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Conceptualization of Terrorism

Author(s): Jack P. Gibbs

Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Jun., 1989), pp. 329-340
Published by: American Sociological Association
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Many issues and problems surround the conceptualization of terrorism. Most

definitions of the term are indefensibleif only because they do not speak to those
issues and problems. An assessmentof contendingdefinitionscan transcendpurely
personal opinions; and an assessment can be undertakenwithout a theory, even
though an impressive theory is the ultimate justification of its constituent
definitions. Thepresent conceptualizationgoes beyond a definitionof terrorismby
emphasizingthe definition's bearing on five major conceptual questions, each of
which introducesa major issue and/or problem. Then it is argued that thinkingof
terrorism and other sociological phenomena in terms of control promotes
recognition of logical connections and/or empirical associations, each of which
could become a componentof a theory.

Definitions of terrorismare controversialfor sociologists commonly appear indifferent to

reasons other than conceptual issues and conceptualizations.First, Weber and Parsons
problems.Because labeling actions as "terror- gave the work a bad name in the eyes of those
ism" promotescondemnationof the actors, a sociologists who insist (rightly) on a distinc-
definition may reflect ideological or political tion between substantivetheory and concep-
bias (for lengthy elaboration, see Rubenstein tual analysis. Second, conclusive resolutions
1987). Given such considerations, all of of conceptual issues are improbablebecause
which discourage attempts to define terror- the ultimatejustification of any definition is
ism, it is not surprisingthat Laqueur(1977, an impressive theory that incorporates the
p. 5) arguedthat definition. Nonetheless, it is crippling to
a comprehensive definitionof terrorism. . . assume that productive research and impres-
does not exist nor will it be found in the sive theories are possible without confronting
foreseeablefuture. To argue that terrorism conceptual issues and problems. The argu-
cannotbe studiedwithoutsuch a definitionis ment is not just that theorizing without
manifestlyabsurd. definitions is sterile, nor merely recognition
Even granting what Laqueur implies-that that theory constructionand conceptualization
terrorism is somehow out there awaiting should go hand in hand. Additionally, one
definition-it is no less "manifestly absurd" can assess definitions without descending to
to pretendto study terrorismwithout at least purely personal opinion, even when not
some kind of definition of it. Leaving the guided by a theory.
definition implicit is the road to obscu- Systematic tests of a theory requiredefini-
rantism. tions of at least some of the theory's
Even if sociologists should overcome their constituent terms; but test findings, even
ostensible reluctanceto study terrorism(for a those based on the same units of comparison,
rare exception, see Lee 1983), they are will diverge if each definition's empirical
unlikely to contributeto its conceptualization. applicabilityis negligible, meaningif indepen-
The situation has been described succinctly dent observers disagree when applying the
by Tallman (1984, p. 1121): "Efforts to definition to identify events or things. To
explicate key concepts in sociology have been illustrate, contemplate a question about any
met with stifling indifferenceby members of definition of terrorism:How much do inde-
our discipline." pendentobserversagree in judging whetheror
There are at least two reasons why not President Kennedy's assassination was
terrorism in light of the definition? As
* Workon this paperwas supportedin partby a subsequent illustrationsshow, simple defini-
grant from the University Research Council of tions may promote agreement in answers to
VanderbiltUniversity. The author is indebted to the Kennedy question and yet be objectiona-
two diligent reviewers. ble for theoreticalreasons; but the immediate
AmericanSociological Review, 1989, Vol. 54 (June:329-340) 329
point is that an empirically applicabledefini- norm in at least one particularterritorialunit
tion does not require a theory. By contrast, or population;
given evidence that a definition promises (2) had secretive, furtive, and/or clandestine
negligible empirical applicability, no theory features that were expected by the partici-
pants to conceal their personal identity
can justify that definition.
and/ortheir future location;
Still another"atheoretical"criterion is the (3) was not undertakenor orderedto furtherthe
definition'sconsistencywith convention. That permanentdefense of some area;
criterioncannotbe decisive, because it would (4) was not conventionalwarfareand because of
precludenovel definitions;but it is important their concealed personal identity, conceal-
when the field's professionals must rely on ment of their future location, their threats,
"outsiders" for data and, hence, presume and/ortheir spatialmobility, the participants
appreciablecongruence between their defini- perceived themselves as less vulnerable to
tions and those of the outsiders. That conventionalmilitary action; and
consideration is particularly relevant here, (5) was perceivedby the participantsas contrib-
because in analyzing terrorism social scien- uting to the normative goal previously
described (supra) by inculcating fear of
tists often rely on reports of government violence in persons (perhaps an indefinite
officials, journalists, and historians. category of them) other than the immediate
Conceptual issues and problems haunt target of the actual or threatenedviolence
virtually all major terms in the social and and/orby publicizing some cause.
behavioral sciences, and any definition is
ambiguous if it does not answer questions
bearing on those issues and problems. There Clarification, Issues, and Problems
are at least five such questions about
terrorism. First, is terrorism necessarily In keeping with a social science tradition,
illegal (a crime)? Second, is terrorismneces- most definitions of terrorismare set forth in a
sarily undertakento realize some particular fairly brief sentence (see, e.g., surveys by
type of goal and, if so, what is it? Third, how Roots 1986, pp. 5-8, and Schmid and
does terrorismnecessarilydiffer from conven- Jongman 1988, pp. 32-38). Such definitions
tional military operations in a war, a civil do not tax the reader's intellect or patience,
war, or so-called guerrillawarfare?Fourth, is but it is inconsistent to grant that human
it necessarily the case that only opponents of behavior is complex and then demand simple
the governmentengage in terrorism?Fifth, is definitions of behavioraltypes.
terrorismnecessarily a distinctive strategy in The illegality of terrorism. Rubenstein's
the use of violence and, if so, what is that definition (1987, p. 31) is noteworthyif only
strategy? because it makes no reference to crime or
The questions are answered in light of a illegality: "I use the term 'terrorism' . . . to
subsequent definition of terrorism,but more denote acts of small-groupviolencefor which
than a definition is needed. The pursuit of a arguable claims of mass representation can
theory about terrorism will be furtheredby be made." However, even granting that
describing and thinking about terrorism and terrorism is an illegal action, there are two
all other sociological phenomena in terms of contendingconceptions of crime, one empha-
one particularnotion, thereby promoting the sizing the reactions of officials as the
recognition of logical and empirical associa- criterionand the otheremphasizingnormative
tions. The most appropriatenotion is identi- considerations(e.g., statutorylaw). Because
fied subsequentlyas "control," but a defense of space limitations, it is not feasible to go
of that identification requires a definition of much beyond recognizing the two contending
terrorism(not of "terror"). conceptions. It must suffice to point out that
an action may be illegal or criminal (in light
of statutes and/or reactions by state officials)
A DEFINITIONOF TERRORISM because of (1) where it was planned; (2)
where it commenced; and/or (3) where it
Terrorism is illegal violence or threatened
continued, especially in connection with
violence directedagainsthumanor nonhuman
crossing a political boundary. Such distinc-
objects, providedthat it: tions are relevant even when contemplating
(1) was undertaken or orderedwith a view to the incidence of terrorism.
alteringor maintaining
at leastone putative One likely reaction: But why is terrorism
necessarily a crime? The question suggests terroristshave identifiable goals. The second
that classes of events or things exist indepen- reasons why part 1 of the definition is
dently of definitions. Thus, it may appearthat controversial: many sociologists, especially
"stones" and "humans"denote ontologically Durkheimians, do not emphasize the purpo-
given classes, but in the context of gravita- sive quality of human behavior, perhaps
tional theory stones and humans are not because they view the emphasis as reduction-
different. However, to insist that all defini- ism. In any case, a defensible definition of
tions are nominal is not to imply that virtually any term in sociology's vocabulary
conventional usage should be ignored; and, requires recognition of the relevance of
again, the point takes on special significance internal behavior (e.g., perception, beliefs,
when defining terrorism.The initial (unnum- purpose). Thus, without part 1 of the present
bered) part of the present definition is definition, the distinction between terrorism
consistent with most other definitions and and the typical robberybecomes obscure. The
also with this claim: most journalists, offi- typical robber does not threaten violence to
cials, and historians who label an action as maintainor alter a putativenorm;he or she is
"terrorism" evidently regard the action as concerned only with behavioral control in a
illegal or criminal. However, it is not denied particularsituation.
that two populationsmay differ sharply as to A defensible definition of a norm is not
whether or not a particular action was a presumed (see Gibbs 1981, pp. 9-18, for a
crime. As a necessary condition for an action litany of difficulties). Rather, it is necessary
to be terrorism, only the statutes and/or only that at least one of the participants(those
reactions of officials in the political unit who undertakethe violent action or order it)
where the action was planned or took place view the action as contributing to the
(in whole or in part) need identify the action maintenance or alteration of some law,
as criminal or illegal. policy, arrangement,practice, institution, or
Violenceand terrorism.Somethinglike the sharedbelief.
phrase "violence or threatened violence" Part 1 of the definition is unconventional
appears in most definitions of terrorism(see only in that goals of terrorists are not
Schmid and Jongman1988, p. 5). As in those necessarily political. Many definitions create
definitions, the phrase's key terms are here the impression that all terrorism is political
left as primitives; and whether they must be (for a contraryview, see Wilkinson 1986, p.
defined to realize sufficient empiricalapplica- 51), but the very term "political terrorism"
bility can be determined only by actual suggests at least two types.' The concern of
attemptsto apply the definition. social scientists with terrorismtypologies is
Despite consensus about violence as a premature(see. e.g., the commentaryby Oots
necessary feature of terrorism, there is a [1986, pp. 11, 30] on Mickolus's notions of
related issue. Writers often suggest that only international, transnational, domestic, and
humanscan be targets of violence, but many interstate terrorism). No terrorism typology
journalists, officials, and historians have amounts to a generic definition (see the
identified instances of destructionor damage survey in Schmid and Jongman 1988, pp.
of nonhumanobjects (e.g., buildings, domes-
ticated animals, crops) as terrorism. More-
over, terrorists pursue their ultimate goal l As pointed out by Laqueur (1987, pp. 19,
through inculcation of fear and humans do 118), much of the terrorismin the Americanlabor
fear damage or destruction of particular movement (e.g., the bombing of the Los Angeles
nonhumanobjects. Times building in 1910) was attackedeven by the
The ultimategoal of terrorists. The present left as "commercial, not idealistic"; and "there
definition indicates that terroristsnecessarily was no intentionof overthrowingthe government,
have a goal. Even though it is difficult to killing the political leadership or changing the
think of a human action that is not goal political system." To insist that an effort (violent
or otherwise) to alter working conditions or wages
oriented,the considerationis controversialfor in a particularcontext (e.g., a publishingcorpora-
two reasons. One reason is the allegation that tion) is "political" only illustrates indiscriminate
terroristsare irrationalor mentally ill (see, use of that term. To be sure, it may be that an
e.g., Livingston 1978, pp. 224-39; and impressive theory about terrorismmust be limited
Livingstone's commentary, 1982, p. 31 on to "political terrorism,"but the necessity for such
Parry), which raises doubts as to whether limitationcannot be known a priori.
39-59), and without the latter the former is Part 5 is controversialprimarilybecause it
bound to be unsatisfactory. would exclude action such as this threat:
Military operations and terrorism. To "Senator, if you vote for that bill, it will be
repeat a previous question: How does terror- your death warrant." Why would such a
ism necessarily differ, if at all, from threat not be terrorism?A more theoretically
conventional military operations in a war, significant answer is given subsequently.
civil war, or so-called guerrillawarfare?The Here it must suffice to point out that scores of
question cannot be answered readily because writers have emphasized "third-party" or
there are no clearly accepted definitions of "general" intimidationas an essential feature
conventional military operation, war, civil of terrorism;4and journalists, officials, or
war, and guerrilla warfare.2 "Guerrilla" is historiansonly rarely identify "dyadic intimi-
especially troublesomebecause journalistsare dation" (X acts violently toward Y but not to
prone to use the word without defining it but control Z's behavior) as terrorism.
such as to suggest that it is synonymous with "State terrorism" as a special issue.
terrorism (a usage emphatically rejected by Zinam's definition (1978, pp. 244-45) illus-
Laqueur1987 and Wilkinson 1986). tratesone of many reasons why definitions of
Conventional military operations differ terrorism are so disputable: "[Terrorismis]
from terrorism along the lines indicated by the use or threatof violence by individualsor
parts2, 3, and 4 of the definition.3However, organized groups to evoke fear and submis-
the definitiondoes not precludethe possibility sion to obtain some economic, political,
of a transition from terrorism to civil war. sociopsychological, ideological, or other ob-
One tragic instance was the Easter Rising in jective." Because the definition would extend
Ireland (1916), when rather than perpetuate to the imposition of legal punishments by
the terrorismtradition,a small group of Irish governmentofficials to preventcrimes through
seized and attempteda permanentdefense of general deterrence, in virtually all jurisdic-
governmentbuildings in Dublin, vainly hop- tions (see Morris 1966, p. 631) some aspects
ing thatthe populacewould join them in open of criminaljustice would qualify as terrorism;
warfare. Today, it is terrorism rather than and Zinam's definition provides no basis for
civil war thathauntsNorthernIreland,and the denying that it would be "state terrorism."5
term "guerrilla warfare" has no descriptive Even grantingthat a state agent or employee
utility in that context. acts for the state only when acting at the
Terrorism as a special strategy. One direction or with the consent of a superordi-
feature of terrorism makes it a distinctive
(thoughnot unique) strategyin violence. That
featureis describedin part5 of the definition. 4 For example, Oots (1986, p. 81) makes
intimidationcentral in his definition of terrorism,
The question is not how terroristsdiffer from but numerous writers suggest that "seeking
military personnel, insurgents, rebels, revolution- publicity" is also an essential strategyin terrorism.
aries, or guerrillas.The distinctionis irrelevantfor Hence, reference is made in the present definition
present purposes because the concern is not with (the last part of it) to "publicizing some cause."
defining "a terrorist." The terms "terrorist"and Actually, the two strategies-intimidation and
"terrorists"are used occasionally in this paper in publicization-are virtually inseparable.
the loose sense of "an individual or individuals 5 Should it be argued (see, e.g., Wilkinson
who have engaged in terrorism," but it is 1986, p. 23, and Zinam 1978, p. 241) that
recognized that a more elaborate definition is violence is by definitionillegal, what of a killing in
needed. an Anglo-Americancase of undisputedjustifiable
3 The secretive, furtive, and/or clandestine homicide? To deny that the killing was violence
features of terrorism (part 2 of the present would be arbitraryin the extreme and contraryto
definition) are not limited to the violent action conventional use of the term "violence." Indeed,
itself. They also pertainto previousand subsequent why submitto an unconventionalusage that makes
actions (nonviolent), even the lifestyle of the "illegitimate violence" redundantand "legitimate
participants.Consider Clark's observation (1986, violence" contradictory? Perhaps more impor-
p. 300) on members of a terrorist organization tantly, what term is the appropriatedescriptive
dedicated to Basque separatism: "The great label for undisputed justifiable homicide or the
majorityof the membersof ETA continueto live at legitimate use of force by a police officer? If the
home, either with their parents or (if they were answer is "coercion," there is no corresponding
married)with their spouses and children, and to convention; and when kidnappers bind their
work at their regularemployment...." victims, surely that action is coercion.
nate, there is still no ostensible difference extremely rare phenomenon. State terrorism
between the use or threat of violence in law occurs when and only when a government
enforcement and Zinam's terrorism. official (or agent or employee) engages in
Had Zinam defined terrorism as being terrorism, as previously defined, at the
necessarily illegal or criminal, then many direction or with the consent of a superordi-
instances of violence by a state agent or nate, but one who does not publicly acknowl-
employee at the directionor with the consent edge such direction or consent.
of a superordinatewould not be terrorism. The foregoing notwithstanding,for theoret-
However, think of the numerous killings in ical reasons it may prove desirableto limit the
Nazi Germany (Ernst Roehm, the Storm proposed definition of terrorism (supra) to
Troop head being a well-known victim) nonstate terrorism and to seek a quite
during the Night of the Long Knives (June different definition of state terrorism. Even
30, 1934). Hitlerorderedthe slaughter,and at so, it will not do to presume that all violence
the time the killings were illegal in light of by state agents is terrorism. The immediate
Germanstatues;but Hitler publicly acknowl- reason is that the presumption blurs the
edged responsibility, and the only conceal- distinction between terrorism and various
ment was that perceived as necessary to kinds or aspects of law enforcement. More-
surprise the victims.6 Surely there is a over, it is grossly unrealistic to assume that
significant difference between such open, all instances of genocide or persecutionalong
blatant use of coercion by a state official racial, ethnic, religious, or class lines by state
(dictator or not) and the situation where agents (including the military) are terrorism
regime opponents are assassinated but offi- regardless of the means, goals, or circum-
cials disavow responsibility and the murders stances. Nor is it defensible to speak of
are so secretive that official complicity is particular regimes (e.g., Stalin's, Hitler's,
difficult to prove. The "rule of terror" of Pol Pot's) as though all of the relatedviolence
Shaka, the famous Zulu chief, is also must have been state terrorism. For that
relevant. Shaka frequentlyorderedthe execu- matter, granted that the regimes were mon-
tion of tribal members on a seemingly strous bloodbaths, it does not follow that the
whimsicalbasis, but the orderswere glaringly state agents in question made no effort
public (see Walter 1969). Shaka's regime whatever to conceal any of their activities
illustratesanotherpoint: in some social units and/ortheir identity.7Readers who reject the
theremay be no obvious "law" otherthan the argumentshould confer with Americanjour-
will of a despot, in which case there is no nalists who attemptedto cover Stalin's Soviet
basis to describe the despot's violence as Union, Hitler's Germany, or Pol Pot's
illegal. The general point: because various Cambodia. Similarly, it is pointless to deny
aspects of government may be public vio- that secretive, clandestine, or furtive actions
lence, to label all of those aspects "terrorism" have been characteristicof "death squads"
is to deny that terrorism has any secretive, (many allegedly "state") in numerous Latin
furtive, or clandestine features. American countries over recent decades. It is
Given the conceptual issues and problems commonly very difficult to prove that such
that haunt the notion of state terrorism, it is groups murder with the knowledge and/or
hardly surprisingthat some writers attribute consent of state officials; but the difficulty is
great significance to the notion, while others one justification for identifying the murders
(e.g., Laqueur 1987, pp. 145-46) seem to as terrorism, even though the state-nonstate
reject it. The notion is not rejected here, and distinction may be debatable in particular
the following definition does not make it an instances.
7When perpetrators of violence attempt to
The suggestion is not that Nazi state terrorism conceal theirpersonalidentity, the attemptalone is
ended with the Night of the Long Knives (June 30, indicative of illegality; and the secretive, furtive,
1934). Note, however, that writers on "Nazi and/or clandestine features of terrorism(part 2 of
terror"(e.g., Noakes 1986) are prone to avoid an the definition) are more decisive than conjectures
explicit definition of terrorism. Such phrases as about legality. When there are doubts on the part
"use of terror"(Noakes 1986, p. 67) and "seige of of observersas to the legality of some violent act,
terror"(Walter 1969, p. 7) should not be equated the concealment of the personal identity of the
with "terrorism," and they are conducive to actor or actors should be treated as evidence of
misunderstandings. illegality.
Difficulties in EmpiricalApplication justified, a definition's utility is enhanced by
its correspondencewith the use of the term
One likely objection to the present definition "terrorism" by journalists and officials.
of terrorism is its complexity; but, again, Although only potentially demonstrable, my
demands for simplicity are inconsistent with claim is that the present definition corre-
human behavior's complexity. Nonetheless, sponds more with such use of the term than
application of the definition does call for does any simpler definition, such as: terror-
kinds of informationthat may not be readily ism is illegal violence.
available. Reconsider a previous question: Even when terrorismresearch is based on
Was PresidentKennedy's assassinationterror- descriptions of violent events, as in newspa-
ism? The present definition does not permit per stories, there may be cases that can be
an unequivocalanswer, largely because there designated as possible terrorismeven though
are doubtsaboutthe goals of the assassination the information is not complete; and a
and whether or not it was intimidation. If definition's empirical applicability can be
terrorismwere defined as simply "the illegal assessed in terms of agreement among
use or threat of violence," an affirmative independent observers in such designations.
answer to the Kennedy question could be In that connection, the present definition
given; but the definition would also admit points to the kind of informationneeded for
(inter alia) all robberies and many child truly defensible research on terrorism,which
abuses. Similarly, the phrase "for political is not the case when investigatorstry to make
purposes" would justify an affirmative an- do with a much simpler definition, or no
swer to the Kennedy question; but the definition at all.
implication would be a tacit denial of
apolitical terrorism,and divergent interpreta- TOWARD A THEORY OF TERRORISM
tions of "political" are legion. Finally,
althougha definitionthat specifically includes The present definition of terrorismdoes not
"murderof a state official" would maximize answer any of a multitudeof questions, such
confidence in an affirmative answer to the as: Why does the incidence of terrorismvary
Kennedy question, there must be doubts among political units and over time? Al-
about the feasibility of such an "enumer- though it is an illusion to suppose that any
ative" definition of terrorism. And what definition answers empirical questions,8 a
would one make of the murderof a sheriff by definition may be much more conducive than
his or her spouse? are alternativesto thinking about phenomena;
The generalpoint is that a simple definition if so, the definition furthersthe pursuit of a
of terrorismtends to delimit a class of events theory.
so broadas to defy valid generalizationsabout
it (reconsider mixing presidential assassina-
tions, robberies, and child abuses) or so
vague that its empirical applicability is Unlike an isolated proposition, a theory
negligible. In the latter connection, the requirespreliminaryobservationsand consid-
Kennedy illustration indicates the need to erable thought. The observations depend on
grant this methodological principle: the con- the way the phenomenonin question has been
gruence dimension (but not the feasibility conceptualized, and some conceptualizations
dimension) of a definition's empirical appli- facilitate recognition of logical connections
cabilityis enhancedwhen independentobserv- and/orpossible empirical associations.
ers agree that the definition cannot be applied When a definition comprises several dis-
in a particular instance because requisite tinct parts, it is commonly all the more
informationis not available. If that principle difficult to recognize relations between the
is not granted, sociologists will try to make phenomenon defined and other phenomena.
do with simple definitions and whatever data The solution is to think about all parts of the
are readily available.
Presumptiveand possible terrorism. Com- 8
It is also an illusion to suppose that social
parative research on terrorismcommonly is scientists have anything even approaching an
based on the use of the term "terrorism"by adequatetheory of terrorism(see commentariesby
journalistsor officials. Hence, insofar as the Laqueur1987, p. 165; Schmid and Jongman 1988,
use of data on presumptiveterrorismcan be p. 61; and Wilkinson 1986, p. 96).
definition in terms of a particularnotion, one direct causation (see surveys by Laqueur
that can be used to think also about diverse 1987, pp. 72-173; Schmid and Jongman
phenomena in the field's subject matter. 1988, pp. 61-135; and Wilkinson 1986, pp.
Explicationof the strategyis furtheredby this 93, 102, 197, 213).
diagram: X<---Y--->Z, where X is the Selective survival. Contemplate Durk-
phenomenondefined, Z is any other phenom- heim's assertion (1949, especially p. 257)
enon in the field's subjectmatter, and Y is the that an increase in material (population)
notion used to think about both X and Z. density results in an increasein the division of
Thinking about X and Z serves no purpose labor. How could the relation be strict
unless it suggests a relation between them. If causation? One answer: it is not strict
the relation is a logical connection, it furthers causation;rather, insofar as a positive empir-
the field's conceptualunification;but substan- ical association holds between the two
tive theory is advancedprimarilyby recogni- variables, it is through selective survival.
tion of a possible empirical association, Specifically, the probability of a society's
especially one having explanatory implica- survival is greater if an increase in material
tions. Whetherthere are explanatoryimplica- density is accompanied or followed by an
tions depends not just on the way that the two increase in the division of labor, even though
phenomena have been defined and on the the association was not anticipated (i.e., it
choice of the notion but also on the was not purposive).
explanatorymechanism. A "selective survival" explanation can be
described this way: some patternsor unifor-
mities exist because exceptions to them tend
Strategic ExplanatoryMechanisms
to be eliminated. Although the explanatory
for Sociology
mechanism requires no reference to the
In formulating theories sociologists rarely internalbehavior (perception, intention, etc.)
identify the type of explanatory mechanism, of the participants,the term "eliminated"(or
and the relative merits of contenders are "survival") is not limited to the purely
rarely debated. Unfortunately, space limita- biological sphere. After all, no one is
tions permit only a few observationson three confused when it is said that a particular
majorpossibilities. marriage did not survive or that various
Strict causation. Possibly excluding the 19th-century U.S. occupations have been
period when functionalism was dominant, eliminated during this century.
strict causation has been sociology's most Functionalist theories in sociology are
common explanatory mechanism. It is also studies in implicit resort to selective survival
the most difficult to describe, due in part to as the explanatorymechanism;but there is no
debates (particularly from Hume onward) mystery as to why the mechanism is com-
over the nature of causation. So a simple monly left implicit, nor why Davis (1959)
residual definition must suffice: strict causa- saw fit to defend functionalismby emphasiz-
tion is the mechanism if the explanation ing "functional analysis" rather than "func-
neither makes reference to selective survival tional explanation." The notion of a func-
nor emphasizes the purposive quality of tional explanation cannot be clarified and
human behavior. As such, strict causation made distinctive without invoking selective
includes direct, indirect or sequential (i.e., survival; but most functionalist theories ap-
interveningvariables), multiple, and recipro- pear incredible when translated something
cal causation. like this: the institutionor practicein question
Doubts aboutstrictcausationas sociology's (i.e., the explicandum) is necessary for the
sole explanatorymechanism grow when one survivalof the largersystem. Credulitywould
contemplates variation in the incidence of be sorely taxed by a functional theory of
terrorism. Consider two illustrative asser- terrorism. Imagine someone even suggesting
tions: (1) an increase in urbanizationcauses that terrorism is necessary for a country's
an increasein terrorism;and (2) an increase in survival.
stratificationcauses an increase in terrorism. The purposive quality of human behavior.
Both assertions tax credulity; and credulity Any theory that emphasizes the purposive
would not be furtheredby substitutingother quality of human behavior is likely to be
structuralvariables, nor by invoking multiple, criticized as being "teleological." That label
sequential, or reciprocalcausationratherthan should be avoided if only because it gives rise
to extremearguments,as when Catton(1966, trol is the most promising candidate, but its
pp. 5, 11) dismisses teleological theories or conceptualizationis crucial.
explanations on the grounds that they have The immediate issue is the choice of the
some future state (a goal) causing present term "control" ratherthan "social control."
behavior. However, the term "purpo- The latter is only a subclass of the class
siveness" is not used here as a synonym for "control over human behavior"; and unless
"teleological";instead, it is used to denote allcontrol is defined so as to include not only
major types of internal behavior, such as that class but also biotic control (e.g.,
perceptionand belief, the argumentbeing that domestication of plants) and inanimate con-
such behaviorsenter into the pursuitof goals. trol (e.g., making or using tools), it is
Identification of "purposiveness" as an doubtfulwhetherthe notion facilitatesdescrib-
explanatory mechanism is consistent with ing and thinking about sociology's subject
symbolic interactionism, one of sociology's matter.
perennialmajor perspectives. Yet the subjec- The prevailingconceptionof social control,
tivism of some versions of symbolic interac- the "counteractionof deviance" conception,
tionism is so extreme as to suggest that only is conducive to thinking of terrorists as
one explanatory mechanism is relevant for objects but not also as agents of social
sociology. To the contrary,the purposiveness control. Moreover, well-known advocates
mechanism can be combined with the other (e.g., Parsons 1951, pp. 297, 321) of the
two, and defensible sociological theories may conception deny the relevance of internal
require such combinations. Consider, for behavior. Thus, if the practice of wearing a
example, an explanation of "armed and wedding ring is conducive to maritalfidelity
organized groups," which are identified as and infidelity is deviant, then the practice is
police or military in English-speakingsocial social control even if the connection is
units. The international ubiquity of such recognized only by a sociologist observer. So
groups suggests that a country's survival is the counteraction-of-devianceconception of
jeopardizedby civil war or conquest without social control is alien to terrorism'spurposive
armed and organized opposition to militant quality and to attemptsto suppressterrorism.
secessionists or invaders. Even so, such A generic definitionof attemptedcontrol. If
groups are studies in purposiveness. As for only because sociologists should study both
combining strictcausationand purposiveness, successes and failures in control, attempted
environmental features make certain human control is the key term. That point takes on
practices difficult; but the consequences may special significance in the case of terrorism.
depend on whether and how the relation is Describing and thinking about terrorism
perceived. Marvin Harris (1979, p. 105) require recognition more of what terrorists
unwittinglysupplied an illustration:"Rainfall attempt to control than what they actually
agricultureleads to dispersed, multicentered control.
forms of production.Hence it is doubtfulthat Defined generically, attempted control is
any pristine state even developed on a rainfall overt behavior by a human in the belief that
base." Harris could not bring himself to (1) the behavior increases or decreases the
recognize that would-be rulers may perceive probabilityof some subsequentcondition and
the difficulty of controlling a dispersed (2) the increase or decrease is desirable. To
population. Yet an extreme position need not clarify, the commission or omission of an act
be taken. A population's actual spatial is overt behavior; and "a subsequent condi-
distributionis a causal factor in perception, tion" may be an organism's behavior (ex-
and imperceptive would-be rulers may be ternal or internal) or the existence, location,
eliminated. composition, color, size, weight, shape,
odor, temperature,or texture of some object
or substance, be it animate or inanimate,
Conceptualizationof Control observableor unobservable.
Durkheim'sdisciples will be prone to nurse
In light of the foregoing arguments,there is a this reservation: the definition makes inten-
need for a notion that (1) facilitatesdescribing tion relevant. The objection ignores the point
and thinkingabout not only terrorismbut also that sociologists use an army of terms that
any sociological subject and (2) is compatible imply intention, such as reaching, turning,
with all three explanatorymechanisms. Con- and saluting. For that matter, while some
reference to internal behavior is essential to squad, there is no thirdparty (i.e., no human
maintainthe distinction between success and intermediary,no reference to someone).
failure in control (according to the Attemptedsequential control is a command
counteraction-of-deviance conception, there or request by one human to another in the
are no failures in social control), the present belief that (1) it increases the probabilityof a
definition does not limit attemptedcontrol to subsequent command or request by another
intentionalbehaviorin the sense of conscious human to still other humans and (2) the
and deliberate. To illustrate, while drivers increase is desirable. A chain of commandsis
ordinarilyare unawareof holding the steering the most common form of sequentialcontrol,
wheel, who would deny that they hold in the and sequentialcontrol warrantsrecognition if
belief that it reduces the probability of an only because that form is virtually a defining
undesirable subsequent condition? Recogni- characteristic of an organization. For that
tion of an "affective" quality (i.e., desirable reason alone, sequentialcontrol is relevant in
vs. undesirable)will antagonizeboth extreme analyzing terroristgroups and governmental
behaviorists and Durkheimians,but consider agencies that attemptto suppressterrorism.
the consequences of ignoring it. When Attempted social control is overt behavior
someone robs a bank, he or she presumably by a human, the first party, in the belief that
acts in the belief that his or her behavior (1) the behavior increases or decreases the
increases the probability of being injured, probability of a change in the behavior of
which is a cognitive belief. So when a man anotherhumanor humans, the second partyin
backs out of a bank with gun in hand and is either case; (2) the overt behavior involves a
shot by a police officer, did the gunman third party but not in the way of a sequential
"control" the police officer? To answer control; and (3) the increase or decrease is
affirmativelyis to embrace an absurdity, the desirable. The definition is clarified by
inevitable outcome of avoiding reference to subsequent observations on terrorism; but
some clarificationcan be realized at this point
internal behavior (in this case, an affective
by consideringone of the five inclusive types
belief) when defining types of behavior.
of social control (Gibbs 1981, pp. 77-109),
Typesof humancontrol. For reasons given
because those types are distinguishedprimar-
later, social control is a very importanttype
ily in terms of how a thirdparty is involved.
of control when describing or thinking about In all instances of attemptedvicarious social
terrorism. However, that is the case only if control, the first party attemptsto punish the
the counteraction-of-devianceconception of third party, reward the third party, or
social control is rejected, and it is imperative somehow rectify the third party's behavior,
to distinguish social control from other types always presuming that such action will
of control over human behavior. influence the second party's behavior. Vicar-
In attempting self-control and individual ious social control is the basis of general
acts in the belief that the action increases the deterrence,which enters into criminaljustice
probabilitythat his or her subsequentbehav- policy in virtuallyall jurisdictions(see Morris
ior will be as desired (e.g., perhaps greater 1966, p. 631). Less obvious, terrorists also
diligence at work) or decreasesthe probability often resort to deterrent vicarious social
of undesirablebehavior (e.g., perhaps smok- control as an integral component of their
ing). Although that definition is consistent intimidationstrategy.
with the "challenge" conception of self-
control (overcoming fears or vices), various
mundane acts, such as lifting the phone Some Logical Connectionsand Possible
receiver before dialing or setting an alarm EmpiricalAssociations
clock, are also attemptedself-control. The initial (unnumbered)partof the definition
Attempted proximate control most com- (supra) suggests this question: Why is
monly takes the form of a command or a terrorismillegal? Terrorismis a violent act,
request, but coercion and certain kinds of but state officials seek a monopoly on
threats are also proximate control; and they violence, especially violence with a negligible
are especially relevantin analyzingterrorism. probabilityor retaliation(see Weber 1978, p.
However, even thoughthe targetof proximate 314, though note that Weber ignored the
control may be an aggregate, as when a probability of retaliation). So the question's
terrorist leader shouts an order to a bomb answer:Terrorismis illegal because it jeopar-
dizes the control exercised by superordinate conditions promote or impede perceptionsby
state officials (legislators, monarchs,despots, the public and officials of the goals of
or others)or is an attemptby those officials to dissidents as acceptableand realizable?
realize a goal that they perceive as realizable Another major question about violence.
throughlegal means, if at all, by incurringthe Parts 2, 3, and 4 of the definition indicate
loss of something they value more than the how terrorism differs from lethal conflicts
goal. commonly identified as wars or civil wars.
Why do terrorists-state or nonstate- But why is "covertness" so characteristicof
resortto secretive, furtive, and/orclandestine terrorism?What writers commonly label as
violence? Because they seek goals that they terrorist groups or organizations (nonstate)
perceive as realizable only through such rarely comprise more than a few hundred
violence or only through legal means that members, which precludes more than elec-
entail unacceptable losses. What are such toral success. Because nonstate terrorists
goals? Why do terroristspursue them? Why resort to violence, they are certain to be
do terroristsperceive secretive, furtive, and/ targets of attempted control by the police
or clandestine violence as an essential means and/or the military; and their small number
of countercontrol? A theory is needed to alone precludes successful countercontrol
answer such questions; but a theory will not measures akin to open warfare. Various
be realized unless social scientists take the tactics of concealment-all types of counter-
questions seriously, and no theory will be control-offer the only hope of survival, and
defensible if inconsistent with Walter's state- various features of "internationalterrorism"
ment (1969, p. 13) about violence: "the are manifestationsof those tactics.
proximateaim is to instill terror;the ultimate Officials engaged in state terrorismare not
end is control." endangeredby conventionalmilitaryor police
More on goals. In seeking to maintain or action, but they are concerned with conceal-
alter some putative norm, dissidents may ing their personal identity. Although a theory
have so little popularsupportin the countryas is needed to specify the conditions in which
a whole (e.g., the United Kingdom in the state officials resort to terrorism, their reli-
case of England, Wales, Scotland, and ance on concealment is not puzzling. Even a
Northern Ireland) and/or such determined homicidal despot is likely to recognize that
opposition from state officials that the dissi- the appearance of legitimacy may be essen-
dents come to perceive violence as the only tial for the regime's survival.
means of realizing that goal. However, the Concealmentis purposivebehavior, and no
amount of popular support and official notion rivals control when it comes to forcing
opposition depend not just on the evalutive recognition of purposiveness. Yet the notion
standardsof the public and/orofficials but on does not lead to an extreme position as far as
the extent to which they view the dissidents' explanatory mechanisms are concerned.
goal as realistic. They will not view the goal Should the concealment tactics of terrorists
as realistic if they are baffled by related fail or should their bravado lead them to
statements. Contemplatethe characterization extremely reckless behavior, they are virtu-
of terrorists in West Germany (see Becker ally certain to be killed or incapacitated;but
1988, p. 24) of themselvesas fightersfor "the terroristsdo not just happen to be killed or
uprootedmasses" of the ThirdWorld. Even if incapacitated,which is to say that the notion
officials should agree that West Germany is of control remains relevant. The related
responsible for the plight of Third World question for sociology is thus: What condi-
countries, they are unlikely to know what tions (e.g., degree of urbanization)influence
would satisfy the terrorists. the efficacy of the concealment tactics of
Even if the "acceptability" and "realiza- terrorists?
bility" of dissident goals partially determine The strategy of terrorism reconsidered.
whether the dissidents become terrorists, When terrorists inflict injuries or destroy
those considerationsare not to be judged by property,they aim to promotefear throughout
social scientists. It is entirely a matterof the some population (e.g., legislators, factory
way that the public and/or officials perceive owners), and therebycontrolthatpopulation's
those goals. Yet sociologists can further the behavior. To what end? The answer depends
pursuit of a theory about terrorism by on the putative norm that the terrorists are
undertakingresearch on this question: What attemptingto alter or maintain;but whatever
it may be, the terrorists employ deterrent The provocationalstrategyhas implications
vicarious social control. for a theory concerning variation in the
Why do terrorists engage in that type of incidence of terrorism. A failure in the
control?Their small numberand vulnerability strategymay be more importantthan success.
to retaliation make attempts at proximate Specifically, if the outcome is an authoritar-
control ineffective; indeed, social control is ian regime, the incidence of terrorism may
distinctivein that it offers a means for the few decline because repressive measures become
to control the many. Sequentialcontrol is not more effective. That possibility poses a
an alternative because the "normative posi- sociological question, but some sociologists
tion" of terroristsseverely limits the range of will not be inclined to do research on the
their authority.Normative considerationsare question because they evidently think of
also relevant in contemplatingthis question: officials as thumb-twiddlingspectatorswhen
Why deterrentvicarious social control rather the status quo is challenged violently (see,
than some other subtype or type? Because e.g., Skocpol 1979). To the contrary, in
violence (including relatedcoercion, physical numerous countries officials have responded
punishment, etc.) is the principal alternative effectively to terrorism (see, e.g., Laqueur
when there is no normative basis (e.g., 1987). Hence, a theory's validity is jeopar-
authority, appeals to evalutive standards)for dized if it does not recognize that variationin
control. Should it be objected that assassina- terrorismmay to some extent reflect variation
tion may be a means to a political goal in the effectiveness of attemptsto control it.
without the element of intimidation, the Indeed, where there is scarcely any rule of
objection ignores a multitude of definitions law, why would terroristsemploy the provo-
that make intimidationa necessary feature of cational strategy?That question is relevant in
terrorism. Moreover, such a definition need contemplatingthe ostensible rarity of terror-
not even suggest that terrorism is the only ism in Marxist countries (see Laqueur 1987,
means to a political goal, not even the only p. 302).
violent means. Finally, by what logic are all
assassinationsinstances of terrorism? SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
What do terrorists hope to gain through
deterrent control? One common answer is An impressive theory of terrorism requires
"concessions" (see, e.g., Oots 1986, p. 81), more than a conceptualizationthat confronts
but that answer ignores a strategythat several issues and problems. A definitionof terrorism
writershave attributedto terrorists(see, e.g., must promise empirical applicability and
Laqueur 1987; Wilkinson 1986). Briefly, facilitate recognition of logical connections
terrorists aim to provoke officials to such and possible empirical associations. Such
extreme repressive measures (e.g., censor- recognition requires a notion that facilitates
ship, preventive detention) that the govern- describing and thinking about terrorism;and
ment loses popular support and falls. The the notion must be compatible with each of
"provocational"strategyis based on modula- three possible explanatorymechanisms:strict
tive social control, wherein the first party causation, selective survival, and purposive-
(terroristsin this case) uses the influence of ness.
the thirdparty(the public at large in this case) The notion of control is the most promising
on the second party (governmentofficials in candidate. Although that notion has no equal
this case). The immediate significance of the when it comes to underscoringhuman behav-
provocative strategy is the possibility of its ior's purposive quality, it is not alien to any
failure. In employing the strategy, terrorists particular explanatory mechanism. All of
evidentlyassume that the governmentwill fall sociology's subject matter can be described
because it increasingly departs from the rule and thought of in terms of control (at least as
of law, but some powerful faction may it has been conceptualized here), and the
consider the rule of law secondary to notion is particularlyrelevant in the study of
suppression of terrorism and stage a coup terrorism.That phenomenon and attempts to
d'etat because of the government's "underre- prevent it are nothing less than one vast
action" to terrorism.Such was the case when attemptat control.
the military toppled Uruguay's liberal demo-
cratic government, crushed the terrorists(the JACK P. GIBBS is CentennialProfessor and
Tupamaros),and remainedin power. Acting Chair of the Departmentof Sociology
at VanderbiltUniversity. His interests extend Terrorism in the ContemporaryWorld. West-
to the sociology of deviance, social control, port, CT: Greenwood.
humanecology, the sociology of law, and the Livingstone, Neil C. 1982. The War Against
methodology of theory construction. Gibbs's Terrorism.Lexington, MA: Heath.
next book, Control: Sociology's Central Morris, Norval. 1966. "Impediments of Penal
Reform." University of Chicago Law Review
Notion, will be publishedby the University of 33:627-56.
Illinois Press in the Spring of 1989. Noakes, Jeremy. 1986. "The Origins, Structure
and Function of Nazi Terror." Pp. 67-87 in
Terrorism,Ideology, and Revolution, edited by
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