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Innovative study to examine role of grievances as precursor to extremism, terrorism

Friday, August 31, 2018


LAWRENCE — Researchers have failed to properly study the role of specific grievances as a precursor to extremism and acts of terrorism, often substituting large macro-level issues as a proxy for individual reasons behind attacks, according to a University of Kansas researcher.

Amilee Turner, doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science, will present her findings, "Understanding the Role of Grievances as a Precondition to Extremism and Terrorism: An Analytical Framework for Testing Relative Deprivation Theory," today, Aug. 31, as part of the American Political Science Association's annual meeting in Boston.

"In a nutshell, what scholars have appeared to not realize or have neglected to account for is the fact that individuals or groups that are deprived in an absolute sense, whether that is through unequal distributing of resources or materials within society, are not the same as individuals or groups expressing perceived, relative deprivation, like frustration or anger, entitlements and injustices toward another individual or group within a society that motivates their engagement in civil conflict or war," Turner said.

This is the initial part of grant-funded KU research on grievances and terrorism conducted by Turner and Clayton Webb, KU assistant professor of political science.

Turner said the initial research addresses a methodological fallacy that has plagued scholars for about four decades. Researchers have been positing a micro-level sociopsychological theory, known as relative deprivation, where grievances are theoretically grounded, and employing macro- or country-level aggregated data on individuals and groups to explain such grievances.

"They do this without actually capturing the central tenets that the theory requires, which are perceptions of injustices and entitlements, frustration or anger, and motivation that leads to the individual or group's participation in these forms of violence," Turner said. "This is a very big deal, because absolute deprivation is not the same thing as relative deprivation, and many scholars may not be aware of this."

Highlighting the importance in such micro-level studies that can explain the motivations and perceptions behind why and how individuals or groups come to engage in political violence can be valuable, especially in examining causes and seeking to prevent right-wing extremist acts of violence in the United States. This would potentially include the death of a woman struck by a vehicle in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, during tension surrounding a white supremacist rally. Other examples include the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting that killed nine black church members, the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Turner and Webb will conduct one of the first micro-level, factorial survey experiments seeking to capture the role of grievances as a precondition to extremism and terrorism by focusing on the perceived injustices and justifications of respondents who are placed in hypothetical situations of extremist violence and terrorism. The researchers will empirically test such findings with measures of absolute deprivation in the United States.

In the past, researchers had assigned those macro-level economic, political or social grievances from large groups as causes for specific violent events.

"When we move back to understand grievances, they have not really been defined," Turner said. "It is important that scholars refrain from making inferences on grievances without paying attention to what the data is actually telling them."

Instead, she said KU researchers hope to provide a useful theoretical framework that would help better analyze grievances on the individual level and potentially help predict and prevent extremist behavior and acts of violence.

"What we are trying to capture is the motivation behind the grievance, whether that is political, economic or social," Turner said, "and either the process of someone starting to feel those emotions associated with relative deprivation and engage in an act of violence compared with an event or an outcome which stems from more macro-level data."

Photo (U.S. government work): A tribute to victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, domestic terrorist truck bombing on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh. Univeristy of Kansas political scientists are conducting research to study the role of grievances in extremism and terrorist acts.