A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

Discussion Point: The Importance of Field Research

The multidisciplinary nature of terrorism studies has made it extremely difficult for experts to pinpoint the most effective combination of research approaches that comprehensively captures the root causes of terrorism.   Within the last decade, scholars have acknowledged that terrorism research crosscuts disciplines, fields and concepts.  Even though this has resulted in a broader understanding of the root causes of terrorism, there continues to be a lack of “extensive primary data based on interviews and life histories of individuals engaged in terrorism.”[1] According to Adam Dolnik, the field of terrorism studies has received considerable criticism for being overly event-driven, descriptive in nature and solely focused on individuals, groups, and people (primarily those popular in media discourse).[2]  The lack of primary information limits the field’s ability to provide valuable findings that would not only expand the understanding of this phenomenon in the academic world but would also assist policymakers in operationalizing counterterrorism efforts.  Field research can prove a critical compliment to theoretical development, quantitative analyses, and desk studies.

The lack of a systematic collection of empirical data in the field, one of the primary reasons START was set up, is evident when examining past policy-relevant applied research studies. Unbalanced use of historical accounts, open source media, academic articles, books and/or theoretical frameworks can also be problematic. Given the relatively small size of the terrorism studies field, it is not surprising that researchers and practitioners rely heavily on each other’s work. This cyclical research system is constantly “reinforcing a feedback loop.”[3] What this means is that potential mistakes and assumptions made by pioneering researchers in this field are not only being perpetuated but are also serving as the foundation for established “knowledge” in the field.  Even though this is a difficult cycle to break through, field research offers the necessary first-hand data needed to challenge these assumptions and highlight mistakes that have been overlooked.   

Field research in conflict areas is not an easy task. Researchers are faced not only with the potential dangers associated with going into a conflict zone, they also frequently face additional hurdles from Institutional Review Boards and funders. However, directly capturing local perspectives, meanings, and actions within the usual environment where violence occurs reveals information that is typically not available through remote methods.  The overall process of field research in an area of conflict provides the researcher with a systematic database of information collected from interviews, surveys, focus groups, and participant observation.  More importantly, it provides the researcher with exposure to the everyday reality in which the “perpetrators, supporters, and victims of terrorism operate.”[4]  This tacit knowledge alone may be sufficient to challenge past assumptions and mistakes made in prior studies and counter-terrorism strategies. 

It is important to note that even if the field researcher overcomes the obstacles of safety, gaining access, and fulfilling his/her research design, the data collected must still be critically validated.  Given the transformative and evolving nature of terrorism, dynamics in a region of conflict are highly volatile and do not remain static. It is therefore essential that the researcher utilize innovative and evolving research techniques to capture the movement of this data while remaining safe.  Given the frequently contentious nature of terrorism as a subject of study, issues with data collected may include: social and political manipulation of the issue; distortion of information due to the imbalance of power between the outsider and local subject; mistrust; emotional and subjective accounts; and, incomplete/incorrect information. It turns out that, even on the ground, there is frequently no such thing as “ground truth.”

The implications of poor data quality for terrorism studies is much more than a flawed theoretical framework/model, or a wrongly assessed historical account of an event.  The consequences are real and urgent.  It is therefore of the utmost importance for academics and practitioners alike to critically assess the information that forms the foundation of their work.  Numerous experts have warned against the consequences of overreliance on open source documentation and other secondary information.  These sources simply do not provide a comprehensive picture of the reality of the issue. 

In spite of its challenges, field research is both possible and necessary in order to inform the fundamental questions that remain unanswered in this area and to determine the best ways to counter and prevent future terrorist acts.


At START headquarters 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 12, START Research Director Amy Pate will discuss her recent experience conducting field research in Nigeria. The event is free and open to the public, but an RSVP is appreciated.


[1] Martha Crenshaw: The Psychology of Terrorism: An Agenda for the 21st Century, Political Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 2. (June 2000), p. 410.

[2] Dolnik, Adam. "Conducting Field Research on Terrorism: A Brief Primer." Perspectives on Terrorism 5, No. 2 (May 2011), p. 3-35.

[3] Dolnik, Adam. "Conducting Field Research on Terrorism: A Brief Primer." Perspectives on Terrorism 5, No. 2 (May 2011), p. 3-35.

[4] Dolnik, Adam. "Conducting Field Research on Terrorism: A Brief Primer." Perspectives on Terrorism 5, No. 2 (May 2011), p. 3-35.