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Disciplines and approaches

In this video Prof.dr. Bakker explains the different disciplines and approaches within Terrorism Studies.
Hi there. In a previous video we discussed the history of terrorism studies. In this video we’re going to look at academic disciplines and different approaches to the study of terrorism and counterterrorism.
I think it’s safe to say that the phenomena of terrorism and counterterrorism have been studied by a very wide variety of academic disciplines. Here are just a few examples. In the previous video we already mentioned political science. Scholars in that field are very much interested in how terrorism relates to political systems, how it is maybe produced by these systems, and how it influences the same system. Typical questions of political scientist include, how does terrorism have an impact on political processes, on decision-making, on how governments act or react to terrorist incidents. Then you have military science and war studies. Well, the term says it all.
Scholars in this field are mainly interested in the use of force, the use of the military to literally fight terrorism. Another related field is conflict and peace studies. Scholars try to understand why people turn to violence and what can be done about that. Academics that study international relations are also interested in terrorism and counterterrorism. They want to know who puts terrorism on the political agenda and why? What impact does the fight against terrorism have, for instance on relationships between countries? Does it lead to cooperation or does it lead to more conflict? Another interesting academic discipline is communication studies.
Last week we mentioned the fact that terrorism is a tool for terrorists to spread the word, to spread a message, to create fear, to have an impact on society. Scholars in the field of communication studies want to know how does that work? What’s the role of the traditional media? Increasingly they are also interested to the impact of social media, how does that work?
Then there is the academic discipline of psychology. You see a picture of a person that looks into the head of somebody. Well, I’m not sure if psychologists like that idea, that they look into the head of people, and they will definitely frame their domain differently. But understanding the mind of the terrorists is of great interest to people who study terrorism and in particular to those who have to deal with terrorists. There are quite a number of books that have in their title, ‘the mind of the terrorist’. Scholars and practitioners alike want to know, what’s going on up there? How do they think? How do they behave? Are they different from you and me? Are they crazy or not?
What are their characteristics? What about group processes? Who radicalize and who does not? How to deradicalize persons? Many questions that are of importance in the fight against terrorism and that are studied by people in the field of psychology and social psychology. In fact, the earlier mentioned Brian Phillips in his article called ‘How Did 911 Affect Terrorism Research’ observed that psychologists became the most numerous terrorism researchers after 9/11, displacing political scientists for about 10 years. Related to this, he also found out that research on health or medical aspects of terrorism had increased significantly. For instance, studies looking at the psychological effects and medical aspects of terrorist attacks. But there are many more disciplines that study the phenomenon of terrorism and counterterrorism.
Here’s a blurb with a number of them, ranging from conflicts studies to international law, public administration, we already mentioned political science. Actually there too many disciplines to mention them all. There’s no dominant one, but scholars that have a background in political science and psychologists are the largest groups.
How to study and understand terrorism and counterterrorism. Where to start approaching this question? Are we going to look at the behavior of individuals or look at the larger picture? The world political system and how terrorism fits in. Are we going to talk to people? Approach them, try to interview terrorists, and people who fight terrorism. Or are we going to look at the facts and figures? Look at for instance, databases and archives. Perhaps you want to have a closer look at causes or the effects of terrorism. Just basic questions on the study of terrorism each with different challenges and dilemmas. Well, these challenges and dilemmas we’ll discuss later. There are many different practical approaches to study terrorism and counterterrorism.
Well, what about the theoretical ones? Currently there are three main approaches.
The first one is the rational or instrumental approach. This approach tries to understand terrorists as rational actors, rational organizations and individuals who want to achieve certain political goals and to terrorist activities, their attacks are an instrument to that. It’s based on a cost benefit analysis. Well, here you see a picture of Martha Crenshaw, who was one of the early scholars who looked at terrorism as a rational act and terrorists as rational actors.
The second main theoretical approach is that of social psychologists. You see here a picture of Jerrold Post, who was one of the early and leading authors in this field. We already mentioned some of the questions he and his colleagues studied, related to psychology of individuals and the sociology of groups. How do they think and how do they act? That’s the main distinction with the rational or instrumental approach, that focuses more on the wider political systems, political behavior, and political processes.
The third main academic or theoretical approach is the multi causal approach. I’m not sure if it is a well-defined approach, as most academics would fit in that category. This is because there is a general understanding that terrorism is a highly complex phenomenon and that there is not one single explanation for it. If you want to understand terrorism you’ll have to look at many different causes, many different aspects. This approach contains elements of both the irrational and the psychological approach. I guess I would fit in that category. I think we have to look at a wide variety of phenomena, aspects, and causes if we want to understand terrorism and counterterrorism.
I would also like to mention a separate approach, that of critical terrorism studies, that has appeared as a sub-field and alternative perspective on terrorism and counterterrorism. This approach aims to give more attention to the role that states and government agencies play, when using violence against their own citizens at home or abroad. It also looks at the social political environment of groups that are called terrorists and to structural conditions that might lead to terrorism or political violence. Critical terrorism scholars stress the contested nature of terrorism and counterterrorism and try to understand and critique forms of counterterrorism.
To sum up, there are many different ways to study terrorism and counterterrorism. There are many different disciplines ranging from political science to public administration. There are three main academic approaches, the rational or instrumental approach, the social- psychological approach, and a multi-causal approach. Critical terrorism studies offers an alternative and critical approach to the study of terrorism and counterterrorism. Next time you read an article try to find out the background of the author and the approach she or he takes in trying to understand terrorism. In the following video we’re going to look at the key authors and key centers of terrorism studies.

In this video Prof.dr. Bakker explains the different disciplines and approaches within Terrorism Studies.

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Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory and Practice

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