After immigrating to the United States in 1970, Misagh Parsa discovered the relevance of sociology to his Iranian background, eventually becoming a member of Dartmouth’s own sociology department. Members of the field strive to understand the mechanisms that cause poverty and persecution, both of which Parsa faced in his childhood.
Parsa was born into a poor family that belonged to an ethnic minority group representing only 40,000 of Iran’s total population of nearly 30 million at the time.
“From early on, I noticed that we were economically poor, politically powerless, religiously persecuted and socially outcast and excluded in Iranian society at large,” Parsa said.
After serving in the Iranian army, Parsa arrived in New York with $320.68 and a desire for an education. While working and studying English, Parsa attended Queens College, graduating in 1975.
Throughout his undergraduate experience, Parsa became intrigued by how the study of sociology pertained to his life.
“I became very sensitive to understanding the roots of poverty, political oppression, religious antagonism and the social exclusion of minority groups in human civilizations,” he said.
Even today, after living in America for 40 years, Parsa still finds that his research relates back to his personal experiences.
Due to the publication of his book “Social Origins of the Iranian Revolution” and the Iranian government’s decision to not extend his passport, Parsa has been unable to return to his home country since 1978. Prior to the revolution, Parsa’s return was plausible, but now it is impossible.
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“I was critical of the previous regime, but I could dare to go back,” he said, contrasting his current situation to years before. Parsa previously received an offer to teach in Iran, but he is certain that it was actually a disguised government attempt to find and execute him.
After obtaining his PhD from the University of Michigan in 1982, Parsa came to Dartmouth.
“The things I fell in love with when I came to Dartmouth were the students and the library,” he said.
Parsa said his students challenge him to be constantly well-informed about the material he is teaching and researching.
“The students make it worthwhile to go to class and to be engaged,” Parsa said. “I’m so impressed by the intelligence of our students. The only thing I occasionally hear and see is a minority of students who are not very serious about taking advantage of all Dartmouth offers and expanding their knowledge.”
Parsa is currently examining the process of democratization in developing countries, a subject that has been debated for over 50 years. By reformulating these issues, Parsa has raised two questions: Who are the major promoters of this democratization, and can it occur through gradual reforms or does it require a revolution?
Unlike previous theorists who assigned responsibility for democratization to capitalist entrepreneurs or various classes, Parsa has concluded that in nations under authoritarian governments, students play the largest role in democratization.
“Students provide an avenue, an option for challenging these authoritarian regimes,” Parsa said.
Parsa argues that this is possible because many students come from privileged backgrounds and, more importantly, students are concentrated in a community with relatively greater freedom than the rest of the country.
Student privilege grants them some immunity from the government’s tremendous repression. They possess “theoretical immunity,” in that police are often prohibited from making arrests on campuses.
By constantly interacting with each other, students “communicate their grievances,” both their own and their family’s, Parsa said.
Since they are concerned about their future, students want to stem government corruption and combat the numerous inequalities inherent in authoritarian societies.
Parsa focuses especially on the situations in South Korea, Indonesia and Iran.
South Korean students called for constitutional reform and forced the military to accept democracy. In Indonesia, student activism sparked riots in 1998 that destabilized the government and forced the resignation of President Suharto. Iranians have been fighting for democracy since 1905, with Students repeatedly challenging the arbitrary and unaccountable nature of their theocratic government. In 2009, Iranians protested the perceived fraudulent elections. Three million fought the government, with over 100 killed in protests. Parsa points to the majority of Iranian people who oppose the theocracy to demonstrate Iran’s capacity for enforcing change.
“The issue is not if they will overthrow the government; the issue is when,” Parsa said.
Reviews of his book, “States, Ideologies, and Social Revolutions”
“Iran’s Election and Potential for Change”