SIT in the news?

Thursday 27 September 2012

As we watch the response in the Middle East to a movie posted on the Internet, this gives us a good opportunity to think like a psychologist.  Why is this happening?  Is there an easy explanation?

The easy explanation is Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory. It appears that the movie has served to heighten the sense of us vs. Them - that is, the Western World and Muslim countries.  It seems that Muslims see the West (particularly the US) as homogeneous - that is, that this movie maker is representative of all Americans and of US policy.  Americans, on the other hand, do seem to see the Muslim countries as angry and ungrateful.  In the first days after the killings in Libya, riots against US embassies were seen in Yemen, Sudan, Bangladesh and roughly 20 other countries.  It seems like Tajfel is right again.

Or is he? Is it possible to extrapolate this theory to “The West” and the “Muslim countries?”

I would argue that it is not.  This news event helps us to see that the theory has its limitations.

The theory is best used to explain the deindividuation that happens within the groups that protest against the embassies. Definitely, there is a sense of “us” vs. “them” that emerges between the groups - with the US embassy serving as a representation of the American government and its people. However, even in this case there are some problems with applying the theory to the current political situation.

First, in some cases there does not appear to be a political agenda, but more of a sense of economic opportunism. In Tunis, protestors attacked the American International school there and took all of their computers and burned the library.  Was this truly an example of protest, or was this simply looting?  How would a psychologist be able to discern this?

Secondly, the theory is overly simplistic.  For example, the greatest number of riots and protests took place in Pakistan.  It should not be surprising. This is not necessarily because the Muslim identity is stronger in Pakistan than anywhere else, but could very well be tied to the drone attacks which Pakistanis have been enduring for the past four years. In other words, there may be several other factors that account for why there is more violence in some countries than in others.

Finally, the Social Identity Theory fails to predict which people will rise up in anger and which will not.  In the media that we watch, it often seems that the whole of the Middle East is rising up in anger, but it is a limited number of people who have reacted with a range of behaviours.

I think that this is a good example of how difficult it is to try to explain world events through psychology - though I think that it is worth us giving it a try!  No singular theory will explain something as complex as what we are seeing in the world right now, but we can start to ask questions which may lead us to better understanding.

For more on this topic, you may want to read: Why they hate us: An Empirical study of individuals’ anti-American Attitudes.

Tags: SIT, social identity theory, violence, evaluation


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