Research Approaches to Terrorism: A Way Forward for New Zealand

Authors: Barnett, E. & Nelson, N. R.
Published in National Security Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, October 2019

approach to studying terrorism and tends to shape important issues of national security by producing knowledge within particular contexts and existing power relationships.

A second approach to studying terrorism, critical terrorism studies (CTS), has emerged over the last decade and is beginning to have a considerable impact on how terrorism is researched. While CTS is made up of a range of diverse perspectives, fundamentally it sees terrorism as a social fact as it relies on a series of subjective judgements about the various aspects of the action, rather than attempting to identify an objective truth. In this sense, CTS posits that knowledge about terrorism is never neutral but always serves someone’s interests. CTS, thus, allows us to approach the study of terrorism using alternative frameworks and asking new kinds of questions.4 As a consequence, CTS differs from traditional studies of terrorism in a number of philosophical and practical ways.

Despite the global explosion in terrorism research post 2001, there remains a dearth of literature on the topic in New Zealand. However, the tragic events in Christchurch on 15 March 2019, which saw 51 members of New Zealand’s Muslim communities killed and 49 others injured in an attack by a white supremacist, will likely change this and the authors expect to see a significant increase in the number of publications discussing terrorism in New Zealand.

This increase in research is essential to allow us to make sense of not only what occurred on 15 March 2019, but also to understand what may be occurring with regards to terrorism, violent extremism, and radicalisation more broadly in New Zealand, as well as globally, and what the likely impacts of this are. Gaining this understanding will be critical to improving our future counter-terror measures and reducing the risk of this kind of event recurring.

But how is this research best conducted? The aim of this article is to compare and contrast two key approaches to researching terrorism: the traditional, or orthodox, approach; and the critical terrorism studies (CTS) approach. It will explore the philosophical and methodological underpinnings of each approach as well as their strengths and weaknesses, and discuss the political, practical, and academic implications of each approach. The article will conclude with some thoughts on a possible way forward for researching terrorism in New Zealand.

Orthodox Terrorism Studies

The origins of the orthodox approach to studying terrorism can be found in the 1960s, during the height of the Cold War and at a time when Western states and their allies were battling a range of revolutionary insurgencies across much of the globe. This orthodox approach emerged in the context of state based attempts to defeat the threats that these insurgencies posed. As a consequence of these origins, Jackson5 has identified four key characteristics of orthodox terrorism studies. Firstly, it has focused almost