Looking for Sociology after 11 September

This piece, completed one month after the events of 11 September, examines the sociological presuppositions of the major intellectual and journalistic frameworks used to understand the unfolding 'war on terrorism'. The major frameworks include sociobiology, theodicy, political realism and 'the clash of civilizations'. Mainstream sociological theorizing has been largely absent from the debate, and some of its more fashionable claims (e.g. about our 'informatized world-order') may even be cast into doubt. In general the discussion has resembled the old 'Cold War' rhetoric that was supposedly laid to rest with the fall of the Soviet Union, with 'terrorism' and 'Islam' replacing the threats previously posed by 'totalitarianism' and 'Communism'. The sociology we teach our students may influence whether this tendency continues.


    Writing in 'rapid response' mode to events that are themselves rapidly unfolding, there are two general ways to proceed. One would be to scour the sociological literature for insights into understanding the 'suicide bombing' of New York's World Trade Center on 11 September 2001 and the unfolding 'war on terrorism'. However, a month after the initial attacks, it is striking that social scientists have yet to make a clear mark on the public debate, even in terms of providing analytic tools. Instead, commentators have typically imported sociologically relevant explanatory frameworks as background assumptions to their policy recommendations. Thus, I shall proceed from this 'sociologizing in situ.'

    Among the first and boldest frameworks to emerge was Neo-Darwinian in inspiration. Its vividness lay in its apparent simplicity; hence the title of Richard Dawkins' 15 September comment in the Guardian:[1] In a series of rationally justified increments, Dawkins constructed an image of the 'terrorists' who brought down the World Trade Center. He started with an electronically programmed 'smart missile', followed by B.F. Skinner's operant-reinforced homing pigeons, and ended by explaining the bombers' actions in terms of a Koran-induced brainwashing, which promised sexually frustrated young males a martyr's paradise in the afterlife. Dawkins wished to call attention to 'the devaluing effect that religion has on human life' by teaching the 'dangerous nonsense that death is not the end'. 'religion's misguided missiles'.

    Dawkins never made explicit what his Darwinism was meant to explain here, except by negative example -- the perversions of the human spirit that are required to contravene the value Darwinians place on our material existence. However, there are elementary sociological problems with both the phenomenon to be explained and the proposed explanation. Dawkins reduces the terrorists' motives to a belief that 'death is not the end', yet the belief itself is not pathological. Virtually every institution based on a very long-term strategy, be it religious, scientific, or economic, takes seriously the idea that 'death is not the end'. Organized violence, of course, is a recurrent social problem but hardly exclusive to religion.

    Presumably, Dawkins engages in his heroic reduction of motives because he wants to make the case for a more scientific outlook. Unfortunately, according to Dawkins' own preferred scientific framework, individual organisms (including humans) are mere vehicles for the recycling of genetic material. Yes, Darwinists value life -- but not at the level of analysis on which Dawkins wants to oppose religion. Especially when taken in Dawkins' own 'selfish gene' terms, the Darwinian attitude toward life is perhaps closest to Hindu and Epicurean cosmologies, in which particular individuals are simply temporary moments in an endless process. Indeed, Darwinism could provide just the right scientific self-understanding for a suicide bomber (though not necessarily a Muslim one, given Islam's proscription against suicide [2]). Simply consider the common Neo-Darwinian explanation for altruism in terms of individuals sacrificing themselves in order to benefit their kin, that is, those who carry the same genes. If the bombings turn out to be opening salvo in a racialized 'clash of civilizations', this strand of Neo-Darwinism will probably acquire an added significance.

    Dawkins' rhetorically striking, but sociologically self-imploding, Guardian comment highlights a simple methodological point that can often get lost in public debate. People tend to assume that their preferred frameworks can both explain particular situations and justify their attitudes toward those situations. However, the frameworks and the attitudes may have rather independent origins and hence not fit so well together. I have suggested, contra Dawkins, that Neo-Darwinism can not only help explain but also rationalize the so-called religiously inspired acts of 11 September. Of course, it remains an open question whether an explanatory framework's ability to rationalize what it explains should count for or against it. This question goes to the heart of sociology, which spent the Cold War debating the merits of "functionalism" in related terms.

    Moreover, the question is forefront in the minds of US-based commentators. Here a fault line has emerged between supporters of Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens, both of whom are normally identified with 'anti-establishment' thought[3]. Chomsky interpreted the events of 11 September as retaliation against the US for its long- term support of various oppressive regimes in the Islamic world. Moreover, he seemed to suggest that, given the current geopolitical situation, those concerned with redressing these injustices had no choice but organized violence. The appropriate response, then, would be for the US to remove its contribution to the oppressive regimes, not simply to escalate the level of violence. Hitchens leapt on Chomsky's statement as an instance of 'rationalization' and 'liberal guilt'. Hitchens focused on the enormity of the actual events, the loss of 6000 'innocent lives', which he took as evidence for a radical difference in values between 'Islamic fundamentalism' and 'the West'. He noted the repressive character of ordinary life in the 'Islamist' countries, even when not officially at war. Thus, Hitchens denied the suggestion that the US could have prevented the attacks, had it taken certain political measures, such as withdrawing military support for Israel.

    On one important point, Chomsky and Hitchens were in agreement -- that the US continues to foster oppression in the Islamic world. However, Hitchens adopted a Cold War-style understanding of the events surrounding 11 September, which itself involves heroic rationalization. To be sure, matters are complicated because the Cold War is both a literal cause of the current situation and a model for understanding it. The literal cause is that the US and its allies propped up regimes and supported insurgents in the Islamic world to halt the spread of Soviet influence, the ultimate aim of the Cold War. However, the legatees of these regimes and insurgents have now been collectively gathered (at least by the US) as a foe, called 'terrorism', which is the purported target of 'Operation Enduring Freedom'. In this context, Hitchens resembles a broad band of early Cold War commentators who called for a direct attack on the Soviet Union to 'finish the job' of something called 'totalitarianism', the ideology that supposedly linked Hitler and Stalin. Over the years, this view came to be the preserve of right-wing 'hawks', as liberals retreated to a policy of 'containment' in the face of potential nuclear confrontation.

    It is worth recalling that the Cold War slowly emerged as the US and its allies came to realize that the deal that FDR and Churchill had struck with Stalin at Yalta for dividing control of post- World War II Europe had not gone to plan[4]. The question then was whether to attack the Soviet Union for contravening the spirit of their agreement or simply contain Soviet activities to its legally sanctioned sphere of influence. The latter turned out to be the mark of Cold War foreign policy. Commentators gritted their teeth and explained the inevitability of 'dirty hands', in which the price of an overall good is the tolerance of pockets of evil. However, the focus was on the price paid in allowing the Soviet Union to flourish within its borders, not in the West's support of groups that kept the Soviets from exceeding those borders. These are the 'chickens that have come home to roost', in Hitchens' caricature of Chomsky's position. It will be interesting to see whether Hitchens continues his hardline stance, if events like the bombing of the World Trade Center are repeated elsewhere. He too may retreat to the dirty hands rationalization of the Cold War liberals.

    Chomsky and Hitchens engage in heroic rationalizations of the current situation. A branch of theology, theodicy, captures the genre of their discussion. 'Theodicy' literally means 'divine justice', already suggesting echoes of 'Operation Infinite Justice', the original name the US gave for the new war on terrorism. Historically, theodicy is tied with explanations of how an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God could allow bad things to happen to good people, and vice versa. (The Biblical reference point is The Book of Job.) For sociologists as ideologically diverse as Peter Berger and Alvin Gouldner (who interestingly both wrote their major works in Cold War America), the construction of theodicies is society's fundamental meaning-making activity[5].

    The theodicies put forward by Chomsky and Hitchens aim to rationalize the events of 11 September, indeed, by explaining the sense in which they were 'our own fault'. In both cases, 'the other' (variously defined as terrorists, Muslims, etc.) is portrayed as holding up a mirror to our souls. However, the underlying principles of cosmic justice are diametrically opposed. For Chomsky, the acts constitute justifiable revenge against our earlier atrocities. To prevent future acts of revenge, a less aggressive foreign policy is required. For Hitchens, the acts reflect our failure of nerve in stamping out evil, the only remedy for which is greater resolve. An interesting feature of theodicies is that their persuasiveness is related to the absence of generally recognized procedures for conflict resolution. That God moves in mysterious ways - - say, by refusing to give Job a straight answer to his plight -- gives theodicy its intuitive foothold. Not surprisingly, theodicies are more likely to flourish in debates over international affairs than domestic politics. The former more closely resemble the proverbial 'state of nature' in which the agencies of justice remain unspecified, largely because the very identities of the first-order agents and their field of play are under dispute[6].

    Nevertheless, considerable energy is being spent on naming and classifying the current geopolitical situation, often with an eye to identifying the jurisdiction for resolving the conflict. Here it is worth recalling that as the Cold War developed, the formal identification of the foe lost its historical anchor, exchanging echoes of Nazism for resonances from potential Soviet allies, especially the People's Republic of China. Thus, 'totalitarianism' was replaced by 'Communism' -- a subtle but significant shift from a label that 'the enemy' rejected to one they embraced as a rallying point. The aftermath of 11 September provides the potential for an analogous shift in labeling from 'terrorism' to 'Islam'. Perhaps mindful of this precedent, Osama bin Laden and his allies have been eager to portray the emerging conflict largely as Hitchens suggests, 'The West versus Islam'. Whereas both 'totalitarianism' and 'terrorism' share the negative connotation of disregard for the liberal's respect of the rule of law and personal freedom, 'Communism' and 'Islam' imply a depth of commitment that transcends the liberal's shallow attachment to materialist values.

    Two other consequences of the Cold War labelling analogy are worth remarking. The first is the patent arbitrariness of the foes gathered under these labels, without the presence of a common threat they are thought to pose. Only then we can understand why, say, Stalin and Mao -- an industrial and an agrarian Communist -- came to be seen as joint targets and why Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein -- a devout and a secular Muslim -- may now come to be seen as joint targets. The second consequence is that the labels have a penumbra effect. They cast a shadow over groups not originally meant to be covered. For example, 'socialist' came to be used interchangeably with 'Communist' in Cold War America, leading to the demonization of attempts to extend the welfare state (say, to nationalized health insurance) as 'creeping socialism'.[7]

    So far I have said little about the contribution of more explicitly 'theoretical' discussions to an understanding of the current scene. The most public clash of theoretical perspectives so far has been between former RAND Corporation Sovietologist, Francis Fukuyama, and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter, Samuel Huntington [8]. Writing shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama famously argued that the Soviet Union was the final sustained form of resistance to the inevitable triumph of liberal democratic capitalism. While Fukuyama admitted the prospect of other forms of resistance, these would be local and transient, as people come to realize the benefits to be had by participating in a global liberal order. In this sense, we have reached the 'end of history.' In contrast, Huntington delivered a worldview from the aftermath of the Gulf War, seen not as an isolated event but a harbinger. He postulated a 'clash of civilizations', the most significant of which would be between Islam and the West. Whereas Fukuyama took Hegel as his narrative model, Huntington drew from Spengler and Toynbee, with the important exception that Huntington's civilizations do not rise and fall as phases of a life cycle, but as the emergent outcome of their interactions.

    Until the events of 11 September, Fukuyama had enjoyed a decade of vindication, at least vis-a-vis the likes of Huntington, who seemed keen to reinvent the Cold War along culturalist lines. However, now the tables are turned. Huntington has stayed in the background as other commentators quote him freely, whereas Fukuyama has been put on the defensive. He dashed off opinion pieces to the Financial Times Wall Street Journal, reassuring readers that we remain at the end of history[9]. Writing as someone who would side with Fukuyama over Huntington in a 'war of the worldviews', I must confess that these 'rapid responses' have drawn some wrong-footed distinctions. and the

    Whereas Huntington carefully dissects Islam's interactions with the West, observing a growing 'Islamized modernity,' which helps to illuminate the modus operandi of Osama bin Laden and his allies, Fukuyama identifies modernity with specifically Western values. He thus unwittingly reproduces a 19th century liberal imperialist perspective on the matter that ignores the techno-economic sophistication of the current attackers. Here a revisit to 'modernization theory' in development studies of the 1960s is in order. Back then it was common to speak of the 'defensive modernization' of countries, most notably Japan, which selectively adapted to Western imperialism by adopting the West's science and technology without fully accepting its secularized Christianity and democratic liberalism[10]. Perhaps now we should speak of 'networks' rather than 'states' as the subjects of defensive modernization, but the concept still stands.

    Another concept from 1960s development theory that deserves re-examination here is 'backwash', which the veteran US specialist on Asian affairs, Chalmers Johnson, has updated as 'blowback' [11]. The common idea is that peoples who refuse or fail to modernize defensively may nevertheless be empowered to interfere with the spread of imperialist ambitions. When writing on such matters, Fukuyama prefers the lazy word 'backlash', which fails to capture the extent to which Western exploitation unwittingly provides the material conditions for its own opposition. However, the 'material conditions' in this case are not of the usual Marxist sort. They do not constitute a common experience of immiseration that galvanizes the masses[12]. Rather they are conditions made possible by the West's own liberal democratic values, which only elites are in a position to exploit. For even as the West has contributed to the oppression of ordinary Muslims, its recent policies have not (a) tried systematically to stamp out Islam as a personal faith, (b) prevented worthy and/or funded Muslim students from studying Western science and technology, and (c) prescribed that science and technology be used only for some ends but not others.

    The US 'folk response' to the above observations is outrage at the ingratitude of Osama bin Laden and his Muslim sympathizers who have bitten the hand that feeds them, given the ease with which they received the relevant technical training in the West. While this response is easy to dismiss out of hand, it does point to some deep questions about the institutionalization of both so-called liberal democratic values and knowledge of science and technology. What exactly is the source of outrage here? Answers to this question quickly bring us to the classic liberal conundrum of 'tolerating even the intolerant', which remains the default Western educational policy with respect to value-laden issues. Perhaps the Gordian knot can be cut by arguing that the 'intolerant' will be rendered tolerant once enough of them enjoy the benefits of a tolerant education. But perhaps the issue runs deeper, relating to the consequences of the relative absence of explicit value instruction in the West.

    Also, there may be more to the idea of 'value-neutrality' of science and technology than we wish to admit, especially if this phrase means 'open to indefinitely many value interpretations'. Both friends and foes of something called the 'Western global hegemony' have generally believed that people schooled in science and technology at Western educational institutions for long periods may acquire (perhaps in spite of themselves) 'Western values' that serve to undermine their 'authentic interests'. In response, as part of a counter-hegemonic strategy, both social researchers and policymakers have tried to promote 'indigenous knowledges'. Even accounting for the nuances associated with the development of this strategy, the events of 11 September would seem to call into question the creeping tendency in social theorizing to assimilate value differences to the possession of different bodies of knowledge. Indeed, the current fixation on knowledge as the driving force of social change may have prevented theorists from anticipating the nature of the 'war on terrorism' in which we are embroiled[13].

    The above considerations leave the social science community with much to do and think about. In conclusion, I would just draw attention to two points. The first is that a 'very long term' perspective can be useful in framing appropriate research questions and public statements. The common religious roots of Islam and Judaeo-Christianity lead me to suspect any general explanatory framework that counterposes 'Islam versus the West', especially if this dichotomy is posed as a difference in values, as, say, Hitchens and Huntington insist. Since the values espoused on both sides of the divide are in fact very similar, a social scientific explanation of the conflict will quickly need to move to a different level. Secondly, I would urge that we take seriously one general point that Osama bin Laden has raised in his broadcasts, namely, that ordinary Western citizens remain largely ignorant of the plight of the Islamic world and its causes. It is clear that this deep and widespread ignorance, combined with too many pious words about the value of liberal democracy and the sanctity of human life, helped trigger the events of 11 September. If we can do nothing else as teachers of sociology, we can certainly attend to this problem.


1 2

3For both sides of the Chomsky-Hitchens debate:

4For the Cold War precedent to the current situation, as seen from the standpoint of diplomatic history:

5The locus classicus of discussions of theodicy in sociology is Max Weber, The Sociology of ReligionThe Sacred CanopyAmerican Sociologist 3 (1968): 103-126. I have discussed the function of both social and natural science as modern theodicies. See Steve Fuller, 'Divining the Future of Social Theory: From Theology to Rhetoric via Social Epistemology'. European Journal of Social Theory 1 (1998): 107-126; 'The Reenchantment of Science: A Fit End to the Science Wars?' In K. Ashman and P. Baringer (eds.), After the Science Wars (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 183-208. (Boston: Beacon, 1964), p. 138 ff. Modern discussions proceed from Peter Berger, (New York: Doubleday, 1967), and Alvin Gouldner, 'The Sociologist as Partisan',

6For this reason, modern forms of theodicist reasoning abound in versions of capitalism ('invisible hand') and Darwinism ('natural selection') that lack a strong sense of system-level governance.

7In the case of Islam, a relevant precedent may be the traditional American suspicion of Roman Catholics in public life. Catholics are the largest religious denomination in the US, yet only the 35th president (John F. Kennedy) has been Catholic. This anti-Catholicism peaked at the turn of the last century, when the sons of Irish and Italian immigrants sought public office. It was rooted in the folk belief that one cannot serve both the Pope and the people at the same time. Even though the US is the most religious nation in the developed world, it has had a very peculiar sense of how, when and where religion can enter public life. It will be interesting to see whether US Muslims -- a rapidly growing community -- will suffer the fate of Catholics in the coming years.

8Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992). Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

9Here are Fukuyama's two articles, written roughly three weeks apart:

10 I discuss Japan's defensive modernization with respect to scientific institutions in Steve Fuller, Science (Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1997), pp. 121-134.

11 Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of the American Empire (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2000).

12Nevertheless, the global galvanization of commonly exploited people remains a prospect seriously entertained in what may turn out to be the radical left's definitive response to Fukuyama and Huntington: Anthony Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000). Here Islamic resistance to capitalist exploitation is discussed briefly but knowledgeably (p. 146 ff). However, much of the argument for Osama bin Laden's Muslim followers making common cause with, say, the readers of George Monbiot's articles in the Guardian rides on the former 'realizing' that they are an 'imagined community' organized primarily as a resistance movement. Readers may be left to ponder the likelihood of that happening.

13It is always invidious to blame sociologists for not predicting the future, given that that is not their primary task. However, the amount of praise that was initially heaped upon Manuel Castells for his three-volume, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture invites a consideration of where he was right and wrong. Castells fully realized that Islamic fundamentalists would pose a serious threat to the 'informatized world-order'. He also provided a more sophisticated, yet still Marx-inspired, scenario of the nature of the threat than one finds, say, in Hardt & Negri's Empire. Castells recognized that the modernization of Arab states enabled more of the population to be educated, which in turn raised economic expectations. These were frustrated, as the vicissitudes of the West's global strategy led to a destabilization of basic material conditions. However, Castells envisaged neither that the 'terrorists' would be Western-trained nor that they would inflict their 'terror' with technology that was at least 30 years old (i.e. passenger jet aircraft). Like most of today's knowledge-driven social theorists, Castells was fixated on the increasing availability of state-of-art information technology as potential instruments of terror, say, via computer hacking into financial market transactions and air traffic control systems. See Castells, The Power of Identity (Oxford: Blackwell), esp. p. 18 ff.


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