Social Disorganization and Terrorism Research Paper

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One would expect more terrorism incidents to originate in a socially disorganized environment, that is, an environment that has experienced a rapid social change that has destroyed the regular rules and bounds on human behavior. The notion that one’s surroundings may influence behavior is not a new one. In particular, the idea that the organization of the social environment, such as neighborhoods, families, and communities, may stimulate violence has been around since the origins of the social sciences. Emile Durkheim was a pioneer in describing the anticipated effects of the social environment on violent behavior.

Anomic Behavior

To understand how a socially disorganized environment influences one’s behavior according to Durkheim (1930 [1951]), it is important to understand how he viewed human nature. To Durkheim, humans lacked the ability to regulate their desires and wants. In fact, humans were like other animals in that they were controlled by their needs and desires, particularly food, shelter, and the sexual drive. Unlike animals, though, humans have the power of reflection, the ability to imagine more than they have, and it is because of this ability to imagine more that they require an external force to limit their desires and needs. In normal times, the social environment provides this external limiting force; that is, one’s behavior is regulated by the social rules and norms that are ordinarily in force. For example, if an individual sees that another has a very nice and desired vehicle, under most circumstances, that individual will not simply go and take that vehicle by force. Under most circumstances, the individual will refrain from taking the vehicle, because the individual is kept in the bounds of legal and moral behavior by the traditional rules of society. The fear of arrest and the disappointment expected by one’s family and community as well as other social consequences keep individuals from simply taking the object of their desires.

However, Durkheim (1930 [1951]) says that if the society is experiencing temporary but rapid social changes, normal circumstances do not apply. In fact, during these times, what are called anomic or socially disorganized times, it is as if the rules of society have been stripped off and individuals are left in a world with no normal ways of doing things and no rules about wrong and right. In addition, the power of reflection, the power to imagine more, better, and different will come into play. In this world, individuals may become so disoriented by the loss of rules and controls that they may start to want everything they see. In many cases, individuals will not be able to satisfy all of their wants and desires and will become unsettled. Because Durkheim studied what led people to commit suicide, he states that such persons are more likely to commit suicide. Compared to well-regulated societies, those which experience rapid social changes that create anomie are more likely to experience increases in suicides.

Durkheim’s (1930 [1951]) writings on the effects of anomie on behavior can be and have been applied to crime and terrorism. An example of a rapid social change sufficient to bring on a state of anomie in the society might be a civil war between an insurgent force and the government. In such a society, where an insurgent force is violently attempting to overthrow the government and its rights to make and enforce rules about legal and illegal conduct, the rules that dictate right and wrong in everyday life will not be in place. This constitutes anomie, a state of deregulation of behavior.

An individual living in such a state will be unsure as to what the new rules and regulations are in this different, anomic world. When the old rules were forcefully removed by the outbreak of civil war and the new rules have not been made clear or taken root yet, individuals will either need to restrain their desires and needs themselves or they will find this new anomic world without rules intolerable. The inability to tolerate this anomic world may make it more likely for some people to do behavior that is against the rules and norms of behavior that used to be in force in the society. If such individuals are sufficiently motivated, perhaps by a grievance against the government (Gurr 1976), such individuals may become involved in extreme acts, including terrorism. Anomie, according to Durkheim, is not a permanent condition. Over time, a new set of rules to define what is normal in society will develop, and the society will regain its equilibrium. This new set of rules will make living more tolerable for individuals again, and this will decrease the rate at which individuals engage in problematic behavior.

It is important to remember that this theory of human behavior is probabilistic; it suggests that the presence of such rapid social change makes it more likely that some individuals will engage in actions that are problematic. It is not a theory that predicts that all individuals will engage in problematic behavior nor is it definite that any specific individuals will be so engaged.

How Much Rapid Social Change Is Needed?

To result in anomie, a rapid social change must involve a large-scale structural challenge to the ordering and functioning of societal institutions (Piven and Cloward 1977). In other words, the rapid social change has to be serious and broad. It is also important that the rapid social change be large enough to stimulate changes in the structure and routines of everyday life. If a rapid social change occurs that does not interrupt the structure and routine of everyday life for most people, it is unlikely to change the behavior of those individuals whose routines continue uninterrupted. For example, when individuals are released from the routine of going to work every day as well as the sustenance provided by work, this changes the pattern and rhythm of their lives. If the interruption continues for a period, it is likely sufficient to produce anomie.

How Do Anomic Conditions Affect Behavior?

A socially disorganized environment likely affects behavior through its effects on the structure and routine of everyday life (Snow et al. 1998). People are more likely to take action to preserve what they know and their current routines rather than to seek something new and better. The known routines they will act to save are the things they do every day (behaviors) and the way they think about these things (cognition). The behaviors involve habituali-zed patterns of action. The cognition involves attitudes individuals adopt when approaching their daily routines. These attitudes chiefly involve an unquestioning, unreflective routine way of getting through the day.

These behavioral and cognitive routines of everyday life are what constitutes the quotidian, which is derived from the French word for daily. For example, if a rapid social change occurs that does not affect the daily routine for most people, such as the actions as well as thoughts and ideas of getting up every day to go to work, come home from work, and taking care of children and home, then it is unlikely to stimulate people to do something about the rapid social change. It is when the behavioral and cognitive routines of the everyday are disrupted that individuals are likely to be moved to act. Action is particularly likely if the routine of work is disrupted. This is because work provides both monetary sustenance that is needed for survival and dominates the waking hours.

The Great Depression is one rapid social change that severely disrupted the quotidian (Piven and Cloward 1977). In particular, many individuals lost their jobs or livelihoods. As these individuals sought work and could not find it in their communities, many left their communities in search of it elsewhere. The Great Depression vastly affected the quotidian. The key connection between a socially disorganized environment and individuals taking action is whether the anomic conditions truly affect the individuals’ lives by disrupting their everyday routines.

Once the quotidian is disrupted, the present world of individuals becomes a problem that begs to be fixed. This disruption makes everyday life unbearably uncertain until such time that the old routines can be reclaimed or new routines can be adopted and adjusted to. Inherently, individuals are spurred to action by the need to get back their old routines, thus reducing the uncertainty in their lives. It should be noted, though, that there may be a threshold for the loss of the quotidian, past which action may be unlikely. This threshold may lie at the complete destruction of the individual’s way of life, such as for refugees from wars or victims surviving genocidal campaigns.

How Do Social Disorganization And The Quotidian Relate To One Another?

When Durkheim and the quotidian theorists were writing, they were not trying to explain the occurrence of terrorism. However, these works have been used to explain the occurrence of nonroutine collective action (Useem 1998). Nonroutine collective actions seriously contravene social norms, particularly those against violence. Terrorist attacks constitute nonroutine collective action. The acts themselves are born of the interaction and planning of a group of individuals and involve violence against people or property and, thus, are appropriately described as nonroutine collective action.

What, then, is the process of social disorganization influencing terrorism? First, the rapid social change must occur. It must occur rapidly, and it must have effects that broadly affect the lives of many people in society. An example would be the onset of a civil war. The society must not be able to absorb the negative effects of this change. Individuals will lose their integration into the rhythm and networks of life; they will feel cut off. In addition, they will only weakly be linked to the collective identity of those in their society. These individuals are set adrift.

Second, the social change must influence the everyday lives of people. In fact, it must have substantial effects on the behavioral and cognitive routines of the everyday lives of most people. For example, if a civil war breaks out, perhaps the fighting itself has made it too dangerous for citizens to travel to work every day or perhaps the factory in which they work has been shut down due to damage from nearby bombings. Losing the routine of waking up and going to work every day as well as the thought process that goes along with such a routine may be profoundly disorienting to individuals.

Further, along with the loss of everyday routines, individuals in such societies may not know how the rules and norms of life have changed. What is acceptable and normal may have changed. Both the loss of the routine and the previously known rules and norms have effects on people. With no routine and no norms, these individuals will be poorly integrated into society. They will be included in fewer networks and activities than before the loss of the quotidian; they should also have less identification with the collective identity. The severing of networks and the collective identity and the destruction of the previous norms and rules are what classically constitutes social disorganization. This social disorganization should make it more likely that individuals will do nonroutine collective actions. They may take to the streets to protest or riot, they may commit ordinary crime, and they may engage in political violence. This political violence may be what scholars consider terrorism.

How To Define Terrorism?

The next question must be what constitutes terrorism. Definitions of terrorism abound, and the debate continues on which definition is the best. Often, the definition of terrorism chosen will reflect the main interest of the definer. For example, the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation, which often conducts domestic terrorism investigations, has a definition of terrorism some have called narrow and legalistic (Martin 2011). This definition is likely precise and legalistic, because it is used to investigate and enforce the law. On the other end of the spectrum, academics and researchers who perform studies of terrorism often use definitions that are broader or more detailed in order to facilitate the collection of data or analysis of data.

No specific definition of terrorism is adopted here, but some guidelines might be useful. These guidelines include non-state actors using unconventional force illegally against civilian or other noncombatant targets for political motives to influence an audience (Martin 2011). Noncombatant targets are often interpreted to include military personnel when off duty. Political motives are often interpreted rather broadly and may include acts of violence that are aimed at instigating social or religious change as well as strictly political motives. In addition, groups can have multiple or overlapping motives in that they may desire political autonomy for their social or ethnic group as well as religious change. An example of this would be the group Hamas, which seeks an independent Palestinian state that would be governed by Islamic law. Further, terrorist groups seek to influence a larger audience beyond the immediate victims of their attacks. For example, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) undertook a campaign of dramatic aerial hijackings for the express purpose of publicizing the plight of the Palestinian people to the world.

They chose aerial hijackings in order to grab the world’s attention and to direct it to understanding Palestinian grievances. Similarly, the group Black September is thought to have undertaken the attack on the Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, as a way of airing their grievances to a wider audience.

Is Breakdown A Reasonable Explanation Of Terrorism?

In order for the Durkheimian model of societal breakdown to be a reasonable explanation of terrorism, three things should be evident. First, there should be a rapid social change of sufficient magnitude and scope that it cuts individuals off from the social ties and bonds they had to the community before the rapid social change. Second, this loss of ties (breakdown) should stimulate discontent in individuals in that society. This discontent may stem from being cut off from society in general or from the quotidian. Third, it is important to demonstrate whether this discontent must make nonroutine collective action more likely to occur. If all of these qualifications can be met, then breakdown theory has passed a crucial test with respect to whether terrorism is more likely to occur in an environment of social disorganization.

Alternate Hypotheses

It is entirely possible that breakdown theory does not explain terrorism particularly well. What then are the alternate explanations? The major competing explanation is known as resource mobilization and is best exemplified by the work of Charles Tilly and his colleagues. Where breakdown posits that individuals who are cut off from the rules and norms of society by the loss of the quotidian will be more likely to engage in nonroutine collective action, the resource mobilization scholars argue that there is no connection between breakdown and nonroutine collective action. In fact, resource mobilization (RM) scholars do not recognize a distinction between routine and nonroutine collective action; rather, they assert that both routine and nonroutine actions spring from the same mechanisms (Tilly et al. 1975). They also contend that crime and suicide are not collective actions, but instead, they constitute social pathologies and ought not to be considered for explanation by the RM perspective.

Next, RM theorists argue that collective action is explained by dense social networks and a robust collective identity. That is, individuals who are well integrated into the society through their primary and secondary social networks are more likely to engage in collective action.

Primary networks are made up of family bonds and the informal social controls provided by this type of network. Secondary social networks are informal social bonds in work, school, and church. Individuals with strong primary and secondary social networks are more likely to engage in collective action according to this perspective. That is, individuals who are well connected to the people in their lives and who identify with the society’s collective identity are more likely to be involved in collective action, such as social movements or protests.

More specifically, RM theorists suggest that rather than preexisting social isolation, weak social networks, and weak collective identification, collective action grows out of preexisting social organization. Social organization can include formal and informal social bonds and resources. Individuals who are well integrated into social networks, particularly secondary social networks, are a wellspring of resources, civic-minded attitude, and connections to other people. This type of connectedness makes it easier rather than harder to motivate collective action. In fact, individual connections to a whole group of individuals may make bloc mobilization possible, such as mobilizing church members to protest outside of abortion clinics (Useem 1998).

Taking Sides

How, then, to decide which perspective is most useful for explaining terrorism and other forms of crime? This question can be examined using several types of studies. The first type of study would be to interview individuals who have participated in collective action. This would involve collecting their personal information, such as whether they were members of secondary groups. It would also be helpful to ask whether they feel well connected to society or cut off. It would be important to examine those who engaged in routine collective action separately from those who engaged in nonroutine collective action. For example, one set of researchers examined the characteristics of African Americans in 15 cities during the 1960s, a period of great social unrest, including both nonviolent protests and violent race riots (Miller et al. 1976). They compared those who had engaged only in nonviolent protest (routine collective action) to those who expressed attitudes supportive of rioting (nonroutine collective action). They found that those who had engaged in nonviolent protesting were more likely to be older, married, and of higher occupational and educational levels and were less likely to have been raised in “broken” homes than those individuals who had attitudes supportive of rioting. Although many of these individuals may not have participated in the riots, this study may demonstrate that those who engage in routine collective action are more likely to be well integrated in society and less likely to be socially isolated than those who engage in nonroutine collective action. This study supports the breakdown position with respect to the role of social integration and organization.

In contrast, other researchers examined the social movement against drunk driving, known as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). The movement was founded by two married mothers who had lost daughters to drunk drivers with multiple prior offenses. Interestingly, the movement seemed to take off from the beginning, with MADD’s first press conference being held months after its founding on Capitol Hill with three Congressional representatives present. MADD conducts routine collective actions, including tree plantings, gatherings at the US Capitol, and political lobbying, including lobbying US President Ronald Reagan to sign the federal legislation that would effectively raise the drinking age to 21 ( 2011). One study found that on average, MADD participants were socially involved, married, middle aged, college educated, and held privileged jobs (Weed 1987). Further, another study found that MADD chapters were more likely to be founded in counties with wealthier and more educated residents (McCarthy et al. 1988). Given that MADD has only been involved in routine collective actions, this movement, the types of collective actions in which they engage, and the status characteristics of those who participate in it seem to indicate that routine collective actions may require some social organization and participants who are enmeshed in social networks.

The second way of studying the connection between social disorganization and collective action is to examine a particular movement which involved both routine and nonroutine collective actions for evidence that the presence of social disorganization increased the discontent of citizens, whether this discontent made it more likely that these individuals would participate in collective action and, finally, whether those individuals who were well bonded to their families and their communities and participated in community activities before the rapid social change were more likely to engage in collective action (Useem 1980). This case study examined the antibusing movement which grew out of the Supreme Court decision that mandated the racial desegregation of public schools by busing students to racially integrate previously segregated schools. The study involved interviewing individuals who lived in parts of Boston which were likely to be affected by the integration of schools. They were directly asked about whether they had engaged in any collective action, their levels of discontent, and their ties to family and community. This case study directly examined the key questions about breakdown and preexisting community engagement on collective action.

The rapid social change of the antibusing movement was represented by the order to desegregate public schools. The antibusing movement in Boston involved both violent and nonviolent forms of collective action, including boycotts, demonstrations which involved violence, the formation of private schools to circumvent the desegregation order, and the formation of community organizations to represent the antibusing interests. This case study found that those who were closely tied to their communities and those who were members of community organizations were more likely to be discontented with the desegregation decree. That is, socially isolated individuals were less likely to be discontented. This supports the RM position. Those who were discontented, in turn, were more likely to participate in collective action against busing. This supported the breakdown position. It seems possible that those who were more connected to their communities were better informed about the order to desegregate or were more likely to be affected by the order (e.g., had school-aged children) and, thus, had more of a stake in trying to protest or circumvent the desegregation order. This type of rapid social change did not affect all community members equally; those with school-aged children would be more likely to be discontented by it. Nevertheless, this study provided support for both breakdown theory and the resource mobilization theorists.

The third way of studying this question is to examine environments that have endured the effects of rapid social change that resulted in social disorganization. For example, we could also compare the levels of nonroutine collective action in states or countries that have experienced rapid social change and social disorganization to those countries or states that have not experienced rapid social change and social disorganization. This could allow researchers to examine many different countries around the world and over long periods of time. Or alternatively, we could examine the same environment over a long time period, including periods of rapid social change as well as relatively calm periods. In this way, we could examine the effects of rapid social change on collective action while holding the country environment constant.

One study examined patterns of crime and collective action in France between 1830 and 1931 (Lodhi and Tilly 1972). For collective actions, the authors included riots, strikes, and demonstrations. For the rapid social change, they examined the effects of urbanization (i.e., increases or decreases in the proportion of people in France living in cities with 10,000 or more people). Urbanization constitutes a classic rapid social change, because it generally involves the migration of rural residents to the cities. These rural residents often moved to the cities en masse in search of work, because they were unable to sustain a living in farming or because of an increase in the availability of jobs in the cities due to industrialization. The males and occasional whole families who migrated to the cities may be predisposed to difficulties in adjusting to the new urban environment. These adjustment difficulties may have resulted in social disorganization. From the breakdown perspective, these difficulties were likely to involve the isolation of these individuals from their family and community ties, leading them to be cut off from society. This would make them more likely to engage in nonroutine collective action. From the RM perspective, urbanization itself may have no actual effects on the individuals who migrated to the cities. Rather, it is the experience of living in a city that makes individuals more prone to collective action. This is called urbanity, which is the proportion of people who live in cities with 10,000 or more people relative to the population of the entire country.

Thus, this research set up a direct test between breakdown and RM. The main question was whether urbanization (breakdown) or urbanity (RM) would drive either crime, collective violence, or both. During the major period of urbanization in France, the number of property crimes declined, while crimes against the person did not appear to be driven by either urbanity or urbanization. These findings most clearly contradict the breakdown perspective, which suggests that urbanization should drive both person and property crimes upward. On the other hand, urbanity seemed to predict property crime and some of the forms of collective violence. That is, the experience of living in a city was more clearly responsible for increases in property crime and some forms of collective action than the social disorganization experienced by a society which has en masse migrations of its citizens to the cities.

Another way of testing which theory better explains how collective action is produced is to study one social environment over a long period of time to assess whether crime and collective action occur during the same periods of time. The RM theorists suggest that crime is not a collective action but rather a social pathology, and thus, it should have no relationship with routine collective action. In contrast, breakdown theorists say that crime and nonroutine collective action ought to occur at similar times, because they are driven by similar processes (social disorganization). However, routine collective action and crime should not occur alongside one another because they are not driven by similar processes.

LaFree and Drass (1997) looked at this question before, during, and after the civil rights movement in the United States. Unfortunately, the study did not separate routine and nonroutine collective actions. The authors compared homicide, robbery, and burglary arrest rates for blacks and whites to collective actions. These collective actions were primarily a result of the African American civil rights movement. Thus, they included such actions as sit-in rallies, marches, boycotts, protests, demonstrations, and civil-rights-related riots.

The idea is to examine whether crime and collective action follow similar patterns over time. If they do, it can be inferred that they are being caused by the same or similar processes, and this would support the breakdown perspective, because if they are predicted by the same processes, then, it is likely that collective action does not require preexisting community ties and membership in collective groups (Lodhi and Tilly 1972). If they do not follow the same pattern over time, increasing and decreasing at similar times, then, it is unlikely that they are driven by the same processes. This type of finding supports the RM model.

Upon examination, crime and collective action did follow a similar path, increasing and decreasing together from 1955 until the early 1970s for both blacks and whites. However, collective action decreased dramatically at this point as the civil rights movement, the rapid social change, came to its conclusion. However, arrest rates stayed high and continued to follow their own path from the early 1970s until 1991. These findings do not clearly support either breakdown or RM. It is possible that if nonroutine collective actions, such as riots, and routine collective actions had been examined separately and each compared to crime that the findings would have been more clearly supportive of one side or the other.

Overall, there is no clear winner in the debate between breakdown and RM. It is likely that both theoretical explanations work to explain different segments of collective action. For example, it is likely that preexisting social organization, such as membership in community groups and having personal ties to the community, makes routine collective action more likely, such as the MADD movement against drunk driving. Individuals who have a stake in the community are probably more likely to act to defend that community using legal and nonviolent methods when they perceive a change, like in the antibusing movement. However, nonroutine collective action likely does not require such organization. Individuals who are more likely to engage in nonroutine collective action, such as collective violence or riots, appear to be more socially isolated individuals who are freed to act in response to the socially disorganized environment which surrounds them. Thus, each of these theoretical explanations appears to explain different domains of collective action.

Is Social Disorganization Felt By Citizens?

It is likely that the social disorganization created by the rapid social change is felt by those who live in the society and are affected by the changing environment. This may be felt as a change of or removal of the norms, a feeling that the old rules no longer apply (Durkheim 1930 [1951]). This may also be felt from the loss of the everyday routine (Snow et al. 1998), which may be experienced as a feeling of restlessness or rootlessness. Further, this may also be felt as impending danger or a loss of a sense of safety (Useem 1998).

In an interesting but simple test of this notion of a feeling of impending danger, Useem (1998) examined the relationship between homicide rates, domestic handgun production, and rioting activity in the United States. The time period was 1964 until 1994, a time which included the African American civil rights movement as well as race-related riots in major cities. The thinking was that handgun production would increase as the handguns previously manufactured were purchased; handguns are not usually used for hunting, unlike long guns. Handgun production rates closely tracked the homicide rate over the time period, except for those years in which there were increases in riots. During these years, handgun production rates jumped up more than would be expected given the danger presented by the homicide rate. Thus, individuals appeared to be frightened by the occurrence of these riots and purchased handguns to protect themselves even if the riot did not occur geographically close to them. This research supports the notion that individuals can feel social disorganization as a sense of impending danger.

Does The Evidence Show A Relationship Between Social Disorganization And Terrorism?

The final question is whether terrorism is more likely to occur in socially disorganized environments. One interesting research study examined this question in the context of breakdown theory (Fahey 2010). In this study, the socially disorganized environment resulted from the occurrence of political instability within the country. The instabilities included the outbreak of war, genocide, adverse regime change, which was a move toward a more autocratic government, and a combination of these events occurring within a short time period. The occurrence of these instability types can be seen as measures of rapid social change. In addition, these types of events are also likely to affect the everyday lives of individuals. If the security situation in a particular country deteriorates rapidly, as in the case of war and genocide, or the political environment has suddenly become far less open, as in the case of adverse regime change, citizens will likely be less able to continue on with the rhythm and routine of their normal everyday life, such as work, leisure, and home time. In extreme cases, they may be forced out of their homes. In addition, the political instability may create a breakdown in the informal and formal social ties that bind individuals to society; the breakdown in the ties may make it more likely that individuals living in a society which has experienced this political instability will participate in nonroutine collective action. This will be due to the idea that the informal and formal ties can no longer function to restrain the actions of these individuals. Further, the loss of the everyday routine and the loss of the controlling power of social ties may work together to increase the likelihood of nonroutine collective action.

Fahey (2010) examined whether political instability was related to the occurrence of terrorism in 147 countries from 1970 to 2005. She found that when political instability occurred within a state, increases in terrorism incidents were more likely. One of the strengths of this study is that it examined the occurrence of instability worldwide over 35 years. This helps to ensure that the results are more stable, that they do not apply only to one country or situation, and that they do not apply to only one decade or time period. Political instability does seem to constitute a rapid social change in the Durkheimian model, and it likely affects the regulatory processes in society, that is, social disorganization, as well as the everyday routines of the citizens in that society.


The purpose of this research paper was to discuss and explain the rapid social changes that may lead to social disorganization, the two dominant theoretical hypotheses to explain the association between social disorganization and collective action, and some of the evidence that has been used to support either or both of the theoretical expectations. More evidence is needed to come to a firm conclusion on the relationship between socially disorganized environments and terrorism. However, it is likely that both theoretical explanations have some utility. Specifically, it is likely that some individuals and groups are spurred to terrorism due to the loss of prevailing norms in a newly socially disorganized environment as well as the loss of identification with the collective identity. Further, it is also likely that those who had connections to others, particularly through community groups, before the onset of the social disorganization will be in a better situation to join, recruit, and mobilize for and engage in terrorism through a terrorist group. Bloc mobilization may be particularly important for terrorist groups. What seems to be clear is that social disorganization may be one possible explanation of terrorism incidents. For terrorism that occurs after a rapid social change that produces social disorganization, it is likely that the disorganization provides at least a partial explanation.


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