Whether to Kill: The Cognitive Maps of Violent and Nonviolent Individuals

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By: Stephanie Dornschneider

Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 328pp. $79.95. ISBN: 9780812247701

Volume: 4 Issue: 10

October 2016

Review by:

Rolin G. Mainuddin, PhD

North Carolina Central University

Durham, NC

Why do people take up arms? How do individuals with violent and nonviolent behaviors arrive at their decisions to act? In bringing back the cognitive mapping approach (CMA) by Robert Axelrod, Stephanie Dornschneider takes a political psychology perspective in addressing these questions through an examination of beliefs (factors) and systems of beliefs (mechanisms) for decisions of political activism. The book is divided into six chapters: CMA, research design, group history, cognitive map construction process, computational analysis, and counterfactual alternatives. With ethnographic interviews of 27 individuals, the research design is a double-paired comparison: half are Muslims from Egypt, a “poor authoritarian state;” the other half are non-Muslims [Christians] from Germany, a “wealthy democratic state.” Both violent and nonviolent activities are examined. The groups associated with violent activities category are Al-Jama’at al-Islamiyya and Al-Jihad in Egypt and Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF) and Bewegung 2. Juni (B2J) in Germany. Those associated with nonviolent activities are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Socialist German Student Union (SDS) and Kommune 1 (K1) in Germany.

The study has two major findings. First, both violent and nonviolent behaviors by individuals are responses to the beliefs about an aggressive state. Second, the absence of beliefs about threatening state behavior would dissuade both violent and nonviolent behaviors by individuals. In addition, the hypotheses questioned four prevailing theories. First, violent behaviors by individuals are not explained by religious beliefs (cultural-psychological theory). In particular, political violence is not explained by Islam. Second, violent behaviors are not explained by beliefs about economic deprivation (environmental-psychological theory). Third, violent behaviors are not explained by beliefs about violent groups (group theory). Specifically, violent individuals are not alienated from society or influenced by social networks. Finally, violent behaviors are not explained by mental illness (psychopathological theory).

In applying CMA to the study of political violence by individuals the work breaks a new ground, Dornschneider claims. Cognitive mapping involves a two-step process. First, identify the components from interview notes. Second, abstract direct speech into a coding scheme. The three components of cognitive mapping are beliefs, belief connections, and decisions. Belief systems help to identify the motivating factors for political behaviors. The propositional contents distinguish among three types of beliefs: true, intersubjective, and subjective. With true beliefs as the most important for cognitive mapping, political violence is a response to the external world (rather than being associated with culture or mental illness). The subjective probability of belief connections points to coherence and logical consistency within given belief contexts. Decisions connect beliefs to actions or political behavior. Of course, planning is not to be equated with performance. However, actions are related to goals, which are coterminous with desired outcomes. A coding scheme facilitates comparison of beliefs among different individuals.

Dornschneider drew on theme analysis by James Spradley for the coding scheme. Attention to semantics (questions and issues) and syntax (words and grammatical constructions) allowed identification of assertions by the interviewees. Beliefs were abstracted into successive tiers of generalization for comparison. At the fifth-tier of belief “super-superclasses” there was no distinction in the reasoning process between either violent and nonviolent individuals or Muslims and non-Muslims. The latter observation led the author to hold that Islam itself did not explain political violence.

Computational analysis of cognitive maps in Matrix Laboratory (MATLAB) revealed ten mechanisms (reasoning processes): five for taking up arms and five for engaging in nonviolent activism. In the second phase, Dornschneider transformed the cognitive maps into directed acyclical graphs (DAGs). Devoid of self-loops DAGs allowed a new way of studying counterfactuals, the author argued, by intervening on internal factors instead of the external world. Findings from counterfactual alternatives supported earlier findings that both violent and nonviolent activisms occur as a response to threatening state behaviors of aggression and repression.

The author defined political violence with reference to four characteristics: use of physical force, civilian perpetrators (with a focus on individuals rather than groups), state targets (including government officials), and political goals. However, it would have added clarity with goals included for features of political violence instead of listing brute force and means as two separate items (p. 18). Tables and diagrams were helpful. The appendices will delight those with computer programming skills. Scholars in Islamic studies will rejoice from the empirical evidence that decouples Islam from political violence. That very point should provide food for thought to scholars and practitioners in security studies. The book is a significant contribution to the literature in political psychology.

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