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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. Continue reading

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