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International Relations

Making Terror/ism
Nicholas Onuf
International Relations 2009; 23; 53
DOI: 10.1177/0047117808100609
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Making Terror/ism
Nicholas Onuf1

1. Prefatory notes
1. In this paper, I offer a considerable number of propositions, or clusters of closely
related propositions, about terror and terrorism, from what I hope to show is a
constructivist perspective.
2. Every proposition is a speech act which, if fully stated, would begin I hereby
assert (state, claim, propose) I reserve the term proposition for speech acts
whose propositional content I state in general terms.
3. To propose a definition is to stipulate a range of uses for a term. In any set of
definitions, some terms must be left undefined on pain of circularity.2
4. All propositions whose content is not formally specified are contestable.
5. I present many of these propositions in general, those that are most obviously
contestable with commentaries to clarify their source, content, warrant or
6. I order propositions topically to create (the appearance of) a well-formed progression of arguments.
7. The terms constructivism, social constructivism and social constructionism are
deployed in many fields and disciplines, sometimes interchangeably. Nevertheless,
from field to field there are significant differences in emphasis and justification
reflecting subject concerns and contingent developments.
8. I endeavor to use the term constructivism in a way that is generally intelligible to
scholars conversant in contemporary social theory. As a conceptual framework
fostering a variety of research strategies and theoretical claims, a constructivist
perspective lends itself to the study of any and all social phenomena, including
terror and terrorism, wherever experienced.

2. Preliminary claims
1. Terror is the subjective condition of fearing the loss of ones life or lifeworld,
whatever the source of that fear.
2. Insofar as terror takes place in institutional settings, it is a social phenomenon.
Where there are acts of terror, there must be specifiable agents committing them.
3. Terrorism is an observers description of multiple acts of terror that members of
a particular kind of social movement, here called a hypermovement, deliberately
inflict. Or it is a more general description of social conditions in which acts of
terror are a frequent occurrence and fear is generalized beyond immediate peril.
The term terrorism is notably contested; any attempt to define it will prompt
well-founded objections.3
International Relations Copyright 2009 SAGE Publications
Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC, Vol 23(1): 5360
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[DOI: 10.1177/0047117808100609]



4. Even if most acts of terror are domestic (they occur eight times more often than
incidents with transnational features), terrorism (in both senses) has emerged as
a major international concern. Yet scholars in the field of International Relations
(IR) or, more precisely, those with theoretical inclinations have given terrorism
remarkably little attention.4
5. In IR, constructivists are notably missing from discussions of terrorism.
6. Constructivists in IR share an interest in the way social conditions, including the
relations of states, have made and continue to make states what they are, and
conversely in the way states in their relations make social conditions what they
are. The general process is one in which agents and structures constitute (make,
produce) each other at every level of analysis.
7. For some constructivists (no doubt a majority), an interest in social conditions
translates into a focus on collective identity, social norms and culture, all of which
are things, however amorphous, causally implicated, however indirectly, in the
social construction of social reality.5
8. For some other constructivists (I am one), an interest in reciprocally constitutive
relations translates into a focus on performative language and its normative,
argumentative and distributive instantiations (rules, discourse, rule) as functionally differentiated media in co-constitutive relations and the social construction
of reality.6
9. The co-constitution of agents and structures implies that we all make terrorism
what (we say) it is whether by committing, thwarting, applauding, condemning,
anticipating, investigating or dismissing acts of terror and terrorist activities.
It also implies that specific, identifiable agents make terror along with everything
else that is social. And it implies that identifiable social structures confer the powers
that agents require in order to commit acts of terror, or thwart them, and so on.

3. Situating terrorism
1. Many sociologists are constructivists broadly defined; many sociologists have
given their attention to terrorism.7
2. A terrorist is a member of a highly particularized variety of social antimovement8
particularized by its systematic use of terror, but not only in this way.
3. A social movement is collective action, typically involving a substantial number
of people. It is continuous but transitory, goal-oriented but capable of changing
members, goals and activities. As the term suggests, a movement is characterized
by flexibility in its internal relations and motility in its external relations.
4. A social movement is characterized by three fundamental dimensions the
principles of identity, opposition, and totality which it is capable of articulating
at a highly theoretical level. A social antimovement begins by inverting these
three dimensions.9
5. Social movements and antimovements both require access to resources (defined
generally to include skills, information, and materiel) to enable agents to act on
behalf of the movement.

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4. Identity
1. Identity is conscious self-description.10
2. Collective action ceases to be a transient phenomenon when at least some
individuals become conscious of joining together in some common activity,
typically undertaken to change the content or direction of existing social
3. In an antimovement, members cease to identify with other members in a common
activity. Instead they champion some mythic or abstract entity, essence, or
symbol.11 In many cases, it is the movement itself that has acquired mythic or
abstract significance.
4. Identity as self-description depends on access to the sources of agency rules
constituting agents as such.
5. Joining a movement, as a voluntary act of association, confers agency on individuals by according them a role as movement member. In principle, all
movement members recognize each other as formal equals equal in the rights
and duties of membership.12
6. Role-holders bring capabilities, including those capabilities socially realized as
skills, to the association for its use. Common activity consists of complementary
7. If or when a movement becomes an antimovement, rules specifying acknowledgment of abstract principles confer agency on members, who thereby acquire
the status of a member willing and able to act on principle.
8. Individuals may hold many statuses at the same time, all of which contribute to
their identity. Those holding the same status, and they alone, constitute a network
through which information passes and socialization takes place.
9. Network members may seek to restrict or manage the flow of information about
their status and activities to themselves, ignore or accept the dispersion of statusrelated information to others, or use their status to distribute statuses, and with
statuses other resources, more generally.
10. Whether open and inclusive or closed and exclusive, networks operate on parallel
planes in what we visualize as a fixed space. Networks appear to be ranked
according to the value (status) collectively assigned to each network, and so are
individuals according to the station (statuses) they hold.
When network ranking is stable and extensive, the result is a form of rule which
highly ranked agents foster by using their status to legitimate the distribution of
statuses and other resources.
11. An antimovements members are substantively, minimally equal, as status-holders
and in their professions of belief.

5. Opposition
1. Constructivist social theorists presume that individuals are social beings and, as
agents, always respond to the social setting in which they find themselves with

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acts that they, or observers, might construe as conforming to, or opposing, the
requirements of that setting, as specified by relevant rules.
2. Movements arise when individuals joining in a common activity expect at least
some other individuals to oppose them consciously and actively, with social
conflict ensuing.13
3. As an association or partnership, a movement is likely to prompt a reciprocal
response, or countermovement, thus making members of opposed associations
adversaries or even enemies.
Opposed associations and their members are partners in some sort of adversarial
social relations nevertheless subject to rules limiting the range of activities
available to each and possibly institutionalizing third party measures or abstract
principles to alleviate social conflict.
4. Opposition reinforces the tendency for a movement (or countermovement) to
become an antimovement.

6. Totality
1. While the availability of resources depends on the totality of concrete (historical)
relations among movement members and between them and society (itself a
totality of social relations), organization of the movement will expedite access
to these resources.
The principle of totality is nothing but the system of historical action of
which the adversaries are disputing the domination(quoting Alain Touraine).14
His use of the terms totality and historicity is indebted to critical theory and
ultimately to Hegel; his discussion of the system of historical action is exceedingly
abstract. Resources figure centrally in this discussion but not organization, which,
for Touraine, is a primary concern of institutionally oriented sociology. In my
view, domination requires the mobilization of resources on a scale unlikely to be
achieved in the absence of organization; few movements seek domination.
3. Organizations consist of offices arranged in visual space from top to bottom in a
chain. Directives move down the chain from office to office, information moves
up the chain. Organization members are officers (office-holders).
4. The top officer has the duty of marshaling resources for the organizations use.
Lesser officers draw on resources made available to them to carry out directives,
including directives to acquire resources, and report on their activities.
5. It takes resources to acquire resources. Organizations treat coercive capability as
a resource to which its officers have access, as needed to perform their duties.
6. Threatening individuals with harm or offering them future benefits often suffices
to have them surrender resources they have access to. Playing on fear (including
fear of not receiving an anticipated benefit) uses resources with low costs and
rates of depletion.
7. States are organizations, openly coercive (as legal orders), devoted to the
mobilization and distribution of resources within established limits.

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8. States draw on or co-opt associations, networks and other organizations to lower

the cost of access to resources. When a state eliminates or absorbs all other
institutions, and erases all limits within its reach, it becomes a totalitarian state.
9. An organization becomes a totality, a world unto itself, when it secures full
obedience from officers and depends only on resources its officers make available to it.

7. Institutionalization
1. The progression from movement to antimovement is a normal stage in the development of complex, enduring institutions.
2. Described as institutionalization, this process involves the clarification of rules
giving movement members their identity, specifying the movements adversaries
and consolidating its reach (and especially its access to resources). This process also depends on the emergence of new rules connecting and strengthening
existing rules.
3. As institutionalization becomes more extensive, and movement goals broaden or
attenuate, a surfeit of rules effectively stultifies the antimovement.
4. As agents, a few antimovement members may exert control over the rule-making
processes to keep activity focused on movement principles. The effect is to intensify institutionalization within narrow limits.
5. Intensified institutionalization is likely to result in some members being purged
from the antimovement for being disloyal or organizationally irrelevant.
6. At some point in the process of institutional intensification, the antimovement
no longer has associational properties and members are no longer partners.
Instead the antimovement becomes a hypermovement a network to which an
organization is symbiotically attached, commonly called a cult.
7. Even a hypermovement is subject to rule proliferation and extensive institutionalization over time, eventually reverting to an antimovement subject to
declining flexibility and motility.

8. Closure and self-sufficiency

1. Intensified institutionalization weakens links between an antimovement and the
institutional milieu containing and supporting it.
2. Opposed antimovements may prompt each other to intensify institutionalization.
Members identify themselves and their counterparts by reference to irreconcilable
principles. Even though opposed hypermovements may be embedded in a broader
institutional milieu, they will turn an adversarial relation to one of unremitting
Secret services and government agencies charged with combating criminal
enterprises and street gangs are familiar examples of this phenomenon.

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3. As members increasingly identify with the antimovements principles, they

repudiate all statuses, offices and roles conferred by other movements and
institutions. Observers (who may be members) see closure as the institutions
defining feature.
4. Closure does not entail self-sufficiency for an antimovement, but self-sufficiency
makes closure more feasible. Organizing to make an antimovement as selfsufficient as possible promotes institutional intensification and the transformation
of an antimovement into a hypermovement.
5. Closure is most easily achieved on a small scale, but not self-sufficiency. Larger
institutions are less likely to be able to enforce closure, but more likely to achieve
self-sufficiency, or at least the appearance of self-sufficiency.
A totalitarian society and a totalitarian state constitute a single totality in which
status strictly aligns with office.

9. Cells
1. Networks come closest to achieving closure when they consist of cells, or small, relatively sealed-off units dedicated to specific activities oriented to principled goals.
2. Closed, cellular networks manage the flow of information into and out of the
network; ideally they are clandestine.
3. Recent developments in information technologies (mobile telephony, internet
sites, e-mail and file downloading) expedite information flow between cells at
low cost and with relatively little danger to the segmented structure of a closed
4. Networked cells require resources for those activities to which they are dedicated.
Some organization must allocate these resources, at risk of exposing the network
and making it vulnerable to disruption.
5. Externally directed cellular activities threaten a clandestine network with exposure
and disruption. The more successful cell members are in pursuing these activities, the more oppositional agents will seek to expose and destroy the cell and
its network.
6. A hypermovement organization with limited reach must have access to external
resources to sustain itself and to make those resources available for use in a closed
network with which it has a symbiotic relation.
7. Dependency on external resources makes an organization vulnerable to opposition
forces (movements, institutions) and threatens its symbiotic relation to the
hypermovements network.

10. Terror
1. Many movements (antimovements, hypermovements) have sufficient access to
resources to inflict terror on individuals within their reach. Most acts of terror
require a modest outlay of resources and limit risk of exposure.

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2. Governments may use terror to punish specific individuals who have inflicted
terror on others. The possibility of being subjected to terror may deter individuals
from engaging in terror but may also make hypermovement members more
disposed to resort to terror on principled grounds.
3. State terror is the systematic use of terror by authorized officers, without reference
to specific rules and the failure of specific individuals to follow them. Typically
state terror is directed against countermovement members or other individuals
alleged to be adherents of oppositional principles.
4. In totalitarian states, enemies are said to be everywhere and terror is pervasive.
5. Since hypermovements are subject to resource constraints and vulnerable to exposure when resources are deployed, their members are rationally disposed to
commit acts of terror. Hypermovements thus disposed are terrorist movements.
6. The rationale for terror is to disrupt and discredit other movements, institutions
or society as a whole, on principled grounds, whether by targeting specific individuals or material artifacts, or by engaging in random acts of terror and terrorizing
large numbers of individuals not specifically targeted.
7. Acts of terror directed against specific targets invite a concentrated response from
opposition agents and threaten terrorist movements with exposure and destruction.
As segmented networks, such hypermovements can survive the exposure and
destruction of some, even many, of its cells.
8. Random acts of terror are the cheapest, easiest and safest acts of terror for terrorists
to inflict but hardest to justify on principled grounds.
9. Taken to an extreme, principled opposition warrants any act of terror against
anyone whose principles are considered questionable. In this situation, a terrorist
movement and a totalitarian state differ only in scale and access to resources.

11. Publicity
1. Insofar as governments use terror as punishment and for deterrence, publicity is
routine, as is its management.
2. State terror is typically conducted secretly. Leaks and rumors will occasion public
3. Opposition movements may concentrate resources on exposing and publicizing
state terror.
4. In totalitarian states, some acts of terror may be publicized for deterrence and
others kept secret. More generally, a totalitarian state will adopt an ideological
program rationalizing systematic terror.
5. Random acts of terror may not be recognized as terrorist incidents unless they are
publicized as such. Thus terrorists routinely claim responsibility for such acts,
sometimes even when they are not involved in committing them.
6. Publicity amplifies acts of terror and draws attention to the terrorist movement
and its principles. Thanks to contemporary mass media, large numbers of people
not directly threatened with loss of life experience terror to some degree.

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7. Amplified terror makes terrorist movements less dependent on organizational

resources and less vulnerable to disruption.
8. The degree to which publicity amplifies terror depends on whether news media,
politicians and commentators, as agents, sensationalize acts of terror and play
on public fears.
9. As consumers of publicity, large numbers of people provide news media and commentators with organizational resources to publicize terror, with the effect of
empowering terrorists and supporting terrorism in the general sense of the term.
Amplifying processes deserve an extended consideration not possible here.15
10. In short, we all make terror/ism what it is in todays world.




I am indebted to Francois Debrix, Harry Gould, Kim Holloman, Patrick Jackson, Sandra Keowen,
Tony Lang, Peter Onuf and Joseph Rogers for support and assistance.
Harold D. Lasswell and Abraham Kaplan, Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), p. 3.
Alex P. Schmid and A. J. Jongman, Political Terrorism: A New Guide to Actors, Authors, Concepts,
Data Bases, Theories, and Literature, 2nd edn (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1988), ch. 1,
offer a seven-sentence consensus definition, constructed from 109 other definitions and later vetted
by 58 experts, of whom only one-third found it entirely acceptable.
Walter Endus and Tom Saddler, The Political Economy of Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2006), p. 256.
John Searle, The Social Construction of Reality (New York: Free Press, 1995).
Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the
Sociology of Knowledge ( Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967).
One such study stands out: Michel Wieviorkas The Making of Terrorism (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2004).
Wieviorka, The Making of Terrorism, p. 9. For the term social antimovement, Wievioka relies on
Alain Touraine, who is perhaps best known for his efforts to reconstruct sociology so that collective
action and resistance, and thus social movements, join systems, institutions and institutionalization
as central concerns.
Wiewiorka, The Making of Terrorism, p. 5, emphasis added.
Alain Touraine, The Self-Production of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 311.
Wiewiorka, The Making of Terrorism, p. 5.
I explicate the paired terms role and association, as used here, and status and network, office and
organization, as used below, in Constructivism: A Users Manual, in Vendulka Kublkov et al.
(eds), International Relations in a Constructed World (Armonk, MA: M. E. Sharpe, 1998), pp. 6474.
Touraine, The Self-Production of Society, p. 312.
Touraine, The Self-Production of Society, p. 313, his emphasis.
But see John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National
Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them (New York: Free Press, 2006), for an informal
treatment intended to publicize these processes and their effects. Muellers terrorism industry is
a social movement, as defined above (3.3), and his risk entrepreneurs closely resemble the norm
entrepreneurs featured in constructivist treatments of social movements.

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