Spotlight on CIVICA Researcher: Taraf Abu Hamdan


We spoke to Taraf Abu Hamdan, a researcher at CEU, about her dissertation exploring the marginalisation of communities living in the Jordanian Badia.

Taraf Abu Hamdan is pursuing a political science PhD at CEU and is co-founder of the South/South movement. Her dissertation focuses on the communities living in the Jordanian Badia and the marginalisation they face.

We spoke to Taraf to learn more about her research.

Can you tell us about your PhD research?

My research is aimed at understanding why communities in the Jordanian Badia are marginalised, why specific patterns of marginalisation persist and how are they (re)produced, and how community members respond to or cope with the conditions of their marginalisation.

The Badia in Jordan is the arid steppe that covers around 80% of the country. Although there are some urban sites, much of it is rural. The Badia is considered by many to be majority waste lands, long destroyed by local communities, pastoralism, and urban sprawl. In my research, I am focusing on the semi-nomadic Bedouin communities in the Southern Badia which have been sedentrised within or near conservation or cultural heritage zones. These communities face marginalisation and systematic processes that limit their ability to access services and resources. Due to their geographical location,, demographic characteristics, livelihood practices, as well as persisting unequal power relations, they are excluded from being able to make decisions relevant to their lives and organise their domains of life.

Given these dynamics, my research focuses on how environmental and colonial forces shape power struggles, policies, and developmental programmes in the Badia. I’m particularly interested in understanding the community knowledges and narratives around livelihoods and ecologies, and how these narratives differ from state and development agendas and policies.

What was your motivation to pursue this research?

There were several reasons I decided to pursue this research topic. My initial inquiry when I started my PhD was to explore the nexus between climate chance, migration, and conflict. During my exploratory research trips, my research focus shifted during conversations with community members, and I decided to explore a more grounded approach to marginalisation within the Badia specifically. For several reasons, one being that these dynamics, sites, and questions are not yet well researched. The second is that I found it would be more generative to focus on the community members’ lived experiences of environmental shifts, such as climate change, rather than follow a top-down approach to research.

On a more personal note, as a Jordanian, I have previously worked in the development field but became critical of it after seeing several projects fail to remedy power inequalities. I wanted to answer the question that came up when I was a practitioner: why, despite all the development funding, projects, and agendas that look good on paper, are these sites systematically and persistently impoverished, dispossessed, and marginalised?

What research methods are you using?

I’m following an inductive/constructivist grounded theory approach and am using methods informed by activist research as well as ethnography. In practice, I stayed with the community I was conducting research on in three different sites, and conducted a mix of semi-structured interviews, extended conversations, and observations to generate my data.

It’s important for me to locate and centre the community members’ lived realities. I want to understand and collect their accounts of their experience with marginalisation, economic and rural development, rehabilitation and conservation programmes, and their livelihood strategies and struggles. I want to tell the story of how they resist and persist within and despite power struggles, harsh ecologies, and predatory development agendas.

While I was conducting my interviews, I had some very important conversations on how the research would be helpful to the community. I heard from several community members that such academic research might not be helpful in fighting such entrenched systems of oppression and dispossession - so I ask, what role does the researcher play? How can research be transformed to ensure that is socially engaged and supports liberators and justice claims and struggles. This involved understanding what the limitations of research are in facing current structures of power. This meant continually reflecting on my own positionality and the implicit extractive nature of research and attempting to find spaces of solidarity with the community, which is a continual, difficult, yet important process. This involved taking a very critical and honest look at what I needed to do for the purposes of academic research and what I wanted to do in an activist capacity to support the community in their current struggles and the incoherence that exist between these two. It also meant knowing when to step back in either role, and that just because I am there now, and have the momentum and interest to engage in both my capacities with the communities, does not mean that the timing or approach is right, nor that this is a welcomed presence. It also called into question current mechanisms of doing research with and for communities within academia, the model of translate and disseminate is no longer sufficient, if it ever was. And so, I am now working, in conversation with the community, on ways to make the research more beneficial materially on the ground.

What can you share about your findings so far?

I am still in the process of analysing my results so I cannot share any conclusions thus far. However, I have found some interesting patterns that are starting to emerge. In particular, much of the dynamics of marginalisation and dispossession happening in the Southern Badia are similar to what happens in many other post-colonial contexts, especially to indigenous communities. What I find perplexing is that in Jordan, this is not discussed in the same language as other indigenous struggles around the world. I interpret this to mean the following:

One - the desert landscape has historically been viewed as lacking resources, unproductive, and therefore, an issue to be solved and needed to be protected from further degradation. The semi-nomadic communities in the Badia have often been blamed for its ‘destruction’, or these problems have been seen as an issue of geography vs demography.  As a result, policies have sanctioned programmes that made pastoralism illegal or fenced off the lands, for example, in order to protect the landscape from the local communities, which has resulted in their marginalisation and dispossession. Additionally, these environmental imaginaries of degradation and lack of value within arid and desert landscapes, led to state and other institutional actors to invest in technological investments to transform these landscapes into something better, more modern, and more productive. Narratives that these lands can only be valuable if transformed through massive investments, technologies, and modernity enforces the imaginary that these lands do not have any inherent value. So, the question arises- how can you mobilise against these policies and against resource theft, if you are told that are supposedly no resources to begin with and that you require these investments, fences, programmes, etc. to be able to do anything with an otherwise unusable land?

Two - the question of indigeneity. While much of these patterns of dispossession and marginalisation happen across the world to indigenous and rural populations, in the case of Jordan - they are not discussed in the same language or identified as part of the larger indigenous struggle for rights and justice. Therefore, the current claims are often centred around provision of services and opportunities, rather than on rights and justice. I am still exploring what this question of indigeneity means and how it shapes these dynamics.

Article credits: Dania Abu-Sharkh

Photo courtesy of Taraf Abu Hamdan.