Radicalisation: The fuck does it mean?

The thoughts displayed here are largely the result of a third year undergrad assignment, and thus should be taken with a grain of salt and assumed grandiosity.

The assignment had to do with political phenomenon that had a psychological component, and I chose radicalisation. After looking at a bunch of papers, I noted that radicalisation had no consistent academic or colloquial definition. Some of this rant is from there, but I didn't want it to overshadow the rest of my assignment.

To say someone is radicalised seems to mean something different to saying someone is radical (both in the 90s term, but also in the sense of meaning they have divergent views), and radicalisation itself seems to be related to that as well as extremism and terrorism. Counter-terrorism and police organisations tend to focus on criminality and violence, whereas academic papers focus on either individual or societal definitions which wind up being poorly defined or assumed, and refer to divergence from "the mainstream". This was altogether rather frustrating, since I'd assumed that there would be a consistent definition, what with radicalisation being so darn relevant.

So here's the definition, so that if that's all you want you can leave, and so we can pick it apart later:
Radicalisation is the process by which people oppose a mainstream belief such that they neglect their social connections.
Good. That seems worded ok. Have a couple of examples of what radicalisation is not.
In discussing this definition, one of my friends claimed she was radically against broccoli, an anti-broccolist, if you will. However, historically speaking, she had not neglected any of her social connections because of their love or consumption of broccoli. Thus, she is not radicalised.
A hypothetical person might neglect or cut off social connections because of their belief that the road system is designed to communicate with our alien overlords, but that is not radicalisation either. The belief is not mainstream, and it's unlikely that a decent portion of their social network secretly hold this belief.

One of the first things people notice is that it rather lowers the bar for what people consider radicalisation, and that it seems to be a spectrum. It is possible to be a little radicalised. I think this is rather important. MI6 (now SIS, the UK's counter-terrorism and homeland intelligence force) notes that radicalisation is frustratingly random, crossing religious and class lines, but this is part of what makes law enforcement's definitions quite weak. They tend to be looking at the tips of the iceberg, those violent outbursts that really are a small minority of people. The advantage this definition brings is that by turning radicalisation into a spectrum, the population can be surveyed more effectively.

But not just a spectrum, but a measurable one. While previously, such interaction would be difficult to measure with self-reporting surveys, social media data mining provides the ability to measure radicalisation for both communities and individuals (assuming regular use).

The spectrum has two axes; how mainstream the belief they oppose is, and how close the connections they neglect are.

With talk about how measurable radicalisation is, I should take pains to note that I don't view radicalisation as a bad thing. Dialectical engagement of ideas is important, but it's also not for everyone all the time. If the majority of your culture is into kitten drowning, I think you'd be justified in not talking to people because they were into it. Radicalisation does not imply violence, but rather a rift in both personal and community spheres.

The measurability is not the only advantage the definition has over most others (including academic ones).

A couple of the academic papers discussing radicalisation refer to divergence from the mainstream, whereas my definition refers to opposition to an existing mainstream view. This distinction is important, as it allows two competing mainstream views to be radicalised towards each other. By only referring to divergence from the mainstream, one cannot have, say, a radicalised Republican or Democrat, as both are mainstream views and thus neither diverge from the mainstream. I think that psychologically and socially, this form of radicalisation is similar to radicalisation that does diverge from the mainstream, in both effects and who is likely to partake in it. It also highlights the oppositional nature of radicalisation, especially when coupled with the social neglect.

A point of contention is how mainstream is mainstream? A rule of thumb is that if it is likely that a member of your social circles holds a belief. Obviously this is going to vary from person to person. We could refer to Dunbar's number here (150-ish), or other estimations of the average number of close friends. However, by making radicalisation a spectrum, it means that mainstream can apply rather broadly. My initial number was around 10% of the general population, but I'll be the first to admit that I just pulled that out of my arse and further examination is necessary.

This definition also largely encompasses colloquial usage, as well as refining and collating academic and law enforcement definitions. It also allows to identify behavioural patterns that we'd consider radicalising but don't see for cultural bias reasons. If someone's written about this before, I didn't find it in the academic papers I wrote, and I do think this is an original thought on my part. In our interconnected and increasingly loud world, I do think this is extremely relevant. I would like some input here and there.

PS: On extremism and terrorism:
Extremism: A belief that coercive force is justified in achieving one's own political ends.
Terrorism: Inciting terror to achieve political aims.
One can in fact be a radicalised extremist terrorist, but these terms should not be conflated.

1 comment:

  1. Nice exploration! I was reading into terrorism definitions in academic and journalistic articles recently and came across similarly ill-defined usage - at least in journalism. Journalists seem to throw around terrorism very readily, without any idea of whether an incidence had a political component. Academics seemed to care a lot more about defining terrorism (because they don't have a vested interested in trying to scare people about it, I guess) but still quibble over it.

    I like this definition of radicalisation you've used, and I agree that it softens it somewhat, showing that radicalisation is not inherently negative or violent.

    - Lavinia

    P.s. is it bad that the thing that bothers me most about this post is that you have no references? Even just some in-text hyperlinks would be good :p