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

Jongman, determined that there was still a limited range of methodological diversity and a heavy reliance on these particular methods within the field. These two reviews are substantial contributions to the liter­ature on terrorism research, and accurately represent the methodological trends at the time they were conducted.

The justification for these methodological approaches stems from orthodox scholars viewing terrorism as a phenomenon that can be studied objectively using the tradi­tional methods of the social sciences and, indeed, the natural sciences.15 On a practical level for orthodox scholars it is much easier to conduct secondary (rather than primary) source research. This is due to the sensitivity and clandestine nature of the agencies involved, and the difficulties in obtaining primary data, including obtaining access to the relevant actors and the personal risk that can come with this.16 Schuurman and Ei­jkman17 argue that accessing primary data is the “achilles’ heel” of orthodox terrorism studies, while Silke18 explains that secondary data analysis involves much less effort and expense. These methodological considerations, the methods used and justifications re­sult in a number of political, practical and academic consequences.19

The most significant of these implications is that as orthodox researchers tend to take an objectivist viewpoint, the majority of their research accepts the status quo and focuses on terrorism that poses a threat to the state while minimising or ignoring the arguably larger problem of state terrorism and terrorism that poses less of a threat to the status quo. This approach strengthens the state’s position of power and reinforces the divide between the ‘good’ state and the ‘bad’ terrorist. Herman and O’Sullivan20 took note of this phenomenon and spoke of these scholars as being part of a wider “terrorism in­dustry”. They argued that some ‘experts’ were a cover for state interests and only sought to reinforce the state’s position of power. Similarly, Reid21 spoke of “invisible colleges” of orthodox researchers that solely focused on terror from below. Many other authors have identified this association, primarily out of concern for potential bias and a lack of academic neutrality22 and have questioned the research community’s “intricate and multifaceted links with the structures and agents of state power”23 along with the con­sequent influence this has had on shaping their research. The implications of failing to question the existing political and social structures are far-reaching. Political elites can use orthodox academic discourse to promote specific political ventures like the devel­opment of extensive surveillance systems; the normalisation of intensive security proto­cols; the expansion of powers and jurisdiction of the state; the control of social dissent; and even the restriction of human rights.24 Silke25 also highlights the fact that orthodox research is often driven by policy concerns which limit it to fulfilling government agen­das. This is an issue as government agendas are often focused on short term results and can divert research attention and resources down strategically unproductive avenues.

Despite these implications there are certain strengths to approaching terrorism studies from an orthodox and objectivist perspective. While challenging the orthodox position, Cox26 fairly recognised an ability of the problem-solving approach to