FOCUS: The ethics of impact when researching ‘terrorism’

FOCUS: The ethics of impact when researching ‘terrorism’

Tom Mills, Narzanin Massoumi and David Miller 

The attacks of 9/11 still casts a long shadow over foreign and domestic policy agendas in the US, the UK and many other countries. The launch of the ‘Global War on Terror’ led to instability and conflict in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa, with the tragedies of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria of particular note. Torture and other human rights abuses have been widespread and sweeping changes to security policies have impacted on civil liberties and everyday life.

The same period has seen a significant growth in research on conflict and ‘terrorism’. But whilst government counter-terrorism agencies are increasingly seeking to engage with academics, little attention has been paid to the ethical and methodological issues that arise from such research.

Social scientists have a professional responsibility to protect the integrity of knowledge, and public responsibilities to the wider societies of which they are part. In this article, we consider these professional and ethical responsibilities in relation to the impact agenda in research on ‘terrorism’. We draw on Michael Burawoy’s Public University’ model, which includes four types of knowledge, each with its distinct professional practices on the one hand and audiences on the other. The first two are types are ‘instrumental’: professional and policy knowledge. By contrast, ‘reflexive’ knowledge is where Burawoy situates what he calls the ‘critical’ and ‘public’ approaches to knowledge production. This typology is useful, we think, since it allows for a multifaceted conception of knowledge production that emphasises professional standards and academic freedom, while situating academic practices in relation to wider interests in society.

Terrorism research, as a number of scholars have noted, often falls short of the quality and standards of professional social science. The most influential researchers in the field also tend not to be ‘reflexive’, falling very squarely within the policy paradigm, and in many cases working closely with ‘national security’ interests. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with policy-oriented research – on the contrary we think it is important that policy makers are able to make use of the best research – but we do think that such ‘instrumental’ relationships should be the subject of ethical scrutiny and perhaps constraints.

This point holds in general, but is particularly important in sensitive areas of research like conflict and ‘terrorism’, where bad policies are potentially extremely harmful. Unfortunately, though, ethical reflection is rare in ‘terrorism’ research, which insofar as it gives any consideration to such issues tends to draw attention to ways in which research is unduly constrained.

There is, to be fair, occasional recognition among orthodox terrorism scholars that, as one discussion puts it, research is ‘likely to assist in the formulation of governmental counterterrorism efforts, which in essence seek to deliberately undermine the “wellbeing” of “participants”.’ Significantly, though, this is treated as if the observation calls into question the appropriateness of standard ethical guidelines. In another example of ethical discussion in the field, the terrorism scholar Scott Atran suggests that certain kinds of ethical approvals should be taken at the national rather than the university level, for the reason that state level would be more responsive to national security prerogatives than the ‘protection of undergraduate students’.

In our view, we should be doing the exact opposite. Rather than weakening ethical oversights (although there of course may be cases where rules and processes are too restrictive) we should seek to ensure that such interests are not able to unduly influence research. Moreover, we should seek to broaden ethical protections from a narrow focus on research subjects to wider questions around the societal impact of research more generally.

The ethics of impact
One important aspect of this is making ‘impact’ a greater topic for ethical reflection in academia. To further explore this issue in relation to terrorism research, we consider an impact case study produced by the leading terrorism research centre in the UK, the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at Kings College, London (KCL).

The ICSR submitted an ‘impact case study’ for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) which claimed that the centre’s research had ‘informed some specific changes to UK government policy’, and which noted that it ‘was prominent in the review and revision of the UK official strategy for Preventing Radicalisation that was undertaken by the government in 2011.’ In addition to noting that the government cited its research, the ICSR case study claims a specific contribution to policy:

In publishing several reports on aspects of radicalisation and counter-radicalisation, ICSR made an important contribution to anchoring this new area of policy practice in a body of scholarship and giving it empirical and conceptual grounding.

The language used here of ‘grounding’ an existing policy practice is revealing, since as a number of analysts have noted, the very concept of radicalisation originated not with social scientists, but with state actors. As long time orthodox terrorism scholar Alex Schmid writes, for example, the concept was ‘introduced into the public and academic debate mainly by national security establishments’.

Whether the ICSR has in fact contributed to a sound body of empirical and conceptual scholarship on ‘radicalisation’ is debatable. ICSR director Peter Neumann has noted the field’s indeterminate conceptual ambiguities and the lack of consensus even around fundamental causal questions. Presumably he would consider the ICSR’s work an exception in this regard, but even if we accept that this is the case, there is little evidence that sound radicalisation scholarship (from ICSR or any other source) has informed UK Government counter-terrorism policy (which operationalises this ill-defined concept with negative impacts on civil liberties and human rights). Without such evidence, the above ‘impact’ statement is more suggestive of the legitimation of state policy by an independent research institution than its anchoring in social science, let alone a policy change rooted in evidence-based research.

In this respect it is revealing, we think, that Professor Neumann has responded to ‘critical’ scholarship on radicalisation by calling on researchers to stop questioning its conceptual validity, and instead to ‘work harder to understand and embrace a concept which – though ambiguous – is likely to dominate public discourse, research and policy agendas for years to come’. The obvious risk with this approach is that researchers will adopt not only research agendas, but also pseudo-scientific concepts, from policy makers, with the result that the evidence base is undermined and the state is meanwhile provided a veneer of social scientific respectability for harmful and ill-informed policies.

Protecting professional social science
This brings us to a related problem with the impact agenda, which is the threat it can potentially pose to academic freedom and the integrity of social scientific knowledge. There is, as a recent study found, an ‘increased risk of conflicts of interest emerging’ as academics ‘work more closely with beneficiaries who co-fund or support their work’. Professor Neumann himself has written (in an article funded by a grant from the US Department of Defense) that it is ‘difficult to imagine any sustained scholarly effort in the areas of terrorism and radicalization research without [governmental] funding’, and in the same article concedes that such funding has contributed, if not to potential conflicts of interests, then at least to ‘bad research’.

The interests, intentions and influence of the ‘client’ in policy-oriented work, and researchers’ relationships with policy actors in ‘impactful’ research, should properly be the subject of ethical reflections, transparency and perhaps restraints. Yet the way ethics has been institutionalised within the academy means that funding relationships and impact related activities are rarely scrutinised in ethical terms at any stage in the research process. If relations with extra-academic actors prompt such reflection, it tends to be around non-elite actors (for scholars researching vulnerable groups, for example, or among social movements). This is ironic since such actors pose much less of a threat to the integrity of social scientific knowledge and practices than powerful policy actors. Indeed, the dominant conception of ‘impact’, in which policy change remains the gold standard, plainly creates institutional incentives for the greater instrumentalisation of social science, which in our view must be resisted.

Burawoy’s typology – which sociologically situates knowledge production practices as well as relations with extra-academic actors – allows us to think about ‘impact’ ethically and in policy and political terms; less in terms of narrowly defined ‘beneficiaries’ and more in terms of the ethical repercussions (potential harms) of social scientific research. It also allows us to consider the potential ‘audience’ for academic knowledge as including not just policy makers, but also social movements, civil society actors, as well as broader ‘publics’. Thus, the sorts of ‘reflexivity’ Burawoy associates with ‘critical’ and ‘public’ academic work is essential in terms of the use to which the ‘instrumental knowledge’ will likely be put. This would obviously include scholarly collusion in military and intelligence operations and in torture, deception or other forms of coercive power.

It is important that academics provide publicly useful knowledge, and that policy makers are informed by the best research, but policy actors – or other powerful interests – should never be in a position to unduly influence research or research programmes. Transparency and academic freedom should be sacrosanct.


Tom Mills is Lecturer in Sociology and Politics at the University of Aston. Narzanin Massoumi is Lecturer and a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology at the University of Exeter. David Miller is Professor of Political Sociology in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol.  This article is adapted from Mills, T., Massoumi, N., & Miller, D. (2019). The ethics of researching ‘terrorism’ and political violence: a sociological approach. Contemporary Social Science.