Understanding the Attitudes of Arabs toward "America": The Underutilization of Class

Article excerpt

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. …