Daniele Archibugi, Italian National Research Council
Rational Analysis Break a Taboo? A Middle Eastern Perspective"
Said Amir Arjomand, Sociology, State University of New York
at Stony Brook
to 9.11: Individual and Collective Dimensions"
Rajeev Bhargava, Political Theory, University of Delhi
Elemer Hankiss, Sociology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
11th: A Challenge to Whom?"
Huang Ping, Sociology, CASS, Beijing
Muslim, Bad Muslim â An African Perspective"
Mahmood Mamdani, Anthropology, Columbia University
Political Psychology of Competing Narratives: September 11 and
Marc Howard Ross, Political Science, Bryn Mawr College
and Freedom: An Outside View"
Luis Rubio, Political Economy, Center for Research for Development,
and the World: The Twin Towers as Metaphor"
Immanuel Wallerstein, Sociology, Yale University
Thick Description, and Collective Action"
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, History, Indiana University
Predicament of Diaspora and Millennial Islam: Reflections in
the Aftermath of September 11"
Pnina Werbner, Social Anthropology, Keele University
New World Order?
Thick Description, and Collective Action
N. Wasserstrom, Professor of History, University of Indiana
events have shown all too clearly that one form of anti-Americanism,
the virulent and apocalyptic version that inspired the terrorists
responsible for September 11, can lead to horrors of enormous
magnitude. It would be foolish to assume, though, that every
time an individual shouts an anti-American slogan or takes
part in an anti-American protest he or she is expressing support
for these vile acts, or feels the same brand of hatred for
everything associated with the U.S. that led to them. Throughout
the 1900s, after all, many groups espoused some form of anti-Americanism,
yet did not engage in or condone violence of any sort. And
within the subset of violent anti-American actions of the
past, one finds many examples of demonstrations in which no
people were harmed, let alone killed, though a building was
defaced or a purely symbolic act of violence was committed,
such as the burning of a flag. In addition, many participants
in anti-American protests of the last century were motivated
by something more specific than a wholesale disdain for all
aspects of the culture of the U.S. and contempt for all of
its residents. Some objected to particular U.S. economic policies,
yet loved Hollywood films. Some were disturbed by what they
saw as the McDonaldization of global culture, yet were uninterested
in diplomatic issues. Still others were angered by the presence
of American troops in their country, but not bothered that
U.S. fast food chains had arrived. And so on. History shows,
then, that we should not think of a single unified anti-Americanism
but rather think in terms of widely varying anti-Americanisms.
These are decidedly plural, differing from place to place
as well as from group to group within a given place, and susceptible
to change over time. And they vary greatly as well in their
levels of intensity. Since the vast literature of the social
sciences is filled with works that provide tools to help us
distinguish between things that seem similar at first glance,
we should be able to find some guidance when trying to come
to terms with this variation.
Before focusing in on what this literature has to offer, though,
it is important to stress that making sense of anti-Americanisms
is not simply of historical interest. Why? Because differently
inflected manifestations of anti-American sentiment are likely
to continue to be part of global politics in the years to
come. This seemed a sensible prediction even before September
11, since anti-American strains of a sort had been present
in some of the first protests of the twenty-first century,
including demonstrations held in conjunction with international
summits, such as the G8 meetings convened in Genoa last summer.
And in the wake of September 11, anti-American protests have
occurred everywhere from Indonesia to Nigeria to Greece. Clearly,
then, to prepare for the future as well as to understand the
present and the past, we need effective ways to talk about,
categorize, and draw distinctions between different sorts
There is, moreover, good reason to feel that, in the present
climate, if we do not try explicitly to reach a fuller understanding
of the topic, we will misinterpret events taking place around
the world. It may seem common sense to assert that anti-Americanism
is bound to continue to take varied forms in the future, since
this has been the case in the past. Yet, the rise in the political
arena of polarizing rhetoric that divides the world into just
two camps, those wholeheartedly on the side of and those completely
opposed to the U.S.-led coalition, discourages us from looking
for and appreciating distinctions among different sorts of
anti-Americanism. So, too, does a sound-bite driven media
that can all too easily lull its audience into thinking that
emotionally charged sights, such as an image of a burning
flag, always signify the exact same thing no matter where
Where exactly should we look for social scientific insights
to help counter-act this tendency toward oversimplification?
Fifteen years ago, when I began working on the history of
Chinese protests of the early-to-mid 1900s, many of which
had anti-American dimensions, two works stood out as particularly
useful. Each still seemed valuable in 1999, as I struggled
to make sense of a new round of anti-American protests that
I happened to witness in China firsthand: those that broke
out after NATO bombs mistakenly hit the Chinese Embassy in
Belgrade, killing three citizens of the PRC. And the two works
in question seem useful to me today, as I ponder international
manifestations of anti-Americanism in this new century.
The first of the two works is anthropologist
Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures. This
book does not focus on protest but it argues powerfully for
the use of a method called "thick description" to
capture the symbolic meaning of highly charged events such
as, most famously, Balinese cock fights.1 Geertz
presents this ethnographic approach as predicated on a vision
of "man as an animal suspended in webs of significance
he himself has spun" (p. 5), a vision that he traces
back to Max Weber, one of the founders of the discipline of
sociology. Those committed to thick description, a term Geertz
attributes to philosopher Gilbert Ryle, take for granted that
even the simplest act can mean different things depending
on the cultural codes at work. Borrowing an illustration first
used by Ryle, Geertz demonstrates what he means via reference
to the many things that a person rapidly opening and closing
an eye can signify. It can be an involuntary twitch, a conspiratorial
wink, or even a parody of such a conspiratorial wink. A "thin
description" that just says that an eye opened and closed
is not enough; assuming that every twitch is just a twitch
will lead us astray in cultural analysis; what we need is
a "thick description" that separates twitches from
winks and one sort of wink from another.
What are the implications of Geertz's argument
for understanding anti-American protests? Most basically,
it suggests that we should never be satisfied with a "thin
description" of a demonstration that tells us little
more than that crowd in a distant land chanted anti-American
slogans and mocked or destroyed symbols associated with the
U.S. We need to know many specifics before we can decide what
the event means. Were the slogans generic or did they focus
on a particular issue? Were the grievances or alleged grievances
against the U.S. of recent origin or long-term standing? Was
the symbol in question a flag, an effigy of a President, or
a dollar bill? Answers to questions such as these can make
a world of difference. And we need to remember that individual
members of the same crowd can imbue identical acts with somewhat
different meanings, while observers can attribute to them
ones that are completely different. This matters. After all,
the closing and opening of an eye that one person intends
as a flirtatious wink can be misunderstood by another as merely
an involuntary twitch. And this misunderstanding can make
all the difference in their future relationship (or lack thereof).
One question always worth asking of the imagined crowd just
described is obvious. Would individual Americans who wandered
into its midst be viewed with bemusement or disdain, and if
viewed with disdain shunned, cursed at, beaten up or killed?
I learned firsthand how complex the answer to this very basic
question can be in China in 1999 when I had very different
experiences at two anti-American gatherings. The first event
I witnessed took place in Beijing on May 9 (roughly 36 hours
after the three Chinese had died in Belgrade), the second
in Shanghai on May 11. In each case, the crowd had come together
due to their outrage at what they termed "U.S.-led NATO
Hegemonism." In other ways, though, the gatherings were
very different as even a brief account such as that provided
below will show.
In Beijing, the event took the form of evening marches near
and a chaotic rally just outside of the American and British
embassies. Some members of the crowd looked at me and spit
on the ground. And one man yelled out a question from across
the street, asking if the small group of Westerners I was
part of was made up of Americans. Before we could answer,
he said that, if we were from the U.S., he would like to kill
us. He then walked away. I did not feel that I was in great
danger, even though CNN reports apparently made it seem that
all Americans in China were at great risk just then, even
if they were far from the site of a rally. One reason I was
not very scared was that there were soldiers keeping a watchful
eye on things. They were not preventing protesters from throwing
paving stones at the embassies, since the protests had the
support of the regime. Still, their very presence discouraged
anyone from doing something like killing a foreigner that
would create an international incident. I sensed a good deal
of menace in the crowd, in other words, but felt fairly safe.
At the Shanghai gathering I witnessed two nights later, which
took the form of a meeting of some two hundred people in a
large classroom on a campus, on the other hand, the mood was
not menacing at all. This was true even though this time I
was the only Westerner in the crowd and everyone knew that
I was an American. Throughout the evening, I was treated politely.
"We are angry at what your military has done and the
policies of your government, not at individual Americans."
This was the main gist of the statements that several people
made to me.
Did this difference between my two experiences have to do
with the passage of an extra 48 hours since the Chinese Embassy
in Belgrade had been hit? Emotions can, after all, grow less
intense over time. Or was it my movement to a city that was
less politicized and more internationally minded than Beijing?
Or was it because Communist Party leaders had made it even
more abundantly clear by May 11 than they had by May 9 that,
though they supported the protests, they did not want things
to get out of hand? It is impossible to choose between these
three possible explanations. My sense, though, was that each
factor played a role in making the two experiences so different.
In addition to illustrating the varied intensities and differing
forms anti-American gatherings can take, even within a single
country in a single week, my experiences in 1999 showed how
easily an international media driven by sensationalism and
sound bites can mislead. I say this because some Western reports
dealing with protests such as those I witnessed portrayed
them as part of a late-twentieth-century throwback to the
Boxerism of 1900.2 This has always perturbed me
since the Boxers had killed a significant number of foreigners
(as well many times that number of Chinese converts to Christianity),
not just taunted or roughed up a few of them (the case in
1999). The Boxers, moreover, had completely destroyed, not
just defaced or thrown rocks at buildings. In addition, while
many of the Chinese students who shouted out anti-American
slogans in 1999 readily admitted that they found many things
about the U.S. attractive, from its rock music to its universities,
the Boxers considered everything associated with the West
with contempt. To equate the protests of 1999 to Boxerism
was a classic example of mistaking a twitch for a wink, to
borrow Geertz's imagery.
I want to leave Geertz aside now, though, and turn to sociologist
Charles Tilly's From Mobilization to Revolution, the
other social science classic I found valuable in the 1980s
and still find relevant today.3 The book is devoted
to distinguishing between various forms of contentious politics.
As a result, it provides us with clues that help give us a
clearer sense of additional things we might want know, besides
whether Americans were endangered, to ensure that descriptions
of anti-American events are thick enough.
One of the most important things Tilly proposes is a tripartite
schema that categorizes collective actions on the basis of
their goals. There are, he says, "reactive" protests
(e.g. rallies to bring a deposed King back to power) that
seek to restore a pre-existing status quo. There are "competitive"
ones (such as inter-village feuds), in which a group lays
claim to the resources of another. And there are "pro-active"
struggles (such as strikes for a shorter working day), in
which groups demand new rights or resources. Many movements
will have a mixture of reactive, competitive, and pro-active
elements. Still, his ideal types remain useful in alerting
us to things to look out for when trying to make sense of
The first thing to note about anti-American demonstrations,
in respect to Tilly's categories, is that some of them fall
cleanly into one or another pigeon-hole, while others combine
reactive, competitive and pro-active elements in differing
proportions. For example, there have been purely "reactive"
struggles (associated with the cry "Yankee Go Home")
that were efforts solely to get American troops withdrawn
from a country. Often, though, a "competitive" dimension
emerges in these struggles, when a political faction uses
the issue to score points against a rival group more closely
linked to Washington. This seems to be the case presently
with some post-September 11 demonstrations. In countries such
as Pakistan, anti-American protests seem related to efforts
to shift the domestic balance of power.
More than one category also needs to be considered when thinking
about protests such as those that occurred last summer in
Genoa. Many opponents of demonstrations of this sort have
portrayed them as purely "reactive," backward-looking
efforts to stop not just globalization but progress. Yet,
the protesters typically insist that they have "pro-active"
goals, and that they do not want to stand in the way of progress,
just shape it. They want to see a future in which decisions
about the division of resources are made in a more democratic,
transparent and egalitarian fashion. This can only come about,
they claim, if the U.S. role in economic affairs is radically
Tilly's work suggests that, whenever an anti-American demonstration
makes headlines, we should ask whether it has reactive, competitive,
or pro-active aspects to it, and if more than one element
is present how it fits into the overall picture. We also need
to know, if we are to have a sufficiently "thick description"
at our disposal, whether participants and observers have defined
the event in differing ways when it comes to these goals.
It is particularly common, for those who are criticized or
feel threatened by a protest to insist that it is merely a
reactive event, even though the participants make different
claims. We need a lot of information to decide which view
of the action gets us closer to the truth.
Rather than continue in this abstract vein, the rest of this
essay will be devoted to a rapid survey of Chinese protests
of the first half of the twentieth century that were targeted,
at least in part, at foreigners or foreign governments. My
hope is that this will give readers a clearer sense of just
how varied anti-American protests have been and are likely
to continue to be, as well as of how Geertz and Tilly can
help us make sense of this variation. The quick historical
survey below will also reinforce other points made above,
since each of the events described below, though very different,
was dismissed by some opponents of the crowd in the same terms
as were the 1999 demonstrations: that is, as nothing more
than Boxerism revisited.
The Boxers themselves are the natural place to start. These
insurgents were not specifically anti-American, but rather
anti-Christian. Still, missionaries and diplomats from the
U.S. were among their targets. In a sense, the actions of
the Boxers were very close to the ideal type of "reactive"
contention that Tilly describes. They wanted to return China
to a situation in which it contained no Christians. It is
worth noting, however, that recent work on the Boxers has
shown that much of their violence took the form of attacks
between villagers who had long been competitors for local
resources. When members of one of these groups converted to
Christianity, foreign missionaries would sometimes intercede
on their behalf with Chinese government officials, tipping
the balance in local competitions for water rights and things
like that in the favor of the converts. Thus anti-Christian
violence often came to have a competitive element to it.
The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Chinese
history is 1905, when protests that were specifically anti-American
took place. The goal this time was to end immigration laws
that discriminated against Chinese who wanted to enter the
U.S. The movement was unlike the Boxer one in many ways. Most
notably, it was non-violent. The protesters went to great
lengths to distance themselves from the Boxers, stressing
that they wanted to see a policy changed, not people hurt.
The main tactic they turned to was an economic boycott. Though
they did not use these terms, they were self-consciously rejecting
what they saw as a purely reactive as well as violent movement
of the past. Their goal was not to return to the past, when
China and the West did not interact with one another, they
argued, but rather the pro-active one of making relations
with the U.S. more equal.
In 1919, a new round of anti-imperialist protests, known as
the May 4th Movement, broke out. Once again, it was primarily
non-violent and relied on a boycott. There was a difference
here with 1905, though, in that it was not American products
that were boycotted. In fact, the May 4th Movement of that
year was not anti-American at all.
for the text of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Why not? Because the main grievance was terms
of the Treaty of Versailles that transferred control of Chinese
territory formerly held by Germany to Japan, rather than returning
it to China, in the wake of World War I. Since President Wilson
had called for all nations to be granted a greater degree
of self-determination, the United States was seen as one of
the more admirable foreign powers of the day. The boycott
was directed at Japan alone, though the people the crowds
were angriest at were the domestic officials they accused
of being corrupt and selling out the country's interest for
The May 4th Movement was a generally pro-active struggle.
Nevertheless, as often happens, those who were the target
of the protest refused to see it in these terms. Japanese
commentators tried to convince people that competition and
reaction defined its true nature. They insisted that one Chinese
political faction (then out of power) was merely using the
Treaty of Versailles as a pre-text for trying to embarrass
their rivals (the Warlords currently in control of Beijing).
They also accused the May 4th activists, many of whom were
avid fans of Western political ideas and some of whom were
Christians, of being just like the reactive and violent anti-Christian
Moving forward in time to the protests that followed World
War II, we find a still different mixture of elements. The
first major anti-imperialist demonstrations of this period,
those that took place in late 1946 and early 1947, had a definite
reactive twist to them. This is because the protesters' main
demand was that American servicemen leave China. These protests
were triggered by an incident in which two American G.I.'s
raped a female Chinese student.
In 1948, a new grievance, American efforts to rebuild Japan,
led to a revival of demonstrations against the United States.
Some protesters argued then that it was grotesque that the
U.S. should be doing so much for the country that they viewed
as the arch-villain of World War II.4 Once again,
though no foreigners were killed and many of the protesters
were attracted by Western ideas, some of those criticized
muttered that here again was Boxerism.
Even though proponents and opponents of the 1947 and 1948
protests often accepted that they were reactive and just argued
over what sort of reactive events the demonstrations were,
there were both competitive and pro-active dimensions to these
struggles as well. This is because the leading faction of
the Nationalist Party was blamed for being too willing to
accommodate the Americans. This allowed competitors for power
within that party to use the protests to bolster their positions.
It also, though, strengthened the position of and was used
by the Chinese Communist Party, an opposition group that was
trying to push China in a new direction.
My main point throughout this rapid survey has been to reinforce
the basic point with which I began: when anti-American protests
break out anywhere, we need to ask a wide range of questions
about them before we can determine just what sort they are.
Some of these questions need to be historical, since every
event's meaning is derived in part by what has happened before,
and there were at least slight echoes of all of the collective
actions mentioned above in the Chinese demonstrations that
occurred in 1999 that I witnessed. Other questions we need
to ask have to do with fissures in contemporary political
alliances, which can give a competitive dimension to reactive
demonstrations and even to pro-active ones. And still other
questions should have to do with different things entirely
such as whether physical violence, symbolic violence or no
violence at all is involved.
If we fail to ask these questions, and demand that journalists
on the spot ask them (as they only sometimes do), we will
continually mistake twitches for winks and winks for twitches.
Especially now, in the wake of September 11, it is important
that we have the best tools at our disposal to prevent us
from misreading these signs.
1 Clifford Geertz,
The Interpretation of Culture (New York: Basic Books,
2 See, for example, the breathless commentary in "China
Stokes Anti-U.S. Fires, Recalling Blunders of the Past,"
USA Today, May 11, 1999, p. 14A. There were some reporters,
such as John Gittings of the Guardian and Susan Lawrence of
the Far Eastern Economic Review, whose coverage was much
more nuanced. Still, when I returned to the United States and
spoke to people about the sense they had gotten of the protests
by following them via television, it seems that the USA Today
report was far from atypical.
3 Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution
(New York: Random House, 1978).
4 For more details on the protests discussed here and
citations to relevant Chinese and Western language sources on
them, see Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century
China: The View from Shanghai (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1991) and idem., "Student Protests in Fin-de-siecle
China," New Left Review, 237 (September/October
1999), pp. 52-76.