Mapping the Agenda for Incel Research: Over-trodden Paths vs. Unchartered Territories

Stephane J. Baele

The past few years have seen a sharp increase in the attention paid by extremism and terrorism scholars to the incel phenomenon, and to the manosphere more broadly. The 2018 Toronto van attack acted like an electroshock waking up the field to the reality and often violent consequences of the sprawling toxic online ecosystem promoting hegemonic masculinity and degrading – when not downright dehumanizing – perceptions of women.

While these spaces had already been studied for some time in gender and media studies by pioneers like Debbie Ging and colleagues, Minassian’s attack triggered in 2019 a first wave of studies investigating the phenomenon from a radicalization and political violence perspective (e.g., Jaki and colleagues, Farrell and colleagues, or my own work with Lewys Brace and Travis Coan). Subsequent bouts of violence in one way or another inspired by the incel worldview (the 2018 Tallahassee yoga studio attack, the 2020 Glendale shopping mall shooting, etc.) further flared up interest. While until 2018 none of the field’s journals had published a single paper on incel communities and associated ideas, from that date onwards dozens of articles have appeared that reflect this intensifying scrutiny: 16 in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 14 in Terrorism & Political Violence, 9 in Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism & Political Aggression and the same number in Critical Studies on Terrorism, and 4 in the Journal of Policing, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorism. To this expanding literature, one ought to add recent academic and general interest books – such as Sugiura’s The Incel Rebellion (2021), Bates’ Men Who Hate Women (2021), or Van Brunt and Taylor’s Understanding and Treating Incels – as well as work done in neighbouring disciplines such as computer science or psychology.

There is therefore by now a rich and theoretically and methodologically diverse literature shedding light from distinct perspectives on a range of dimensions of the phenomenon. Qualitative papers bringing an insightful interpretive edge on localized aspects co-exist with quantitative pieces offering comprehensive views from afar. Surveys and interviews have recently entered the field with work from the likes of Sophia Moskalenko, Anne Speckhard, or Shane Murphy, adding yet another viewpoint. In a spirit that should inspire terrorism and extremism academia more broadly, authors for the most part engage with each other’s works across usually impermeable methodological or theoretical boundaries.

Over-Trodden Paths of Research

Yet I would suggest that the time is ripe for an evaluation of what has been achieved and what remains to be done. The key motivator behind the need for such an appraisal is, I would argue, the repetitive character now displayed by literature even though key issues remain unexplored. In other words, the current map of incel research displays a few over-trodden paths meandering between extensive uncharted territories. As for the routes we should stop following are 1) implementing text analyses of incel forums (revealing the general themes and ideas has long been done, and most specific aspects such as the violence of language or the “sanctification” of heroes have also been covered), 2) establishing the posting structure, hierarchy, and dynamics of the forums (these have been revealed in a handful of recent papers), 3) discussing whether the incel worldview is “extremist” or not, and whether incel-inspired violence is “terrorism” or not (quite a few contributions have by now exhausted the lines of argument on this question, coming from different approaches).

I am not the only one to make such a diagnosis. Indeed as I started penning down this post, Gavin Hart and Antoinette Raffaela Huber published a paper in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (“Five Things We Need to Learn About Incel Extremism”) that similarly called for “avenues for fresh research”. What are these avenues? 1) Evaluating the real support for violence within the incel community, 2) assessing the impact of pornography on the views and belonging trajectories of the participants, 3) spelling out the “key dimensions of Femcel ideology”, 4) conceptualizing the relationship and connections between Incel and far-right ideologies, and finally 5) designing knowledge that could help design CVE interventions able to pull out people from incel spaces. All of these paths, they argue, are only explorable through “stronger connections with members of the Incel community”, in other words with incel guides. While I agree with this list, I do also see a larger series of six new uncharted territories to explore, perhaps in priority, and without incel guides.

Uncharted Terroritories for Future Exploration

First, and expanding Hart and Huber’s fourth point on the relationship between the Incel and far-right ideologies, a systematic mapping of the links to and from the incel ecosystem, from and to neighbouring ecosystems (especially but not only the far-right) ought to be done to gain an understanding of the strategic and accidental sources of the ideological cross-pollination Hart and Huber subsume.

Second, and following from this, a larger, data-driven investigation on the percolation of incel ideas and lingo into the broader societal discourse across time is in order, as yet another case of extremism mainstreaming. While it is regularly noted that these ideas emerge from a wider misogynistic culture, the reverse ideational flow has not yet been clearly documented, nor have the sites acting as conveyor belts been rigorously identified.

Third, while the textual content of incelosphere has been thoroughly mined, almost nothing has been said on its visual dimension. Which visual tropes are prevalent, on which platforms, and what does it tell of the incel phenomenon?

Fourth, attention should be paid to the historical development of the incelosphere, and in particular its geographical contagion away from North America. Approximating the geographical location of participants is difficult but has been tempted, and the combination of a rigorous approach based on these first attempts with GIS tools would disclose a diffusion map of the community.

Fifth, the economics of the incel ecosystem ought to be investigated, not only to examine potential financial gains and flows typically associated with sites having large visitors flows but also more conceptually to unpack the real but complex and conflicted relationship the incel phenomenon has with neoliberalism: whereas incels typically argue that their “condition” is one of the many symptoms of the neoliberal society, the misleading nature of their assessment as to how this is the case calls for a serious exposé.

Finally sixth, even though several studies now centre on the issue of participants’ mental health, this major dimension ought to be properly tackled by cross-disciplinary collaboration with psychologists specializing in autistic spectrum disorder and depression.

Far from claiming to be the field’s new gospel or attempting to discipline research, this new list is more of an open invitation to reflect on the situation of the field, review our accumulated knowledge, and use this pause to open our visual field to crucial yet overlooked areas and processes.

Stephane Baele is Associate Professor in Security and Political Violence at the University of Exeter, UK. His work on violent political actors’ communications, and the role of language in conflict more generally, has appeared in leading journals across the social sciences. He is the PI of the NORFACE-funded project ExID (Extreme Identities) mapping and analysis the far-right online ecosystem.

Image Credit: Pexels

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