Monroe Blog 2: Some Counterintuitive Findings

Right around the time that I was embarking on my first steps in this project, I borrowed a copy of Freakonomics from Professor Mike Tierney.


I devoured the book, reading it over the course of a few hours one free Saturday afternoon. Although the material was light – I certainly recommend it for anyone, economics major or not – I found myself fascinated by the ways economics could be applied even to non-market issues, and the ways that even counter-intuitive logics could be explained. My dad, who was an economics major himself, had always told me that studying economics was less focused on market and money issues, and more focused on learning deliberate and structured problem-solving. For the very first time, I understood what he was talking about.


Right around that time, I was beginning to read varying accounts of why people might resort to violence or extremism. While I began with economics articles, the first book I read was entitled Becoming Evil. Recommended by my introductory psychology professor, it described atrocities committed in genocides throughout history, with a special focus on the Holocaust and World War 2. It discussed – and ultimately advocated – the theory that there are few, if any, psychological differences between those who perpetrate evil and those who do not.


I was floored. This logic ran counter to everything I had grown to believe, and I could not myself explain it. While the author of the book suggested that group dynamics, culture, and obedience could help to explain genocides, he also noted that those murderers were psychologically indistinguishable from himself or the reader – a chilling finding, and one that piqued my curiosity further.


One of the first articles I read only deepened my confusion – it suggested that, in fact, poverty and a lack of education could not be correlated with participation in violent extremism. To the contrary, it suggested, terrorists and extremists were drawn predominantly from the wealthy and well-educated – running directly counter to my rudimentary understanding that poverty caused or exacerbated violence.


This was precisely the kind of counter-intuitive data I recognized from Freakonomics. I grew more determined than ever to find an answer.


Months later, I’m still not sure that I could tell you exactly what causes one person to join an extremist group, or one country to foster greater participation in violent or radical organizations. I can say, however, that there are a few basic explanations that I find particularly compelling.


One author suggested that participation in a radical group can be considered analogous to political participation – so we can begin with an understanding that greater wealth and education in the United States is associated with greater political participation, such as voting, campaign donations, or protests. Taken abroad, this divides into political and economic explanations.


Politically, countries with political repression and ill-formed political institutions are likely to possess few avenues for political participation. In those situations, those with greater education and wealth – typically those who would engage in legitimate and legal political participation – are forced to turn to other avenues to engage politically. Because of their greater education and wealth, they are likelier to have formed strong political opinions, and are likelier to seek out even illegal forms of political participation in order to engage and express those opinions.


Economically, countries with ill-formed labor market institutions – those mechanisms by which the well-educated can find and retain jobs and thereby strengthen their local and national economies – can also help to explain shifts towards radicalization. In countries with weak economies and struggling labor markets, the wealthy and well-educated are likelier to develop an acute understanding of both the challenges facing their country or community, and of the wealth enjoyed by other countries or communities on a global scale. This increased awareness can, as Gurr argued, foster a sense of relative depravation. That is, the understanding of challenges domestically or at a community level and opportunities available abroad can engender a sense that one or one’s community is deprived unfairly, as compared to other communities or countries around the world.


Finally, in countries that are struggling politically and economically, there is likelier to be weak security and public service infrastructure. The government is less likely to be able to provide for the health, safety, and happiness of its citizens, consequently making the benefits offered by radical groups more attractive – even when the radical groups might demand significant sacrifices of their members.


In short, a desire for political participation, a sense of the injustice or relative depravation suffered by a community or country, and a need for the benefits not provided adequately by the government can make radicalization significantly more likely – a logical explanation for an apparently illogical problem.


I am excited to continue this research, and develop my case studies and final written paper further.


In my remaining blog posts, I am to discuss:


-My forthcoming case studies

-The methods I intend to use in examining these theories quantitatively and qualitatively

-Some of the lessons I have learned throughout this process


I am looking forward to the start of my senior year, and am enjoying wrapping up the remainder of this project!