Social Network Analysis in the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence

The academic community studying terrorism has changed dramatically in the past decade. From a research area which was investigated by a small number of political scientists and sociologists, employing mainly descriptive and qualitative studies that resulted in limited theoretical progress as noted by Schmid and Jongman (1988) as well as Crenshaw (2000), it has in a short time become one of the more vibrant and rapidly developing academic realms as scholars from different branches of the social sciences have engaged in an effort to unravel this phenomenon, introducing new theoretical outlooks, conceptualizations and methods.

The descriptive and explanatory potentials of Social Network Analysis (SNA) in the study of violent political groups attracted some of the new students of terrorism shortly after the September 11th attacks (Van Meter 2001, Carly et al. 2002, Krebs 2002). Yet, even though their studies showed strong potential as they provided significant insights about the structures and internal processes of terrorists groups, the use of SNA in the study of political violence has remained quite limited, and still amounts to only a small fraction of the research in the field. Our experience in presenting SNA of violent groups in various platforms and events has led us to conclude that this is a result of two factors, which sustain each other. The majority of political violence students have very limited acquaintance with the rationale, and the main concepts and methodological tools of SNA; hence, many of them are still reluctant to exercise SNA in their studies and consequently tend to express doubt regarding its efficiency and relevance for the study of complex social phenomena.

This essay is not methodological per se in the sense that our goal is not to provide a methodological introduction to SNA. We do strive however to provide a clear presentation of the advantages of this realm for the study of terrorism and related fields, as well as the main relevant methodological tools and concepts, by utilizing pertinent and intelligible examples. These illustrate how network analysis complements conventional approaches to the study of political violence and how it can provide important information about the characteristics of the group structure (and how it influences members motives, behaviors and the outcome of their actions), recruitment processes, evolution, and of the division of political and social power among its members. We hope this will encourage more scholars to incorporate SNA into their studies, and consequently will further our understanding of the processes, causes and implications of political violence.

Tags: Network Analysis, Social Networks