Posted on: October 18, 2017 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Jordanian Aid Workers

Using ‘exceptional’ nations as examples of positive deviants

A look around the globe with an eye toward ‘exceptions’ can yield some interesting observations and lead -perhaps- to some useful questions.

Not long ago I spent 5 months in Costa Rica teaching a class which compared the American culture with that of Costa Rica.  What I found doing my background research (see Bowman’s New Scholarship on Costa Rican Exceptionalism) is that these two nations have something in common:  both believe themselves to be exceptional.  American exceptionalism has been an oft used -and maligned- trope for many scores of years, the idea being first offered by the French historian and ethnographer Alexis de Tocqueville back in 1931.  That many nation-states (and before that, empires) see themselves as exceptional is just another manifestation of ethnocentrism or, by its other name, nationalism.

Are there other ‘exceptional’ nations?

Ghana and Namibia have been cited as examples of “African democratic exceptionalism”, with Ghana arguably being an exception in its geographic neighborhood, especially compared to the some bordering nations.  Further east and south of Ghana is Zambia, far more stable than its bordering nations to the north, south, and east,  DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Angola, respectively.

In southeast Asia there is Singapore, a city-state island in a sea of turmoil is hard not to notice as exceptional on many levels.

Though it may be now waning, Chilean exceptionalism was recognized by some for years.

Jordan as a ‘positive devant’?
I have turned my attention in the last six months toward the Middle East and more specifically to the humanitarian response to the Syrian refugee crisis.  Why is the organizational hub for this response in Jordan?  At first the answers seem obvious, with all of the surrounding nations ruled out by their current crises and/or lack of apparent neutrality.

But why Jordan?  Is it in some way ‘exceptional’, or restated, a ‘positive deviant’?  The humanitarian aid industry has employed the concept of positive deviance for decades, at least since 1998 when it was used for household livelihoods assessments in Cambodia. This concept has staying power and appears in sector discussions most recently in the context of data driven development.

I am not alone in thinking Jordan exceptional.  The sociologist Dr. Mansoor Moaddel provides some very useful insight in 2002 in his book Jordanian Exceptionalismcarefully outlining the history of the state-religion relationship in this nation.

Applying this concept to a nation as a unit of analysis is, to say the least, problematic.  Accepting that assessment, there are yet some questions that are worth asking not only about Jordan but also of the other ‘exceptional/deviant’ nations around the world.

  • What about their history, politics, leadership profiles, ethnic/tribal/religious makeup and overall cultural configuration have contributed to their successes?
  • Why is it that some nations wax and wane being and being seen as exceptional?
  • What external geopolitical and economic factors play into the depth and longevity of these exceptionalities?
  • Do those in the region depend on these deviants for their guidance or show a need for the stability which they represent?
  • Can their deviance best be seen as a zero-sum or, alternately, a non-zero-sum situation?

In the case of Jordan all of these questions may be relevant, but perhaps one key factor is their leadership profile, with the monarchy being in some way the ‘secret sauce’ that makes this nation so stable.

Below is what one Jordanian had to say.

Hala and I on Skype talking about the history and politics of Jordan as it relates to aid work.

“The Levant has been a mixing bowl of ethnicities from all the region (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Turkey). It stared as early as the 1890s when the first waves of Circassians and Chechens started pouring in from Russia. These communities are well established now and well integrated into what is now known as Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan and Syria. Fast forward a few hundred years to the invasion of Palestinian land by the Zionist movement in the 1940s, thousands of Palestinians fled to neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and even Kuwait. Many of which ended up in Jordan, adding to the already existing population of Bedouin and Caucasian origin. This was not unique to Jordan alone, but to the region in general. These waves of migration continue after the first gulf war and the Sudanese war of the late 1980s, the Iraq invasion in the early 2000s and the Syrian civil war of 2011. Jordan now hosts people of Palestinian, Syrian, Yemeni, Iraqi, Armenian, Circassian, Chechen, and Sudanese decent. Jordan is a Suni-Muslim majority country, with a Christian minority population living in peace with one another following more or less the same culture.

In broader context Jordan looks stable compared to its neighbours, but there remains some unrest within its borders, from Bedouin tribe clashes to peaceful sit-ins in response to heightened by the economic stagnation, high inflation and unemployment rates.

Some might argue that Jordan owes its relative stability due to its peace treaty with Israel, and its good relations with the United States, in which they need a “stable” ally in the region. Hence, after witnessing the mass displacement of their Arab counterparts, Jordanians are well aware of the volatility of the region and that it could have easily been them. Many stand behind the leadership of the HRH King Abdullah II and credit his efforts for the stability that Jordan is enjoying”.

Asked for a summary of the current situation Hala responded,

“Well I guess it is unique and it isn’t at the same time. I think it’s relatively ‘stable’ because of the unique-ish regional political climate, in which it is playing a small part in what is becoming a clearer picture of what some leaders of countries want [read:  the United States]. I think that Jordan in able to keep the cork in place for the time being, but it might not be that easy down the road…  I think it’s unique that there arn’t any obvious mass killings and bombings, but there are real issues under the surface.”

That Jordan is stable and an ‘exception’ in the region may be true, but why that is so is a very complex mix of history, geopolitical machinations and, yes, personalities.

Nomothetic versus ideographic
Perhaps the sociologist Max Weber was right, and we can and should avoid the tendency to explain our world by reference to general laws and focus on treating real life examples each as unique and qualitatively different from other social realities.  Jordan is neither Ghana nor Costa Rica nor the United States.  The story of the Levant is important to understand alone, without compromising details and interpretations just so they can fit into a larger global sociopolitical pattern.  History stumbles forward and our best efforts can only yield a tentative understanding of why things are the way they are in the present.

One aid worker colleague put it this way, “I think the ‘uniqueness’ factor is that these countries (with the sum of their history, leaders, complexities, demography, etc.) actually found the balance between a relative quality of life for an increasing number of people, relative political and social stability because every country-mix is different, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for this, hence the feeling of having cracked the code of the masses.”

When asked, ‘who is driving the search of for this balance?’ and, ‘Can the balance mechanisms in one be applied to another?’  she replied simply that “…impossible to take a recipe and apply it elsewhere.”


Extrapolating current trends and directions is our wont as humans, with our egotistical and anthropocentric hubris leading us to the conclusion that we can know the past, understand the present, and control the future.

Have we learned anything useful?
Can we learn from positive deviants and make use of their examples as a guide for how to ‘fix’ the present and proactively guide our future?  I am not sure.  Perhaps we should ask the aid workers who used this conceptual tool for household livelihoods assessments in Cambodia back in 1998.

All for now on this excursus.  Back to our regular programming soon.  If you do have comments or questions contact me.



Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' will be out later in 2023.

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