Published in Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin, 2004, 38, 1-2, pp. 18-24.
A Cultural Critique of Psychological Explanations of Terrorism
Institute for Cultural Research & Education
In the Bulletin special issue on terrorism (2003 September), Triandis (2003) and Kashima (2003) propose psychological and cultural issues that help to explain terrorism. Although cross-cultural psychologists manifest a greater sensitivity to culture then typical mainstream psychologists, I wish to argue that their discussion could be strengthened by an even greater emphasis on cultural factors. I do not explain what these factors are because I am not expert in the field of terrorism. Rather, I point out general cultural issues which are important for understanding behavior. I point out shortcomings of analyses which fail to consider these issues.
Triandis & Kashima emphasize that terrorism is rooted in poverty and inequality. (This, of course, does not justify terrorism, it simply explains it.) However, the authors do not pursue the full nature of this inequality, the brutal ways in which it is imposed, and the manner in which it provokes terrorism. The authors instead invoke psychological constructs to supplement cultural constructs in explaining terrorism. The psychological constructs denote abstract, universal, natural psychological processes and tendencies. Such an interactionist model of incongruous factors is insufficient on scientific grounds and political grounds as well.
Triandis claims that terrorism is motivated not only by poverty but by personality problems as well: The personalities of terrorists contradict prevalent social values. Thus, Saudi Arabia is a collectivist culture but the 9/11 terrorists were idiocentric personalities. According to Triandis, such misfits try to change their culture to fit their personalities. But the Arab terrorists of 9/11 couldn't change their culture because it was protected by the US. Also attacking their own culture would hurt many of their kinsmen. "Thus, hitting the USA can be viewed as a displacement of the motivation to change their own culture" (Triandis, 2003, p. 35).
Triandis' claim that personality disorders and displacement motivate terrorism is speculative and illogical. If the terrorists were afraid to attack their own country because it was protected by the USA, then it makes little sense to attack the USA on its homeland where it was protected much more strongly by its military. In addition, there is no evidence that the terrorists were idiocentric and misfits in their own country. There is certainly no evidence that psychodynamic principles of displacement were at work in the psyches of the terrorists.
None of the psychological constructs which Triandis postulates explains the intended behavior. Misfits do not ordinarily try to change their culture. Most misfits become mentally disturbed or submerge themselves in some escape -- such as work or gambling -- to ease their pain, Nor does difficulty in changing one's own culture necessarily lead to trying to change another. Nor does trying to change another culture necessarily lead to terrorism. There are many other ways of trying to change a culture. It is important to recognize that Triandis' psychological constructs do not, either singly or in combination, explain terrorism.
Triandis contradicts his own argument by admitting that the terrorists acted as a well organized group -- as collectivists. "Idiocentrics become allocentric in some situations." But if the idiocentric terrorists acted allocentrically (collectively), then were they really idiocentric? How can we identify idiocentrics if they act collectively? Triandis tries to rescue his unsupportable hypothesis by claiming that individualism can be "expressed" in different ways (p. 34). Thus, people who act collectively can still really be idiocentric.
But we all know that 9/11 terrorism wasn't just a momentary collective action in extenuating circumstances. It took years of coordination and planning and trust and comraderie. It is sophistry to call such devoted, consistent collectivists idiocentric -- i.e., to postulate individualists who simply expressed their personalities collectively.
Moreover, if they were able to live so collectively as terrorists, why couldn't they have adapted successfully to the allocentric Arabian culture? Why did they feel out of place at all? Why did they become terrorists? Triandis admits that idiocentrics become allocentric when "he is in a collectivist culture and in the company of many allocentrics, where the situation emphasizes common fate or similarityŠ" (p. 34). But this means that idiocentric terrorists in Saudi Arabia should have adapted to the presence of the many allocentrics and become, or acted, allocentrically. It contradicts his entire claim that terrorists are idiocentrics who are out of place in a collectivist society!
Triandis further contradicts his claim by admitting that "this [psychological] analysis is only superficial" (p. 36). He says that economic, political, and cultural issues are more fundamental to understanding terrorism. He mentions the poverty, starvation, and disease that confront third world people. Triandis also mentions a religious interpretation of this suffering, that it is unjust according to god. The suffering is inflicted by the devil which is the US. The devil is resisted violently because violence is part of the cultural and religious definition of masculinity (p. 399). Triandis' illuminating comments about the cultural conditions and cultural psychology of terrorists lead to a conclusion that as long as imperialist policies are promoted by the first world (e.g., the IMF), we will have revolutions and terrorism (p. 38).
Instead of pursuing these cultural issues, Triandis abandons them and switches back to his psychologistic argument that terrorism is due to personality mismatch with culture. He presents questionnaire data which "suggest" that members of a terrorist organization in Pakistan are idiocentrists living in an allocentric society. On the face of it, such a conclusion is oxymoronic. Members of an organization who embrace a common goal and belief system, act collectively and cooperatively, have a tight and exclusive bond, and are even willing to give up their lives for a social cause, hardly qualify as idiocentrics, who are "strongly motivated for personal achievement" (p. 37).
Triandis' psychologism contradicts his cultural analysis. It also contradicts his cultural solution to terrorism. Instead of identifying cultural reforms that could mitigate terrorism, Triandis ends with a pessimistic, apathetic conclusion that "terrorism is a problem with no solution." Of course it has no solution if it is due to individual personality traits. These traits cannot be modified through social policies. Psychologistic explanations are apolitical, and politically apathetic. On the other hand, emphasizing cultural explanations of terrorism lead to a definite solution to this horrific activity -- oppose imperialism of the West, and fundamentalism of the East. Social policies and movements can modify these factors, whereas they cannot modify personality traits and defense mechanisms.
Kashima's article manifests the foregoing weaknesses more egregiously. Kashima (2003) pays less attention to cultural pressures which provoke terrorism, and to cultural concepts which generate terroristic responses to these pressures. Kashima makes a few, brief, scattered comments about social injustice in the world; however these are tangential to, and contradicted by, his focus upon abstract psychological constructs.
Kashima's conception of terrorism obscures crucial political and psychological dimensions of it. He defines terrorism as the systematic use of terror or unpredictable violence against governments, publics, or individuals to attain a political objective. This definition fails to identify the concrete objectives or conditions of the violence. These include whether one is trying to overthrow totalitarianism or democracy; if one is working to promote freedom or oppression. Kashima's general definition would label revolutionary acts as terrorist. Most revolutionary acts to oppose injustice and totalitarianism inflict unpredictable violence against the oppressors to attain a political objective. Kashima condemns these as terrorist: "Violent challenges to an oppressive regime are often called freedom fighting, a different name for terrorism in fact" (Kashima, 2003, p. 18). Slaves killing their masters are thus terrorists according to Kashima. Equating the armed struggle for freedom with terrorism precludes understanding terrorism.
Kashima further obscures the cultural and psychological nature of terrorism by selectively applying his broad definition to acts directed against Western powers. He never mentions state-sponsored terrorism which is more brutal. American funded and trained death squads throughout Latin America, attempts by the CIA to destabilize governments throughout the world, the capturing of Africans for slavery during the 17th and 18th centuries, and brutal dictatorships which torture their own citizens, and the recent revelations about American soldiers torturing Iraqi and Afghanistani prisoners are examples of state-sponsored terrorism that Kashima never considers. Ignoring such blatant examples of terrorism makes it impossible to understand the phenomenon.
The social psychology of government bureaucrats who order and finance terrorism is quite different from the social psychology of government agents who inflict the mayhem. The suicide bomber who is a member of a fanatic religious group has yet a different social psychology.
Kashima acknowledges that certain people are economically deprived and have few mechanisms for redress. However, he doesn't emphasize this condition as a fundamental incentive for terrorism. Instead, he submerges this condition in a host of other factors.
For example, Kashima claims that globalization offers an opportunity for terrorists to gain publicity for their political agenda -- to place it on the "communal common ground of the people who engage in public discourse" about it. "Globalization makes terrorism an `attractive' political strategy for some" (p. 19). Kashima reverses the role of globalization from a violent intrusion that provokes terroristic opposition, to a neutral medium which terrorists use to advance their violent agendas. It's not globalization that's the problem, it's the way that terrorists use the globalized flow of information.
Kashima emphasizes the psychological level of explanation rather than the cultural level. He discusses ways that people form in-group and out-group distinctions. This process leads to defining one's group in opposition to other groups. (p. 20). Kashima calls these cultural processes. But they are really interpersonal mechanisms which are presumed to be natural. They are not part of any particular cultural value system or system of social institutions.
Kashima reduces culture to interpersonal groups. He completely ignores macro factors such as ideologies and social institutions such as the World Bank. He believes that intergroup relations have "cultural dynamics" (p. 20), and it is these that generate prejudice and terrorism. "When a cultural element [e.g., appearance, behavior] is seen to differentiate `us' and `them', it simultaneously invites certain ways of construing the intergroup relation" (p. 20, my emphasis). When religion was used to differentiate groups, it led to the Crusades. For Kashima, the social psychology of group differentiation is what invites conflict.
Years ago, the anthropologist Leslie White wrote a seminal essay entitled "Culturological vs. Psychological Interpretations of Human Behavior" (White (1949, pp. 121-145). He argued that psychological mechanisms do not explain cultural phenomena. Durkheim, Parsons, Bourdieu, Kroeber, and other "structuralists" made the same point. Their criticism applies directly to Kashima. His invoking of abstract psychological constructs such as in-group out-group distinctions, "negotiating" (i.e., deciding) the meaning of a group, and groups acting as social agents (pp. 20-21) do not explain any concrete cultural behavior. None of them possesses any specific content, and all of them can be infused with any content that will animate any behavior. Distinguishing an in-group from an out-group can be used benevolently to identify a group in need. We can distinguish handicapped people, or children, from able-bodied adults and then offer them special salutary treatment. Distinguishing features of people does not invite any particular behavior; it is compatible with all kinds of behavior. It is simplistic to claim that the Crusades were invited, or afforded, by the mere fact of observing religious differences. Broader, real cultural factors were behind the Crusades.
The same holds for terrorism. Kashima claims that terrorism is afforded by the global exchange of information which lets impoverished people see the contrast between themselves and wealthy Westerners. The contrast can be hardened into fixed, antagonistic identities. Relative deprivation can also be experienced. This can lead to revenge or attempts to subjugate the "out-group" (p. 24). Now, none of these abstract psychological mechanisms explains terrorism. (Just as Triandis' constructs failed to do so.) The fact that people notice differences in wealth between themselves and others does not necessarily lead them to differentiate or oppose themselves to the others. Nor does relative deprivation necessarily lead to seeking revenge on the other group. Abstract psychological factors do not add up to concrete cultural experience or action (cf. Ratner & Hui, 2003). One cannot reach into an arsenal of general, abstract constructs and apply them to any particular issue that comes along. One needs specific information about an issue such as terrorism in order to identify its causes. Kashima presents no data about terrorism, per se -- no observations or interviews with terrorists. It is not surprising that his purported explanations fail to inform us about terrorism, per se. The explanatory constructs are so abstract that they are compatible with numerous other behaviors as well.
Kashima's & Triandis' hypothetical constructs do not explain all forms of terrorism. None of them explains state terrorism against other governments and populations. Government officials and agents do not massacre hundreds of thousands of peasants, priests, nuns, educators, intellectuals, and union organizers because they experience relative deprivation, seek revenge, seek to negotiate their identity and act as group agents, have personality differences with their culture, or form stereotypes of the victims. None of what Kashima and Triandis say about terrorism applies to the American military police in Abu Ghraib prison who gleefully terrorized Iraqi prisoners without any ideological fervor, dogmatic thinking, or stereotyping.
Nor do abstract psychological constructs offer any solution to terrorism. Triandis admits he has no solution. And Kashima's analysis culminates only in a banal conclusion that: "Researchers of culture and psychology, with our global outlook, can act as a positive constructive force by clarifying the nature of human variation, the process of cultural dynamics, and potential risks and opportunities for the globalizing human society" (p. 25).
A far more insightful and effective strategy is to understand the concrete cultural issues involved in terrorism. Some of these, in the case of Arab people, were eloquently expressed by a young Iraqi to a journalist recently:
"For Fallujans it is a shame to have foreigners break down their doors. It is a shame for them to have foreigners stop and search their womenŠThis is a great shame for the whole tribe. It is the duty of that man, and of that tribe, to get revenge on this soldier -- to kill that man. Their duty is to attack them, to wash the shame. The shame is a stain, a dirty thing; they have to wash it. No sleep -- we cannot sleep until we have revenge. They have to kill soldiers" (Danner, 2004, p. 46).
This man describes both the conditions that provoke terrorism as well as the ideology and cultural psychology that guide the terroristic response to these conditions. Comprehending these kinds of factors, rather than postulating abstract psychological constructs, will make us better prepared to understand the reasons for terrorism, and to mitigate it by removing its basis in cultural life.
Danner, M. (June 10, 2004). Torture and truth. New York Review of Books, pp. 46-50).
Kashima, Y. (2003). Terrorism and globalization: A social psychological analysis of culture and intergroup relations in the contemporary world. Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin, 37, 3, 17-25.
Ratner, C., & Hui, L. (2003). Theoretical and methodological problems in cross-cultural psychology. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 33, 67-94.
Triandis, H. (2003). Some hypotheses on the psychology of terrorism. Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin, 37, 3, 33-40.
White, L. (1949). The science of culture: A study of man and civilization. New York: Farrar, Strauss.
About the author: Carl Ratner has written numerous books and articles about the theory and methodology of cultural psychology. He currently conducts workshops on these topics in many countries. His most recent articles are a critique of tendencies within cross-cultural psychology, and a critique of the way that news media report on genetic aspects of psychology. Ratner's publications may be found on his web site: http://www.humboldt1.com/~cr2