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

scholars have criticised CTS for failing to acknowledge that many of the weaknesses and incon­sistencies of the orthodox approach, such as definitional issues, the minimisation of state terrorism, ahistorical research, and a lack of conceptual analysis have already been identified and researched extensively by scholars within orthodox terrorism studies.55 The second argument is that the CTS approach overstates its significance and claims. Orthodox scholars, and many practitioners, argue that the CTS approach is good at criticising the orthodox approach but without offering anything in the way of useful practical alternatives on how to protect a nation’s citizens from the threats posed by terrorism. They note that instances of transformation in dealing with terrorism by CTS scholars are scant and that practical advice tends to elude the approach.56 The third, and probably most damning, criticism of CTS is the ‘straw person’ argument – that CTS has a tendency to make a ‘straw person’ out of more than forty years of knowledge gained from the traditional approach. While orthodox terrorism studies have largely over­looked discussion on prevailing power structures, such criticisms as orthodox scholars being “solely interested in telling comforting lies to those in power”57 make a mockery of the valuable research that has been undertaken by traditional scholars.


As the above discussion of the orthodox and CTS approaches to studying terrorism highlights, studying terrorism is a complex undertaking. The orthodox viewpoint is objectivist in nature and accepts the existing social and power structures. Orthodox researchers typically approach terrorism using problem-solving theory and often fail to account for contextual and historical dynamics. While this approach has some consid­erable strengths and provides policy-makers with tangible solutions to address, in part, the threat posed by terrorism, the approach has been criticised by CTS for its lack of conceptual self-reflection, heavy reliance on secondary sources and close relationship with the state which results in predominantly ‘hard power’ solutions that solve short-term problems but are less effective in the longer term.

CTS has been an important development in the field of terrorism studies and has brought the focus back to issues that have been overlooked or dismissed by orthodox scholars. It takes a differing ontological position emphasising that the object and sub­ject do not exist independently and knowledge on the topic of terrorism is socially and politically constructed rather than objective. Its focus on the use of primary rather than secondary data; its broader engagement and consideration of cultural, historical and political factors; and its challenge to existing social and power structures provide a contrast to orthodox studies and results in an approach that, despite its weaknesses, can provide broader ‘soft power’ solutions that may be more effective in the longer term.

So what does all of this mean for the study of terrorism in New Zealand? While there remains a dearth of published academic literature on contemporary terrorism in New Zealand, there is no doubt that terrorism research is undertaken within New Zealand’s