Precarity and Insecurity in Contemporary Beirut: Understanding Urban Vulnerability on the Eve of the 2019 Revolution

Ayat Husseini, Anthropology & Sociology, 2020
Thesis advisor: Professor William Bissell

How and when did you select your advisor and the thesis committee members?

I had already developed a relationship with Professor Bissell as I had been in class with him before and he was my academic advisor. We spoke about graduate school and thesis ideas so it was a natural extension to have him as my advisor. He also works on similar issues (urban anthropology, social memory) so he was very well equipped to help me think about Beirut and the issues I wanted to address. Choosing my committee was also a very organic process. Professor Salas Landa does work on social memory herself and much of the research design expanded upon a paper I wrote in her class during my junior year so it made a lot of sense to have her as my second reader. Professor Blunt has been a mentor to me since I first got to Lafayette and is an anthropologist despite being in the Religious Studies department. I made sure to choose professors whose scholarship/classes relate to my academic interests and who I enjoy working with and respect deeply.

When did you start thinking about your thesis? How did you select your topic? How did you develop your research question?

I began working on my thesis during February of my junior year because I knew that I wanted to do fieldwork in Beirut during the summer before my senior year. I knew that my research would relate to Lebanon (and Beirut more specifically) so I did not have to think a lot of about my regional focus but I did have to think a lot about the particular questions I wanted to ask and what I wanted to gain from my research. I began with a few simple questions: What do I want to know about Beirut? Does this question relate to my academic interests? My personal interests/orientations to the world?

At the same time, I cast a wide net, reading literature about Beirut related to a number of issues. When I began understanding particular bodies of research or issues that were being addressed by scholars, I thought about what is missing and where I could potentially contribute to existing scholarship. I also referred back to my favorite pieces that I read throughout my college career (whether the related to the Middle East or not) to identify themes that I am interested in.

After getting through a significant amount of literature on Beirut, I focused in on particular bodies of literature that were in conversation with one another and highlighted the pieces that I found most interesting. When comparing these issues to the themes I had identified as being interesting and important to my academic career at Lafayette, a number of key issues stood out to me: the formation of identities, structural issues, housing, urban insecurity, precarious work (to list a few). From here, I worked to develop a research projected that simultaneously responded to a gap in the literature, was interesting for me to work on, and was feasible.

How did you start tackling your thesis project at the very beginning?

A lot of reading and thinking.

Did your advisor explain the structure of a thesis project to you?

Yes and no. Doing a thesis in Anthropology gave me a lot of flexibility in terms of structure but Professor Bissell did inform me of the general guidelines.

Did you have to do a literature review? Had you ever done one before?

Kind of… Again, the structure of my thesis was very a-typical as it was more of an ethnography than a typical thesis. With that being said, I was incredibly well acquainted with the literature as a major section of my thesis sought to critique the conceptualization of urban vulnerability in Beirut in existing literature and offer up a new one. I have done literature reviews before which helped tremendously while I was reading because it allowed me to figure out what I was reading for (content, how a piece responds to others within that body, what there are existing gaps in the literature, etc).

Do you remember receiving correspondence from the library about your honors thesis?

Yes! Lijuan was very helpful in purchasing books for me and helping me set up Zotero.

What did you find most challenging about your thesis project?

The two most difficult aspects of writing a thesis were time management and recognizing that you can only write so much/address so many issues.

What did you find most rewarding about your thesis project?

Making really interesting connections and arguments. It is so rewarding to feel like you are in dialog with scholars on a topic that is really important to you.

What assistance did your advisor/department offer you throughout the course of the year?

Professor Bissell and I met often to discuss next steps and go through chapter drafts. Others in the department were also very helpful as they helped me think through different issues and offered a lot of moral support (which is necessary!)

Did you meet with librarians in the course of conducting your research? How many times and at what stages of your research?

I met with Lijuan throughout the research project. We met when she taught me how to use Zotero as well as through the initial research phase where she helped me identify more literature to read. She was also very helpful in getting me the resources I needed (books, articles, etc). This was the case throughout the entire process.

What other kind of support did you rely on throughout the year to accomplish your thesis (parents, friends, etc.)?

The support of friends and family was really critical to the completion of my thesis. I also relied on other students writing thesis as we motivated one another.

Were you able to get access to all of the research materials you wanted for your project?

Yes!! The library was incredible in helping get access to reading materials. I was also able to secure funding from the A&S Department to conduct fieldwork in Beirut which was incredible.

Would you do anything differently if you went through the process again?

I think I would spend less time reading and spend more time writing. It is very hard to get yourself out of the black holes of literature when you’re interested and invested in the topic(s) you’re thinking about.

What advice would you offer other honors thesis students, especially in your department?

Choose a topic that you are incredibly passionate about. While your contribution to the literature is incredibly important, that should not come at the cost of your interests. You’re going to be 200x more excited to set time aside to work on your thesis if you are invested in the issue than if you think it is “the right thing to do/research”. Also, recognize that a thesis is such an incredibly massive commitment. You need to be willing to prioritize your thesis but don’t let it ruin your life.