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Towards a Structuration Theory of Global Terrorism

posted on 2017-03-19, 22:52 authored by Waleed Aly
A vast body of academic literature over half a century has attempted to explain the causes of terrorism. This literature has generally not drawn on the insights of grand social theory, reflecting that terrorism studies is largely a theoretically barren field. It has instead tended to offer explanations that either focus on a singular structural phenomenon (like, say occupation) or the features of the individual terrorist (such as that person’s psychology). This study contributes a new theoretical understanding of the area by using structuration theory to analyse one particular subtype of terrorism: global terrorism. It identifies that this type of terrorism is distinguished by its post-Westphalian characteristics: its ideological content, its conception of its enemies, its sphere of political action, and its diffuse, increasingly leaderless structure all simply bypass the Westphalian frame that captured previous expressions of terrorism. This reveals that globalised (or glocalised) structures of late-modernity, what Bauman calls “liquid modernity”, are importantly implicit in global terrorism.
   This study develops an account of the causes and nature of global terrorism anchored in a version of structuration theory synthesised from the seminal works of Giddens and Bourdieu. In this, it relies on the more recent literature on the concept of “radicalisation”. That literature is not theoretically embellished, but offers the potential of an account of terrorism incorporating both structure and agency. Here, Moghaddam’s “staircase to terrorism” is most promising, and this study applies structuration theory to the social and psychological processes of radicalisation Moghaddam describes.
   Global terrorism is anchored in the structural contradiction that exists between the globalisation of identity, and social and political causality on the one hand, and the availability of only Westphalian conventional politics on the other: between the liquid, and the solid. This contradiction brings multitudes to Moghaddam’s ground floor with a shared sense of fraternal relative deprivation. This generates perverse consequences for social agents and precipitates a sense of existential anxiety. Radicalisation only commences, however, when agents seek to restore their ontological security in unconventional ways. One example is via a securitising narrative that explains the nature of this structural contradiction to them, and constructs an abject, enemy other. Because this other is abject, constructing it is also a process of constructing and sacralising the self: out-group hatred becomes symbiotic with in-group solidarity, and becomes an act of identity creation. This facilitates the moral transformations necessary for terrorism to happen, which is also facilitated by the increasingly small isolated social groupings in which agents find themselves as they ascend Moghaddam’s staircase.
   This progression is the consequence of the decisions and actions of knowledgeable social agents. The process of ascending Moghaddam’s staircase reveals an ever-evolving interaction between each agent’s habitus, the social fields they inhabit and the capital they seek in those fields. An agent ascending Moghaddam’s staircase, increasingly inhabits unconventional social fields in which the capital of conventional fields becomes less sought-after, and a more radical symbolic hegemonic order takes over. This in turn alters the agent’s habitus, making increasingly radical action more imaginable.


Principal supervisor

Pete Lentini

Additional supervisor 1

Michael Janover

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Social Sciences (Monash Australia)


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts