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Interview with Dr. Golestaneh

By Jaime Bue


Dr. Seema Golestaneh joined the faculty in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies (CEUS) in the 2015 fall semester. Her research examines the anthropology of religion with a focus on Iran. She is broadly interested in alternative Islamic discourses; particularly how Sufism, with its abstract concepts and esoteric ideas, can be applied by practitioners in the everyday world. The IAUNRC sat down with Dr. Golestaneh to discuss her research and first semester experiences at Indiana University.

She began by noting that, “Religion in Iran and even Islam in Iran is much more pluralistic than people expect it to be.” Dr. Golestaneh’s current project is an extension of her manuscript and fieldwork with Sufis in Iran, in which she combines interviews with textual analysis. During her fieldwork Dr. Golestaneh worked with several orders of ethnic Persian Shii’a Sufis across different cities. She looked at how members were using Sufi philosophical concepts in their daily lives, as well as how these interpretations of Sufi philosophical concepts have changed over time, this change is largely related to the amount of training Sufi members have received over the years.

There are many differences in the understanding of these philosophical concepts between lay members of Sufi orders and those with more formal training. Relationships within the order have changed from the past, which had a disciple and teacher type relationship, while current relationships are much more open and diffused. She mentioned that because lay members have less training they are also influenced by other discourses in their lives when approaching these Sufi philosophical concepts. These influences could from discourses such as identity politics or social justice themes. Dr. Golestaneh detailed one example of a classic concept within Sufiism, fana, typically understood as the loss of the ego or the loss of the self (nafs). Sufi members with more formal training will use these types of terminology, while younger members might tie nafs to categories of identity such as gender or class, saying they don’t have to worry about these types of categories that may hinder them in their daily lives. Thus younger members are reinterpreting concepts into daily practices. Another component of her research is textual analysis of the canonical texts employed by the Sufi orders. She is primarily concerned with texts created from the 1990’s onwards as well as a few of the main canonical texts from the 20th century, as these are the texts with which lay Sufis would be most familiar.

Dr. Golestaneh is also working on a second project focused on ideas and experiences of bureaucracy within Iran. Although Iran is purported to be a strong centralized authoritarian government, the post-revolution development of bureaucracy has led to a dispersal of authority. There are overlaps among the private sector, the public sector and a semi-official cooperative sector that make the system deeply bureaucratic. In this way authority is deferred into a convoluted system of hierarchies. One mystical element of the Islamic Republic appears when speaking with bureaucrats or people trying to navigate the bureaucracy, as they evoke the divine by stating “Only God knows when such-and-such official will show up.” This tying of the divine into the bureaucratic is of particular interest for her future research.

As for her experiences at Indiana University, Dr. Golestaneh mentioned that both the Department of Central Eurasian Studies and the University are unique in allowing her the opportunity to work with students and faculty with training and interests across different backgrounds and disciplines. The smaller classes in CEUS, and in particular the individual reading classes, allow for greater concentration on both the students and the subject material. She has found that reading courses enable graduate students to gain the most for their own research projects, while also serving as a compliment to her other classes.  

In the Fall of 2016 Dr. Golestaneh will be teaching an undergraduate course “Society and Politics in Contemporary Iran”, as well as a graduate seminar on “The Iranian Revolution: Comparative Analyses”. Rather than consisting of an overview of the historiography of the Iranian Revolution, this seminar will look at various approaches to understanding revolution with the guiding question: What are the different ways one can approach an event like that? In the first few weeks students can expect to look at different theories and ideas behind studying revolutions, while the rest of the course will consider interdisciplinary approaches that offer a lens to analyze the revolution: from ideological reasons to historical materialism to more sociological frames.

Dr. Golestaneh ended the interview with some advice for MA and PhD students. “Be kind to yourself. It is okay if in the first year you do not know exactly what you want to work on.” She noted that summertime preliminary research is key. She gave the following encouragement to graduate students. “Know your archive. Go for the summers to get a sense of how easy it is to access documents, to understand whether the librarian cooperative or not, and whether you can photocopy or scan documents. These details make a difference when planning research trips.” She urged for students to seek support among peers, as the act of articulating one’s research to friends is crucial to the research process. On that note, the IAUNRC’s Brown Bag Series is an excellent opportunities for students to gain feedback on their research in an informal environment.