A “Radical Sociability”: In Defence of an Online/Offline Multidimensional Approach to Radicalisation

by Benjamin Ducol

Beyond a dichotomic view of radicalisation in the digital era

The dichotomisation of “virtual” versus “real world” is one of the major pitfalls in current studies of radicalisation in the digital era. In many cases, scholars tend to conceptualise virtual spaces as autonomous from what actually happens in the “real world” and vice versa. This epistemological stance proves to be problematic insofar as it revolves around a false dichotomy which artificially distinguishes cyberspace from the “real world.” In reality, the Internet involves real people who cannot be considered outside of the socialising settings that constrain their beliefs and inform their guidance rules and daily actions in the “real world.”

In regard to radicalisation processes in the digital era, it appears equally counterproductive to see the Internet as an all-powerful deus ex machina which would make all other factors irrelevant in our understanding of radicalisation and pathways towards terrorism-related activities. The Internet represents only one piece of the radicalisation puzzle. Current research should therefore pay closer attention to diachronic dynamics that can exist between online environments and “real world” social settings[1]. It cannot be assumed that there is a natural degree of causality between what happens online and the influence on individuals in the “real world.” Instead, we need to recast the debate about online versus offline radicalisation to reflect the fact that the two are less distinct than sometimes portrayed.

Individual’s socialisation, life-spheres and the cognitive market

Our daily life is composed of a plurality of socialising settings experienced through our life-spheres, which constantly help to define our worldviews, and inform the rationality behind our actions. Life-spheres can be defined as “distinct though interrelated ‘regions’ in the life of an individual, each one with its own borders, logic, and dynamic”[2]. This concept of life-spheres designates symbolic environments and fields of socialisation (family, friendships, etc.) through which individuals experience particular socialising settings that contribute in turn to shaping their beliefs and social identity.

In sum, the—homogeneous or heterogenous—configuration of life-spheres constrains frontiers of the cognitive market that individuals are able to access, and affect the overall rationality guiding people’s actions. At the individual level, life-spheres operate as cognitive filters to ideas and beliefs circulating in the social world. Life-spheres, which can be online and/or offline, have a key role in selective exposure to new socialising settings and acquisition of new beliefs, motivations and guidance rules by individuals. As noted by Bronner: “On average, beliefs that we endorse are probabilistically linked to the characteristics of cognitive market in which we are embedded voluntarily or involuntarily”[3]. Accordingly, it is conceivable that the endorsment of extremist beliefs by a person, and therefore that person’s propensity to see terrorism as a legitimate avenue of action, operates according to the same logic of selection and mechanisms of exposure.

Internet as a life-sphere among others

The Internet should therefore be considered in itself as a life-sphere among others and thus a symbolic environment and field of socialisation that can facilitate an individual’s exposure to particular socialising settings. If family, friends and professional entourage represent various examples of offline life-spheres that participate in shaping individual sociability, virtual milieus—websites, discussion forums and social media platforms—can be considered as common examples of online life-spheres. Online and offline life-spheres each have their own characteristics and tend to produce different socialising settings, which can be largely independent from each other or deeply interrelated depending on a person’s life-sphere configuration.

In many cases, online and offline life-spheres do not necessarily overlap, leaving opportunities for a person’s life-sphere hierarchy to change and be re-evaluated. With the issue of radicalisation processes in mind, the fact that these life-spheres do not necessarily intertwine is very important as this diminishes the risk of an enduring homogeneous exposure to radicalising settings. The fact that all life-spheres of an individual do not fully intertwine together deeply contributes to creating a moderating effect on radicalising settings which an individual might be exposed to.

Radical sociability in the making : the emergence of offline and online interlocking patterns

On the contrary, when an individual’s online and offline life-spheres tend to become highly interlocked, linkages that people have established between their various life-spheres tend to reinforce particular socialising settings and a particular type of sociability. Accordingly, the emergence of a radical sociability can result from radicalising settings being turned into a crucial and central element in all life-spheres of an individual, thus confining him to a gradual cognitive monopoly that will lead to the progressive crystallisation of his beliefs and social identity, both online and offline.

To summarise my theoretical argument, the more an individual’s life-spheres become intimately interlocked in a person’s life, the more this configuration will lead that person to be exposed to similar socialising settings. In the case of terrorism and clandestine political violence, one life-sphere alone cannot produce the emergence of a radical sociability; rather, it is the convergence of all life-spheres of an individual in which radicalising settings are present that will tend to produce such a homogeneous exposure. It is possible that the emergence of a radical sociability may create a constant process of self-interactions that allows individuals to reinforce their beliefs and social identity as well as their embeddedness in specific social networks and milieus.

In light of this theoretical approach to radicalisation, it is possible to suggest that the role of the Internet on radicalisation phenomena cannot be understood without a closer examination of the relational setting through which some individuals come to acquire a propensity to perceive involvement in terrorism-related activities as a legitimate action alternative. The Internet alone does not radicalise people; rather, it represents one life-sphere among others, one piece of the puzzle among many. What ought to be explained in radicalisation phenomena related to digital networks is how the Internet interacts with other life-spheres and how it makes possible the emergence of a particular kind of sociability: the radical sociability. Only by recasting our approach to radicalisation in such a theoretical perspective will we be able to assess what exactly is the role of the Internet in the making of terrorist trajectories and pathways towards clandestine political violence.

[1] Ducol, B. (2012) Uncovering the French-speaking jihadisphere: An exploratory analysis. Media, War and Conflict. 5 (1), pp. 51–70.

[2] Passy, F. and Giugni, M. (2000) Life-spheres, networks, and sustained participation in social movements: A phenomenological approach to political commitment. Sociological Forum. 15 (1), pp.121.

[3] Bronner, G. (2009) La pensée extrême: Comment des hommes ordinaires deviennent des

fanatiques. Paris: Denoël, p.206.

About the author

Benjamin Ducol is currently postdoctoral fellow at the International Center for Comparative Criminology (ICCC) at the Université de Montréal and research associate with the Canada Research Chair on Conflicts and Terrorism at the Université Laval.This post is an abstract of the chapter entitled ‘A radical sociability : In defence of an online/offline multidimensional approach to radicalisation’ recently published in Martin Bouchard (Ed.) (2015) Social Networks, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: Radical and Connected (Abingdon : Routledge).

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