How might sociological concepts be used to explain the rise of extremist groups?

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This essay will attempt to demonstrate how sociological concepts can be used to explain the rise of extremist groups. There are many publications and research papers into the various dimensions of extremism, addressing causation, the process of radicalisation, and consequences. These studies use varying definitions, approaches, epistemologies and theoretical concepts to address the issue of extremism. From this collection of differing studies, two approaches will be examined in this essay to use as examples of how sociology has added to the accumulated knowledge in this area. Conflict theory, or more specifically Collins’ work (1975) on interaction rituals, will be outlined to illustrate how groups form – both those groups in the mainstream and outside it – as well as addressing the way in which these groups can turn violent. Social Movement Theory will provide the second example, looking closely at Framing Theory as a means of understanding the process of radicalisation of individuals into an extremist group. It is important, however, to firstly define what the term ‘extremism’ actually means.

Extremism as a concept is not the easiest to define. It is a subjective term, in that, what is considered extreme by one group or society, may not be considered so by another (Wintrobe, 2006). However, an extremist is generally viewed as ‘someone whose views are outside the mainstream on some issue or dimension’ (Wintrobe, 2006: 6). Extremists are often people on the extreme left or the extreme right of the political spectrum, or hold radical views in relation to nationalism, religion or any other politically important dimension (Wintrobe, 2006). According to Scrunton, political extremism refers to:

…taking a political idea to its limits, regardless of unfortunate repercussions, impracticalities, arguments, and feelings to the contrary, and with the intention not only to confront, but to eliminate opposition…Intolerance towards all views other than one’s own (1982: 164).

Martin (2013: 10-11) explains how both the ‘content’ of a person’s beliefs and the ‘style’ in which one expresses them are the basic elements for defining extremism. Wilcox summed this up by explaining that style is more important than content when it comes to extremism, as many people can hold views that would be considered radical or unorthodox yet still entertain them in a reasonable, rational manner. In contrast, there are other people who have views a lot closer to the political mainstream but present them in a ‘shrill, uncompromising, bullying, and distinctly authoritarian manner (Wilcox, 1996: 54). As well as those with extremist views, the term ‘extremist’ can also refer to a person or group that uses extremist methods, for example resorting to violence or terrorism to achieve its goals (Wintrobe, 2006). It worth noting not all extremists are violent or terrorists. However, Martin (2013) argues that behind every act of terrorist violence is a deeply held belief system, which at its core is extremist and characterised by intolerance. In light of this, one must question how is it that these groups form and garner support when their views are so far outside the mainstream?

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