Monash University
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Violent political extremism and the socio-political dynamics of affect

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posted on 2017-02-27, 02:16 authored by Smith, Debra Ann
This dissertation argues that understanding violent political extremism requires an understanding of how emotion contributes to the many decisions that lead to a violent political act. It demonstrates how emotion underpins the creation of exclusivist identity groups that sit in opposition to the status quo, how they contribute to the development of beliefs that allow for violent ideologies to appear credible, and how they shape a morality that legitimises violence as a political tactic. Drawing on interviews conducted with former members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), and supplemented with interviews conducted with people who have been involved in, supported, or have worked with people convicted of violence in the name of Islam, this dissertation demonstrates how emotion operates both across and within the social, ideological, and motivational realms of human interaction in ways that help determine political action. It takes a step back from a ‘process model’ approach to understanding violent political behaviour, instead working from the assumption that the decision to engage in political violence is not a linear one. Rather, it involves complex interactions within different parts of a person’s life that culminate in a readiness to use violence as a political tactic. Using extracts from the interviews, six characteristics of emotion are established; their referential nature, their connection to value judgments, their cognitive and physiological components, their ability to be misleading, their mobilising potential, and their social embeddedness. This provides a foundation for demonstrating how violent political extremists experience their emotions politically, and in ways that are often incompatible with dominant norms and expectations. This, it is argued, contributes to a rupture in the extremist’s relationship with broader society and the subsequent development of an alternative morality that releases them from seeing conventional rules and laws as valid or legitimate, thereby establishing the moral basis on which new standards of behaviour become defensible. By making this argument, this dissertation confronts a persistent problem in Terrorism Studies regarding the nature and influence of emotion on terrorist behaviour. Emotions inevitably inform and underpin the many relationships, beliefs, and actions that lead to violent political activism. This thesis demonstrates how this knowledge can be integrated into theories of political violence without resorting to pathologising terrorist behaviour as irrational.


Principal supervisor

James Walter

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Department, School or Centre

School of Social Sciences


Bachelor of Arts (Hons)

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Faculty of Arts

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