Jonathan Pieslak


Academic Researcher and Composer


My present research considers the cultural products of terrorism and political violence through the lenses provided by social movement theory, particularly framing and emotion, in conjunction with work on persuasion and propaganda. Scholars have observed that groups involved in terrorism and political violence operate in highly similar ways to social movements and that the discipline's paradigms of study are directly relevant to terrorist groups. This work, however, is still emerging.


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:


  • I developed an app, "Marvin", for the identification of jihad-themed anashid. "Marvin" might be thought of as "Shazam" for jihad-themed anashid. This allows us to broaden the scope of our consideration of soundtracks in Islamic State (IS) video messaging, allowing us to observe that there are clear trends in the anashid used by the IS in their videos and exactly which anashid these are.


  • I am working on a schemata of emotional coding for all IS Arabic-language anashid. In conjunction with a musicological analysis of each nashid, my goal is to develop a basis (however loose) for understanding the affective intent and emotional impact of any given IS nashid.


  • My forthcoming article on protest builds a connection between social movements and terrorist groups, like the IS. I posit that the musical texts and themes typically associated with protest movements have strong degrees of overlap with the lyrical themes of IS anashid. Moreover, I explore how aspects of Salafism’s message of reform is not solely religious, but is one that is inextricably linked with social and political dimensions. 


  • I recently co-authored a paper with Dr. Carol Winkler (GSU) presented at the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention, entitled "A multimodal approach to analyzing online messaging of extremist groups." The paper is one of the first case studies of multimodal analysis of IS video messaging, and considers imagery in tandem with sonic elements from a sample of military training and martyrdom video segments. Our hope is to extend this paper into other thematic areas, like non-military videos, executions, combat, and military casualties, and to show how the formal, narrative, and emotional functionalities of IS anashid operate within the themes of the videos.




OBJECTIVES & Approach

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:

  • How does my research derive from and relate to real-life events?
  • How can my research inform the study of culture within the fields of terrorism and political violence?
  • How can my research suggest avenues for weakening the appeal of terrorist and politically violent ideology and groups?



RESEARCH PERSPECTIVE

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

After researching violent extremists for almost a decade, my findings thus far support the idea that, to paraphrase the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, it may be just as much about what a terrorist feels as what they think. 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.​

Current Research