The Internal Brakes on Violent Escalation: A Descriptive Typology

Why do some ‘extremists’ or ‘extremist groups’ choose not to engage in violence, or only in particular forms of low-level violence? Joel Busher, Donald Holbrook and Graham Macklin have developed a typology to better understand why there are often thresholds of violence that members of extremist groups rarely cross.

Part of the answer is likely to lie in external constraints, such as the counter-measures put in place by state and non-state actors to inhibit the activities of such groups.

Yet the fact that few groups carry out as much violence as they are capable of indicates that in most cases external constraints comprise only part of the answer.

Detailed empirical accounts indicate that pressures within these groups also inhibit the adoption or diffusion of greater violence. In other words, the limits on violence are to some extent self-imposed.

In other words, the limits on violence are to some extent self-imposed

The Internal Brakes on Violent Escalation: A Descriptive TypologyTo date however there has been scant systematic analysis of these ‘internal brakes’ on violent escalation.

In response to this gap in understanding, Joel Busher, Donald Holbrook and Graham Macklin set out to develop a typology to describe and categorise the internal brakes on violent escalation within extremist groups.

In their report (read it here) they set out three broad conclusions:

1. It is possible to develop a typology of the internal brakes on violent escalation that has broad applicability across groups characterised by very different ideologies and levels of violence.

Three primary case studies, that differed significantly in terms of ideology and levels of violence, were used to test the typology:
case studies internal brakes typology

You can read all three case studies in depth here in the full report, or download the three case studies individually by clicking on the above list.

2. One way to help us to understand the internal brakes on violent escalation is to conceive of them as operating on a series of underlying logics.

Identification of these logics has enabled an organised typology around five higher-order brakes, each of which are associated with a number of lower-order brakes or ‘sub-brakes’:

  • Brake 1 – strategic logic: Identification of non- or less violent strategies of action as being as or more effective than more violent alternatives.
  • Brake 2 – moral logic: Construction of moral norms and evaluations that inhibit certain forms of violence and the emotional impulses towards violence.
  • Brake 3 – logic of ego maintenance: Self-identification as a group that is either nonviolent or uses only limited forms of violence.
  • Brake 4 – logic of outgroup definition: Boundary softening in relation to putative out-groups such as opponents, opponents’ perceived supporters, the general public or state actors.
  • Brake 5­ – organisational logic: Organisational developments that either (a) alter the moral and strategic equations in favour of non- or limited violence, (b) institutionalise less violent collective identities and/or processes of boundary softening, and/or (c) reduce the likelihood of unplanned violence.

3. The typology opens up potentially productive avenues of research and analysis, but should be handled with care.

A number of issues require careful attention if this typology is to be used, as intended, to support evaluation of the threats from and opportunities to inhibit, escalation towards violence, and it is clear that the typology cannot be use as a straightforward ‘checklist’.

However, in recent years a growing number of academics have begun to highlight the need for a more detailed understanding of the processes of non- or limited escalation. This typology provides an important step in that direction.

The Internal Brakes On Violent Escalation: A Descriptive Typology

You can find the full report for here.

You can find the executive summary of the report here.

You can download the three case studies (found in this full report) individually here:

  1. The transnational and British jihadi scene from 2005 to 2016
  2. The British extreme right during the 1990s
  3. The animal liberation movement in the UK from the mid-1970s until the early 2000s

These resources are produced from The Internal Brakes on Violent Escalation: A Descriptive Typology project, funded by CREST. To find out more information about this project, and to see other outputs from the team, visit the project page or go to:

As part of CREST’s commitment to open access research these resources are available under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence. For more details on how you can use our content see here.