Jonathan Pieslak

Academic Researcher


My research considers the cultural products of terrorism and political violence, with a focus on audio and audio-visual propaganda.

In particular, I am interested in how extremist movements utilize propaganda to engender thinking and behavior change in consonance with the common purpose of the group. Aspects of culture, identity, significance, 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.


My goals as a researcher are to document, analyze, and interpret the role of culture, specifically music, in the contexts of extremism. 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 extremism.

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?


My research perspective originates with the idea that 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 little if no one commits to the common purpose of the group. In my opinion, radicalization—and trying to understand this process for the purposes of weakening it—is a fundamentally human, socio-cultural, and emotional process.

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 extremism 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.



The scholarly literature appears in broad consensus that radicalization is not based upon a small number of essential factors or a linear chain of causation. Rather, factors include a complex mix of “personal motives” (purpose/significance, heroism, belonging, ideological sympathy, etc.) and “enabling conditions” (frail/failed states, conflict, foreign intervention, etc.).

Radicalization happens most potently within the context of personal relationships (i.e., offline) rather than online. Offline recruitment tends to happen socially, among friends, family, or community leaders; it most commonly occurs as either a top-down (those in authority) or linear (peer-to-peer) process. Peer-to-peer recruitment may be increasingly common, possibly due to the Internet.

Online recruitment is a mix of social interaction and propaganda (media: print, audio, video), but the Internet is progressively offering greater possibilities to “personalize” interaction, i.e., catalyze the social interactions that play out in personal relationships.

The process of radicalization may be catalyzed as much by social influences as ideological appeal, with the strong likelihood that social appeals (personal motives) and the emotional rewards they offer function ahead of ideological appeal.

Social and emotional factors can play as important a role as ideology. These factors include: 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 others. Ideology and social-emotional factors are not at odds with one another; they operate in mutually informing and shaping way.

Scholars have identified a small set of “basic human needs,” power, belonging, and purpose, that appear to play a strong role in human emotional development. The social dimension of the radical group may fulfill the emotional desire for belonging and identity, with violent action and sacrifice for a “transcendent value” offering the reward of purpose. 

Another pivotal deep element of radicalization involves the destabilization, insecurity, and complexity of contemporary Western liberal democracy as catalyzed by the Internet and social media.

Young people may become overwhelmed by questions about what they should think, who they are, how to live their identity, what group they belong to, and what their meaning in life is, because they have too many choices. They may turn to radical ideas, which are problematically absolutist and authoritarian, but relieve the adherent’s burden of these problems.

Also, young people may willingly surrender certain freedoms (which they may have little faith in anyway within a post-truth nexus because the next webpage can destroy what they believe in) for extremist ideas because it empowers them to a clear, secure, stable social identity, provides a distinct group to belong to, and enlivens them with new meaning and purpose.

Radical Narratives

The framing of radicalization demonstrates a distinct set of themes. It is interesting that there are commonalities among narrative frames that transcend history, geography, culture, and religious boundaries. The radical message itself is enacted through a recognizable and predictable set of themes, a lexical framework intended to prescribe a cognitive change towards hateful attitudes and the enactment of violent behavior. Among the most common are:

  • “Us vs. them” (in and out-groupness, “otherness”)
  • An outside threat to a community or territory (religion, race, or a glorified past is threatened)
  • The validation of violence as justified noble defense (protectors of truth)
  • Dehumanization of the “other” (enemies of God, moral/racial impurity, foreign oppressor, etc.)
  • Grievance, injustice, victimization narratives  
  • Hero/warrior status granted to in-group activists (veneration of martyrdom)
  • Mandates/duty for action

Most importantly, these themes can initiate and sustain processes of social bonding, identity, purpose, and empowerment that do more than just propagate ideology; the feelings of solidarity, acceptance, and belonging to a select group (frequently actuated by the social bonding aspects of culture) are cast within these narratives. For example, the idea of noble defense—regardless of what is being defended—targets the potential activists craving of social acceptance, their individual desire for self-esteem, and provides a strong sense of meaning to their lives. Such processes can unfold through the catalyst of these narratives, providing deep emotional fulfillment and rewards. And we, as human beings, appear to be particularly susceptible to them.

Theoretical Approaches

Social Movement Studies’ paradigms of analysis offer a practical tool for understanding media and propaganda of extremist movements. Among the variety of ways that scholars of social movements have chosen to analyze the most important aspects of the social movements, the paradigms of framing and emotion are most immediately relevant to the study of media and propaganda.

One of the significant advantages of an SMS-informed agenda is that it offers a starting point for building bridges of intersection and parallelism among disciplines; such intersections highlight and validate certain elements that are especially worthy of notice.

There is clear inter-disciplinary (psychological, persuasion, and behavioral science studies) validation to distinct perspectives of engagement and conclusions drawn from considering terrorist groups generally as social movements, and for exploring how their cultural products operate as forms of media. For more detail, see my article in the Oxford Handbook of Protest Music (forthcoming).


Examples of music’s pivotal function in the contexts of radicalism are abundant. From racist skinheads to eco-animal rights militants, music’s use in recruitment strategies, engendering a culture of militancy, and motivating action is extensive and operates in ways unrestrained by ideological orientation, culture, religion, or geography.

While it would be convenient to dismiss music and video messaging (and media in general) as marginally influential to the mechanisms of online recruitment and mobilization, such an oversight would ignore the real-world examples demonstrating their significance.

Music represents a multi-faceted tool within the contexts of radicalization. It infuses narratives and texts with emotion, elevating the potency of messages beyond simple speech—ideology becomes something we feel, something we intuit.

Yet beyond animating ideology with emotion, it is music’s distinct ability to forge social bonds and collective identity among members that makes it an indispensable part of a radical group’s propaganda strategy. It can be a catalyst and amplifier for satisfying basic emotional needs in textual (through song lyrics that deploy all of the themes of radicalization and that touch upon the basic emotional needs) and non-textual ways (through music’s inherent ability to forge social bonds and identity [belonging] as well as its ability to animate ideology with emotion).


The first step in proposing solutions is to understand the deeply human aspects involved in radicalization and violent action. From identity, bonding, and purpose to extreme violence against “others,” these are profoundly human desires and responses. The fairly recent worldview of liberal democracy and human rights runs counter to much of human history in which threats from outsiders were consistently responded to with violence. We tend to deem the act and actors involved in terrorist violence as irrational fanaticism, and while we should not lesson our rebuke of such violence, it helps to keep in mind that these are very human responses.

Also, it bears mentioning that precisely who and why remains a mystery. We can craft a profile of likely causes, processes, and candidates for radicalization but what exactly triggers involvement or action for one individual over another remains an unknown. And, the continued search for more specifics, while not a futile endeavor, seems to me to be a somewhat wasted effort. More attention should be placed on solutions—we know and have known certain things for a while, and we know what we don’t know (and probably will never come to know).

For example, we know that there is no single, causal path to radicalization; we know the varying trends of how the process unfolds; we know the themes and narrative frameworks in which extremist ideology is cast; we know the deeper social, identity, and emotional factors (basic needs, purpose and belonging, holding "transcendent" values) that can underlie adherence.

Money might be far better purposed if it were dedicated to community enrichment programs that targeted at-risk youth (especially young men) in which they were encouraged to participate in programs that supported their sense of identity, empowerment, purpose, and belonging. If the unmooring of young people (by a variety of factors—Internet, social media, liberal democracy, etc.) has been significant in turns to extremist ideology, then we need to find ways to fulfill those needs, especially among at-risk communities.

The community immune systems that regulated radicalization in the past have largely fallen apart. Reducing social disorganization in certain communities may help increase their resistance to extremism, especially if local community (socio-cultural) and religious organizations can step in and offer fulfillment of the basic emotional needs of young people.

Also, we have seen something of a shift involving increasingly peer-to-peer recruitment within extremist movements. But if friendships among young people are important to the radicalization process, then they can be important in the prevention and de-radicalization process as well. Support for youth enrichment programs that involve leadership and high levels of person-to-person social interaction may help local communities regain some of their immunity to online and narrowly confined social interactions that influence radicalization.

Finally, many people eventually leave the radical movement they were once involved with. In thinking about solutions, we may want to fund research involving de-radicalization as much as preventing radicalization. Those who were once involved in extremist movements may represent the best and most credible voices for not getting involved.​