Author: Charlie Pericleous
Bio: Charlie Pericleous MBE is a part-time SCDTP-funded PhD researcher at Portsmouth University, School of Area Studies, History, Politics, and Literature. His research explores local Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE) policies in the South-East of England and the Flemish region of Belgium. Charlie has responsibility for the prevention of extremism policy at Portsmouth City Council and is a member of the EU’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN).
I have been a practitioner in the field of preventing violent extremism and hate crime for 20 years; working within local Police, local authorities, central government, and the European Union. It has been a rewarding, but often difficult journey. As a researcher, this experience provides both opportunities and challenges, raising important ethical considerations and discussions about my positionality as a so-called ‘insider researcher.’
In this blog, I want to share some of my early experiences as a practitioner conducting academic research, but also some of my thoughts about the direction of extremism research in a rapidly changing and unpredictable world.
Occasionally, I am asked why I decided to focus on local extremism policies for my research. Partly, this is because it is where my experience lies, but it is largely because local prevention of extremism policies have taken a back seat within academic research in comparison to national policies. I am particularly interested in how national policies are interpretated locally, as well as how these policies are viewed as multi-disciplinary approaches situated in public health, social care and community safety, rather than as a standalone agenda rooted in counter terrorism.
My research aims to highlight and develop a ‘roadmap’ of good practice and research guidance to assist local PVE development and implementation. From experience, policy makers and practitioners are heavily delivery focused, reacting to current events or the political landscape often without consideration for research. There are several reasons why this situation arises, which may be the subject of another article, but my research will attempt to address this issue in greater detail.
I would like to highlight three points about my early experiences as an ‘insider researcher.’
- The first point concerns the design of the research and selection of participants for research interviews. The data collection involved interviewing practitioners in similar roles to myself and in the majority of cases people with whom I had pre-existing relationships, so I was especially careful not to place undue pressure on these participants and not to leverage my personal relationships with them to participate.
Moreover, in formulating the research questions, I took a deliberate approach to focus on questions that had been identified from the literature review as requiring further investigation. Also, the use of existing networks of practitioners as interviewees has mitigated, to some extent, selection bias in participant involvement. Therefore, one of the initial challenges of conducting insider research is to ensure that the research design clearly demonstrates rigour and transparency in the methods of data collection.
- The second point is maintaining a ‘critical researcher’ stance. This is especially important when undertaking the research part time as I am often pivoting between the two roles. Pat Drake and Linda Heath state in their 2011 publication, Practitioner Research at Doctoral Level, that there is a constant struggle to develop a critical research stance whilst at the same time maintaining allegiance to the institution and to colleagues who may be participants in a study.
So, is insider research intrinsically and inevitably unethical? I do not believe so, especially if safeguards are put in place, but it requires consistent reflection on decisions, acknowledging tensions, and mitigating risks as far as possible. Many academics argue that you should not or indeed cannot eliminate the effect your positionality may have on the research. However, it is important to explore and acknowledge it throughout the research process.
- My third point relates to the field of preventing violent extremism and terrorism: despite the huge volume of publications relating to this topic, very little literature addresses ethics, which primarily pertains to confidentiality and informed consent. The literature does raise an important point: it asks how does the policy researcher view themselves? Is their main role to provide or seek solutions? Some warn against this approach. Schmid and Jongman in their 1988 publication say that the researcher’s role is not to fight the terrorist fire, similar to a firefighter, but rather the researcher should be a student of the combustion. Some researchers seem to fulfil a firefighting role, and this is compounded by the impact agenda.
The trend towards engaging more and more with government organisations and counter terrorism practitioners has been raised as a concern by critical terrorism scholars, who argue this legitimises coercive state practices. It is therefore important to ensure academic independence at all stages and not be a proxy for government policy, according to their perspective.
So, what does the future of terrorism research look like?
Firstly, on terrorism studies and the decolonising agenda. Not much has been written on this topic, but what exists seems to argue that the emergence of the terrorism industry and researchers, think tanks etc, are predominately based in western countries alongside western concepts, terminology, and academics. I think this is an important point as much of the terrorist activity and incidents now take place outside of Western Europe and the US. It is crucial that we hear and engage or co-produce with academics outside of the traditional centres.
The nature of extremism and terrorism is changing and becoming far more complex. In my own work, the emergence of Mixed, Unclear and Unstable ideologies (MUU) has been the most important development in the last ten years, for example in 2019-20, 51% of the referrals into the UK’s Prevent scheme comprised individuals categorised in this way. This can include threats of mass killings, school shootings, Incel ideation, violent misogyny, and harmful conspiracy theories.
Most recently, myself and colleagues in the EU RAN network have been considering the implications of anti-government extremism which often manifests in threats and intimidation to civil servants, police officers, health staff, and their organisations fuelled by a broad range of grievances and violent conspiracy theories. The shift away from coherent ideologies such as that of Daesh/Al Qaeda and Neo-Nazi organisations turbo charged by the online landscape is a challenge for practitioners and researcher alike.
What can we say about the future? The rapid growth of artificial intelligence tools, increased automation and access to emerging technologies such as biotech promises great benefits, but may also fuel grievances and deepen inequalities. Anti-technology extremism has occurred in the past: Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, undertook a 17-year mail bombing campaign, killing three and injuring 23, perpetrated against individuals who he believed were advancing modern technology by eroding human freedom and accelerating the destruction of the environment. Kaczynski was a former mathematics prodigy and Professor at University of California Berkeley, whose published works include Technological Slavery (2010) and the Anti-technology Revolution (2015).
Many fear that anti-technology terrorism, such as that committed by Kaczynski will be an inspiration and harbinger of future events, including cyber-attacks and destruction of critical infrastructure. We all have a challenge to ensure that the benefits of future technology are spread equally and do not contribute to rising conflict, marginalisation and extremism.
Drake, P., & Heath, L. (2010). Practitioner Research at Doctoral Level: Developing Coherent Research Methodologies. Routledge.
Schmid, A. P., & Jongman, A.J. (1988). Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts, Databases, Theories and Literature. North-Holland Publishing Company.