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Scott Atran

Scott Atran

Scott Atran
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Anthropologist
Is Anthropologist Political scientist
From United States of America
Type Social science Politics
Gender male
Birth New York City
The details


Scott Atran (born February 6, 1952) is an American and French anthropologist who is a Director of Research in Anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, Research Professor at the University of Michigan, and cofounder of ARTIS International and of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University in England. He has studied and written about terrorism, violence and religion, and has done fieldwork with terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists, as well as political leaders.

Education and early career

Atran was born in New York City in 1952 and he received his PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. While a student he became assistant to anthropologist Margaret Mead at the American Museum of Natural History. In 1974 he originated a debate at the Abbaye de Royaumont in France on the nature of universals in human thought and society, with the participation of linguist Noam Chomsky, psychologist Jean Piaget, anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and biologists François Jacob and Jacques Monod, which Harvard's Howard Gardner and others consider a milestone in the development of cognitive science.

Later research and career

Atran has experimented on the ways scientists and ordinary people categorize and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, His work has been widely published internationally in the popular press, and in scientific journals in a variety of disciplines. He has briefed members of the U.S. Congress and the National Security Council staff at the White House on the The Devoted Actor versus the Rational Actor in Managing World Conflict, on the Comparative Anatomy and Evolution of Global Network Terrorism, and on Pathways to and from Violent Extremism. He was an early critic of U.S. intervention in Iraq and of deepening involvement in Afghanistan.

Atran has also been a staunch opponent of political attempts to eliminate government funding for social science, arguing that it is critical to the national interest, including innovation and security in business, technology, medicine and defense.

Research on conflict negotiation

Atran has published research on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict.

He has collaborated on research on how political negotiations could be made more likely to produce agreement. Atran and the psychologists Jeremy Ginges and Douglas Medin and political scientist Khalil Shikaki conducted an experiment that surveyed "600 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, more than 500 Palestinian refugees, and more than 700 Palestinian students, half of whom identified with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad." The researchers divided the subjects into three groups, each of which was presented with a different "hypothetical peace deal." In the basic situation, those surveyed were presented with "a two-state solution in which the Israelis would withdraw from 99 percent of the West Bank and Gaza but would not have to absorb Palestinian refugees"; the proposal "did not go over well." For the second group, the hypothetical deal "was sweetened with cash compensation from the United States and the European Union, such as a billion dollars a year for a hundred years, or a guarantee that the people would live in peace and prosperity. With these sweeteners on the table, the nonabsolutists, as expected, softened their opposition a bit. But the absolutists, forced to contemplate a taboo tradeoff, were even more disgusted, angry, and prepared to resort to violence." But for the third group, the proposed two-state solution was "augmented with a purely symbolic declaration by the enemy in which it compromised on one of its sacred values."

In the deal presented to Israeli settlers, the Palestinians "would give up any claims to their right of return" or "would be required to recognize the historic and legitimate right of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel"; in that presented to the Palestinians, Israel "would recognize the historic and legitimate right of the Palestinians to their own state and would apologize for all wrongs done to the Palestinian people," or would "give up what they believe is their sacred right to the West Bank" or would "symbolically recognize the historic legitimacy of the right of return [without in fact granting it]". In summarizing the result, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker says, "Unlike the bribes of money or peace, the symbolic concession of a sacred value by the enemy, especially when it acknowledges a sacred value on one's own side, reduced the absolutists' anger, disgust, and willingness to endorse violence."

Atran has worked with the United Nations Security Council and has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East

Field research on terrorism

His work on the ideology and social evolution of transnational terrorism, which has included fieldwork with mujahedin and supporters in Europe, the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, and North Africa, has challenged common assumptions. Steven Pinker summarizes some of Atran's findings thus: "Far from being ignorant, impoverished, nihilistic, or mentally ill, suicide terrorists tend to be educated, middle class, morally engaged, and free of obvious psychopathology. Atran concluded that many of the motives may be found in nepotistic altruism... [Atran shows that] Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups [hold] out a carrot rather than a stick to the terrorist's family in the form of generous monthly stipends, lump-sum payments, and massive prestige in the community.... Atran has [also] found that suicide terrorists can be recruited without these direct incentives. Probably the most effective call to martyrdom is the opportunity to join a happy band of brothers. Terrorist cells often begin as gangs of underemployed single young men who come together in cafes, dorms, soccer clubs, barbershops, or Internet chat rooms and suddenly find meaning in their lives by a commitment to the new platoon.... Commitment to the group is intensified by religion, not just the literal promise of paradise but the feeling of spiritual awe that comes from submerging oneself in a crusade, a calling, a vision quest, or a jihad. [Atran writes that religion] may also turn a commitment to a cause into a sacred value - a good that may not be traded off against something else, including life itself. The commitment can be further stoked by the thirst for revenge, which in the case of militant Islamism takes the form of vengeance for the harm and humiliation suffered by any Muslim anywhere on the planet at any time in history, or for symbolic affronts such as the presence of infidel soldiers on sacred Muslim soil."

Atran is quoted as summarizing his work thus: "When you look at young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005, hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006 and 2009, and journeyed far to die killing infidels in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia; when you look at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them; then you see that what inspires the most lethal terrorists in the world today is not so much the Koran or religious teachings as a thrilling cause and call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends, and through friends, eternal respect and remembrance in the wider world that they will never live to enjoy.... Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: ...fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious, and cool."

Regarding Atran's analysis of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as a revolutionary movement of "world-historic proportions,"The New York Times writes: "This remarkable, persuasive and frightening essay by a top anthropologist in Paris combines his research among disaffected youth with insights from such disparate figures as Hitler, Burke, Darwin and Hobbes, as well as close observation of the Islamic State’s advance into a 'globe-spanning jihadi archipelago'. He argues that we dismiss ISIS at our peril, and that in fact, we do much to promote its growth. Some of his historical conclusions will be controversial, but this is French intellectualism at its most profound — and most useful. Here’s a telling anecdote: When Charlie Chaplin and the French filmmaker René Clair watched 'Triumph of the Will' (1935), Leni Riefenstahl’s visual paean to National Socialism, 'Chaplin laughed but Clair was terror-stricken, fearing that, if it were shown more widely, all might be lost in the West'."

The Chronicle of Higher Education accompanied Atran to frontlines in the battle against ISIS in Iraq, where he and his research team were assessing "will to fight" among the combatants: "Atran fleshes out what he calls the 'Devoted Actor Framework' [as opposed to standard 'rational actor' frameworks], which pulls sacred values [which are immune to material trade offs] and identity fusion [complete merging of individual identity with group identity] into a single theory and offers advice for beating ISIS: 'The science suggests that sacred values are best opposed with other sacred values that inspire devotion, or by sundering the fused social networks that embed those values.' Left unspoken: How do you offer an equally inspiring alternative? By what method can those social networks be sundered? Atran doesn’t pretend to know the answer, but he does think that current attempts at so-called "countermessaging" are destined to fail because those messages are 'disembodied from the social networks in which ideas are embedded and given life.' Scholarly squabbles aside, there is near-universal admiration, bordering on awe, for how Atran is able to collect data in the midst of a violent conflict."

Other work

Atran conducts ongoing research in Guatemala, Mexico, and the U.S. on universal and culture-specific aspects of biological categorization and environmental reasoning and decision making among Maya and other Native Americans.

Atran's debates with Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, Richard Dawkins and others during the 2006 Beyond Belief symposium on the limits of reason and the role of religion in modern society highlight the differences between these authors, who see religion as fundamentally false and politically and socially repressive, and Atran who sees unfalsifiable but semantically absurd religious beliefs as historically critical to the formation of large-scale societies and current motivators for both conflict and cooperation.

Atran's publications include Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, Plants of the Peten Itza' Maya (co-authored with Ximena Lois and Edilberto Ucan Ek), The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature (co-authored with Douglas Medin), and Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.

Atran has taught at Cambridge University, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the École des Hautes Études in Paris, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is currently a research director in anthropology at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and member of the Jean Nicod Institute at the École Normale Supérieure. He is also research professor of public policy and psychology at the University of Michigan, founding fellow of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University, and cofounder of ARTIS International.

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