The theoretical literature on terrorism: A sociological interpretation

Thomas P Kissane, Fordham University


Although there is an extensive literature on contemporary terrorism, it has failed to fully address the question of why terrorism takes place. Some scholars from the various disciplines within social science have constructed theories embodying concepts drawn from their respective disciplines; none has been able to develop a unified model having the demonstrated capacity to fully answer the question of why terrorism takes place. Utilizing a standard library search and Alex P. Schmid's taxonomy of the dominant theories of terrorism extant, widely acknowledged as the "bible" of terrorism study, the author has attempted to analyze the theoretical literature that pertains in part or in whole to the causes of terrorism, through a sociological prism. Although a general review of the theoretical literature, this study is heuristic and exploratory. The author does not present an original hypothesis to be tested, nor does he attempt to operationalize the models being investigated. The unifying argument underpinning the study amounts to this: many theories of the cause of terrorism are available; none is entirely adequate; a sociological approach can and must be part of any satisfactory theory of terrorism's origins; some formulations, most notably Martha Crenshaw's, hold greater potential in this regard than others. The study is also limited in its conception of terrorism. The author does not endorse, or even accept, any one definition of terrorism and concentrates upon groups and organizations that use terrorism as their primary weapon. The study is exclusively concerned with modern terrorism, that is, terrorism as it has been executed since 1967. The bulk of the thesis is devoted to three distinctly sociological formulations of terrorism's etiology: (1) structural (2) symbolic communication and (3) organizational process. There is an implicit claim that Martha Crenshaw's organizational process theory furnished those "missing links" that other readings fail to supply. Namely, that terrorism is a group activity, and that the interactions within and without the group, may be more important in determining behavior than the psychological predisposition of individual members.

Subject Area

Criminology|International law|International relations

Recommended Citation

Kissane, Thomas P, "The theoretical literature on terrorism: A sociological interpretation" (1989). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9007167.