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Micro-mobilization into Armed Groups: Ideological, Instrumental and Solidaristic Paths

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Based on biographical materials of armed militants of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Red Brigades, this article analyses variation within the micromobilization that leads to armed groups. Three general paths are singled out: the ideological path, the instrumental path and the solidaristic path. Each of these is characterized by complex interactions between the individual motivations for involvement (micro-level), the networks that facilitate the recruitment process (meso-level), and the effects of repression on individuals (macro-level). We discuss the discoveries we have made and conclude by describing the advantages of our approach.

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  1. Although our empirical testing concerns PIRA and BR armed activists, we believe that similar micro-mobilization paths can be found in other armed groups. This is true if we think of the works of Jocelyan Viterna (2006) on the women’s mobilization into the FMLN in El Savador, that of Fernando Reinares (2001) with ETA militants, Olivier Roy’s (2004) work with Islamic militants mobilization into Al Qaeda in the Middle East, or the work of Gilda Zwerman and Patricia Steinhoff (2005) regarding left-wing armed groups in the US and Japan in the post 1960s.

  2. While we retain that the process of becoming engaged in armed activism has some important bearings on the process of disengagement, we want to be clear to avoid any assumption of these as linear, discrete, and indistinct. What brings individuals into armed activism in the first place may or may not be the same as what sustains their continued involvement. Thus, a person starting out following a solidaristic path may become highly politicized and ideological, or move from being a follower to a leader with a higher status. Disengagement is far from a simple reversal or mirror-image of the initial process of micro-mobilization into political violence.

  3. The different motivations we have mentioned can be easily summarized in the language of social movement studies. Bert Klandermans’ (2004) “identity” is a conceptual parallel to our “solidaristic” motivation.

  4. Four of the Northern Ireland interviewees were already involved in the IRA before 1969. They moved to the Provisional IRA at the time of the split with the Official IRA. It is worth remembering that in the aftermath of the failure of the Border Campaign, 1956–1962, the leadership of the IRA decided to keep the use of political violence in reserve, preferring and promoting a new gradualist-reformist grassroots agitation strategy focused on civil rights demands (Bosi 2006). Those who joined the IRA first during the 1960s and later moved on to the PIRA were thus initially joining an organization which was illegal, but which was keeping the armed struggle in reserve.

  5. Throughout the article former armed activists interviewed are referred to numerically rather than with names in order to maintain anonymity. The first author carried out 25 semi-structured interviews with former rank-and-file members of the PIRA in Northern Ireland during four field trips to the region between 2007 and 2008. Interviews on the Italian case were collected in the framework of a wider research program on political violence and terrorism led by the Carlo Cattaneo Institute of Bologna since 1981. We would like to thank the Istituto Carlo Cattaneo for providing access to its archive and in particular to the part of the Documentazione sul terrorismo (DOTE) archive. A fuller description of the empirical cases and complete documentation are available respectively for the Northern Ireland case in Bosi 2012 and for the Italian one in Della Porta 1995.

  6. From the sources we have no single path typical emerges for female armed militants.

  7. 8 autobiographies of former BR armed activists were consulted: Guerri 1983; Scialoja 1993; Mosca and Rossanda 1994; Balzerani 1998; Franceschini 1988; Morucci 2004; Gallinari 2006; and Grandi 2007.

  8. In line with recent qualitative methodological developments (Smilde 2005), further ethnographic work might be needed to explain the relationship between the paths we singled out, the militants’ role and degrees of commitment within the armed groups, and militants’ subsequent careers. This will be particularly helpful in order to control for the retrospective bias of the biographical materials.

  9. The Carabiniere is the national military police of Italy.

  10. “Resist, resist, resist.”. Republican News, September 1971.


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Correspondence to Lorenzo Bosi.

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We thank, for their comments, Abby Peterson, David Smilde and three anonymous reviewers.

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Bosi, L., Porta, D.D. Micro-mobilization into Armed Groups: Ideological, Instrumental and Solidaristic Paths. Qual Sociol 35, 361–383 (2012).

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