Social science after the attacks

Beyond their emotional shock, the attacks that have bereaved Paris and most recently Brussels have challenged the academic community to rigorously and profoundly understand the eruption of violence at the heart of our democratic societies. Does the academic community have the necessary and adequate intellectual means to undertake this critical endeavor?  Alain Fuchs, President of the National Alliance of Humanities and Social Sciences (Athena) and the French National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), responded to this question in the recent report Research on Radicalizations, which was submitted to Thierry Mandon, State Secretary of Higher Education and Research.

Several key conclusions can be drawn from the report. The first conclusion is that French research can align a strong group of researchers working on varying subjects related to the tragic events of the past fifteen months (radicalization, terrorism, modern Middle-East and Islamic studies, laïcité, integration...).  In the context of the MiddleEast, the report prominently mentions CERI specialists, further emphasizing that a “situated” understanding of political and social realities comes as a result of the fieldwork prioritized by CERI and our experts. 

The second conclusion is that a resolutely interdisciplinary approach must be developed to completely grasp the forces of jihadi violence. Ideology, religion, social and political context, personality, in addition to many other factors, count as evidence in this downward spiral of violence. Political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, communication experts, and others offer elements of an explanation, but a global explanation cannot emerge without collaboration that extends beyond disciplinary boundaries. The development of collaborative research programs thus appears as an imperative necessity. 

The report’s third conclusion asserts the importance to clarify under-developed research objects (propaganda, security, behavior, etc.) in order to develop innovative approaches that borrow from less traveled paths. For example, it would be valuable to renew work on the ideologization of religion – also called fundamentalism – because of the significant role it plays in current events. Regarding this question, CERI specialists can offer individual and collective insights.

Finally, the report concludes that we must also improve interactions between the world of research and the world of policy-makers as they currently function too often in parallel. While research should not be dependent on political demands, their results, resulting explanations, and analysis should be transmitted to policymakers (and the public at large) so they can serve as tools for decision-making and action. In this spirit, the Athena report proposes the creation of an operational interface (Athena-transfert) and the position of a reference expert with the responsibility of implementing research results. The proposed initiative would be easily consolidated at CERI because of the sustained dialogue we already have with certain government agencies given our international focus. 

The attacks of 2015-2016 in France and Belgium were not negligible and compel social scientists to deepen our understanding of certain research topics, to borrow from other approaches, and to multiply international cooperation with the desire to better understand a changing and turbulent world. 


Alain Dieckhoff

Translated by Andrew S. Aguilar