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The Anthropology of Air Conditioning in the Arab Gulf

February 19, 2021
Center for Urban and Regional Studies
photo of fruit sellers

Bahrainis selling produce under the protective shade of tents. (Marwa Koheji)

“We have come to live a life that is almost exclusively indoors–from air-conditioned houses to air-conditioned cars, offices, malls…” said Marwa Koheji of her native Bahrain. “Indeed, when I learned that more than 60 percent of electricity in the Arab Gulf is consumed by air conditioning, it made me aware not only of our reliance on this machine but also of its energy and environmental cost.”

Koheji, a doctoral student in cultural anthropology at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was awarded a CURS-supported National Science Foundation dissertation grant to investigate how and why air conditioning has become so popular in Bahrain, what historical, social and material factors contribute to its spread, and to what consequences among different users.

“What made this project more interesting to me is its global relevance, especially as air conditioning becomes increasingly popular worldwide with rising global temperatures,” explained Koheji. “As such, it is also a timely project that speaks to the tension between escalating global warming and the spread of technical and energy-consuming solutions to keep humans cool.”

“This project is not merely about Bahrain…it’s a dialogue with concerns related to energy sustainability and the future of thermal comfort in urban centers worldwide.”

Her decision to conduct anthropological research in the Arab Gulf also came from a desire to contribute to a more critical understanding of the region. “While the Middle East has been a robust area of academic research, the Arab Gulf has long been an understudied region in the humanities and the social sciences,” Koheji said. “As a result, it has at times been viewed as a region without culture and history, appearing either as a repository of unchanging traditions or, following the discovery of oil, as a hypermodern extravaganza unbridled by wealth. I see my project as a corrective to such essentialist and stereotypical understandings as I explore the tensions, contradictions and unintended consequences of post-oil transformations.”

While anthropological studies of the Middle East have addressed varied topics, research on technology and infrastructure and their role in shaping society remain limited despite their importance to the discipline and to the lives of people in the region. In addition, as anthropology is not taught in universities in Bahrain, Koheji’s project represents a pioneering effort on the part of a Bahraini. “I hope, by my research endeavors, to bring a unique insider’s perspective that would increase my fellow Bahrainis’ self-awareness as well as facilitate a greater understanding of the local culture by outside societies.”

Read more on the Center for Urban and Regional Studies website.

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