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The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran Paperback – 13 Sep 2005

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Product details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (13 Sept. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674018435
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674018433
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.1 x 20.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 758,992 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Sociologist Kurzman addresses five familiar sets of explanations about why the Iranian revolution took place--political, organizational, cultural, economic, and military arguments--and finds each valuable but flawed, offering instead an 'anti-explanation' that foregrounds anomaly and characterizes the revolutionary moment as confusing, unstable, and as unpredictable for participants as it is for outside observers. Despite this, optimism is in order; there is, after all, exciting potential in moments in which the unthinkable suddenly becomes thinkable. -- Brendan Driscoll Booklist 20040215 When Elias Canetti, the Nobel-prize winning theorist, spoke of a people's 'propensity to incendiarism,' he had in mind one of the most dangerous traits of mass gatherings: their potential for unpredictable combustibility. Iran's Islamic revolution, like many other uprisings, was a consummate instance of this, Kurzman argues, and he continues in Canetti's tradition by using the Shah's overthrow to engage in his own meditation on crowds and power. Kurzman's investigation propelled him to the Islamic republic, where he conducted countless interviews, in an attempt to chart the eddies and undercurrents of one of the world's most complex and sudden social upheavals...The result is a thought-provoking combination of journalism and analysis that offers an atypical juxtaposition of voices: shopkeepers, lawyers and high school students share their views on what happened, as do academics and policymakers. Publishers Weekly 20040419 [Kurzman's] book examines the Islamic revolution in the light of social sciences. It is a valuable insight into what he considers one of the most far-reaching events of the 20th century. -- Shusha Guppy Times Higher Education Supplement 20041105 Charles Kurzman has presented a meticulous anatomy of the Iranian revolution and has dexterously treated the anomalies usually inherent in revolutions...The author shifts through revolution theories and shows with pages and pages of documentation and references how they related to the Iranian revolution or missed it. Kurzman's opus is certainly a valuable contribution to the historiography and sociological analysis of an important revolution of our age that led to a large scale politicization of Islam in those parts of the world where this religion prevailed. -- Syfi Tashan Journal of Third Word Studies Charles Kurzman has produced the definitive account of the Islamic Revolution. No serious historian can write about these events without consulting his 10-page essay on available source material in The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran. Middle East Quarterly 20070401

About the Author

Charles Kurzman is Associate Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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By Amazon Costumer on 13 Dec. 2014
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 7 reviews
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Sociology Gives Up explaining the Iranian Revolution? 9 Jun. 2004
By Tron Honto - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Working within a relatively small timeframe (1977-1979), Kurzman methodically examines five explanatory paradigms which have hitherto been mobilized to explain the success of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Emplotting each paradigm on a brisk narrative of the revolution itself, he begins with the political explanations (attributing the revolution to increased liberalization), organizational explanations (focusing on mosque and university networks), cultural explanations (pointing to the utilization of 40 day martyrdom mourning cycle as a means of sustaining protest), economic explanations (citing the gridlock caused by the nation-wide strikes in key industries), and military explanations (pointing to the feeble attempts of the Shah's forces to restore state control). Each of these he finds inadequate and only some completely false. At best, an explanation remains partial but not compelling for the whole. Moreover, they demonstrate a consistent occurrence of the `inversion of cause and effect', e.g., student mobilization created the utility of the mosque networks, mobilization led to the state's economic crisis, not vice versa.
Kurzman attempts to cut the Gordian knot by offering his own `anti-explanation'-namely, the revolution succeeded when it become viable in the minds of its core constituents. This `anti-explanation', he asserts, is non-predictive because it depends on the anomalous nature of the agency of social actors. What is left for the sociologist is to strive for an understanding of a peculiar, unique event.
This deconstructive enterprise is essentially a treatise against retroactive prediction that argues rather for sociological reconstructions of historical events rather an attempt to derive patterns for the sake of being able to predict when future, nascent revolutions are about to occur. Kurzman unconsciously it seems has merely constructed an argument for the values of social-history over sociology as such. Where his novel, so-called `anti-explanation' differs from what we call `history' eludes me.
Overall, the writing in the book is fluid, lucid and accompanied by a nice balance of anecdote and analysis. His usage of jargon is sparse and rare-limited mostly to a few quotes from famous sociologists such as Bourdieu and Parsons. He demonstrates a familiarity with Persian culture and language that manifests itself in many subtle ways through the work. General readers, historians and sociologists will find this book an immensely rewarding study.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
A dispassionate voice that Iranians will ignore at their peril 30 Aug. 2005
By Ak Atri - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Kurzman's research is thorough, systematic and dispassionate. He demolishes the Economic arguments many of the leftists have marshalled in explaining the root causes of Revolution. He does so by recourse to Macroeconomic data and comparative analysis of similar economies.

He is equally convincing when he argues against the supposed inefficiency of State suppression under the Shah; the armed forces were not so much ineffective in the act of suppression as 'being overwhelmed' by the magnitude of the insurrection. The proponents of this discourse have according to Kurzman not seen the logic of the Shahs carrot and stick approach.

On cultural issues too he takes to task the discourse of the `Mosque network' as the activists godsend for mobilising a largely religious and devout people. He argues convincingly that even by as late as summer of 1978 many of the Mullahs were either non-committal or at least cowed by the potential wrath of the system

The conclusion that Kurzman draws and- one that I still do not share so readily- is that there is no explanation for this Revolution. At least there is no explanation that can withstand the critical scrutiny of dispassionate academic inquiry. Adequate explanations may not exist, not by virtue of their non-existence, but by the non-transparent information asymmetry that has pervaded Iranian political landscape

I would have also liked Kurzman to dedicate a chapter to the discourse that argues that the Shah had by 1953 lost all legitimacy to rule. It would have been interesting to see how a rational, academic and cerebral mind such as Kurzman's would have countered this argument.

Nevertheless I very much salute this as a sober inquiry that Iranians must take on board. Kurzman may not have convinced me of the Anti-Explanation discourse but he will most definitely have shifted the analytical paradigm. His book is extremely well written and easy to read and should appeal to Researcher and layman alike.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Read for the story and its lessons - not what you'd expect. 19 May 2004
By L. F Sherman - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The Iranian Revolution was totally unexpected before it happened. It is difficult to fathom this essential truth after the fact. The Shah had the military and secret service as well as wealth to put down any revolution it was assumed. In any case material progress and modernization were moving ahead to provide benefits and quell discontent. The Revolution didn't care! It came anyway. But it could not be predicted by any of the social sciences: economics, political science, sociology, etc. Nor by religion.
Kurzman, himself a Sociologist, uses each chapter to apply these disciplinary viewpoints and show their limitations in explaining events. Circumstances, and personal decisions, became crucial when enough people changed their own expectations to believe that revolution might really be possible - to think the unthinkable.. Khomeini was critical for this but as a catalyst for various grievances both liberal and revolutionary to seem to have a chance of success.
Close examination in each chapter show anomalies, confusion, lack of central control. Culture contributed but was remade in the process. Shi'a religious organization gave it some coordination and direction lacking for many other elements but can not be said to be solely responsible for the revolution.
Two important corollaries follow from this, although Kurzman makes little of either.
First the Fundamentalist Iranian Revolution is not the Bogeyman that many see. It inspired enthusiasm among some Muslims in various parts of the world but was not a model to be copied. It was not "typical" of Islam (among other things Iran was Shi'a with a somewhat unique religious elite unlike Ulema or Sufis elsewhere). There were many motives and supporters that were practical and not `religious'. US antipathy is more a knee jerk reaction than based on understanding of Iran or of Islam.
Also it is clear that the various social sciences and traditional approaches to explaining revolution need History - each situation is unique and "unthinkable" before it happens; there exist not sufficient "laws" to predict revolution. None of the disciplinary approaches hold together without history too.
Kurzman's book is interesting therefore in numerous ways: the description of the Revolution; the acts and thoughts of individual participants; the anomalies and limitations of causation theory of various social sciences. The policy implications are consequential and should not be ignored.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Good book 23 Jun. 2009
By mark mchugh - Published on
Format: Paperback
First class, possibly classic, study of the revolution. Incisive, thought-provoking and a host of other complementary adjectives, it's even a bit of a page turner - at least for the Iran history-buff. Academics may find themselves lonesome for jargon and convoluted prose but they can take heart in the footnotes, which are unparalleled in their thoroughness, making the book a veritable bibliography for students of the revolution. The text is only 172 pages but has another 100+ devoted to sources, bibliography and index.

One caveat: This is a book about the overthrow of the monarchy. If you want dissection of the important events in the years after the shah's ouster that transformed Iran into an Islamic Republic under the principle of clerical rule, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Four Stars 8 Jun. 2015
By lucilene silva - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
very good
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