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There are many theories that try to explain the issue of violent extremism. Most of them are developed from the basis of disciplines that are associated with the humanities and social studies. Literature has a range of examples that present causes of violent extremism as either a single factor or a combination of factors. However, unlike in other disciplines, theories for this subject are difficult to prove using a scientific method like an experiment. All conclusions are empirical and made solely by observation and comparison. Below is a list of the most widely accepted theories that are mentioned in literature to try to explain the reasons behind violent extremism.
Rational Choice Theory
The rational choice theory is based on a pragmatic approach that makes a person calculate all the risks and benefits of participating in violent extremism. If the benefits are higher than the risks, he or she decides to take part in it.
Radical choice does not imply any fanatic following of a particular religious or social movement. Monroe and Kreidie argue that religion is viewed as a commodity that has its own costs and benefits (22). Thus, it is referred to only when it is beneficial to do so. One of the most important parts of the rational choice theory is that benefits are not always understood in a classic Western way that is associated with money and private property.
Often this concept includes the general good or the advantages received by a group of people or the whole community. The public good can be a change of political regime, growth of the economy, or another social benefit. However, there is a problem associated with the rational choice theory regarding group activities. Some people may decide that their participation is not required since the personal input is not very significant, while the costs are high. They prefer to share the received benefits without taking part in violent activities. Nevertheless, the portion of these benefits may be quite small or even non-existent for such people in cases of group success.
Structural or Societal Theory
The structural or societal theory is very close to the idea of rational choice. It implies that groups of people use violent extremism methods to reach their political and social goals. Unlike the previous theory, this one is based on the opinion that every input is valuable, so there is no possibility of people receiving benefits without participating. Ineffective or blocked political participation often creates a high level of dissatisfaction among people, making them support extremist movements (Allan et al. 14). Although there is mixed evidence about the strength of this cause, there are numerous cases where people tried to change the situation in their country by taking a violence approach with a combination of religious or nationalistic elements.
Relative Deprivation Theory
The relative deprivation theory is somewhat similar to the previous ones mentioned. It has its roots in a belief that an individual lacks certain benefits that he or she should be entitled to. Usually, it is the poor socioeconomic state of a household that makes its elements become supporters of violent extremism. For instance, Daniel Agbiboa claims that Boko Haram, a violent extremist group that is responsible for hundreds of deaths in Nigeria, includes participants that take part in crimes for non-religious reasons despite the organization itself being Islamist (150).
People often become frustrated with the poverty and inequality that they have to suffer with. Thus, their anger is later transformed into radicalization. While some researchers suggest that violent extremist is associated with the Muslim religion, criminal science argues that the same actions are typical for Western people who are poorly educated, have small or no income, and do not have a family.
Social Cohesion and Social Exclusion
Unfortunately, discrimination is still a common practice in the world. People often develop prejudices due to their religious beliefs or ethnic background. Those groups that share the same experience of being mistreated often look to unite together to cope with their situation. Usually, the easiest solution seems to be the most appealing. Thus, religion is one of the options for such individuals (Hogg et al. 72). They seek support from the sacred texts, saying that they deserve to be treated better due to their high moral values or a way of life.
A narrative about being special seems extremely appealing to people that cannot find another way to break the loop of socioeconomic injustice. Violent extremism is an aggressive answer for all the hardships that they had to experience in the past. This theory is greatly supported by evidence when analyzing the ISIS members. Many of this terrorist group’s participants are former immigrant workers that received a small payment and suffered from discrimination shown by the locals.
Social Movement Theory
The social movement theory, also known as the collective action approach, also supports the idea that frustration is one of the causes of violent extremism. It implies that social movements like protest demonstrations carry the potential for extremism. Such events occur only as a result of strained conditions that cause many people to be frustrated. Radicalized individuals leading the social movement must keep in mind the importance of several factors, which are collecting, motivating, and supporting members of their group (Borum 17).
While the primary driving force of protest leaders is anger and discontent, they try to recruit supporters by using a rational approach. Instead of appealing to social justice, they usually mention material benefits that can be received in the future. This theory has one weak point that is based on the fact that not every social movement will potentially turn to violent extremism. There are only several factors contributing to it. Nevertheless, protests in one country usually create a disturbance for the whole world.
Some researchers believe that people are highly influenced by the community they live in. This idea fits with the concept of communitarianism, which implies that individuals and their surroundings have a strong bond.
Sometimes the cultural or social values of a nation determine the level of violent extremism among its members. For instance, individuals from Central Asia possess a threat of radicalization due to their local culture, which does not welcome foreign traits (Omelicheva 168). People in this region were pressured for centuries by neighboring countries with other beliefs and values. Nowadays, they see radical Islam as a way to resist foreign expansion. While such a philosophy is supported in the community, individuals do not question the necessity of violent extremism.
There are several theories explaining the causes of violent extremism. Most of them are associated with the poor socioeconomic state of people and their wish to receive more benefits in their lives. Religion appears to be important only for those groups that are mistreated and are looking for the easiest answer to their problems.
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Agbiboa, Daniel Egiegba. “Why Boko Haram Exists: The Relative Deprivation Perspective.” African Conflict and Peacebuilding Review, vol. 3, no. 1, 2013, pp. 144-157.
Allan, Harriet, et al. Drivers of Violent Extremism: Hypotheses and Literature Review. Royal United Services Institute, 2015.
Borum, Randy. “Radicalization into Violent Extremism I: A Review of Social Science Theories.” Journal of Strategic Security, vol. 4, no. 4, 2011, pp. 7-36.
Hogg, Michael A., et al. “Religion in the Face of Uncertainty: An Uncertainty-Identity Theory Account of Religiousness.” Personality and Social Psychology Review, vol. 14, no. 1, 2010, pp. 72-83.
Monroe, Kristen Renwick, and Lina Haddad Kreidie. “The Perspective of Islamic Fundamentalists and the Limits of Rational Choice Theory.” Political Psychology, vol. 17, no. 1, 1997, pp. 19-43.
Omelicheva, Mariya Y. “Ethnic Dimension of Religious Extremism and Terrorism in Central Asia.” International Political Science Review, vol. 30, no. 2, 2010, pp. 167-186.