Monday, June 9, 2008

The Terrorism Question

In preparing for the exam, we're allowed to see copies of every exam the department has ever given, dating back to the 1970s. Obviously, most of the exams from the 70s and 80s aren't any good to me, aside from seeing where the field was back then. Anyway, the main purpose of looking at the most recent exams (the prelim is given 2-3 times a year, so I'm only going back to 2002) is to get an idea of what questions are going to be asked as well as to identify questions and/or topic areas that you aren't going to study. In general, I know what questions are going to be on both days of the exam, and I know that if I get one of these curveballs, I'm not going to answer it.

One such curveball question that we've been kind of joking about because its a topic we've never discussed in any seminar before is this one, which I am copying directly from a past exam:

"During a period when government resources are being diverted from traditional 'crime fighting' to a 'war on terrorism', academic criminology has only begun to respond to this change in focus. Write an essay on the relevance of criminology to the study of terrorism. Include in your essay the theories and research methods that seem most appropriate to such a study."

I used to think this was a ridiculous question, mainly because we never talk about terrorism, our focus is explicitly on crime in America and other western nations. And then, at about 1:30 this morning, I realized that this question isn't impossible at all; its actually a freebie.

On its face, any attempt to apply criminological concepts to the study of terrorism seems absurd. The events of September 11th, 2001 coupled with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created in us an image of terrorism that is explicitly Islamofascist; because we're still experiencing the aftershocks of 9/11, it is difficult not to think of this subjectively. However, once we set aside our personal and political beliefs, a study of terrorism should be no different than a study of crime. After all, we know that every 16 year old male living in the inner city isn't a violent drug dealer, so it is also unfair to assume that every 16 year old male living in the middle east is a terrorist. Furthermore, the events of the past 7 years have made us forget the very real threat of domestic terrorists; for example, the Oklahoma City Bombing was masterminded and perpetrated by three white male U.S. citizens. Once we recognize our own prejudices, it becomes clear that criminological theories can inform the study of terrorism in a number of ways, qualitatively and quantitatively, nationally and cross-culturally.

The ways in which terrorist organizations function may be ascertained via qualitative research methods similar to the work of Anderson (1994) and Bourgoise (1999). Hypothetically speaking, social scientists who can gain access to these organizations could be able to improve our understanding of how they operate internally. Both Anderson and Bourgoise were able to interact with extremely violent individuals over a period of time, and in Bourgoise's case, were allowed to see how their criminal enterprises operated, so it is not completely unrealistic to believe that similar research may be conducted among terrorist groups. This method can be applied both to domestic terrorist and pseudo-terrorist groups as well as international groups as a means of comparing how these groups function within the society they exist, how they operate internally in regard to methods of recruitment, discipline, family structure and functioning, gender roles, social class status, and so on. This type of research is at the heart of sociology; it is studying the way in which these unique facets of society operate within the larger context.

Beyond using qualitative methods based in grounded theory to better understand how these organizations function, quantitative methods that draw upon a litany of criminological theories can help us better understand the social forces that are associated with involvement in terrorist activities. For example, social learning theory and the theory of differential association (Burgess and Akers, 1966; Sutherland, 1947) would help us determine how important peer relationships are with regard to recruitment into and continued involvement with terrorist organizations are concerned. Conversely, social bond theory (Hirschi, 1969) would likely reveal that individuals participating in these groups are those that are poorly bonded to conventional society and have higher levels of attachment, committment, involvement, and belief in these antisocial activities than prosocial ones. It is also possible that Merton's theory of anomie (1938) would show some economic motivation, but more likely, Agnew's general strain theory (1992) would demonstrate the relationship between political and religious fanaticism and involvement in terrorist organizations. Further still, the life course perspective may be able to help explain lifetime involvement in (i.e., Moffitt, 1993) or desistance from (Sampson and Laub, 1990; 1997) terrorist activities. Finally, social disorganization theory may help us understand the importance of physical and social structure in regard to communities that produce terrorists; as Thomas and Znaniecki (1927) and later Sampson and Raudenbush (1997) suggested, breakdowns in community social structure via agreement on norms and a decrease in collective efficacy may influence involvement in terrorist activities; it is also reasonable to think that community structure (Burgess, 1925) and the physical and social relationships between communities (i.e., Mears andBhati, 2006) also impact terrorism in some way.

Each of these theories can be used to help further our understanding of how terrorism functions domestically and internationally, in terms of how social structure and relationships impact involvement in terrorist activities on both the individual and community level. Furthermore, qualitative research can also further our understanding of how these organizations function internally and the ways in which their members view themselves and their work. However, because these types of organizations are not as common and widespread as other types of crime, it would be difficult to conduct meaningful quantitative research on terrorism because it would be difficult to collect a useful sample. However, if we broaden our definition of terrorism beyond the current media image of violent Islamofascism and make it a larger study of social, political, and religious fanaticism, then useful research may be done.

(Three pages, 14 citations, none of which were developed in any way and could have easily been expanded on to fill another two pages. I just answered a prelim question.)

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