Access: TED Talks
Summary: By leading Americans in his audience step by step through a thought experiment, sociologist Sam Richards sets an extraordinary challenge: can Americans understand—not necessarily condone, but understand—the motivations of an Iraqi insurgent? I would argue that Richards' thought experiment is an attempt to give his audience a taste of what C. W. Mills called the sociological imagination, which can be defined as a perspective that allows one to locate the structural transformations that lie behind one's personal troubles. By proposing an alternate history for the United States, one where a colonial China extracts coal from the US in order to power Chinese cities, Richards asks his audience to consider a political economy that would trap the vast majority of Americans in desperate poverty. Just as Americans can imagine the intense frustration they would feel if forced to suffer under such an unbalanced economic arrangement, perhaps they can similarly imagine the intense frustration many Iraqis currently feel. Richards' thought experiment asks Americans to locate those Iraqis who have been demonized by the West as simply evildoers or terrorists in a broader social context, and to use a sociological imagination in order to grasp the motivations and frustrations of those who take up arms against the US. John Dower has argued that the war in the Pacific was a war without mercy in part because the Japanese became so dehumanized and alien, so unworthy of empathy, that the usual rules of conduct in war were set aside. If this is true, then a sociological imagination, as a means of fostering empathy, has important implications for conduct in war.
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