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Discussion Point: Terrorism Studies is not a Sub-Discipline


Discussion Point: Terrorism Studies is not a Sub-Discipline

What the Field Needs is to Become Truly Inter-Disciplinary

October 31, 2012Fernando Reinares

Fernando_Reinares1 I think you can tell by reading the leading academic journals on Terrorism Studies that it is common place among terrorism scholars to take for granted the status of Terrorism Studies as an academic sub-discipline within the Social Sciences.

Checking their footnotes and references suggest that many seem to bind the theoretical and empirical riches of Terrorism Studies within the scope of the intellectual production essentially made by fellow colleagues who share interest for the same topics, publish in the same periodicals or book series, and meet in the same conferences.

No doubt, these initiatives have resulted in accumulation of vast, substantive and most valuable knowledge on the past and present of terrorist actors, scenarios and facets.

Yet, Terrorism Studies is not an academic sub-discipline within the Social Sciences. The more we think of Terrorism Studies in such a way, the more we, purposely or otherwise, lose sight of terrorism - not in terms of a violent tactic but of a sociopolitical phenomenon - as a social construct.

The more we think of Terrorism Studies as a sub-discipline, the more we reify the phenomenon and contribute to the academic institutionalization of this reification. In my opinion, that is not a sound scholarly path to pursue.

Ultimately, indulging in the implicit or explicit consideration of Terrorism Studies as an academic sub-discipline, on the basis of an academic community which provides legitimation to such a notion, particularly after 9/11, introduces epistemological obstacles for the advancement of science.

I wrote science but, when affirming that Terrorism Studies is not a Social Science sub-discipline, I am certainly not advocating for an alternative Natural Sciences approach to the study of terrorism. Of course, there is a legitimate Natural Sciences approach to this phenomenon.

Telling enough is the fact that, in the category subject of "International Relations," a journal titled Biosecurity and Bioterrorism currently enjoys a much higher impact factor than our long-revered and referential Studies in Conflict and Terrorism or Terrorism and Political Violence, as calculated by the Journal Citations Report of the ISI Web of Knowledge. But my point just focuses on academic approaches to Terrorism and Counterterrorism from the perspective of the Social Sciences, predominant in these latter two periodicals.

Terrorism Studies should not be considered as a Social Science sub-discipline in itself, but rather an inter-disciplinary field where History, Anthropology, Sociology, Criminology, Political Science, Psychology, Economics and other academic disciplines with their own - at times overlapping - traditions, methodology and learned corpus, coalesce in a mutually enriching exchange on problems concerning terrorism and counterterrorism. This exchange is thus based on their different theoretical, analytical and empirical perspectives.

However, something more than just having diverse undergraduate or graduate backgrounds is needed to harvest the benefits of this exchange in Terrorism Studies. A continuous update on themes and topics of such disciplines relevant to the field is also required.

At a macro level of analysis, for instance, scholars focusing on the preconditions and precipitants for terrorism should be very familiar with theories on social conflict and contentious politics, as well as with anthropological findings on cultures of violence. Similarly, research on correlations between regimen types and terrorism, more concretely on what types of democracies are more affected by terrorism, must begin with the comparative politics literature on regime types and models of democracy.

Similarly, the effectiveness and results of counterterrorism policies are to be addressed within the framework of Public Policy studies. Likewise, how can one properly deal with issues of societal impact of terrorism or social resilience to terrorist attacks if uninformed by the tradition of studies on social order or even those more recent on social capital?

At a meso level of analysis, scholars in Terrorism Studies should go well beyond leaning against rational choice basics when investigating organizational decision making with respect to terrorist tactics. Insight from inter-disciplinary research on informal groups and formal organizations is indeed advisable to avoid the mistake, lately not uncommon in the field, of classifying as amorphous or disorganized the different, innovative ways used by transnational terrorist entities to articulate themselves.

Network analysis and the new institutionalism are providing some remedy to this. Also, the potentialities of social movement theory invite study on the mobilization strategies of terrorist organizations. Aspects of terrorist financing, in turn, are best dealt with from the outlook of authoritative research on topics ranging from ordinary crime to international finances.

At a micro level of analysis, scholars in the field should not be too quick to dismiss the exploration of socio-demographic characteristics of terrorists because initial findings suggest that terrorists have no single social profile. Rather, we should upgrade our skills to interpret how are these data interwoven with, and influenced by, socio-structural positioning and historical processes. Lacking support from psychological or social-psychological studies on human motivations, research on individual motivation driving some people to engage in terrorist activities tends to end in exercises of cataloguing and description.

In addition, far more input from collective action theory and research is missed in the often repetitive efforts at understanding the processes of socialization into beliefs which justify violence and eventually steer certain individuals to actual involvement in terrorism.

To summarize, Terrorism Studies should be redirected from its sub-discipline pretentions to the synergy of a true inter-disciplinary field in the broad domain of the Social Sciences. In turn, the field has to remain closely connected to other relevant inter-disciplinary fields such as Public Policy, Organization Studies or Collective Action, just to mention three well developed fields at the macro, meso and micro levels of analysis, respectively.

In a sense, scholars in the field of Terrorism Studies have to be more Criminologists, Sociologists, Anthropologists, Political Scientists, Psychologists, Economists, Historians and the like than Terrorologists. Ideally, Social Science scholars interested in terrorism and counterterrorism should be working only part time in the field, and not sub-discipline, of Terrorism Studies.


Fernando Reinares is Professor and Chair in Political Science and Security Studies at King Juan Carlos University in Madrid, as well as Senior Analyst on Global Terrorism at Elcano Royal Institute, Spain's leading think tank on international and strategic studies. Applying collective action theory and interviewing over seventy former ETA members, he wrote a book which became a national best-seller and is now entering its eighth edition. Served a term as Senior Advisor on Antiterrorist Policy to the Ministry of Interior in Spain, and has been awarded with both the Cross of Military Merit and the Cross of Police Merit, although his most precious public distinction is the Prize Excellence granted by fellow citizens in his native Rioja wine region.

Last year he enjoyed an appointment as Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, to advance research on the Madrid train bombings. He is currently teaching a graduate course on Developments of Counterterrorism Policies and Programs at START. To learn more about, or enroll in, START Graduate Certificate, visit this link.

Despite his numerous academic accolades and scholarly accomplishments, Reinares always notes that his greatest achievement is being a father to his two remarkable sons, Daniel and Mill?n.

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