Warren Fellow Examines Terrorist Psychology

Natasha Kovacs

Lisa Stampnitzky, a Warren Fellow from Oxford University, discusses an excerpt from her book-in-progress "Disciplining Terror: How Experts and Others Created 'Terrorism'" in Robinson Hall on Monday afternoon.

Lisa Stampnitzky, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Warren Center for Studies in American History, discussed how to analyze terrorism from a critical perspective during a seminar held in Robinson Hall Monday afternoon.

The seminar, drawn from a chapter from her upcoming work “Disciplining Terror: How Experts and Others Created ‘Terrorism,’” focused on how the idea of terrorism entered the academic arena and the difficulties in deciding who is the “expert” in a field such as terrorism.

Stampnitzky, who worked at Oxford University before her fellowship at Harvard, is a sociologist by training, completing her doctoral thesis on terrorist studies.

Stampnitzky’s colleagues reviewed the excerpt from her book before the seminar and discussed terrorism in academic terms, referring to the difficulty of dealing with the “irrational actor” in terrorism policy. Any field of study requires quantitative analysis, a system of rational methods of understanding. But terrorism itself is irrational, placing it outside of scientific study and making it very difficult for anyone to understand sociologically, Stampnitzky said.

Jeffrey C. Stewart, another Warren Fellow and a professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said, “We’ve sort of reached a cul-de-sac in how we think about terrorism because if we define it as outside social science, we can’t study it using social science.”


Terrorism, as we define it today, is the use of violence or the threat of violence to intimidate, usually for some political end. The word came into common use in 1972, after the U.S. State Department, under the Nixon administration, convened to develop a response to the Palestinian attacks against Israeli Athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

Stampnitzky explained how “terrorism” evolved from the “insurgency,” another form of armed violence against a perceived authority. While insurgents attack targets directly, terrorists are more inclined to kill civilians to make a statement or to take hostages.

Stampnitzky explained how the use of non-target victims created a new emotional dynamic, and this dynamic solidified the position of terrorism in the good versus evil model that led to the United States War on Terrorism.

While counterinsurgency and counterterrorism measures have been implemented to deal with these acts of violence, many scholars feel that the U.S. deals with terrorism too homogeneously. Some of those in attendance said that policymakers do not understand that terrorism is a field of study that has not yet developed enough on a quantitative level, and that this analysis may be a long-term project due to complexities that vary by nation, region, and motivation.


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