Posted by: Christian | April 7, 2008

The Afghan Individual as a Unit of Analysis

OK, the picture below is obviously not a social or cognitive scientist analyzing the individual to discern his motives. It’s a US Army ophthalmologist testing an Afghan man’s eyesight. What I’m doing with this metaphorical image is attempting to bring up the issue of the bias towards group analysis in the media and, strangely enough, in certain corners of academia when pertaining to Afghans.

It is quite common to read an article, whether in a mainstream newspaper or in an academic journal, that talks of groups in Afghanistan as if they were a coherent unit with a single will. You get to the point where you must add your own qualifiers to statements such as “Afghans are angered by…,” “Pashtuns do not want…,” “Tajiks support….” The people, when identified as individuals, are often presented as prisoners of their “cultural identity” exhibiting easily recognizable behavior that can be associated with a certain ethnic or religious group.

Moreover, reporters and some academics make broad and sometimes entirely false generalizations about a group and present them as some sort of concrete “truth” about a group. The worst offenses are usually related towards discussing Pashtuns. You can read this entry at Afghanistanica that attacks false stereotyping of Pashtuns, for example. This quote from The Economist is symptomatic of the media’s bias towards problematic and/or outright false group stereotypes:

“His honour besmirched – and here’s the problem for American’s – a Pushtun is obliged to have his revenge, or badal.”

The same Economist article goes on to offer this “insight:”

“If Pashtunwali is about more than killing, its strictures are still remarkably unforgiving. Many Tajiks, like Pashtuns, would die before the suffered a slight.”

I’m not trying to trash the whole article. It is actually quite good as far as journalism goes. The article actually makes concessions to the changing identities and unfixed nature of “culture.” But it then drifts back to gross generalizations and sociocentrism (ignoring individual variations of “group” members). Why do they do this? Why the false generalizations? The most basic answer is that it is due to laziness. To make any statement about “Pashtuns” or “Tajiks”as a coherent group with a highly predictable pattern of behavior is laughable. You need to take into account gender, rural vs urban, landowner vs tenant, poor vs no-so-poor vs wealthy, age, area of origin, education, time spent in Pakistan, naqshbandiyya or Deobandi or whatever, employed vs unemployed, mentally healthy vs mentally ill, relatives killed by foreign forces or not, etc… You could go on forever making these types of qualifications. But even when you distill it to a narrow category such as “20-something year old males, son of landowners in Paktia, educated to high school level, partial to father’s Sufi Pir, mentally healthy, unmarried,” you still have a group that will behave in highly diverse ways. You could add qualifiers such as “most,” “some” or “many,” but do you have any numbers on that? And does that allow you to disregard the minority who act in a “non-comformist” way? And does this take into account the multiple identities that cross-cut other ones and even conflict with each other within the individual?

Pic by rishsafed: What does this man want? What does he say he wants? What will he do? What does he wish he could do? Does he even know? Do you think you know just because you see an Afghan male?

The excuse for making these generalizations about group behavior are usually justified, sometimes in a hushed voice, by invoking the exceptionalism of individual/group dynamics of the “East.” Many people see the West as a place where the individual is given a high level of autonomy and the East is consigned to an area where the individual is at the mercy of the “group.” One of the favorite quotes in this regard is the old Japanese saying “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” Obviously, the individual is the nail. In Afghanistan the group motivation, that assumably negates the individual, gets categorized under “Muslim,” “Pashtunwali,” “Afghan,” etc…

If any anthropologists are reading this they would note that this debate is hardly original. Indeed, I’m lifting much of the language used here from the anthropologist Martin Sökefeld. (“Debating Self, identity, and Culture in Anthropology” in Current Anthropology, #40).

Sökefeld sums up the earlier conceptions of the individual in the “East:”

“In the conceptualization of non-western selves, the Western self was taken as the starting point and the non-Western self was accordingly characterized as its opposite: unbounded, not integrated, dependent, unable to set itself reflexively apart from others, unable to distinguish between the individual and a role or status that individual occupies, unable to pursue its own goals independently of the goals of a group or community. Effectively, this characterization involved the negation of all the definitional qualities of the self…”

But is there really no room for individual motivations for Afghans? Is there no autonomous self in Afghanistan (aside from the powerful elite)? If anybody cared to have an in-depth discussion with an Afghan, one could discern a variety of motivations and identities that conflict with and contend with each other. The individual in Afghanistan certainly faces more restrictions that his/her counterpart in the West. The Afghan in question may be dirt-poor and realize the limitations to actions outside the security of their family or community unit, but they do not defer indefinitely to the “will” of the group. And if you have a conversation with someone in Afghanistan who seems the archetype of the negated individual, permanently bound by the self-identification they offered up for that occasion, you must realize that talking to a foreigner is quite out of context to daily life where one is forced to navigate a myriad of identities. And you would be mistaking rhetoric with reality and action. Try to analyze this person as part of their group identity while neglecting to include the “self” in your analysis is highly problematic.

Pic: Do you see a group or a collection of diverse individuals?

But if it was easy to analyze the individual as part of a group everybody would be doing it. Apart from the time and effort involved, you eventually venture into theoretical evolutionary “psychobiology.”  And the amount of variables are endless. What I’m suggesting, such as Sökefeld urged in general, is to include the individual in the equations. Of course I do not wish to do away with group analysis, I would just like to see some balance. This is not to say that I don’t see people putting up analyses that include both the individual and the group. I’ve read some very insightful commentary by soldiers, NGO workers, Afghans, and reporters. I would like to see more of it though.

Cropped Pic by Steve McCurry: You know these eyes. There is obviously an individual behind them, not an unthinking component of a single group, imprisoned by culture.

And don’t take this blog entry as deference to political correctness. My friends would laugh at the thought of me as politically correct. My problem is that sloppy analyses that skips the individual will often lead you down the wrong road. Including a concept of the “Eastern” self/individual in your analysis is not political correctness, it’s a logical tool to improve that analysis.


  1. OK. I’ll bite. What is the the concept of the “Eastern” self/individual? I’ve been working in South and Central Asia since 2002 and I still have no idea.

  2. RE: “What is the the concept of the “Eastern” self/individual?”

    It’s the common stereotype held by many in the West regarding individuals in the East. I didn’t mean the people’s own image of their selves as individuals.
    So i refer back to Sokefeld’s definition quoted above.

  3. I understand the stereotype, but I’m not sure how, when doing analysis, you can account for something that Afghans themselves do not agree upon. I agree the stereotype is flawed but what do you replace it with?

  4. I don’t want to “throw out the baby with the bath water” in this case. I just want to argue for balance between, and consideration for both, the individual and the group.

    So I’m fine with keeping the stereotype as a starting point for analysis. But I also want to argue that a large number of individuals, sometimes even a majority, don’t conform to the stereotypical predictions of group behavior.

  5. I can see the danger of what you’re talking about (and heavens know I hate the term “Afghan culture”), but there is also a big practical consideration. Even just looking at Pashtuns, you see a tremendous variation amongst, as you noted, urban versus rural, between various tribes (the 19th century British gazeteers might have been on to something when discussing “tribal temperament”), and even eastern vs. southern. And of course individual villages have their own histories that will vastly impact how their inhabitants behave—that’s why some Pashtuns are fighting in Kunar and Zabul while others in Paktika are not.

    However, and this may be revealing the fundamental critique of anthropology, it is impossible to map people. Dealing in cultural generalities is the shortcut most people use to get around the problem of tracking everyone by name. Unless and until we start tagging people like Manatees, that fundamental problem of resources will exist.

    Hell, we barely know who lives in American inner cities, or why they engage in violent feuds (or worse, how to stop them). Recognizing the limitations of trying to do so in an alien culture is really important.

  6. I understand well what you are saying – trying to predict Pashtun behaviour as a group based on broad assumptions has its pitfalls. Just when you think you have a grip on things you find yourself trying to cut down a tree with a hammer or pounding nails with a saw.

    I wrote some analysis last night and then popped into news to find out Torkham is blocked for instance. Egg on my face if it holds up.

  7. […] The Afghan Individual as a Unit of Analysis […]


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