My current research considers the cultural products of terrorism and political violence, with a focus on the audio and visual propaganda of da'esh (the "Islamic State").
In particular, I am interested in how terrorist movements utilize propaganda to engender thinking and behavior change in consonance with the common purpose of the group. Aspects of culture, identity, meaning, and emotion, as articulated through video, print and music, form the primary focus of my inquiry. I am interested in not only what the cultural production is about and how it is framed, but what it means and how it is supposed to make us feel.
Below are some snapshots of current projects:
My goals as a researcher are to document, analyze, and interpret the role of culture, specifically music, in the contexts of radicalism. To the best extent possible, I pursue ethnography-driven research that contributes to the fields of terrorism and political violence in ways that seek to: (1) understand how radical groups employ cultural elements (music) to cultivate and reinforce hateful attitudes, which often leads to violence in its varied forms; and (2) to use my understanding of those processes to weaken the appeal and activity of the ideologies that provide the foundation for radicalism.
I make a conscious effort to approach the people and ideas in question exclusive of preset, fixed judgments or expectations, in order to allow impressions to form directly from my experiences and encounters. Any theoretical and interpretative frameworks I employ derive from the ethnography, documentation, and examination of the research subject with relation to the following questions:
My research perspective originates with the idea that terrorism and political violence cannot be actuated without the ability to convince another person that it is in their best interest to risk their lives and kill other human beings. The so-called “hard elements” of study, such as finances, arms, training, leadership, tactical expertise, etc., that have drawn much of the attention of the field matter very little if no one commits to the common purpose of the group.
The conventional line of reasoning has frequently asserted that a group’s propensity towards violence can largely be explained through analysis of their ideology. This perspective, however, overlooks the likelihood that people become involved in terrorism or political violence for a variety of factors in conjunction with the cognitive or rational appeal of a group’s ideology. For those interested in recruitment, retention, and motivation for action in radical movements, we must question whether it is ideology or a variety of factors--social identity formation, emotional appeal, enculturation, social bonding or connectivity, finding meaning or purpose in one’s life, having impact on the world, heroism, and more--that drive involvement.
FINDINGS & IDEAS
My findings thus far support the idea that a radical activist's emotional convictions may be just as important as their intellectual ones. To be clear, this is not positioning ideology in a subservient or adversarial role to the factors outlined above, but rather, the catalysts of recruitment work together in very complicated ways that will differ considerably among individuals. To accept social identity and bonding, emotional appeals to a person’s sense of defense of a just cause, giving meaning or a voicing to one’s life, heroism and reputation, etc. as valid motivational factors catalyzing involvement in radicalism is not to wholly reject the allure of ideology. Feeling and thinking are mutually informative and shaping processes, and we need to understand not only what those involved in radicalism think, but how what they think makes them feel.
The most effective cultural production of radical groups touches upon a wide variety of potential influences. I like to think of these as "susceptibility/vulnerability triggers", distinct thematic devices and functionalities (like those mentioned previously) that we see repeated effectively across history, geography, culture, and religion. However, such messages have been appropriated widely and with highly varying degrees of success; this suggests that it is not only what is said but how it is said. I argue that cultural production is one of the important factors that separates successful from unsuccessful propaganda campaigns. Moreover, it is not just that a radical group simply has or creates these cultural forms like music and video messaging, but it is the quality of this artistic creation and how effective it is at touching the nerves or reflexes of susceptibility/vulnerability triggers.
Academic Researcher and Composer