Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 1–19 | Cite as

Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production

  • Lisa StampnitzkyEmail author


“Terrorism” has proved to be a highly problematic object of expertise. Terrorism studies fails to conform to the most common sociological notions of what a field of intellectual production ought to look like, and has been described by participants and observers alike as a failure. Yet the study of terrorism is a booming field, whether measured in terms of funding, publications, or numbers of aspiring experts. This paper aims to explain, first, the disjuncture between terrorism studies in practice and the sociological literature on fields of intellectual production, and, second, the reasons for experts’ “rhetoric of failure” about their field. I suggest that terrorism studies, rather than conforming to the notion of an ideal-typical profession, discipline, or bounded “intellectual field,” instead represents an interstitial space of knowledge production. I further argue that the “rhetoric of failure” can be understood as a strategy through which terrorism researchers mobilize sociological theories of scientific/cultural fields as both an interpretive resource in their attempts to make sense of the apparent oddness of their field and their situation, and as schemas, or models, in their attempts to reshape the field. I conclude that sociologists ought to expand our vision to incorporate the many arenas of expertise that occupy interstitial spaces, moving and travelling between multiple fields.


Terrorism Experts Knowledge Boundary work 



The author thanks Beth Popp Berman, Christian Bueger, Lynn Eden, Gil Eyal, Stephanie Hofmann, Javier Lezaun, Hwa-Jen Liu, Charles Perrow, Gretchen Purser, Raka Ray, Teresa Sharpe, Ann Swidler, Youyenn Teo, Pascal Vennesson, and Marc Ventresca, along with several anonymous reviewers for Qualitative Sociology for their helpful comments on earlier drafts. The research and writing of this paper were supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation, the U.C. Berkeley Department of Sociology, the European University Institute, Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Oxford. The content of this work is the responsibility of the author, and should not be attributed to any of the above funding bodies. Finally, I am extremely grateful to all those who agreed to be interviewed about their work and the field of terrorism expertise.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Science, Innovation and Society, Said Business SchoolOxfordUK

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