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Preventing, er, Countering Violent Extremism comes to America: Part Two – It’s all relative

This post is the second in a series, following on my post about the developing policy of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) that was announced by Daniel Benjamin of the State Department.

Before I set off on this very wonky and technical post (I’m sorry, but it’s necessary), I’d like to make it clear that CVE isn’t just a foreign policy initiative. This will be domestic as well.  From what I have pieced together, high level DHS officials are working on developing domestic CVE as well. I think FP also sees the writing on the wall.

Also, I apologize for not citing something at every turn here, but this is a blog post, not an essay, and I just don’t have the time. As always, feel free to challenge me on any of this.

I also want to make it clear that I am not trying to beat up on Daniel Benjamin – a guy who was onto al Qaeda and mass casualty terrorism before most. His speech has presented an opportunity for public debate about a major policy formulation and I think we’d be fools not to take advantage of it.

The flaws I point out are not unique to the speech. They are symptomatic of a larger affliction: the discourse on violent extremism and movement participation remains haunted by bad social science. Disproven ideas have managed to hang on because (a) they seem intuitive and (b) much (though not all) of the work that has been done on studying radicalization since 9/11 is poor and ignores major advances in sociology and social psychology – a point I will return to later in the series.

Benjamin said in his speech‘We know that violent extremism flourishes where there is marginalization, alienation, and perceived–-or real–-relative deprivation.’ 

Really? Do we?

Relative deprivation is a contestable and woefully incomplete explanation for violent extremism and especially terrorism. And as far as alienation and marginalization, this is almost a return to the Hoffer school of movement participation – a model that has long been disproven. Many of these flawed explanations for political violence and movement participation can be broadly traced to various strains and breakdown theories as well as the related frustration-aggression model.

The frustration-aggression model posits a linear casual link between (you guessed it) frustration (or, interference with goal-directed behavior) and aggression (in order to remove the source/cause of frustration, see John Dollard, Frustration and Aggression, 1939).

Eric Hoffer popularized a version of this model in his 1951 book, The True Believer. He wrote about participants in Communist and Nazi parties, painting them as atomized, alienated, and dysfunctional souls with a need to believe in something – it didn’t matter what – and a compulsion to subsume themselves in a collective geared toward the realization of drastic goals. [Insertion: I feel like I should mention that Hoffer's ideas share a great deal with mass society theory, which was pioneered 8 years later by Kornhauser, but that could just be that both were heavily influenced by Durkheim. Any professional sociologists out there should feel free to chime in to clarify]. Even though the central premises of this book were discredited decades ago, they still have an uncanny hold on the discourse about participation in radical movements. Hoffer’s Wikipedia entry says The True Believer remains ‘an insightful classic today.’ Let’s just hope the average Free Radicals reader isn’t the sort that trusts Wikipedia.

However, movement participants – including violent Islamists – are usually not alienated and dysfunctional. Action as part of a movement does not emerge from an accumulated number of atomized individuals. Movement participants are, in fact, well-embedded in their societies and social networks, which is, incidentally, the means through which they become involved in violent extremism, (this doesn’t just apply to violent Islamism, by the way).  If they were atomized, they wouldn’t join movements.  This is just one of the intersections where Hoffer took a wrong turn, and it feels like we are still along for the ride.

The idea of relative deprivation emerged from the frustration-aggression school of thought in the 1960s, largely thanks to James Davies, James Geschwender, and Ted Gurr. Relative deprivation is when social actors perceive themselves as deprived when compared (or relative) to others.  As Buechler explains:

In this case, the strain is most evident on the social-psychological level of how people assess their current situation against various reference groups or past or anticipated future situations. Whenever they find a benchmark that implies they could or should be better off than they are, a condition of relative deprivation exists and this psychological strain triggers participation in collective behavior.

As David Ronfeldt observes,

[A]t an everyday-language level, ‘deprivation’ retains a strong hold on the public mind, including among policy analysts and practitioners, as a seemingly sensible way to understand why societies that produce suffering and frustration also produce political violence and sometimes terrorism.

But, as Ronfeldt and many others have pointed out, just because it seems sensible, doesn’t mean it is correct.

While many studies have not discounted the idea that relative deprivation may be an indirect contributing factor, it should not be given the explanatory weight that it has in the contemporary discourse.  For example, we find that relative deprivation is not common among individual terrorists, but they often come from communities or even countries that are relatively deprived.  This, however, should not come as a surprise as most places and communities have less than other countries and communities.

More in the next post…


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