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…”
Pic by Natalie Behring: It’s sometimes easy to ignore the individual when you can’t, in a Western sense, see them.
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.