The Making of Heroes: An Attributional Perspective

Article excerpt

Through the use of posed vignettes in a telephone survey, we investigate the construction of heroes. We examine the extent to which respondents attribute hero status to three potential 9/11 and "war on terrorism" heroes: Todd Beamer, Army Private Jessica Lynch, and President George W. Bush. Findings suggest the importance of the extraordinary nature and the rarity of action(s) performed by heroes in the attribution of hero status; the role of class, status, and party in the attribution process; and the moral consideration of what should be done in each posed vignette. In addition, the study indicates the utility of attribution theory for the sociological examination of heroism and the viability of normative constructs in examining heroic behavior.

Between the terrorist attack of 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, heroism has received much mass media coverage and clearly warrants greater attention by scholars. Every day, many people put their lives on the line to save others or to uphold principles that are dear to them, but they are not always perceived as heroes. This research explores the social construction of heroism, particularly the case of reputed heroism in the course of professional versus nonprofessional roles. We present the actions of three persons linked to the triggering events of 9/11 and the War on Terrorism campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq: Todd Beamer, Army Private Jessica Lynch, and President George W. Bush, and ask how and to what extent they achieved the status of "hero" in the eyes of the general public. Data from a national telephone survey conducted during the spring of 2004 support our expectation that nonprofessionals (such as Todd Beamer) who place themselves in harm's way, doing what is right under conditions where most people would fail to act, are, in the eyes of the general public, heroes. Even so, it seems that class, status, and, of course, partisanship shape judgment on who should be honored as heroes.

DEFINING HEROISM

What qualifies as heroism ranges from short-term life-threatening acts, such as those honored by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission (Gibson 2003), to long-term, repeated acts of courage in standing up for principles, despite political or personal consequences, such as those that John F. Kennedy (1961) has immortalized. Students of altruism and prosocial behavior view heroism as the ultimate act of altruism-putting one's life on the line to save the life of another (Gibson 2003; Oliner 2003). The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, an endowment established by Andrew Carnegie because of heroic rescue efforts in a 1904 coal mine explosion, echoes this criterion-putting one's life on the line-in awarding hero status: "a civilian who voluntarily risks his or her own life, knowingly, to an extraordinary degree while saving or attempting to save the life of another person is eligible for recognition by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission" (Gibson 2003:3). The Carnegie Hero Fund Commission excludes acts of heroism performed by uniformed heroes or paid persons, that is, the military, police officers, and fire fighters, although it made an exception for heroes of 9/11.

Durkheim (1951) pioneered sociological research on altruism and prosocial behavior with his work on suicide. Durkheim's model of suicide centered on two dimensions of society: (1) integration-the degree to which a social actor is a member of a group; and (2) regulation-the "normative or moral demands" experienced by a member of a group (Bearman 1991:503). As an ideal type, "altruistic suicide" is a social action performed for the sake of a group and denotes high integration. Altruistic suicide, particularly in its "voluntary" or "heroic" forms, is associated with military service (Durkheim 1951:228, 240), where heroes are uniformed professionals. Oliner (2003) includes these professional heroes, but only in exceptional events. Oliner (2003:21-22) distinguishes three categories of heroes, based on payment and duration of heroic activities: (1) paid professionals (military, police, fire fighters) in one time events of short duration, (2) unpaid nonprofessional people (civilians) in one time events of short duration, e. …