Sociology of terrorism

Sociology of terrorism is an emerging field in sociology seeking to understand terrorism as a social phenomenon and how individuals as well as states respond to such events. It is not to be confused with critical terrorism studies which sometimes overlaps with the psychology of terrorism.


Pre-September 11 attacks

After the September 11 attacks, there has been a spike of interest in various sociological traditions related to terrorism, such as moral panic, organizational response and media coverage, and counter-terrorism.

The most comprehensive study into the definition of terrorism comes from a study by Weinberg, Pedahzur and Hirsch-Hoefler (2004) who examined 73 definitions of terrorism from 55 articles and concluded that terrorism is: "a politically motivated tactic involving the threat or use of force or violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role."[1] However, Weinberg et al. point out that definitions of terrorism often ignore symbolic aspects of terrorism. Due to its focus on symbolism, sociology has a unique vantage point from which to assess terror.

Post-September 11 attacks

Since the September 11 attacks, Mathieu Deflem (University of South Carolina), S.E. Costanza (Central Connecticut State University) and John C. Kilburn Jr. (Texas A&M International University) are among the sociologists to call for the development of a sub-field in sociology related to terrorism. Common topics that are part of the discourse in the sociology of terrorism include: military spending, counter-terrorism, immigration, privacy issues, and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, where within these contexts questions of power, the definition of terrorism, propaganda, nationality, the media, etc. are being deliberated upon.

Early peer-reviewed literature after the September 11 attacks examined policing and citizen responses to terror during the September 11 attacks.[2] It also examined interactions between first responders (police, rescue teams, etc.) and communities. Ramirez, Hoopes and Quinlan (2003) rightly predicted that police organizations would change fundamental styles of profiling people[3] and police agencies would alter their mission statements after the September 11 attacks. There is strong reason to believe that even the smallest of local police agencies are apt to feel some kind of pressure to deal with the issue of terrorism.[4]

More recent work in the sociology of terrorism field is philosophical and reflective and has focused on issues such as moral panic and over-spending after the September 11 attacks. Costanza and Kilburn (2005), in an article entitled Symbolic Security, Moral Panic and Public Sentiment: Toward a sociology of Counterterrorism argued that the issue of symbolism is of much importance to understanding the war on terror.[5] Using a classic symbolic interactionist perspective, they argue that strong public sentiment about the homeland security issue has driven policy more to superficial threats than real and concrete threats. Others argue that symbolism has led to agency a policy of “hypervigilance” in agency decision-making that is costly and untestable.

Some sociologists and legal scholars have contemplated the potential consequences of aggressive (or militaristic) policing of terror threats that may have negative implications for human rights which are of great interest to sociologists as a matter of social justice. For instance, in a peer-reviewed article Crouching tiger or phantom dragon? Examining the discourse on global cyber-terror, Helms, Costanza and Johnson (2011) ask if it is possible that media hype at the national level could prompt an unnecessary and systemic over-pursuit of cyberterrorism. They warn that such overreaction might lead to a "killswitch" policy which could give the federal government ultimate power over the internet.

Despite the quantitative lean of modern sociology; Kilburn, Costanza, Borgeson and Metchik (2011) point out that there are several methodological barbs to effectively and scientifically assessing the effect of homeland security measures.[6] In traditional criminology, the most quantitatively amenable starting point for measuring the effectiveness of any policing strategy (i.e., neighborhood watch, gun control, foot patrols, etc.) is to assess total financial costs against clearance rates or arrest rates. Since terrorism is such a rare event phenomena, measuring arrests would be a naive way to test policy effectiveness.

Another methodological problem in the development of sociology of terrorism as a sub-field is one of finding operational measures for key concepts in the study of homeland security.[7] Both terrorism and homeland security are relatively new concepts for social scientists, and academicians have yet to agree on the matter of how to properly conceptualize these ideas.