My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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politics of terrorism studies

Years ago, I subscribed to Newsweek to get a source of lightweight magazine news that was relatively mainstream. I don’t expect in-depth coverage, but I still enjoy seeing how certain things are being framed. Plus, it’s fun to read Steven Levy, knowing that he’s making tech culture broadly accessible. Lately, I’ve also been enjoying columns by Fareed Zakaria. I don’t always agree with him, but I find his essays far more provocative than I’d expect from such a mainstream column. Thus, they always make me smile.

This week, in “The Only Thing We Have to Fear…”, Zakaria dissects different studies on the frequency of terrorism. He points out that the definition of “terrorism” varies by region such that what’s being measured is inconsistent and meant to return desired results rather than a real portrait of what’s happening. For example, civilian deaths at the hands of militia in Iraq is considered terrorism while the same practice in Sudan is not. This has significant policy implications. And, of course, it is part of the culture of fear.

I’m curious if any of you scholars/researchers out there know anything about these various studies and what the politics behind them are. I can certainly make my guesses, but as I spend more time analyzing quantitative studies, I’m really curious to know more about the politics behind controversial quantitative studies. Who’s involved in deciding how terms are defined? How do funders affect definitions and framing? What happens when researchers and funders disagree? Or when funders don’t like the results?

I feel very lucky to be backed by a Foundation who does not engage in pressure tactics and is infinitely supportive of hearing things that they don’t want to hear. I wonder… are there any ethnographic studies out there about social science scholarship/funder relations?

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6 comments to politics of terrorism studies

  • Jo

    Hi, Dan Thornton from http://thewayoftheweb.net recommended you. Hope the thesis is going well.

    I don’t know much about terrorism but having grown up in Rhodesia where labeling someone a “terr” was reason to “take them out”, I am reflexively contemptuous of the term.

    What I find more interesting is the positive flip side – the processes that lead to collective efficacy.

    I am looking forward to reading through your papers. Do you know Maz Hardey at York University (England)?

    Regards,
    Jo Jordan

  • Anon

    Hmm… not one recommendation so far? Guess I should put some links down, though I doubt they are the perspective you are looking for:

    The Revolution will not be Funded by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence.

    Michael James Barker’s articles. (Less focused than the INCITE! anthology)

    If instead you’re looking for studies of the conservative/evangelical ‘scholarship’ and their funders I can rustle up something too. But those are easier to find.

  • I don’t know directly of any ethnographic studies but looking at health promotion (e.g. tobacco issues) and drug research should be interesting. The terrorism/freedom fighter issue is probably more likely to have received historical analysis than ethnographic research IMHO.
    If you scholar google and google books search for “study funder politics influence”, you’ll turn up some interesting stuff, particularly Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, Cheek’s chapter. CHeek quotes Stoesz who outlines the risk of social science becoming a commodity defined by the corporates and government bureaucracies.

  • I would think that health promotion (e.g. tobacco) and drugs research would be good places to look. Regarding terrorism/freedom fighter research, I wonder what has been done – critical accounts are probably more likely to emerge from political and historical analysis.
    I did a scholar google and google books search for “study funder politics influence” and turned up some interesting links (not sure of the politics of google search algorithms 😉 ). Take a look at Cheek’s chapter in the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, this looks at personal, practical and political aspects of funding. Cheek cites Stoesz who talks about the risk of social science becoming a commodity defined by corporates and government bureaucracies.

  • On the varying definitions of terrorism:
    Actually I feel this is always what the current government is afraid of. (Or the maker of the definition.) In sovjet russia and the GDR, terrorists were those who opposed the government. But they won and now they are heroes. Rebels.
    Of course this is a bit different from what you are talking about, but anyway: “terrorism” is always also a label used to mark things as “dangerous enough to the current order that we must use violence to fight it”. This label can be applied very freely, as suitable to those who are using violence to keep the current order.

  • On the varying definitions of terrorism:
    Actually I feel this is always what the current government is afraid of. (Or the maker of the definition.) In sovjet russia and the GDR, terrorists were those who opposed the government. But they won and now they are heroes. Rebels.
    Of course this is a bit different from what you are talking about, but anyway: “terrorism” is always also a label used to mark things as “dangerous enough to the current order that we must use violence to fight it”. This label can be applied very freely, as suitable to those who are using violence to keep the current order.