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  • Patterns of Radicalization in Political ActivismAn Introduction
  • Donatella della Porta (bio) and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt (bio)

Research on political violence occurs in waves, generally corresponding to the successive swells of violence that in many ways define modern society. Critically, this violence is characterized as much by diversity as by uniformity. As each new spate in research on political violence has shown us, rarely can we generalize about either the aims or the repertoires of action of the purveyors of violence. Some similar mechanisms are in play, however, as violence develops from political conflicts between states and their opponents.

This suggestion comes from social movement studies, whose influence is increasing in the analysis of political violence. These studies developed especially from a critique of “terrorism studies,” which emerged within security studies as a branch of international relations and have traditionally been more oriented toward developing antiterrorist policies than toward a social scientific understanding of political violence. As Jeff Goodwin (2004: 260) points out, “Many who have written about terrorism have been directly or indirectly involved in the business of counterterrorism, and their vision has [End Page 311] been narrowed and distorted by the search for effective responses to terrorism, often very loosely defined.” Consequently, terrorist studies have often been influenced by practical policy concerns, multiplying in times of crisis with lower scientific standards than other disciplines (Crenshaw 2010).

As Alexander George (1991: 92) puts it, “Terrorology is intellectually sterile, if not bankrupt, because the construct of ‘terror’ employed by terroristologists was not developed in response to honest puzzlement about the real world, but rather in response to ideological pressure.” Terrorist studies in fact have been criticized as event-driven and policy-driven, deeply enmeshed in actual practices of counterterrorism (Ranstorp 2009).

Scholars have also lamented the limited presence of empirical research and the poor quality of much terrorism research. According to Andrew Silke (2003: xvii), “A review of recent research work found that only about 20 percent of published articles on terrorism are providing substantially new knowledge on the subject.” Much has been written on the basis of little empirical research that was also often impressionistic and superficial (Schmid and Jongman 1988). Far-reaching generalizations have been proposed on the basis not only of sporadic evidence (ibid.) but also of a general ahistoricity of the field (Breen Smyth 2007: 260) and the limited comparative analysis of political violence over time and space. Furthermore and perhaps most fundamentally, in terrorism studies there has been a tendency to reify terrorism (and terrorists) based on the use of some forms of collective action. Social movement scholars have been uneasy with the use of a term that is not only politically highly contested but also of doubtful heuristic value.

Another issue is that in both terrorism studies and antiterrorism policies, the term radicalization—a crucial part of understanding political violence—has been much used to profile large groups of people considered “at risk” of radicalization. According to this application, those who have reasons to feel discriminated against are easy prey of religious fanaticism, which provides much-needed collective identities. In a vicious circle, social groups considered vulnerable to radical propaganda because they are excluded and/or discriminated against tend to be treated as potential risks, thereby strengthening those feelings of exclusion and discrimination. Especially migrants (first or second generation) are considered still more rebellious the more they belong to an economically, politically, or culturally marginalized people and/ or the less they are integrated into the host society.1

Recently, however, attention to the contributions of social movement [End Page 312] theories to explaining political violence has increased. In the social movement field, radicalization has been addressed especially in research on non-Western democracies (Wiktorowicz 2004). Additionally, a school of “critical terrorism studies” has aroused in international relations and area studies interest in the application of social movement theories to political violence (Jackson et al. 2009). In particular, social movement theories have been praised for their potential to de-exceptionalize violence by locating it in broader contexts and complex processes (Gunning 2009). Perhaps most critically, this has come through detailed examinations of historical cases. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s a growing number of empirical...


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pp. 311-320
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