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

accepted knowledge and as part of the research process challenge that status-quo. Second, they emphasise the importance of the collection and analysis of primary source data as opposed to secondary source. Third, they are acutely aware that the production of knowledge is never a neutral process but is intimately connected with structures of power and they take steps to address this. Finally, they tend to prioritise human and societal security and will challenge the status quo to improve the lives of individuals and communities. As a consequence of these characteristics, CTS approaches the study of terrorism in a particular way at the ontological, epistemological, and methodological levels. This in turn has significant practical, political, and academic implications.

There is a substantial amount of research dedicated to the ontological and epistemological positions of CTS. While not claiming to offer any unified approach to the study of terrorism, it prefers to be thought of as a field that has adopted a generally critical approach.40 In doing this, CTS essentially adopts the ontological view of constructionism, whereby objects do not exist autonomously and the object and subject shape and interact with each other in an ongoing dynamic.41 In this sense, CTS sees terrorism as fundamentally a social fact that relies on a series of social, cultural, legal and political processes of interpretation, categorisation, and labelling.42 Further, CTS rejects the notion that it is possible to generalise about terrorism from one context to another and posits that to understand terrorism it must be contextualised in the environment in which it exists.

This leads to an interpretivist epistemological position where CTS scholars approach terrorism as a social construct rather than treating it as an independent phenomenon.43 In creating knowledge about the topic they take into account a range of historical and social contextual factors including, importantly, those about the researchers themselves – the social position, the institutional context and the methods employed. Furthermore, CTS scholars are unconvinced that completely objective knowledge about terrorism can be understood, and that knowledge must be obtained and analysed through the social context that it emerged from.44 Cox explains critical theory as standing apart from the prevailing social constructs and power structures, calling them into question rather than taking them for granted.45
These ontological and epistemological positions at the heart of CTS have a number of implications for both the methodology and methods in researching terrorism. Key of these is that CTS proponents endorse methodological and disciplinary plurality in their research, which is to say using not just different methodologies and methods, but also insights and perspectives from different disciplines, approaches and schools of thought.46 Given the focus on obtaining primary data, rather than secondary, and obtaining it in a manner that accounts for terrorism’s social, political and cultural context, the methodology and methods typically used by CTS researchers tend to deal with much smaller sample sizes and are much more contextual in nature. The primary methodologies and methods used by CTS scholars include ethnography, critical