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

Abstract

“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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Bruce Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism, has worked at RAND and the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, and is now on the faculty at Georgetown University.

  2. 2.

    My use of “field” here is obviously influenced by Bourdieu, although, as will become apparent, I do not see terrorism expertise as a “field” in precisely in the same sense (Bourdieu 2005).

  3. 3.

    As I worked on this project, two questions have been posed to me repeatedly: What is terrorism? And who is a terrorism expert? One set of askers takes these questions as the presumed conclusion to my study: what is terrorism, really? And who are (really) terrorism experts? The second set of interlocutors, meanwhile, takes these questions as necessary preliminaries to the study: how do I assign values to these concepts, so that they might be measured and analyzed? The goal of this project is indeed to investigate terrorism, but not in either of the ways presumed above. Rather, the study takes as its object these very questions, asking how and why they have become meaningful. To clarify, I do not seek to determine who is “really” an expert; the processes through which this question is contested are, rather, the core of what I observe and try to explain. When I speak of “experts,” I refer to the pool of those treated as experts and those hoping/trying to be treated as experts; with “expertise” being the products, findings, knowledge, statements of these populations.

  4. 4.

    See Ilardi (2004) for one response to such critiques, and Zulaika and Douglass (1996) for an earlier analysis of this phenomenon.

  5. 5.

    See Stampnitzky (2008).

  6. 6.

    This “rhetoric of failure” appears especially puzzling in light of the sociological literature on professions and expertise, which tends to predict that experts, in both settled fields and fields in formation, will engage in “boundary work” to defend and differentiate their work. This notion of boundary work, conceptualized as the (rhetorical) methods through which scientists legitimate and differentiate themselves and their work from non-scientists (Gieryn 1983, 1999), is predicated upon the construction and maintenance of distinct demarcated spheres of knowledge-production, a framework which has tended to dominate sociological studies of expertise, despite the existence of many arenas of expertise, including terrorism studies, which fail to adhere to this characterization.

  7. 7.

    The interview sample thus resulted in an over-focus on the “legitimate” sector of the “field,” but there were both pragmatic reasons for this, given my research strategy, and an analytical/theoretical logic to having done things this way. Prior literature (in the sociology of science and knowledge) tends to over-emphasize this sector, so it makes sense that I would focus my investigation there; second, as I show, this sector is a particularly important site for studying the production and legitimation of terrorism expertise, as it illuminates processes of attempts at legitimation and institutionalization. See Table 1, below, for more information on the interviewees.

  8. 8.

    These included several of the same individuals interviewed by the author of this paper.

  9. 9.

    See particularly, the new journal Critical Studies on Terrorism, founded in 2008 by Richard Jackson of Aberystwyth University (UK).

  10. 10.

    See Stampnitzky (2008).

  11. 11.

    Interview with Timothy Naftali, 7/5/2006. Naftali also observed that, before 9/11, terrorism was seen as a “backwater” not only within academia, but also among the elite analytical intelligence community.

  12. 12.

    Interview with Marc Sageman, 11/14/2006.

  13. 13.

    Interview with Jessica Stern, 8/19/2007.

  14. 14.

    Source: author’s data set on presenters at conferences on terrorism, 1972-2001 (see Stampnitzky 2008 for more details).

  15. 15.

    Drawing upon Magali Sarfatti Larson’s concept of “professionalization” (Larson 1977).

  16. 16.

    Interview with Marc Sageman, 11/14/2006.

  17. 17.

    The Center for the Study of Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland), one of the primary training centers for terrorism researchers in the world.

  18. 18.

    Interview with Marc Sageman, 11/14/2006.

  19. 19.

    Interview with Bruce Hoffman, 11/7/2006.

  20. 20.

    Interview with Martha Crenshaw, 5/5/2006.

  21. 21.

    Interview with Marc Sageman, 11/14/2006.

  22. 22.

    Interview with Bruce Hoffman, 11/7/2006.

  23. 23.

    Interview with Brian Jenkins, June 26, 2007.

  24. 24.

    This comment was received by Schmid and Jongman in response to a survey of terrorism researchers. In response, they write that, “While there is an uncomfortable degree of truth in Laqueur’s observation, one can also argue that even a ‘minimum of theory’ requires some consensus about what to theorize about. Laqueur’s own, much-quoted, work on terrorism has been criticized by one of the respondents to our first questionnaire for being ‘a book on an unidentifiable subject, so that the author can include whatever he sees fit’” (Schmid and Jongman 1988, p. 3).

  25. 25.

    A dramatic example of this phenomenon occurred when I presented a talk on my work to an audience that happened to include several terrorism researchers, one of whom posed as a question whether the field could be understood as failing to achieve the status of a mature scientific field, referencing Merton’s sociology of science.

  26. 26.

    Interview with Marc Sageman, 11/14/2006.

  27. 27.

    Often, these were individuals more strongly attached to their own academic discipline as an intellectual and/or institutional home, who tended to be more recent PhDs, or more recent entrants to the world of terrorism studies, itself possibly an indicator of the relatively higher status of work on terrorism within disciplines such as political science, sociology, and economics in recent years.

  28. 28.

    As Martha Crenshaw told me, “There is a disconnect [between researchers and the state]….Imagine going to war on terrorism, not an actor, but terrorism, or terrorists of global reach, and sort of treating Al Qaeda as though it were a monolithic organization when everybody who’s studied it understood that it was a merger of factions…the kind of complexity gets lost in translation.” (Interview with Martha Crenshaw, 5/5/2006).

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Acknowledgements

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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Correspondence to Lisa Stampnitzky.

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This article was accepted by the former editor-in-chief Javier Auyero. The current editor, David Smilde, has approved of its publication.

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Stampnitzky, L. Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production. Qual Sociol 34, 1–19 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-010-9187-4

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Keywords

  • Terrorism
  • Experts
  • Knowledge
  • Boundary work