From the article "Terror, Terrorism, Terrorists", in Sociological Theory, March 2004, 22:1, pp. 5-13, Charles Tilly discusses an old sociological question: can sociologists use categories and concepts generated outside of the field even if they are ridden with inconsistencies and charged with political meanings, especially categories like terror, terrorism and terrorists.
"Some vivid terms serve political and normative ends admirably despite hindering description and explanation of the social phenomena at which they point. Those double-edged terms include riot, injustice civil society, all of them politically powerful but analytically elusive." (5)
Indeed, and especially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,
"In the words of the president and the secretary of state, terror, terrorism, and terrorists become inseparable concepts, coherent entities, efficacious actors, and enemies to be eradicated." (5)
This process of reification is something that sociologists, even since Durkheim through Bourdieu have struggled with. As Tilly, quite similarly, reiterates, sociologists
"should not incorporate the categories wholesale into their own descriptions and explanations of the political processes at hand. In particular, social scientists who attempt to explain sudden attacks on civilian targets should doubt the existence of a distinct, coherent class of actors (terrorists) who specialize in a unitary form of political action (terror) and thus should establish a separate variety of politics (terrorism)." (5)
For those of us who had to start their sociological education by reading Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method and Bourdieu et al’s Craft of Sociology, this is a very familiar point that leads back to the importance of the construction of the research object. To adopt wholesale a familiar concept or a commonsense notion is to adopt all its layers of meanings as well as the social history of its construction within given fields and relations of power.
Charles Tilly shows how it is done by deconstructing (although I should know better than use this VERY loaded term) the political uses of terror, terrorism and terrorists and offers the following points (pp. 5-6):
The word terror points to a widely recurrent but imprecisely bounded political strategy.
Tilly defines terror as a strategy as asymmetrical deployment of threats and violence against enemies using means that fall outside the forms of political struggle routinely operating within some current regime.
A great variety of individuals and groups engage in terror from time to time, most often alternating terror with other political strategies or with political inaction.
Groups and individuals that use terror specifically and not other forms of political strategies tend to be unstable and not last.
Groups and networks that engage in terror tend to overlap with government-employed or -backed specialists in coercion (armies, police, paramilitaries, private military groups, mercenaries, etc.).
Even when terrorist groups position themselves against a government, these specialists in coercion tend to use forms of organization and logistics comparable to that of government-employed specialists.
Most uses of terror actually occur as complements or as byproducts of struggles in which participants – often including the so-called terrorists – are engaging simultaneously or successively in other more routine forms of political claim-making.
Terror as a strategy ranges from (1) intermittent actions by members of groups that are engaged in wider political struggles to (2) one segment in the modus operandi of durably organized specialists in coercion (including those employed or backed by governments) to (3) the dominant rationale for distinct and committed groups and networks of activists.
Despite the publicity it has received recently, variety (3) accounts for a highly variable but usually very small share of all the terror that occurs in the contemporary world.
Indeed, as Tilly reviews statements by the US State Department (post-9/11), he finds such ambiguities and lack of clear boundaries as to the use of the category of terrorism, applied mostly to state terror but also a variety of non-state actors based on rather broad interpretations of supposed political motives. For Tilly, there lies a problem:
"In social science, useful definitions should point to detectable phenomena that exhibit some degree of causal coherence – in principle all instances should display common properties that embody or result from similar cause-effect relations." (9)
Face with the lack of coherent definition of the terror phenomenon, Tilly finds some order in four steps:
1. Terror as a strategy
Defined as asymmetrical deployment of threats and violence outside of routine forms of political struggle, terror does more than inflict harm, it is a form of communication that conveys multiple meanings: it signals that (1) the target is vulnerable, (2) that the perpetrators exist, (3) the perpetrators have the capacity to strike again.
Also, terror has three types of audiences: (1) the targets, (2) the perpetrators’ potential allies, and (3) third parties that might be sitting on the fence.
Terror also most often involves the demand for some form of recognition, redress, autonomy or transfer of power (hardly ever an end in itself).
"Considered as a strategy, terror works best when it alters or inhibits the target’s disapproved behavior, fortifies the perpetrators’ standing with potential allies, and moves third parties toward greater cooperation with the perpetrators’ organization and announced program." (9)
2. Multiple uses of terror
Terror is used in a multiplicity of ways by a multiplicity of actors: mafia groups, repressive as well as weak governments, dissidents and more recently, religious and ethnic activists.
3. Terror and other forms of struggle
"As these varied examples suggest, the strategy of terror appears across a wide variety of political circumstances, in the company of very different sorts of political struggle. Attacks of Irish Protestant and Catholic activists on each other and on governmental targets, for instance, frequently follow the strategy of terror, but they generally intersect with other forms of negotiation at international, national and local levels. In many parts of the world, specialized military forces – governmental, nongovernmental, and antigovernmental – frequently engage in kidnapping, murder, mutilation in addition to their occasional pitched battles with other armed forces." (10)
4. Terror and specialists in coercion
Regarding specialists in coercion, Tilly generates a twofold distinction based on (1) a distinction between specialists and non-specialists, and (2) between those who target their home territory versus those whose target lies outside of the home territory. This generates the crude typology below (why don’t tables never look the same between the html editor in which I create them and the post!)
|(Crude) Typology of Terror-Wielding Groups and Networks
||Major Locus on Violent Attacks
|Degree of Specialization in Coercion
Autonomists are those groups who launch attacks on their home territory but against symbolic targets such as authorities, rivals or any stigmatized groups. They do not become durably organized specialists in coercion.
Zealots commit their violent acts outside of their home territory but are otherwise similar to autonomists.
Militias may be governmental, nongovernmental or antigovernmental terror groups composed of coercion specialists engaging in attacks in their own countries, with enduring organizations.
Conspirators are organized striking forces (therefore specialists) conducting their attacks outside of their home territory.
Based on that crude typology, Tilly’s point remains:
"A remarkable array of actors sometimes adopt terror as a strategy, and therefore no coherent set of cause-effect propositions can explain terrorism as a whole. (…) Terror is a strategy, not a creed." (11)
And indeed, it would be a major mistake to use 9/11 as the typical terrorist attack. Actually, according to Tilly, conspirators attacks are the least frequent. Most terrorist attacks are committed in the home territory of the perpetrators and most of the rest is committed by zealots.
Tilly closes his article with this powerful statement:
"Terrorists range across a wide spectrum of organizations, circumstances and beliefs. Terrorism is not a single causally coherent phenomenon. No social scientist can speak responsibly as though it were." (12)