Actors and Ideologies in Social Context

This project aims to improve our understanding of where and how beliefs and values, including from extremist ideologies, are transmitted and learned and why and how people engage and disengage from terrorist violence.

This Programme improves our understanding of where and how extremist ideologies are transmitted and learned, and why and how people engage and disengage from terrorist violence. Led by Professor Kim Knott at Lancaster University.

This programme examines the backcloth of economic, political, societal and global security perspectives that shape the perceptions and realities of security threats.

Through original research, knowledge synthesis and collaborative research with practitioners, the programme aims to improve understanding of the conditions under which extremist ideologies are passed on, individuals and groups are radicalised, and a minority make the move to violence.

Better knowledge of the process, locations, events and relationships involved in ideological transmission is vital for future development and targeting of interventions, disruption, and counter-narratives

Ideological learning in extremist contexts

There is little research on how, as learners, novice extremists set about acquiring in-depth ideological knowledge. Nor is there a good understanding of when and why the development of ideological expertise can deepen commitment to a cause or support disengagement. This research examines how learners access, internalise, and use ideological knowledge in different contexts, including both group- and lone-learning, and considers what factors shape these processes. It builds on a framework developed from an earlier interdisciplinary review of research on ideological transmission.

The research is intended to improve understanding of radicalisation and deradicalisation pathways, and to act as a source of guidance for security practitioners who need to develop in-depth understandings of extreme ideologies. Tracing the journey from novice to expert may help locate the points at which people may be receptive to altering ideological commitments. Understanding the value of different learning strategies and types of ideological material can inform policy and practice relating to proscription and counter-messaging.

  • Kin and peer contexts, ideological transmission and the move to extremist involvement
    This doctoral project enhances understanding of the ideological and social impact of family members and friends by connecting social network analysis of terrorist individuals and groups, psychological research on terrorist biographies, and studies of intergenerational and peer-to-peer transmission.
  • Gender and violent extremism
    This doctoral project examines the gendered roles, mechanisms and practices which support violent extremism. Can underlying structures, drivers and beliefs be identified, and how and when do they differ for men and women? How have women’s roles as enablers of terrorist engagement or obstacles to disengagement changed?
  • Learning and communication in transnational militant groups
    This doctoral project examines how transnational extremist networks tailor communications to their respective audiences. It problematises the traditional concept of ‘extremist groups/organisation’ by looking at how affect and inter-subjective meaning are co-created in wider extremist networks. The project compares these processes in jihadi and right-wing networks.

Completed research projects

  • Grassroots counter-messaging online: building resistance in civil society
    This project deepened understanding of counter-messaging and the types of content created by individuals outside officially recognised programmes. It looked at the motivations of activists who produce counter messages, and the effectiveness of their content. It considered the risks and rewards they face.
  • Reciprocal radicalisation
    This project tested theories of reciprocal radicalisation using a case study of extreme right web forums in the aftermath of four violent incidents in 2017, three inspired by violent Islamism, another with extreme right motivations. It examined how digital milieus react to violent attacks by ideological opponents and assessed the extent to which extreme-right adherents see themselves as coupled to militant Islamism. It asked how online rhetoric develops in response to militant Islamist violence. As part of the project, a workshop was held to co-ordinate current research on reciprocal radicalisation and to bring together security practitioners and academic researchers. A summary and papers were presented online.

Research reviews

Ideological transmission

An interdisciplinary review of social science and humanities research on ideological transmission produced three CREST reports, on the family, peers and religious and political organisations. This led to new research on ideological learning.

On ideological transmission in families: It has long been assumed that ideology is passed from parent to child, however empirical support for this is mixed. Our research review found that:

  • Concrete principles, such as political and religious affiliation and preference, are more successfully transferred between generations than more abstract ones, such as values
  • Family members exert different effects on transmission
  • Family agreement on beliefs and values can boost transmission, as can the salience of issues
  • Some methods (e.g., rote learning and regular ritual) are more effective than others
  • Children are not passive agents in the process; they are actively involved
  • Offspring sometimes defy parents and resist their influence
  • The transmission of hatred differs across groups: social revolutionary terrorists are generally more likely to disagree with and defy parents; national-separatist terrorists more likely to feel they are righting the wrongs experienced by earlier generations.

 Muslims and Islam in the UK

This annotated report synthesised open-source, humanities and social science research on British Muslims and Islam. It examined the history and demography of British Muslims and their communities, families, gender and generation, secular and cultural identities, mosques, and educational issues. Transnational connections, Islamic movements and networks, and civil society organisations and campaigning groups were also discussed. A series of short guides were produced to accompany the longer report. They were intended to inform and enrich discussions about Muslims in the UK, and to challenge assumptions.

Project resources

Report
Sarah Marsden, James Lewis
Trauma, Adversity, And Violent Extremism
Report
|
7 min read
Guide
Ben Lee, Kim Knott
How and Why Ideologies are Shared and Learned
Guide
|
15 min read
Article
Ben Lee
A Short Guide to Narratives of the Far-Right
Article
|
3 min read
Article
Rosie Mutton
Understanding the Roles Women Play in Violence Extremism and Why it Matters
Article
|
4 min read
Article
Kristine Endsjø
Affect and emotion in extremist discourse
Article
|
3 min read
Article
Sarah Marsden
Countering Violent Extremism: A Guide to Good Practice
Article
|
4 min read
Report
Monica Lloyd
Extremism Risk Assessment: A Directory
Report
|
2 min read
Guide
Sarah Marsden
Deradicalisation Programmes: Introductory guide
Guide
|
1 min read
Report
Kim Knott, Ben Lee
Ideological Transmission: Political and Religious Organisations
Report
|
10 min read
Report
Kim Knott, Simon Copeland, Ben Lee
Reciprocal Radicalisation
Report
|
1 min read
Article
Sarah Marsden
Reintegrating Extremists: ‘Deradicalisation’ and Desistance
Article
|
5 min read
Report
Kim Knott
Muslims and Islam in the UK
Report
|
15 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
British Muslims: Gender and generations
Guide
|
2 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
British Muslims: Families
Guide
|
2 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
British Muslims: Mosques
Guide
|
1 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
British Muslims: Demography and communities
Guide
|
2 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
British Muslims: Charities and organisations
Guide
|
2 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
British Muslims: A history
Guide
|
1 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
British Muslims: Sectarian Movements
Guide
|
2 min read
Article
Kim Knott
Mind Map: Ideological Transmission
Article
|
3 min read
Report
Kim Knott, Ben Lee
Ideological Transmission: Peers, education, and prisons
Report
|
7 min read
Guide
Ben Lee
Understanding the Far-Right Landscape
Guide
|
1 min read
Article
Rosie Mutton
The role of gender in violent extremism
Article
|
3 min read
Article
James Lewis
How do teachers engage with Prevent?
Article
|
4 min read
Article
Simon Copeland
The Importance of Terrorists’ Families and Friends
Article
|
4 min read
Article
Ben Lee
Grassroots counter messaging in the UK
Article
|
3 min read
Article
Kim Knott, Matthew Francis
Are converts to Islam more likely to become extremists?
Article
|
5 min read
Report
Kim Knott, Ben Lee
Ideological Transmission: Families
Report
|
5 min read
Article
Kim Knott, Ben Lee
How does the family pass on religion?
Article
|
3 min read
Article
Simon Copeland
Transmitting Terrorism: A Family Affair?
Article
|
3 min read
Article
Sarah Marsden
From ideological material to targeting choice in leaderless jihadist
Article
|
3 min read
Article
Kim Knott
Why transmission?
Article
|
3 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
Islam: Conversion
Guide
|
2 min read
Article
Ben Lee
Understanding the counter-jihad
Article
|
2 min read
Guide
Ben Lee
The counter jihad movement
Guide
|
1 min read
Article
Kim Knott
What are the Five Pillars of Islam?
Article
|
3 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
Islam: The Five Pillars
Guide
|
1 min read
Kim Knott, Matthew Francis
What’s the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims?
3 min read
Guide
Kim Knott
Sunni and Shi‘a Islam: Differences and relationships
Guide
|
1 min read
Article
Emma Barrett, Matthew Francis
Terrorists’ use of messaging applications
Article
|
3 min read
Article
Ben Lee
One peaceful march doesn't change Pegida's disturbing ideology
Article
|
3 min read
Article
Matthew Francis
Research drives understanding and disruption of terrorism
Article
|
4 min read
Article
Matthew Francis
Paris attacks: there is no simple explanation
Article
|
3 min read
Ideological Transmission in Extremist Contexts: Towards a Framework of How Ideas Are Shared

Despite their centrality in academic and policy debates about radicalization and political violence, ideologies have been conceived narrowly, as cognitive, top-down, coherent and systematic.

In general, those who have used the concept of ideology have failed to draw on ideological theory or on recent insights about its practice and embodiment, or location in space and time.

Our interest is less in the content of ideology than in how it is shared by those for whom it matters. We offer an interpretive framework, based on six key questions about ideological transmission: What ideas, beliefs, and values are shared, how and why, by whom, and in which spatial and temporary contexts?

Following a discussion about the methodological pros and cons of the framework, it is tested on a series of interviews with members of Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese religious group responsible for the Tokyo subway attack in 1995. We assess the strengths and limitations of the framework for analysing the various dimensions of ideological transmission before considering what it adds to our understanding of the relationship between extreme beliefs and violent behaviour.

(From the journal abstract)


Kim Knott & Benjamin Lee, 2020. Ideological Transmission in Extremist Contexts: Towards a Framework of How Ideas Are Shared. Politics, Religion & Ideology.https://doi.org/10.1080/21567689.2020.1732938

Countering Violent Extremism Online: The Experiences of Informal Counter Messaging Actors

The online space is a haven for extremists of all kinds. Although efforts to remove violent and extremist content are increasing, there is a widely accepted need to also contest extremist messages with counter messages designed to undermine and disrupt extremist narratives.

While the majority of academic focus has been on large and well‐funded efforts linked to governments, this article considers the experiences of informal actors who are active in contesting extremist messaging but who lack the support of large institutions.

Informal actors come without some of the baggage that accompanies formal counter message campaigns, which have been attacked as lacking in credibility and constituting “just more government propaganda.” This has been noted by some of the wider countering violent extremism industry and the appetite for incorporating “real‐world” content in their campaigns seems to be rising.

This article fills a gap in our knowledge of the experiences of informal counter messaging actors. Through a series of in‐depth qualitative interviews it demonstrates that, despite the potentially serious risks of incorporating greater levels of informal content, there is an appetite among informal actors to engage with formal campaigns where they can be selective over who they work with and maintain a degree of control.

(From the journal abstract)


Benjamin Lee, 2019. Countering Violent Extremism Online: The Experiences of Informal Counter Messaging Actors. Policy & Internet. https://doi.org/10.1002/poi3.210

Informal Countermessaging: The Potential and Perils of Informal Online Countermessaging

Online countermessaging—communication that seeks to disrupt the online content disseminated by extremist groups and individuals—is a core component of contemporary counterterrorism strategies. Countermessaging has been heavily criticized, not least on the grounds of effectiveness. Whereas current debates are focused on the role of government and large organizations in developing and disseminating countermessages, this article argues that such approaches overlook the informal production of countermessages. Recognizing the appetite for “natural world” content among those engaged in countermessaging, this article highlights some of the potential benefits of informal approaches to countermessaging. At the same time, the article also acknowledges the risks that may result from closer working between countermessaging organizations and informal actors.

(From the journal abstract)


Benjamin Lee. 2018. ‘Informal Countermessaging: The Potential and Perils of Informal Online Countermessaging’. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism: 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2018.1513697.

Applying the Study of Religions in the Security Domain: Knowledge, Skills, and Collaboration

Since the 1990s, scholars of religion on both sides of the Atlantic have been drawn into engagement with law enforcement agencies and security policymakers and practitioners, particularly for their expertise on new religious movements and Islam. Whilst enabling researchers to contribute to real-world challenges, this relationship has had its frustrations and difficulties, as well as its benefits and opportunities. Drawing on examples from the UK, Canada, and the US, I set out the relationship between religion and the contemporary security landscape before discussing some of the key issues arising in security research partnerships. I then turn to the question of knowledge exchange and translation in the study of religions, developing the distinction between ‘know what’ (knowledge about religions and being religiously literate), ‘know why’ (explaining religions and making the link to security threats), and ‘know how’ (researcher expertise and skills in engagement with practitioners).

(From the journal abstract)


Kim Knott. 2018. ‘Applying the Study of Religions in the Security Domain: Knowledge, Skills, and Collaboration’. Journal of Religious and Political Practice, 4 (3): 354–73. https://doi.org/10.1080/20566093.2018.1525901.

Telling Stories of Terrorism: A Framework for Applying Narrative Approaches to the Study of Militant’s Self-Accounts

Narrative has recently garnered much attention in the study of terrorism but remains poorly understood. This paper offers some initial steps towards translating the promise of narrative approaches into a set of steps for systematically analysing and understanding terrorists’ own accounts of their engagement with extremism and militancy. This approach rests on the assumption that terrorist authored accounts are more than post-hoc rhetorical exercises that aim to persuade others, or even the authors themselves, of the righteousness of their political cause or otherwise mitigate their responsibility for their involvement in violence. In particular, I advance a framework for methodically applying narrative approaches to terrorist authored texts, in particular, autobiographies. In doing so, I will demonstrate how this approach can help better comprehend how individuals involved in militancy understand the world, draw upon existing narrative resources and give meaning to their actions.

(From the journal abstract)


Simon Copeland. 2018. ‘Telling Stories of Terrorism: A Framework for Applying Narrative Approaches to the Study of Militant’s Self-Accounts’. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression: 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1080/19434472.2018.1525417.

‘It’s not paranoia when they are really out to get you’: the role of conspiracy theories in the context of heightened security

Conspiracy theories have been seen as important supporting components in extreme political beliefs. This paper considers conspiracy theories in the counter jihad movement, an international network combining cultural nationalism with xenophobia towards Muslims.

This paper evaluates the nature of conspiracy belief through the analysis of several key texts published by counter jihad activists, and of content published on a daily basis by three core websites. The findings show the Islamisation conspiracy theory to be highly modular, with authors able to mix and match villains.

The analysis of daily published content demonstrates that, at the routine level, conspiracy theory is rarely used openly as a call to action.

This is in keeping with other examples of conspiracy theory in extreme right wing movements in which conspiracy is seen as justification for existing prejudices. However, the political and security context the counter jihad operates in also affords the movement opportunities to support some of their claims, often by reproducing or reinterpreting mainstream or quasi-mainstream reporting, without reverting openly to conspiracy tropes.

In the case of the counter jihad movement, as well as potentially other far-right movements, conspiracy theory may be taking a back seat to a more sophisticated public relations approach.

(From the journal abstract)


Lee, Benjamin J. 2017. ‘It’s Not Paranoia When They Are Really out to Get You: The Role of Conspiracy Theories in the Context of Heightened Security’. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 9 (1): 4–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/19434472.2016.1236143.

Back to top