twenty-four hours we were over the Atlas Mountains and on a sunset camel ride over sand dunes into the borderlands of Mauritania, where we were hosted overnight in Berber tents. From here a curiosity with the Middle East fast sprouted and flourished, and over the next year I made trips to Egypt and Syria, where I began pondering national and ethnic identity in this culturally rich corner of the globe. It was at this point I decided to switch my academic trajectory from biochemistry to Middle Eastern studies.

Why did you choose CMES?

After training as a biologist, I initially began my graduate work in anthropology at the University of Chicago, but after spending a year visiting Harvard while writing my research proposal, it became clear that CMES would offer a great intellectual home for someone like myself who was relatively new to Middle East studies, and who would benefit from the diverse repertoire of academic events that the Center hosts throughout the year. I thus decided to apply to the joint PhD program in Anthropology and MES. I felt that the CMES would be pedagogically invaluable to my regional education.

What are your research interests?

As a social anthropologist, I focus on contemporary Middle Eastern societies, with a focus on ethnic and national identity. Specifically, I have been investigating the ways in which biology relates to ethnic and national identity in Israel and Qatar.

My doctoral dissertation describes how recent advances in genetic technologies relate to the ways ethnicity is measured in Israel and Qatar. The empirical basis for this research has included a one-year participant-based ethnographic study of the National Laboratory for the Genetics of Israeli Populations, at Tel Aviv University; and multiple research trips to Doha, Qatar, where I visited the Qatar National Biobank and studied the Qatar Genome Project.

This work describes how biology is a site for negotiating identity: in ethnic population genetics, legal discourse over rights to citizenship, in rare disease genetics, and in personalized medicine. The central thesis of this work is that the molecular realm is an emergent and privileged site for articulations of ethno-national identity in the contemporary Middle East. In parallel, this is a study of Middle Eastern ethnonationalism through the lens of biology, specifically genetics and biobanking.

What do you like best about studying at Harvard?

Harvard, of course, is immensely endowed and resourced, but the thing I like most about being here is the sense of being at the epicenter of academic knowledge production. Harvard is the “Rome” of the American academy. It is a beacon of charisma that perennially draws the brightest and best to study, visit, teach, and share their work here. People are always passing through, and there is always a fascinating lecture, a touring political leader, or an international conference being hosted. 

What travel/research opportunities have you pursued during your time at Harvard?

I was generously supported by CMES to spend the summer of my second year in Muscat (in the Sultanate of Oman) studying Arabic in an intensive program. Living in Muscat was captivating. As an Indian Ocean nexus, Oman has African, South Asian, Persian, and Arabian influences, and the population is a diverse mix, with many migrant workers who have come from all over, particularly to work in the oil and gas industry. Most memorable is swimming in the Wadis, evening strolls the Souk, and taking a tour to the summit of Jebel Shams.

What extracurriculars have you pursued?

I have been co-organizer of a weekly Hebrew language table at CMES. I am also one of the CMES graduate student representatives at the Graduate Student Council. This semester I also co-organized an evening dinner and conversation with Professor Cornel West, titled “Africa and Identity in a Global Frame.”

What are your plans after finishing your degree?

I am currently on the academic job market for professor positions in Anthropology, STS (Science, Technology, and Society), and Middle Eastern studies.

My next research project focuses on wine production in the highly fraught West Bank area of Israel/Palestine, where growing grapes and making wine are more than commercial viticulture. Here, wine is a way of reestablishing ancient Jewish practices and imagining a connection to biblical sites. In this context, building wineries serves to naturalize the Israeli state and the Jewish national identity, and thus bolster claims to legitimate sovereignty. I plan to build a long-term ethnographic project on this topic.

What advice would you offer a prospective student?

Make the most of the resources available and events on offer at CMES. Take the initiative to organize collaborative events with the other graduate students. Get to know the faculty in CMES, and drop in on some of the lecture courses. You can learn a lot from some of the very seasoned regional experts that teach here!