Some Reflections on the relationship between terrorism and social movements?

By Donatella della Porta*

Is terrorism linked to social movements? In answering the question, I think a caveat is in order. In all my work, I have tried to avoid the term terrorism altogether, as I have doubts about its value as a social scientific concept. Heavily loaded from the ethical and political point of view, the term has been used to refer to a variety of phenomena. As Tilly (2004: 8) reminded us with specific reference to political violence, in the social sciences the value of a concept is linked to its capacity to point to detectable phenomena that exhibit some degree of causal coherence. Tilly therefore—I think wisely–refused to use the term terrorist to describe actors that in fact are characterized by complex repertoires of action – highlighting the need to investigate types of events that can in fact be included in the same social science category. Terrorism is a generalized construct derived from our concepts of morality, law, and the rules of war, whereas actual terrorists are shaped by culture, ideology and politics – specific, inchoate factors and notions that motivate diverse actions” (2003: 117). Most fundamentally, there is a risk of reifying terrorism (and terrorists) based on the use of some forms of collective action. Even when means are easily definable as terrorist, it is tricky to talk of a terrorist organization, as this would hypostatize the use of one means over others that that organization will very likely be using as well.

Since we, however, require categories that help distinguish between the very different forms of political violence we meet and address when working on social movements, in my work I have focused on clandestine political violence, conceptualized as extreme forms of action used by small, clandestine organizations. Based on my previous work, I expect that, especially in democratic regimes, the very choice of going underground will bring about specific dynamics, allowing us to talk of a particular class of events.

This conceptual discussion is relevant to address the question of the usefulness of social movement studies to analyze clandestine political violence. My answer is strongly affirmative. My choice of developing an understanding on clandestine political violence by building upon social movement studies has various rationales. First and foremost, previous research has indicated that political violence often spreads during waves of protest. It develops inside social movements – and is indeed (although not often) a (most visible) by-product of social movements. Most clandestine organizations have their roots in splits within social movement organizations, and most of the militants of underground organizations have previous experiences in social movement organizations (della Porta 1995). In fact, the link between social movements and political violence has not gone unnoticed. A few social movement scholars have in fact focused attention on the processes of radicalization in social movements, linking them to the interactions between these movements and the state (della Porta 1995), the “inversion” of collective actors (Wieviorka 1993), and the construction of exclusive identities (Goodwin 2004). Scholars of clandestine political violence in the Middle East have increasingly referenced social movement studies (see, e.g., Gunning 2009; Wiktorowicz 2004).

Second, all these works prove that some main concepts and interpretations which represent the toolkit of social movement studies are very useful in understanding the origins, development, and even demise of underground collective violence. Clandestine organizations are in fact political actors that address various strategic dilemmas, trying to adapt their organizational forms and strategies to mobilize their potential bases and win concession by the adversary. Resources are mobilized, political opportunities assessed, and framing processes are as important here as elsewhere. As other political organizations, clandestine political organization act, however, under various types of constraints: their choices are limited by external conditions, but also by the internal availability of resources and by collective norms.

If the traditional tool-kit of social movement studies helps us understand why extreme forms of violence are chosen and why organizations decide to go underground, reflecting on clandestine political violence also brings to the fore some limits of a too-rational and too-structuralist approach that has dominated the field for long time. Analyses of the processes through which some organizations go underground, but also the ways in which their choices are then more and more constrained by internal dynamics, requires us, I think, to give first of all more prominence to relations by locating political violence in the radicalization of conflicts that involve the interaction of various actors, institutional and non-institutional. Second, we need a constructivist view, which takes into account not only the external opportunities and constraints, but also the social construction of their experiential reality by the various actors participating in social and political conflicts. Especially, research on political violence should sensitize us to emergent phenomena, recognizing that violence develops in action, and aiming at reconstructing the causal mechanisms that link the macro-system in which clandestine political violence develops; the meso-system formed by the radical organizations; and the micro-system of the symbolic interactions within the militant networks. As Elisabeth Wood (2003: 19) has observed on guerrilla movements, “political culture – the values, norms, practices, beliefs, and collective identity of the insurgents – was not fixed but evolved in response to the experiences of the conflict itself, namely, previous rebellious actions, repression, and the ongoing interpretation of events by the participants themselves.”  The same happens for clandestine political violence, which in fact creates and re-creates the conditions of its own development (della Porta forthcoming).

*This text draws from the introductory chapter of Donatella della Porta, Clandestine Political Violence, Cambridge University Press, 2013.


Della Porta, Donatella, fortcoming, Clandestine Political Violence, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Della Porta, Donatella. 1995. Social Movements, Political Violence and the State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goodwin, Jeff. 2004. “Review Essays: What Must We Explain to Explain Terrorism?” Social Movement Studies 3: 259-65.

Gunning, Jeroen. 2007. Hamas in Politics. Democracy, Religion, Violence. London: Hurst and Company.

Tilly, Charles. 2003. The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tilly, Charles. 2004a. “Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists.” Sociological Theory 22: 5-13.

Wieviorka, Michel. 1993. The Making of Terrorism. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Wiktorowicz, Q. 2004. Islamic Activism in Social Movement Theory. In Q. Wiktorowicz, ed., Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 1-33.

Wood, Elisabeth Jean. 2003. Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

1 Comment

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

One response to “Some Reflections on the relationship between terrorism and social movements?

  1. In other words, they go against the grain of the careers their parents had.
    At the end of each round read out the cumulative scores.
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