A Middle Way: Adopting the Sensibility of Social Movement Studies to Understand Terrorism

By Ziad Munson

Many people resist recognizing groups engaged in terrorism as social movement organizations.  This is perhaps because social movement research is so often conducted by scholars personally sympathetic to the movements they study – and most scholars aren’t sympathetic to terrorist activity.   But sympathetic or no, most terrorism is conducted by groups that fit any common definition of a social movement organization.  Suicide bombings, airplane hijackings, and butyric acid attacks are used by groups oriented toward social and political change in much the same way as protest marches, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns, and civil disobedience.

Recognizing terrorist activity as social movement activity can help us better understand it.  This is not because there is any particular concept within social movement studies that provides the key to understanding terrorism; as in social movements, there is no ‘master variable’ that determines whether or not terrorist campaigns will emerge, or whether or not they will be successful.  Instead, recognizing terrorism as social movement activity is helpful because of the general sensibility of the social movement approach to the study of conflict and change.  More specifically, the literature on social movements helps avoid twin traps in current research on terrorism: the trap of fanaticism and the trap of rationalism.

Research on terrorist groups often treats them as wild-eyed fanatics, disconnected from reality and unpredictable in their behavior.  Studies of terrorism that adopt this view attempt to understand why some people join such groups, or how members develop such deviant views and behaviors.  Perhaps extreme poverty (or inequality) leads to this kind of pathological radicalism.  Or perhaps sexual frustration or cultural humiliation is the culprit.  Or perhaps terrorism represents the last desperate attempts to fight the march of globalization.  All of these arguments have been influential in the study of terrorism.

Treating terrorist activity as social movement activity helps us overcome the fanaticism trap.  The basic social movement paradigm conceptualizes movement activity as a normal (if unusual) feature of social life.  Social movement studies long ago moved away from a collective behavior tradition that emphasized the deviance and irrationality of social movement activity, both because it proved to be empirically false and theoretically unhelpful.   The basic approach to studying social movements today can help move the study of terrorism past these problems as well.

In part as a reaction to this trap, a growing body of work—particularly in political science—attempts to bring groups engaged in terrorism into the fold of rational choice theory.  I consider this approach a twin trap because it swings the theoretical pendulum too far in the other direction.  The rationalist trap treats groups engaged in terrorism – many of which are large, complex organizations – as calculating individuals, coolly choosing between different violent strategies based purely on the costs and benefits of each to their larger plans.  Perhaps terrorism arises when groups have no other political options.  Or perhaps it is carefully designed to provoke government atrocities.  Or perhaps it arises when such attacks might change public opinion in a democracy about military intervention.  These arguments have all taken on increasing prominence in the study of terrorism.

Situating terrorist attacks within the social movement organizations that perpetrate them can help us see the many important factors left out of the rationalist trap.  The rational choice approach provides an important corrective to the view that terrorism is a unique and irrational phenomenon.  But it also greatly oversimplifies the portrait of terrorist activity, well past the point of distortion.  The social movement approach is helpful because it adopts the basic rationalist framework, but situates it within a larger constellation of issues, including those of identity, interpersonal relationships, and organizational dynamics.

If the basic sensibility of social movement studies can help us better understand terrorism, it does so despite sharing two important weaknesses with research on terrorism: a poor ratio of data to theory, and an over-reliance on case studies.

Data on groups engaged in terrorism is sparse because of the many difficulties of data collection on such organizations.  Moreover, a substantial portion of the literature on terrorism continues to come from former political officials and political think tanks, who often don’t share the same standards of data collection and analysis as academic scholarship.  The result is a large and quickly growing literature on terrorism where the number and variety of theories far outpace the data available to evaluate them.  This parallels the pattern in social movement studies of having far more conceptual development and theoretical approaches than systematic empirical data on actual social movements.

The study of terrorism and social movements also both rely heavily on case studies.  These provide rich data on individual groups as well as the kind of detailed information necessary for theory development.  But a reliance on case studies also makes it difficult to generalize findings; explanations move toward the particularistic and idiosyncratic, and we miss discovering some of the larger patterns that might exist across different terrorist campaigns and social movement groups.

I am currently engaged in a comparative study of the fifty organizations most active in terrorist attacks over the last fifteen years.  The vast majority of these groups are social movement organizations – groups like the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the Occupied Territories, the FARC in Colombia, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, and the People’s War Group in India.  These organizations are not so different from the groups that emerged in the anti-war, environmental, civil rights, labor, and women’s movements.  Treating them as such will go a long way in helping us understanding their origins, mobilization, dynamics, and potential impact.   Social movement studies offers a middle way between the twin traps of existing terrorism research.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Is Terrorism a Form of Activism?

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