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Political Violence and Terrorism: Patterns of Radicalization in Political Activism




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European Forum, Academic Year 2007-2008


Directed by:

Donatella Della Porta, EUI Department of Political and Social Sciences

Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, EUI Department of History and Civilisation




The European Forum of 2007-8 will address one of the major challenges of present day societies: political violence, including the extreme form of terrorism.

In a historical and cross-national perspective, we shall discuss the specific social and political contexts that move collective actors’ strategic choices, their particular ideological and organizational resources, as well as the characteristics of activists’ values and motivations. Our focus is especially on the social characterization of violent actors and on the way in which groups and individuals involved in political violence tend to construct their own images of the world and a specific justification for action. Deviation from dominant norms follows gradual processes of escalation, not only in personal careers, but often also in the evolution of groups and organizations. These processes need to be analysed. They are often interactive: the justification of political violence emerges during conflictual interactions with opponents (including state institutions). In order to understand violent escalation as well as participation in underground organizations it is indeed necessary to examine the justification of the choice of violent repertoires of action within the social construction of political conditions and the definition of the organizational goals.


In addressing these questions, we make two assumptions.

First: processes of radicalization in the political repertoires involve relevant cognitive mechanisms. Environmental (social, political, and cultural) characteristics are mediated by the militants' perception of the reality in which their political involvement develops. The main tool for determining the link between individual motivations, at the micro level, and environmental conditions, at the macro level, is the analysis of the activists' perceptionsof their situation and of environmental conditions, as well as of the small-group dynamics that intensify and radicalize their involvement.

Second: these cognitive changes have to be understood not so much as individual choices, but more as part of broader, collective social processes. Deviant value systems develop within dense social networks, and create positive attitudes towards more radical forms of action. Accordingly, commitment is the result of a broader process of collective identity-building, in which affective, normative, and cognitive mechanisms are at work.

The European Forum will

  • Situate the current challenge of political violence and terrorist groups in the broader framework of the evolution of a repertoire of action existing in different social movements or political parties over the 20th century
  • Confront experiences in different European countries and develop a systematic comparative approach and
  • indentLook at different national traditions of violence, the survival of forms and rituals of violent actions, the variety and changes of legitimizing value systems.

The Forum also aims at locating European experience in a broader international comparative prospective so as to ask whether the categories developed for western societies might be used also for the analysis of violent and terrorist movements outside Europe and the United States. We will discuss: what the different forms of radicalization that have characterized different historical periods (the 1920s; the 1970s; the 1990s, the 2000s) have in common; which types of social mechanisms can be singled out as proper to processes of political radicalization; and which historical circumstances influence specific forms of political violence. We also have a broader interest in comparing and contrasting research on Europe with the results of similar research on African as well as South American or Middle Eastern societies.

The Forum will bring together scholars from various disciplines (notably sociology, history, law and social psychology) who are doing empirical analyses of various contemporary and historical cases of radicalization of political conflicts. We are particularly interested in recruiting researchers with expertise and experience in the empirical analysis of biographical materials of participants in violent organizations, who share our focus on the development of cross national and historical comparison on the social, political and cultural environmental conditions for the radicalization of action repertoires.

Call for applications is over.


Weekly seminar

The European Forum runs an interdisciplinary weakly seminar. In the first term, it will focus on main concepts used in the analyses on radicalization processes; in the second term it will focus on comparison of various historical instances of escalation of political conflicts. Information on the weekly seminar, which is open to researchers of all departments and of the RSCAS, is available on the RSCAS websites.

Page last updated on 17 August 2017