Undertaking the exploration of the diverse, thought-provoking interpretations students provided for the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” is the basis of this work. The purpose in describing their interpretations is to acknowledge, in some instances, their acceptance of and resistance to “official” definitions and versions of “reality” regarding terrorism and terrorist. My interest is in showing how reality is constructed and experienced by students and how we as researchers and educators may create new possibilities of reality. Over the years I have taught sociology, social theory, research methods and political science. I have watched my students react with fascination (mostly positive, but sometimes negative) when learning about other cultures, belief systems, and values; expand their critical thinking skills; accept and reject elements of official doctrine and mass media produced acquiescent knowledge; and realize how the United States, with its hegemonic standing, culture, beliefs and values, affects and is affected by the rest of the world. In planning this study, I wanted to know how my students assemble their “subjective” social reality and how they perceive, interpret, and experience “objective” world realities. The title of this work, Intellectual Courage and the Social Construction of Terrorism: Embodying Reality, reflects the three main constructs: intellectual courage, social construction, and reality. The results display an expression of open-mindedness without intimidation. When discussing and analyzing their socially constructed realities, many students were able to think more creatively and critically when viewing “reality” associate with terrorists and terrorism.
Terrorism is an objective reality and a subjective interpretation. By which I mean, the destruction that terrorism leaves behind is observable and quantifiable which is an objective reality, however what constitutes terrorism and who is a terrorist is a matter of subjective interpretation. By exploring this virtual medley of thoughts, beliefs, biases, prejudices and preconceptions, I can gain a better understanding of my students and their attitudes.
My study explores the expansion of reality regarding the issue of terrorism. As Berger and Luckmann (1966) suggest, a human being constructs reality on every level: with the self; in one-on-one interactions; in small and large groups; with their own culture; and with other cultures. My interest is in the interplay between self, society, and the world. How do we as citizens view ourselves, the actions of our government, and other governments and groups, concerning individual and societal injustices, risks, uncertainties, and nationalist statements of legitimacy and power that are caused by and at the root of terrorism?
We often are given a heavy dose of ethnocentrism minus the complexities of cultural relativism. Ethnocentrism is the practice of judging another culture by the standards of one’s own culture (Macionis, 2010, p. 78) and cultural relativism is the practice of judging a culture by its own standards (p. 79). Nations (and cultures) have their own preferred version of the world, and this usually dismisses competing versions. Not only do we construct our realities, we then institutionalize these realities into structures, these structures then subject us to them. Edmund Husserl, commonly considered the founder of phenomenology (Appelrouth, 2008, p. 539), developed what he called transcendental phenomenology which holds “there is no pure subjective subject or pure objective object” meaning that “all consciousness is consciousness of something, and objects do not have appearances independent of the beings that perceive them” making the world “a world of meaningful objectives and relations” (Appelrouth, 2008, p. 539). Husserl used the word “lifeworld” to refer to the world of “existing assumptions as they are experienced and made meaningful in consciousness” (p. 539). Both Husserl and Alfred Schutz emphasized that “humans do not experience the world as an objective reality; rather they experience the world as made of meaningful objects and relations… and for Schutz reality then requires paying attention to the meaning structures by and through which individuals perceive the world” (p. 539). However, Schutz states that humans do not merely internalize elements of the lifeworld and that we are simply not just vessels for pre-existing cultural forms, but rather we “experience them, interpret them, thereby reflecting an individual approach to order…the lifeworld possesses a private component” (p. 544).
How we experience and interpret our world has both the individual and cultural dimension.