Understanding the attitudes of Arabs toward “America”: the underutilization of class

Understanding the attitudes of Arabs toward “America”: the underutilization of class

Mazen Hashem

IN A WORLD THAT IS BECOMING increasingly interdependent, the necessity of cross-national and cross-cultural understanding is more crucial than ever. A plethora of polls (ABC, 2001, 2002; Gallup 2002; Wall Street Journal, 2003; The Pew Research Center, 2003; BBC, 2003) have been conducted to check the attitudes of Arabs and Muslims from the United States. Polls and surveys are becoming influential beyond their validity level, and the complexity of attitudes is, therefore, sacrificed. This article begins with a discussion of the development of opinion research, its methodological weakness, and the conditions under which polls become influential. The article then introduces a classificatory scheme for understanding the attitudes of Arabs toward the United States. The scheme calls for accounting for cultural capital and the global structural position of respondents.


The widespread use of polls and opinion today, many of which are conducted by private institutions, overshadows their historical governmental roots. The systematic understanding of public opinion was part of an interdisciplinary social science field, communication (Roger 1994). World War II had a decisive impact over the development of the field of communication for two main reasons. First, the United States federal government felt that it was crucial to educate the public about the goals of the war and to inform them about food, gas, and other consumer goods rationing. Therefore, it supported communication research as a tool for achieving such a goal. Second, the great increase in the size of the federal civil service during 1941-1942 helped in employing people in this field. Washington then housed a large number of social scientists who mainly worked in three agencies: The Research Branch of the Division of Information and Education of the U.S. Army, the Survey Division of the Office of War Information (OWI), and the Division of Program Survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Something spectacular about those research agencies was that common consultants, such as Lazarsfeld, linked them. Schramm, the father of the communication field, was himself a wartime employee at the Office of Facts and Figures (OFF) and at the OWl (Rogers 1994:11-12). Applied research on propaganda, radio research, interaction rituals, effects assessment, intelligibility, cultural analysis, egocentric speech, etc. were part of the professional development of the field of communication (Delia 1987:22).


Polls have their known methodological weaknesses, and their weaknesses are exacerbated in cross-cultural work, especially in terms of comparability and meaning (Matsumoto 1994). The process of question standardization necessarily regresses to the lowest denominator, which becomes narrower in cross-cultural questionnaires.

Nevertheless, polls are influential in forming public opinion and attitudes. That is especially true for the United States as a country that combines two contradictory, yet mutually reenforcing, elements: a highly local distractive environment supported by mature markets on one hand, and strong curiosity in the foreign on the other. In general, people of the United States are not highly versed in the historical circumstances of foreign countries. The National Geographic survey of geographic literacy noted that despite the “daily bombardment of news from the Middle East, Central Asia, and other world trouble spots, roughly 85 percent of young Americans could not find Afghanistan, Iraq, or Israel on a map” (National Geographic 2002:1). The results of the survey showed that 30% of young Americans who were surveyed could not find the Pacific Ocean on a map and 56% were unable to locate India. It is safe to suggest that knowledge of the history, culture, and politics of the Middle East is not deeper than their knowledge of basic geography. This article puts forth four formal propositions regarding the influence of public opinion polls.

First, the unawareness of the intricate situation in the Middle East makes relying on general information to cover the knowledge gap practical and educational–call it the feasibility of crash courses. Furthermore, for overworked Americans, exotic bits of information leave a strong impression in the mind: dress costumes, unfamiliar ways of worship, norms of cross-gender relationships, etc. Such information work to validate what is already in the mind more than providing a fresh outlook. Giddens (1991) reminds us that people seek ontological security in their normal life. As the world is coming closer, people need to convince themselves that they know what they are dealing with. Exteriorities of cultural practices substitute for their contexts, and cultural items signify reactions that are interpreted according to the receiver’s schema, frequently discounting the context in which the object of observation is immersed. For example, the labels conservative or liberal are becoming increasingly meaningless in the United States for there are now all shades in between. Such labels are less adequate in portraying and understanding the social realities of other societies. Yet mutual suspicion and the lack of common social experiences call for the use of generalized vague concepts (Schuman 1966).

Second, when faced with complexity, people tend to resort to workable explanations of events. That is especially true in urgent situations. Tragic events typically prompt people to inquire about the other. Ironically, inquires in an atmosphere of extreme emotional and cognitive tension tend to make people more willing to settle with easy answers (Reigrotski and Anderson 1959-1960). The contemporary trend of the media in personalizing international conflict and psychoanalyzing history is very telling in that regard.

Third, industrial democracies are hypersensitive to certainty. People in the U.S. tend to espouse rational explanations of life, which increases the quest for certainty. Highly bureaucratic societies and McDonaldized systems also encourage such tendencies (Ritzer 2000). Ironically, nations that have more capability in pursing complex understandings do not necessarily feel the urge to do that (save for academicians and highly cultured people), especially in a time of national emergencies.

Fourth, when market-driven media covers the foreign, it focuses on the exotic. This could be considered as normal in peaceful times. However, after a national calamity and in an atmosphere of perceived threat, the media’s credibility increasingly hangs on providing immediate explanations for otherwise busy people. Pressured by market forces that seek to please many social factions, the media has to resort to soft blaming of the other and to practice “objective stereotyping.” It might be unrealistic to expect popular media to explain complex conflict and at the same time highlight human commonality. Instead, commodifing differences, which could be no more than apparent dissimilarities, becomes a preferred method because it is efficient in portraying an image of authoritative and “factual” coverage (Glassner 1999).

Furthermore, the influence of polls as a type of social indicator should be examined within the context of communicativeness in the modern world. Following Habermas, Calhoun (1991) notes that the lifeworld of direct relations has declined in the sense that “it is colonized by the instrumental modes of rationality and the reified, typically cybernetic way of understanding the productions of human action characteristic of the system world” (p. 98).


Social class is one of the most central, and contentious, concepts in sociology. While some theorists see that class has become irrelevant in postindustrial societies (McMurrer and Sawhill 1999), others argue for its continuous significance (Aronowitz 2003; Perrucci and Wysong 2003). When it comes to empirical research, social class has customarily been seen as an arithmetic aggregate of some social markers: income bracket, level of education, and residence. Collins (1988) notes that the disagreement over class can be seen as the result of emphasizing one dimension of class over the other. The American tradition tends to ignore power and to stress status in accounting for class, while the European tradition tends to stress power that is ultimately rooted in economic property (p. 210). These approaches to social class are most helpful in analyzing policies related to stratification. However, to account for social class on a larger scale, there is a need to speak in terms of class-culture, neither reduced to economic parameters nor seen solely in terms of benign status.

Douglass (1973) theorizes a two-dimensional social configuration, group and grid. Group signifies the emphasis on boundaries between the society and outsiders while grid emphasizes stratification within the society. Douglass has developed her theory for tribal societies, but her model is “analogically abstract and can be applied to groups within modern societies” (Collins 1988:122). Attitudes of people are conditioned by the intersection of the intensity of those two dimensions: for example, societies of high group and low grid tend to have heightened concerns for enemies (Collins 1988). Collins develops a two-dimensional model of class culture based on power and ritual density, and identifies four categories along the first dimension: order givers, mixed egalitarian, front-line supervisors, and order takers.

Bourdieu is specifically helpful in understanding class culture. Bourdieu (1990) notes that agency is not a matter of “choice:” rather, actors develop skills out of the axioms of practical life. He also speaks of class dominance in terms of cultural and economic capitals. People can score differently on each of these two dimensions, and it is their intersection that explains class differences. For example, top corporate managers score high on both capitals while self-made business people score low on cultural capital although they score high on economic capital. Conversely, intellectuals and artists score high on the former and low on the latter. Furthermore, Bourdieu speaks of habitus, a social space and a disposition to act in certain ways, which is the result of the internalization of externality and the externalization of interiority. Since Bourdieu speaks of class as potentialities, not as real groups, his conceptualization helps in mapping attitudes that are tapped through surveys and polls. Thus, to account for global attitudes toward the United States it is not necessary to speak of real classes–that would raise irreconcilable methodological difficulties in the operative dimensions of social class in different societies. Instead, we can speak of class in terms of anticipatory potentials. Such a conceptualization alerts us to account for the structural position and the expectations that structure the attitudes of people when analyzing attitudes.

Most relevant to this essay is Bourdieu’s idea of social class fractions that depend on the composition of their three capitals, cultural, social, and economic. Thus the interests of order-givers of different social classes often converge, forming a virtual class culture that has similar attitudes. Collins (1988) note that “[e]xpecting to become an order giver in the future makes individuals tend to identify with the class culture of order givers, even if they are currently order takers” (p. 213). He further notes that there are two kinds of working-class members: highly localistic, conformist, and traditionalist; and cosmopolitan “action crowd” or underworld. The localistic tends to be suspicious, distrustful, and even fearful about the outside world. In addition, the members of this group tend to have narrow sociability circles (p. 218-220).


This article suggests a typology of attitudes toward the Untied States that is conscious of the contemporary global interdependence of fate, underlined by economic forces and accentuated by the diffusion of global consumer culture. The typology is cast in terms of a special case: the attitudes of Arabs (excluding intellectuals for they deserve a separate treatment) toward the United States after September 11, although the typology might have wider applicability.

The attitudes of Arabs toward the United States can be mapped by intersecting two class-related dimensions: cultural capital and global market position. Three ideal-type groups can be identified. First, the common person who is minimally educated, holding a high school degree or less, and works in a local profession that has little to do with the “outside” world. The sources of political information for such a person are mainly the radio and TV news, although he or she might read some low quality newspapers. Second, the professional who holds an undergraduate university degree (mostly in technical sciences) and works in an environment that has some international (western) connections. The sources of political information of professionals are not restricted to radio and TV news; rather, they tend to extensively read newspapers and surf the internet. Third, the learned is the well-read person who is engaged in today’s global culture and concerns. Such people have considerable experience with what is referred to as “the west,” through study, travel, and career aspirations. Most importantly, they generally follow-up on western literature as their language competency goes beyond the familiarity with technical terms, as in the case of the professionals.


The common person tends to espouse a complete conspiratorial explanation of political events. Furthermore, many common people feel some vengeful satisfaction when harm is inflicted on America–it deserves it. For them, America is immoral and Americans are lusty callous creatures. When something bad happens to America, it is God taking revenge in mysterious ways. Those people do not differentiate between America and Washington, and reduce the United States to its military power.

Interestingly, one can find a grain of difference in the attitudes of the common person depending on his or her religiosity. Those who tilt toward the Islamists tend to think that the United States is waging a war against Islam. To them, attacking Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq are modern crusades. America wants to baptize them, to undo their circumcision, so to speak. The solution for them is to sincerely “follow Islam.” That is, they believe that Muslims are being punished because of not meticulously and sincerely following Islam in daily practices. In contrast, the non-religious in this group tend to see such military excursions as war against Muslims (not Islam), almost in terms of ethnic cleansing. “Paying back the enemy” follows an ideological line in the former and a mob mentality in the latter.


In the place of conspiratorial explanations of world events, the members of this sector conceive the current international conflict purely in terms of interests–votes and oil. For them, the United States intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq for the oil, the Caspian Sea reserves in the former and Iraq’s own oil in an oil-rich region in the latter. They also speak of U.S. domestic politics and using war victories to boost reelection chances. However, and not surprisingly, American politics dazzle them, and they increasingly question the American democratic process. They speak of interest-groups’ influence and the greed of multinational corporations, but that does not mean that they are not bewildered by the question “who rules America?” Furthermore, and as believers in science, they tend to espouse a modernist view of development. The problem of Third World Countries, they reflect, lies largely in not having enough educated and specialized people. By the same token, they attribute American “success” to superior technical knowledge. Thus, despite the limited nature of this explanatory scheme, it nevertheless, points to specific social mechanisms and leaves open the possibility of cooperation.

Interestingly, cursory analysis coexists with high awareness of American ways, even American peculiarities. Most importantly, such people are aware and critical of the American media’s negative portrayal of Arabs and Muslims. This point extremely disturbs them and forms the basis of their attitudes. Nevertheless, the professionals do not see Americans as “evil.” In addition, they tend to have a bifurcated view of American culture. They see it as overly commercial on one hand, but they appreciate its practicality on the other.

One can also find differences in the attitudes of the professionals depending on their ideological bent. Those who tilt toward the Islamist discourse conceive the conflict with the United States in terms of clash of civilization–ultimately, America wants to dilute “our” distinct way of life. In contrast, semi-secular professionals gauge United States’ policies in relation to their interests. The members of this group are highly conscious of the economic interdependence of today’s world and are mindful of the prospects of their economic wellbeing.


The learned largely feel disempowered by the Unites States’ international behavior. For them, the last decade was a golden moment that they tried to seize–the moment to open forbidden chapters in politics, culture, and religion. Now they found themselves trapped as collective sentiments became apprehensive of what could happen to the region. Democracy cannot be installed, they assert; only the conditions for the development of democracy could be put in place, a chance that apparently is becoming dimmer. Entrepreneurial political violence, they note, is the outcome of motivation, ignorance, and economic deprivation. We (Arabs), they note, have to work on the first element, and you (Americans) have to help us on the third one; we both share the responsibility for the second element.

As for the place of Islam, the learned note that it is inconceivable that a modern Arab civil society would emerge without drawing on Muslim culture. The challenge is to develop such a society (1) without letting the typically low-educated clerics diffuse a culture of poverty, and (2) without letting the Islamists steer popular momentum toward rigid goals. Furthermore, they assert that those two actors (the clerics and the Islamists) are not likely to disappear soon. The former is a historical fixture that has a measure of popularity on one hand, and is largely co-opted by authoritarian regimes that lack legitimacy on the other (Ibrahim 1988). The Islamists are not likely to disappear soon as their ideologies are emboldened by internal political authoritarianism and external intervention.


The three ideal-type positions that this article has advanced can be summed in three attitudes: anger, bewilderment, and frustration. One of the limitations of structured public opinion gathering in the Arab world is that it misses the space in which Arab political culture develops. Political talk is an integral part of any social gathering of Middle Easterners. Whether it is a wedding, a condolences congregation, or a relaxed social gathering, invoking a political subject, including international politics, is common. What is needed, therefore, are methods of inquiry that take the complex Arab culture (including the political) and society into consideration.


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Mazen Hashem teaches Sociology at California State University, Northridge.

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