Menu Item or a Specialty?

By Joseph Young

Is terrorism the domain of a group of specialists in violence?  Or is terrorism a tactic (or strategy)[i] that any group or individual may select from a menu of many other tactics?  For some social movement scholars, such as the late Charles Tilly, the answer is simple:

[S]ocial scientists who attempt to explain sudden attacks on civilian targets should doubt the existence of a distinct, coherent class of actors (terrorists) who specialize in a unitary form of political action (terror) and thus should establish a separate variety of politics (terrorism).[ii]

Tilly clearly thought about terror as a menu item rather than a specialty.  Much of the recent work done by scholars of terror suggests the opposite or at least implicitly assumes that it is a distinct form of violence pursued by specialists.[iii]  Who’s right?  Or, more importantly, who offers a greater understanding of why terror happens or doesn’t and how it can be reduced or exacerbated?

A quick digression.  Who did Time magazine select as its Person of the Year in 2011?  As any casual reader of Time can tell you this person isn’t always a (our?) hero (Stalin was selected in 1942 and Ayatollah Khomeini won the honor in 1979) or a person (in 1988, the Endangered Earth was the cover girl).  Recently, groups of individuals have been selected with alarming regularity.  Whistleblowers, Good Samaritans, You (Us? Just you? Me?), and in 2011, the Protester.  The Protester is apropos given the recent events of the so-called “Arab Spring”, the Occupy encampments, and the Tea Party movement in the US.  Now the link: Should we be calling these actors protesters?  Doesn’t it succumb to a similar fallacy outlined by Tilly?  Is there a coherent class of actors (protesters) who specialize in a unitary form of political action (protest) and thus establish a separate variety of politics (protestism? Ok, protesting).

Again, the menu item approach would suggest that this is one choice among many other forms of contention.  Importantly, all can be ordered at the same meal (assuming one has the resources.)  The specialist approach would argue that the same item is selected over and over again because of circumstance, ideology, success, or some other common set of causes.  In the spirit of Tony Blair, I want to offer a third way.

As we know from internal debates among activists in the Weather Underground, the German Red Army Factions and other violent organizations that eventually desisted, groups consciously select themselves into violence or nonviolence and often specialize within these general categories.  As Bernardine Dohrn, a co-founder of the Weather Ground, said in a documentary about the organization, “[t]here’s no way to be committed to nonviolence in the most violent society that history has ever created.  I’m not committed to non-violence in any way.”

On the nonviolent side, the Indian Independence movement and the movement in the Philippines against Marcos both were primarily nonviolent and rarely deviated from this path. With that said, groups such as the ANC in South Africa and the current Syrian resistance have different factions in the movement that use(d) vastly different strategies mixing violence and nonviolence.  This (very) preliminary case discussion leads to a third way to think about the menu vs. specialists debate: a continuum of specialization (See Figure 1).  At one end of the this continuum, we could imagine a group that is completely committed to violent struggle, and even more specialized in creating a violent struggle against some other people’s civilians.[iv]  In the Weather Underground’s case, it could be specializing in violence against the state and its institutions but not people.  As we move towards the center of the continuum, we get closer to a group or movement that might adopt a mixture of violent and nonviolent tactics and use each roughly at the same proportion.  Moving towards the negative pole, we might find a group that specializes again, but this time in nonviolence (see Otpor in Serbia, for an example).  My third way provides the possibility for both kinds of actors to exist, specialists and menuists, as well as both kinds of actions to exist, specialties and menu strategies. In some cases then, terms such as terrorist or protester may be relevant (at the poles of the continuum), in other cases (towards the middle of the spectrum) they lose meaning.

Figure 1—Continuum of Contentious Specialization

If we are serious about adopting such a conceptualization about contention that allows for many types of actors, it has implications for how we then relate these contentious actors, episodes, and actions to other phenomena.   As Goodwin notes in his introduction to the Mobilization special issue, this would require thinking about a different unit of observation.  Importantly, where specialists reign, an actor-focused unit of analysis (individuals, groups) may be plausible.   Where we see menu strategies, especially in response to the decision of the state and its leaders, the “conflict situation” as the unit of analysis may be the best choice.

Prior to the events of September 11th, relatively few social movement scholars wrote about terrorism.[v]  Now terrorism enjoys unprecedented interest across scholarly disciplines.[vi]  As the Arab Spring continues and groups from Egypt to Saudi Arabia remain committed to nonviolent contention, groups in Syria and Libya used menu strategies to challenge their respective regimes with varying levels of success.  Interest in nonviolence (and specialists in nonviolence) is beginning to rise with recent work garnering significant attention.[vii]

Whether 2012 is deemed by Time as the Year of the Protester, the Terrorist, or some other specialty, I don’t agree with Tilly and others who suggest that there are no such actors.  But many groups and movements choose from a range of tactics providing some plausibility for a continuum of specialization.  Why we see these different types of contention and actors and how this relates to big issues like democracy and human rights strikes me as a logical place to invest our future energies.


[i] A strategy pursued by dissidents might be something like disrupting public space. The goal of this strategy is to undermine confidence in the state and lead to a policy or regime change.  A specific tactic might be terrorism, sabotage, assassination, direct action, civil disobedience or any of a collection of other tactics.  Kydd and Walter (2006) outline five strategies that utilize terrorism to signal resolve to the state.

[ii] Charles Tilly. 2004. “Terror, Terrorism, and Terrorists.” Sociological Theory 22(1): 5-13.

[iii] Quan Li. 2005. Does Democracy Promote or Reduce Transnational Terrorist Incidents?” Journal of Conflict Resolution 49(2): 278-297; Walter Enders and Todd Sandler. 2006. The Political Economy of Terrorism New York: Cambridge University Press; Andrew Kydd and Barbara Walter. 2006. “The Strategies of Terrorism.” International Security 31(1):49-80; James Walsh and James Piazza. 2010. “Why Respecting Physical Integrity Rights Reduces Terrorism.” Comparative Political Studies 43(5): 551-577; Michael Findley and Joseph Young. 2011. “Terrorism, Democracy, and Credible Commitments.” International Studies Quarterly 55(2): 357-378.

[iv] I am borrowing from Goodwin’s (2006) thinking about the role of complicitous civilians in explaining terrorism, or what he terms categorical terrorism.  Jeff Goodwin. 2006. “A Theory of Categorical Terrorism.” Social Forces 84(4): 2027-2046.

[v] For a notable exception see James Denardo. 1985. Power in Numbers: The Political Strategy of Protest and Rebellion Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[vi] For an overview see Joseph Young and Michael Findley. 2011. “The Promise and Pitfalls of Terrorism Research.” International Studies Review 13(3): 411-431.

[vii] Kurt Schock. 2005. Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan. 2011. Why Civil Resistance Works New York: Columbia University Press.

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

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