Articles examining the state of terrorism studies are quite common, but last year saw some really excellent and constructive assessments of the field. Three of these deserve to be much more widely read.
First example: Mark Youngman, “Building ‘Terrorism Studies’ as an Interdisciplinary Space: Addressing Recurring Issues in the Study of Terrorism“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 9 October 2018.
Abstract: Over the years, there have been many debates regarding the state of research into terrorism and whether “terrorism studies” constitutes an academic discipline in its own right. Such reflections, coupled with the natural evolution of what is still a relatively new area of research, have arguably led to significant improvements in quality and rigour. At the same time, the status of terrorism studies itself remains somewhat ambiguous: it is both discussed as a distinct field and simultaneously evades criticism by pointing to the difficulties of defining its boundaries. There are undoubtedly a number of advantages to forming a separate discipline, which would go some way to helping the field address some of the recurring problems that terrorism research faces. However, this article ultimately argues that scholars are better served by deliberately moving in the other direction and developing the field as a space for interdisciplinary engagement.
Mark Youngman’s article is outstanding and I strongly agree with many of its points. Youngman begins by discussing how the field straddles several different disciplines and therefore lacks a secure foothold in academic institutions. However, he argues that the field should emphatically not try to become a discipline in itself and that terrorism scholars should instead critically engage more with their home disciplines. Hegghammer made a similar argument a few years back, which I concurred with.
Youngman’s article also has a valuable section on the field’s need for greater methodological sophistication, which does not simply repeat the constant calls for more empirical research. Terrorism studies is often accused of lacking empirical data and of failing to talk directly to terrorists, but in my view these critiques are no longer well-founded and they tend to miss the point. There is no shortage of empirically-based datasets, but there are valid critiques of how some datasets are constructed. Similarly, many terrorism scholars conduct interviews with terrorists, though there are legitimate questions over whether such interviews are always conducted with sufficient rigour and methodological transparency.
So it was great to see Youngman’s article did not simply repeat the common calls for more fieldwork. He instead points out that holding interviews with terrorists (particularly in conflict zones) up as the gold standard is both unwarranted and creates currently unaddressed risks. He argues that it reflects poorly on the field when one research method is treated as inherently superior to all others, instead of a more pluralistic approach based on detailed discussions about which methods are best suited for different types of questions.
Youngman’s article makes many other good points. He critiques the recurrence of strawman arguments in the field, such as when the argument that terrorism is “not all about ideology” is presented as being counter to conventional wisdom, yet almost nobody actually contends that it is all about ideology. He points out the ethical risks involved in engaging the media, policy-makers and practitioners, but rightly adds that “[w]e cannot criticise state policies for being ill-informed and at the same time turn away those who seek to make them better informed”. He also notes the potential for productive engagement with civil war studies, which has increased in the past couple of years and was long overdue. However, Youngman adds an ethical argument in support of such crossover, as civil war studies appears to have “a greater emphasis on the victims and social consequences of violence” than terrorism studies has.
Second example: Bart Schuurman, “Research on Terrorism, 2007–2016: A Review of Data, Methods, and Authorship“, Terrorism and Political Violence, published online 1 March 2018.
Abstract: Research on terrorism has long been criticized for its inability to overcome enduring methodological issues. These include an overreliance on secondary sources and the associated literature review methodology, a scarcity of statistical analyses, a tendency for authors to work alone rather than collaborate with colleagues, and the large number of one-time contributors to the field. However, the reviews that have brought these issues to light describe the field as it developed until 2007. This article investigates to what extent these issues have endured in the 2007–2016 period by constructing a database on all of the articles published in nine leading journals on terrorism (N = 3442). The results show that the use of primary data has increased considerably and is continuing to do so. Scholars have also begun to adapt a wider variety of data-gathering techniques, greatly diminishing the overreliance on literature reviews that was noted from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. These positive changes should not obscure enduring issues. Despite improvements, most scholars continue to work alone and most authors are one-time contributors. Overall, however, the field of terrorism studies appears to have made considerable steps towards addressing long-standing issues.
Bart Schuurman’s article updates earlier quantitative assessments of terrorism studies conducted by Andrew Silke, which covered research published in the journals Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (and their predecessor journals) up until 2007. In doing so, Schuurman’s article does the field a great service.
When I first started reading this article I was concerned that it categorised research that isn’t based on primary sources under what I saw as the somewhat dismissive term “literature review method” (similarly Silke refers to studies that aren’t based on new data as “essentially rehashing knowledge that was already there”). After all, it can be within such work that the all-important conceptualisation and theorisation can occur. Such work is crucial and it should not be automatically looked down on. It should be judged for how well it advances (or fails to advance) the field by consolidating current knowledge, creating conceptual clarity, developing new theoretical propositions (to later be tested), and ensuring contestation. So I was worried that Schuurman’s article might make the sort of assumptions that Youngman’s article warned about, but my concern turned out be misplaced. Instead, Schuurman noted near the end of his article:
The emphasis on how a lack of primary sources in particular has had a detrimental influence on the field for decades, is not a dismissal of the value of non-empirical work. Many authors who base themselves on the secondary literature have made stellar contributions by bringing together insights from a diverse range of scholarly, governmental, journalistic, and NGO-based works. Others have analyzed existing data in novel ways, presented findings from the non-English literature, or drawn attention to countries, case studies, and historical periods that have been undeservedly neglected. Similarly, the use of primary data is not a guarantee for high-quality work; some articles use only the barest of such sources or fail to study them in depth.
The result is a nuanced and utterly indispensable article, because it finally provides an up-to-date quantitative assessment of the popularity of different research methods within terrorism studies, superseding many of the earlier assessments. The field has needed this for some time. It’s particularly valuable because it focuses not just on Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, the two journals traditionally considered as the field’s core journals, but also on Perspectives on Terrorism, the Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Critical Studies on Terrorism, Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways Toward Terrorism and Genocide, Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, the Journal of Terrorism Research and the Journal for Deradicalization. And I agree with its conclusion, that “[r]esearch on terrorism has not stagnated; it has begun to flourish”.
Third example: Deven Parekh, Amarnath Amarasingam, Lorne Dawson, and Derek Ruths, “Studying Jihadists on Social Media: A Critique of Data Collection Methodologies”, Perspectives on Terrorism, Volume 12, issue 3, 2018
Abstract: In this article, we propose a general model of data collection from social media, in the context of terrorism research, focusing on recent studies of jihadists. By analyzing Twitter data collection methods in the existing research, we show that the methods used are prone to sampling biases, and that the sampled datasets are not sufficiently filtered or validated to ensure reliability of conclusions derived from them. Alternatively, we propose some best practices for the collection of data in future research on jihadist using social media (as well as other kinds of terrorist groups). Given the similarity of the methodological challenges posed by research on almost all social media platforms, in the context of terrorism studies, the critique and recommendations offered remain relevant despite the recent shift of most jihadists from Twitter to Telegram and other forms of social media.
Social media analysis has become quite a common approach within the field, particularly for scholars focusing on jihadist movements, so it was great to see this article disentangling some of the methodological dilemmas involved. Parekh et al‘s article focuses heavily on authentication, that is, how to know if the accounts being the research classifies as jihadist truly are being run by jihadists. The article shows how some methods currently used entail serious authentication problems, and proposes some ways to help fix this, while being entirely respectful in their critiques of others’ work. If you have even the slightest interest in social media as a research resource for terrorism studies, you should read this.
So these three articles were all excellent for many reasons. They did not waste much on the purported gulf between “orthodox terrorism studies” and “critical terrorism studies”. They didn’t repeat outdated arguments about the supposed lack of datasets or field interviews (indeed Schuurman’s article provided a much needed corrective, showing the actual prevalence of such approaches). These articles nonetheless did not champion the field; they instead made well-founded critiques of real and serious problems within terrorism studies, and provided helpful ways forward.
There are some unconvincing assessments of terrorism studies out there, but these three from 2018 are all compelling ones, to be placed alongside excellent earlier assessments such as Richard English’s The Future Study of Terrorism, Thomas Heggammer’s The Future of Terrorism Studies, and Lisa Stampnitzky’s Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production.