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

exclusively on non-state terrorism, i.e. the use of terrorism by non-state individuals or groups. Secondly, it has focused predominantly on groups that pose a threat to Western society. Thirdly, it adopts a problem-solving approach that focusses on providing solu­tions for state counter-terrorism policy. Fourthly, it studies terrorism as a stand-alone phenomenon rather than in the context of a broader range of contextual factors. As a consequence of these characteristics, orthodox terrorism studies approach the study of terrorism in a particular way at the ontological, epistemological, and methodological levels. This in turn has substantial practical, political, and academic implications.

Ontology deals with what exists, the nature of reality and what is out there to know. The majority of orthodox terrorism scholars view reality as fixed and measurable, with the object or social phenomenon of research remaining independent.6 This perspective stems from the natural sciences and mainstream social sciences, and is essentially an objectivist or problem-solving approach that largely disregards any contextual applica­tion such as time, place, or socio-political context.7 Cox8 outlines the orthodox prob­lem-solving approach as taking the prevailing social and power relationships as they are and then making them work by targeting and dealing with specific problems or issues. Blakeley,9 arguing a similar viewpoint, describes this approach as accepting, rather than challenging, existing institutions and social infrastructure, and argues that orthodox scholars consider the problem of terrorism within these existing conditions. In this sense, orthodox terrorism studies are intimately connected with the existing structures of power in society and research is aimed at finding solutions that maintain these.

At the epistemological level, the focus is on the nature of knowledge and how some­thing can be known. An objectivist approach within orthodox terrorism studies natu­rally leads to its epistemology being dominated by positivism.10 Positivism views the study of social problems as identical to the study of scientific questions – knowledge is neutral, independent from the researcher, and the ‘truth’ is out there simply waiting to be discovered by a completely neutral researcher.11 Further, positivism highlights the importance of the existing social and power structures and looks to protect these from the problems of terrorism.

Specific methodologies and methods have emerged as a result of the orthodox ap­proach’s ontological and epistemological perspectives. Positivism lends itself to a quan­titative approach with a heavy reliance on empirical evidence and observable, measur­able facts. As such, orthodox methodologies tend to focus on large scale data collection, experimental research and statistical analysis.12 The methods that emerge often include: document analysis (particularly secondary source documents), measurement, ques­tionnaires, and statistical analysis of large-N data sets. In a 1998 study Schmid and Jongman13 questioned fifty prominent terrorism researchers about their methods and where they obtained their information and data from. The results showed that the ma­jority relied heavily on examination of secondary source documents. In 2001, Silke,14 building on the earlier research of Schmid and