Chapter 6 Discussion Question Pointers

End of Chapter Question Pointers

Chapter 6 – The Social Science of Political Violence

Stefan Malthaner, Donatella della Porta, and Lorenzo Bosi

  1. How does a concentration on processes help us to understand the development of political violence?
  2. The most basic starting point here is that this approach can act as a useful reminder that terrorists are not born as terrorists. So, we need some account of they emerge that does not assume individual pathology or ‘evil’ is an adequate explanation. This may sound like an obvious point: but in some environments – such as the USA straight after 9/11 – even this way of proceeding can face opposition.

    The start of this chapter (pages 93-97) sets out why and how processual approaches emerged.

    This question also invites you to reflect upon what processual approaches can offer that other approaches to the same basic problem cannot. So, it would definitely be worth familiarising yourself with Chapter 9 (on Root Causes) and Chapter 10 (on Radicalization).

  3. Processual approaches emerged out of the study of social movements in liberal democracies from the late 1960s. What might the challenges be in transferring the analytical approach to very different contexts?
  4. It is a fair point that processual approaches arose out of attempts to explain the rise of New Left terrorist groups in the 1970s. To find out more about some of these groups, see not only Case Study 6.1 in this chapter, but also: Case Studies 9.1, 15.2, 13.2.

    For the wider context in which these groups emerged, it is worth reading up on David Rapoport’s ‘Four Waves’ account of the emergence of modern anti-state terrorism. For an overview of Rapoport’s seminal work is discussed in Chapter 8 (pages 144-147) as well as Case Study 8.1. In addition, Case Study 8.2 looks at the 1970s as ‘Long Decade of Terrorism’.

    Case Study 6.2 of this chapter offers useful pointers for how a processual approach might be applied to a different context: in this case, the rise and fall of the Islamic Group (al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya) in Egypt.

    In liberal democracies, heavy handed policing of demonstrations clearly shocked some who, in turn, developed more militant attitudes and behaviour as sketched here in the discussion of Escalating Policing (pages 101-102). In more authoritarian societies, it seems reasonable to assume that demonstrators might be less prone to shock. That might well change the dynamics of the situation profoundly. 

  5. Which of the factors considered in processual approaches seems more relevant and why?
  6. Question 2 has already given a strong hint that we should not overlook the importance of contexts. Processual approaches do try to find common approaches across different case studies: but also to respect the ways in which no two situations are ever exactly alike. That can be a hard balance to strike.

    The discussion here (pages 95-6) helps differentiate between Resource Mobilisation Theory (RMT), Political Opportunity Structure (POS), and Framing Theory. Although these can be usefully combined, these are different theoretical traditions. As their names suggest, they are trying to capture different aspects of a complex and evolving social reality.

    The whole point about processual approaches is that they attempt to apply a dynamic theory to dynamic processes. So different factors are likely to matter more at some times than others.

  7. Does terrorism always emerge as gradually as processual approaches seem to assume?
  8. In Question 2, the point was made that processual approaches ‘emerged out of the study of social movements in liberal democracies from the late 1960s’: full-blown, organized anti-state terrorist campaigns usually took several years to develop out of this wider context: and in Italy and West Germany peaked in the late 1970s. But broadly comparable terrorism might also emerge much faster in different contexts.

    Radicalization is also a contested area for academic debate: but there is a general consensus that it does (usually, though not always) involve a process with several stages. Strikingly, though, there has been relatively little cross-fertilization between this field and processual approaches. This may reflect different disciplinary traditions. Radicalization research has tended to originate from Social Psychology; processual approaches from Sociology.

    It is also worth thinking about changing communications technology. The origins of an approach to studying political violence through an emphasis on processual approaches long pre-dated the rise of social media. It is clear that social media spreads a tendency towards imitation further and faster than ever before. So, it is worth reflecting on how processual approaches can, or should, try to accommodate these new dynamics into its analysis. Take a look across to Chapter 18 here.

    ‘Sudden jihad syndrome’ was the slang term coined by American security practitioners to refer to cases of radicalization amongst (a handful of) American Muslims that they found surprising. Each element of this term is problematic: was radicalization really as ‘sudden’ as it seemed? ‘Jihad’ is a nuanced term that can also refer to spiritual struggle: and so is being used rather inaccurately here. And ‘syndrome’ suggests a medical pathology. Nonetheless, the phrase captures a sense of surprise and bewilderment at changes in some individuals that did not appear to have been gradual at all.

  9. ‘Rather than reducing radicalization to abstract ideological processes, it is arguably much more helpful to see it as unfolding via the lived experience of activism’. Discuss.
  10. This question invites you to consider the debates between those who emphasize the importance of ideas versus those who emphasize dynamic context in explaining radicalization. Of course, both may be important – but in different ways and to different degrees. If you think about case studies you are familiar, the blend of influences and motivating forces will likely be different between them.

    A distinction is often drawn between ideological and behavioural radicalization. This question seems to imply a focus upon the latter area – i.e., radicalization that does actually lead to political violence. But it would be worth making that distinction clear in your answer.

    It is also worth thinking about the level of analysis here. Are we talking about radicalization at the level of individuals? Or small groups? Or larger social movements? Or whole societies? Different levels of analysis might suggest rather different answers.

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