Critiques of terrorism studies: a brief introduction

Following on from my post on internal assessments of terrorism studies, this is a short post to introduce readers to critiques of the field, and some thoughts on where I stand myself.

There are four common types of critique, which are:

  • Left-wing critiques: These portray terrorism studies as uncritically accepting Western state priorities and assumptions, and consequently producing flawed analysis. See this example from Richard Jackson (or this shorter one).
  • Right-wing critiques: These portray terrorism research as forms of terrorist apologia or as attempts to push a ‘politically correct’ agenda. See this example from David Martin Jones and Carl Ungerer.
  • Policy-utility critiques: These contend that terrorism research rarely provides workable ideas for counter-terrorism policymakers and practitioners, and that academics just prefer to criticise rather than offer helpful suggestions. See this example from Mils Hills.
  • Methodological critiques: These contend that terrorism research usually lacks empirical rigour, and that it is theoretically under-developed and full of conceptual confusion. See many examples in this article by Lisa Stampnitzky.

The political critiques (‘political’ not in the pejorative sense but in the sense of being concerned with politics of such research and its potential impact on people’s lives) are widespread, and anyone researching in the area will regularly encounter them. In their worst variants, the political critiques mean that terrorism studies gets slammed as either a haven for right-wing academic frauds who have sold their souls to state power to demonise official enemies, or as a haven for left-leaning namby-pamby academics who would rather hug terrorists than have them be defeated. This is best seen in the rage that the Brookings Institution’s Will McCants generates from such opposing types such as Glenn Greenwald and Robert Spencer.

In their stronger variants, these political critiques need to be reflected on and engaged with.

My own position is not neutral; I don’t find both sides to be equivalent. Instead, I find some variants of the leftist critiques compelling. It’s certainly true that the field mainly focuses on groups that threaten Western countries. I disagree quite a lot with the work of Arun Kundnani, particularly Chapter 4 of his latest book (the field focuses far less on religious ideology as a causal factor for terrorism than you would expect from his writings), but everyone in the field should read it. These types of critique are particularly important because they often come from members of communities subjected to stigmatisation and harmful policies in the name of countering terrorism.

I find the right-wing critiques weaker, which is likely a result of my own politics tending to be centre-left liberal. But there’s been some times when I’ve found the right-wing critiques to hit the mark. For example, some scholarship on Hezbollah has indeed indulgently accepted their denials of involvement in terrorism.

I’m sympathetic to the policy-utility critiques, but am also wary of the risks of imposing narrow conceptions of policy-relevance on academia.

And last, I agree a lot with the methodological critiques, as would much of the field. As noted in my post on internal assessments, the emerging dominant view is that the field has dramatically improved in the past five to ten years, but that we definitely have a long way to go.


Update 1: Changed the Mervyn Bendle example to one by David Martin Jones and Carl Ungerer, on 5 April 2016.

1 thought on “Critiques of terrorism studies: a brief introduction

  1. With FBI trying to gain Apple,a play that for now has fallen apart,it appears the terrorism angle is indeed being used to crack the safe of personal privacy.This attempt,not sanctioned by congress as a whole,has in its self caused terror in the heart of millions of Americans no matter which side or direction the critique.

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