Terrorism: An Interdisciplinary Approach

The September 11 Attacks sparked global outrage and prompted the US to initiate the War on Terror.

The following essay was originally submitted as an assignment for my university and was graded as a 2:1.

In this essay, I aim to utilise Allen Repko and James Welch’s interdisciplinary approach to examine the global issue of terrorism (Repko & Welch, 2005). First, I will begin by defining terrorism and outlining my specific research questions. Then I will introduce the concept of interdisciplinarity, discussing its advantages and disadvantages. Following this, I will study terrorism in isolation through the lens of social policy, politics, and economics, highlighting how each discipline answers my research questions. To conclude, I will combine these insights to construct a more integrated understanding of terrorism before reflecting on how I found the process of using an interdisciplinary approach.

Defining Terrorism

In the absence of a single internationally agreed-upon definition, the UN minimally defines terrorism as “the intimidation or coercion of populations or governments through the threat or perpetration of violence, causing death, serious injury or the taking of hostages” (United Nations, 2023). Over the last decade, the global death toll from terrorism ranged from 8,200 in 2011 to 44,600 in 2014, averaging 26,000 people a year. In addition, terrorism poses a significant security risk to countries worldwide, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, which accounted for 95% of the deaths caused by terrorism in 2019 (Ritchie, et al., 2022). Given its global nature, it is imperative that scholars become accustomed to studying terrorism in the hopes of finding a sustainable solution. With this in mind, I aim to utilise interdisciplinarity to answer the following research questions:

What are the causes of terrorism?

What is the solution to terrorism?

Introducing Interdisciplinarity

In 1994, Michael Gibbons and his colleagues posited a new theory concerning the production of knowledge. They argued that knowledge production was undergoing a fundamental change at the end of the twentieth century, moving from what they called ‘Mode 1’ to ‘Mode 2’. Mode 1 refers to traditional knowledge generated within discrete disciplines (Gibbons, et al., 1994). A discipline is any self-contained domain of human experience with its own community of experts and distinctive components (Nissani, 1995). Furthermore, disciplines often focus on a specific subject area with their own rules and boundaries (Bridges, 2006). For example, geology is a discipline concerned with studying Earth and other astronomical objects. It has a community of experts known as geologists and distinctive components, such as geophysical surveys and the Theory of Plate Tectonics.

Meanwhile, Mode 2 refers to knowledge generated by different disciplines working together to solve a specific problem via a process known as interdisciplinarity (Gibbons, et al., 1994). Interdisciplinarity can be minimally defined as bringing together the distinctive components of two or more disciplines (Nissani, 1995). More precisely, interdisciplinarity involves integrating and synthesising knowledge and methods from different disciplines (Jensenius, 2012). For instance, environmental science practices interdisciplinarity by synthesising knowledge and methods from geology, ecology, and oceanography. Much of the knowledge generated in environmental science has gone on to inform policy surrounding climate change.

Before discussing the advantages and disadvantages of interdisciplinarity, it is worth noting how it differs from other knowledge production methods, such as multidisciplinarity and cross-disciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity involves different disciplines working together for a common purpose, each drawing on its own body of knowledge (Jensenius, 2012). Thus, unlike interdisciplinary studies, where a single researcher must become acquainted with different disciplines, multidisciplinary studies require a group of researchers to focus on a common issue, viewing it from the perspective of their individual disciplines. This parallel approach to study is considerably less integrative than interdisciplinarity, making it difficult for researchers to consolidate their knowledge and ideas (Borrego & Newswander, 2010).

Similarly, cross-disciplinarity involves engaging with the subject area of one discipline using the methods and knowledge from another (Jensenius, 2012). Therefore, cross-disciplinarity is the least integrative as it does not require researchers to engage with the tools or perspectives of another discipline, only its subject area. Given this, cross-disciplinarity is far less likely to produce any new meaningful insights regarding a particular topic or issue. Therefore, both multidisciplinarity and cross-disciplinarity fall short of interdisciplinarity when it comes to successful knowledge production.

The benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity are best encapsulated by the term ‘breadth-over-depth’. If the different knowledge production methods were to exist on a spectrum, then traditional disciplinarity would have the most depth and least breadth, followed by cross-disciplinarity and multidisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity exists on the other side of the spectrum with the most breadth but least depth. Accordingly, traditional disciplinarity is often characterised as having a narrow focus that poses an “obstacle to fluid and imaginative intellectual endeavour” (Bridges, 2006, p. 262). Meanwhile, interdisciplinary studies come across as “characteristically shallow” (Benson, 1982, p. 43).

The main challenge of using an interdisciplinary approach is limited time and resources. Traditional disciplinarity allows students and researchers to pool all their time and resources into a single subject, allowing for greater mastery over their chosen discipline. In contrast, interdisciplinarity requires students and researchers to divide their time and resources across multiple disciplines, preventing them from fully understanding any one discipline. Interdisciplinary research projects have significantly longer production times and increased ambiguity compared to traditional research projects. Consequently, interdisciplinary studies tend to receive limited recognition and support within traditional academic structures (Leahey, 2018). Therefore, interdisciplinarity is the least efficient method of knowledge production.

On the other hand, the main benefit of an interdisciplinary approach is its ability to recognise the multifaceted nature of complex global issues such as terrorism. Using a single discipline to address a global issue will only highlight the elements that are relevant to that discipline. For instance, strict economists will only notice the economic causes of terrorism, leading them to wrongly conclude that terrorism is solely the result of economic deprivation. Therefore, traditional disciplinarity is insufficient when addressing global issues (Okamura, 2019). However, interdisciplinarity encourages individuals to critically engage with the theories and methodologies of multiple disciplines, opening them up to fresh perspectives whilst simultaneously overcoming the inadequacies of any one discipline (Klein, 1990). Furthermore, interdisciplinary learning has the added benefit of developing advanced epistemological beliefs, metacognitive skills, creativity, and critical thinking (Stentoft, 2017). Thus, making it the ideal method for effectively addressing global issues.

In summary, the future of knowledge production lies in interdisciplinarity – the integration and synthesis of different disciplines – as opposed to multidisciplinarity and cross-disciplinarity. While interdisciplinary approaches may not be as efficient as traditional disciplinary approaches, they are more effective at addressing complex global issues. Accordingly, an interdisciplinary approach is crucial for highlighting the multiplicity of factors causing terrorism which is conducive to devising a viable solution that covers all bases.

Perspectives from Social Policy

Over the last two decades, social policy has become increasingly invested in the study of terrorism and how it relates to issues surrounding social welfare. Primarily drawing from the discipline of criminology, social policy recognises that terrorism has changed over time. In recent years, a growing number of social policy practitioners have begun distinguishing between what they term ‘old’ terrorism and ‘new’ terrorism.

According to David Rapoport, the history of modern terrorism can be divided into four waves: anarchist, nationalist/anti-colonial, new left, and religious (Rapoport, 2004). Each of these four waves of terrorism is characterised by unique socio-cultural environments, methodologies, ideologies, and organisational structures. For instance, the current religious wave, exemplified by Al-Qaeda, directly appeals to religious faith for its justification, whereas the nationalist wave, exemplified by the IRA, appealed to ideas about emancipatory struggle (Kaplan, 2016). Rapoport’s religious wave of terrorism coincides with what social policy practitioners call ‘new’ terrorism: the “anti-order of the new world order of the 21st century” (Juergensmeyer, 2000, p. 158). It is characterised by amorphous structures of organisation and indiscriminate violent spectacles inspired by religious extremism (Hattotuwa, 2007). Given these conclusions, it is clear that social policy views religious fanaticism as a major cause of modern terrorism. That being said, a growing minority of scholars have begun categorising a fifth wave of terrorism, the right-wing wave, centred around ideas about white supremacy (Auger, 2020).

In social policy, the purpose of terrorism studies is to determine how much of a threat it poses to social welfare. In the UK, this has spurred policymakers to create the UK Terror Threat Levels, a scale of five alert states ranging from low to critical that determine national security responses. Since its introduction in 2006, the UK threat level from international terrorism has not dropped below substantial (MI5, 2023). This is but a reflection of much greater anxiety and moral panic surrounding the threat of terrorism on a global scale that has pushed policymakers worldwide to devise increasingly authoritarian measures to address it via a process known as securitisation.

Securitisation refers to the state’s ability to transform common political issues into matters of national security, allowing it to pass extraordinary measures it would not be able to do otherwise (Buzan, et al., 1998). It is a practice that dates back to the early waves of terrorism when colonial powers instituted increasingly draconian methods in an attempt to stem the tide of nationalistic fervour. For example, the British Raj passed the Defence of India Act 1915, extending it under the Rowlatt Act in 1919, which allowed for the censorship of the press, arrests without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, and juryless trials for anyone engaged in acts of revolutionary nationalism (Ghani, 2020).

In a similar fashion, the UK government gradually rolled back on the public’s civil liberties in the interest of national security during the early 2000s. The Terrorism Act 2000 gave the police the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion. A few years later, the Terrorism Act 2006 gave the police the power to arrest and detain without charge for up to 28 days. These powers have subsequently been abused by police, especially when shutting down political dissent. For example, in March 2003, anti-war protestors were prevented from protesting outside RAF Fairford and were sent back to London under heavy police escort (BBC, 2013). Furthermore, in June 2013, documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that GCHQ had been spying on the British public (Amnesty International UK, 2020). This practice of mass surveillance has since been formalised under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, which gave 48 state authorities, including GCHQ, the power to access the general public’s internet connection records without a warrant.

Alongside this general erosion of civil liberties, the UK government has also begun implementing special measures targeting specific suspect communities, most notably British Muslims. Introduced in 2011, the Prevent programme has since faced considerable criticism for its “negative and discriminatory effects on Muslim communities” (Nezirevic, 2022). Most notably, Prevent has been found to be inherently Islamophobic, contributing to the marginalisation of the Muslim community, which only increases the risk of radicalisation (Holmwood & Aitlhadj, 2022). Despite specifically targeting Muslim communities, the Prevent programme still failed to stop Salman Abedi from committing the 2017 Manchester Arena Bombing (Perraudin, 2017). Therefore, much like the Rowlatt Act of 1919, modern UK government policy has proven ineffective in addressing terrorism, in many ways exacerbating the very conditions that lead to radicalisation.

In summary, social policy firmly places religion, particularly Islam, at the heart of modern terrorism. This, in turn, has fuelled moral panic, allowing governments to implement increasingly authoritarian laws that cut back on individual liberty. In doing so, governments have contributed to the very same socio-economic conditions that allow for the radicalisation of individuals.

Perspectives from Politics

Since the War on Terror began, terrorism has become an increasingly popular area of research in political science, particularly where its subdisciplines of international relations, security studies and strategic studies are concerned. Consequently, numerous studies have been conducted on the causes of terrorism. Overall, political science recognises three main categories of factors that cause or exacerbate modern terrorism: ideological factors, socio-economic factors, and psychological factors (Wojciechowski, 2017).

Terrorists identify with ideologies centred around ideas regarding politics, ethnicity, and religion. Broadly speaking, terrorists fall into two categories: nationalists and ideologists (Segaller, 1987). Nationalists are radicalised by perceived national injustices and supported by their communities, utilising violent means where peaceful means have proven ineffective. For example, the IRA sought to free Ireland from British colonial rule. Meanwhile, ideologists hold distinctly minority views and are often ostracised from their communities. For example, ISIS follows a very extreme interpretation of Islam that is rejected by the vast majority of Muslims.

For terrorism to thrive, it requires socio-economic conditions that generate and intensify radical attitudes. While experts disagree on the importance of specific socio-economic conditions, globalisation stands out as a critical factor underpinning modern terrorism. Globalisation threatens local communities’ societal norms and economic position, leading to intercultural conflict, particularly in the global ‘south’ (Stevens, 2002). In addition, globalisation has brought into stark focus the development disparity between the rich global ‘north’ and the poor global ‘south’. As it stands, less-developed states experience the greatest threat from terrorist activity (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2022). Furthermore, terrorist organisations rely on financial backing from various international sources, from individual donors to foreign regimes. For example, the Afghan Taliban relies on donations from sympathisers abroad and the opium trade to fund its activities (Clarke, 2015). I will elaborate on the financial aspect of terrorism in the economics section of this essay.

People at risk of being radicalised by terrorist groups exhibit certain psychological processes such as hatred, prejudice, injustice, and trauma, among others. This is evidenced by the fact that many terrorists follow some variation of the ‘us versus them’ mentality. For example, Brenton Tarrant was influenced by anti-Muslim sentiment and white supremacy, leading him to commit the 2019 Christchurch Mosque Shootings (Ehsan & Stott, 2020). Another commonality amongst terrorist groups is the idea that everything, including one’s life, comes second to ‘the cause’. As a result, terrorists willingly assume responsibility for and engage in violently destructive activities (Horgan, 2003).

Given its vast range of causal factors, political scientists have advocated for different solutions to address terrorism, depending on their ontological and epistemological positions. The most popular position is that of the realists who call for direct military intervention in countries facing terrorist threats. For instance, following the September 11th Attacks, the USA launched its War on Terror, increasing its global military presence, particularly in the Middle East. As of 2021, the USA controls around 750 overseas military bases (Vine, 2021). Despite eliminating high-value targets like Osama Bin Laden, the USA’s War on Terror is often considered a strategic failure. During the Arab Spring, the USA failed to protect its strategic allies, such as Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was deposed in 2012 (Riedel, 2017). After the USA’s withdrawal in late 2021, the Taliban effectively took over Afghanistan, demonstrating how twenty years of military intervention proved ineffective at addressing terrorism (Center for Preventive Action, 2022). Not to mention the 387,072 civilian deaths caused by the USA’s post-9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan (Watson Institute, 2021). As a result of this fervent interventionism, many countries belonging to the global ‘south’ view the USA and its allies with suspicion (Simon & Stevenson, 2015).

In response to the War on Terror’s strategic failure, post-modernists have begun to question how society perceives terrorism. As academics have increasingly highlighted, western media outlets consistently associate terrorism with Islam and Muslims (Scrivens, 2018). Atrocities committed by Islamist extremists receive six times more coverage and are nine times more likely to be associated with the term ‘terrorism’ than those committed by far-right extremists despite using similar methods of violence (Hanif, 2020). This failure to frame far-right extremism as terrorism is reflected in the lack of adequate policy measures to address it. Furthermore, associating Islam with terrorism has prompted anti-Muslim sentiment worldwide, fuelling justification for state-sponsored aggression towards Muslim minorities (Werleman, 2021). This only further marginalises Muslim populations, creating the socio-economic conditions that precipitate terrorist activity. Therefore, post-modernists assert that the way the international community currently frames terrorism is detrimental to the process of solving it.

To summarise, political science asserts that terrorism results from various ideological, socio-economic, and psychological factors. Following the failure of the USA’s War on Terror, the mainstream realist advocacy for direct military intervention has been increasingly questioned, prompting post-modernists to call for a revaluation of terrorism discourse.

Perspectives from Economics

In economics, terrorism is primarily studied from a utility perspective, analysing the rational choices of terrorist organisations. Hence, economists make no distinction between terrorists and other criminals. Therefore, to understand the root cause of terrorism, one must familiarise themselves with the economic theory of crime.

Initially conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1789, the economic theory of crime was later formalised by Gary Becker in 1968. According to Bentham, “the profit of the crime urges a man to delinquency: the pain of punishment is the force employed to restrain him from it”. Furthermore, “if the first of these forces be the greater, the crime will be committed; if the second, the crime will not be committed” (Bentham, 1789, p. 399). Similarly, in Becker’s model, criminal acts are preferred when the expected benefits of a crime exceed its expected costs, including the costs of any foregone legal alternatives (Becker, 1968). Thus, criminals are presented as rational utility maximisers. In the case of terrorism, this is no different: terrorists aim to maximise their utility. For instance, the Taliban still exported opium to the USA despite fighting a war against them, as it was the course of action that maximised their utility (Clarke, 2015). 

One of the main conclusions drawn from the economic theory of crime is the idea that poverty breeds crime. According to the theory, criminals wish to engage in criminal activities that provide a benefit exceeding the benefit they would receive engaging in legal activities (Becker, 1968). Therefore, the lower an individual’s legal income, the more likely they are to engage in crime or terrorism. This is clearly reflected in the fact that less-developed, low-income countries experience greater levels of terrorist activity (Institute for Economics & Peace, 2022). Furthermore, during the onset of the 2007-2008 Financial crisis, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide reached an all-time high of 14,414 (Statista Research Department, 2023). Given this, economists generally believe that the solution to terrorism – as with all things – lies in economic growth. However, economists disagree on how to bring about said economic growth and are broadly divided into two schools of economic philosophy: Keynesian economics and laissez-faire economics.

Named after its founder John Keynes, the Keynesian school of economics asserts that a healthy economy is the result of private sector and government help. Therefore, it falls to governments to implement the appropriate monetary and fiscal policies to maintain high aggregate demand, avoiding unemployment and economic recessions (The Investopedia Team, 2022). According to Keynes, an economy’s output is the sum of consumption, investment, government expenditure, and net exports. Therefore, any increase in one of these components leads to an increase in output, leading to an increase in aggregate demand. In addition, Keynesian economic models also include a multiplier effect, so any change in output is a multiple of the increase or decrease in spending that caused the change (Jahan, et al., 2014). Keynesian economists typically advocate for higher social spending, lower taxes, and lower interest rates during economic recessions and the opposite during economic booms (The Investopedia Team, 2022).

On the other hand, the laissez-faire school of economics rejects government intervention, preferring to let the free market naturally regulate itself. Laissez-faire economists believe economic competition constitutes a natural order, the best type of economic regulation (The Investopedia Team, 2022). Take, for example, the theory of comparative advantage, which refers to a country’s ability to produce goods and services at a lower opportunity cost than its trade partners. In a global free market economy, every country would be forced to specialise in whichever industry they have a comparative advantage and trade in whichever industry they lack a comparative advantage. In theory, doing so would increase global productivity and economic growth (The Economist, 1998). As a result, laissez-faire economists are typically against minimum wages, trade restrictions, and corporate taxes, viewing them as penalties on production. Therefore, governments should only intervene to preserve property, life, and individual freedom, allowing ‘the invisible hand’ to proceed unhindered (The Investopedia Team, 2022).

In summary, economics solely recognises poverty as the driving force behind terrorism and other crimes. Therefore, the solution to terrorism lies in increased economic growth that alleviates poverty, thereby removing the incentive to engage in criminal activity. Laissez-faire economic policies have classically led to meagre wages, unsafe working conditions, significant wealth gaps and other socio-economic conditions that breed crime and terrorism. Meanwhile, Keynesian economists seek to solve terrorism by addressing market inequalities and reducing the economic marginalisation that pushes individuals to commit acts of terror.


In conclusion, interdisciplinarity is the most appropriate method for addressing any multifaceted global issue, such as terrorism, given its inherent appreciation for different disciplinary viewpoints. As far as social policy, politics, and economics are concerned, each discipline recognises different causes and solutions to the problem of terrorism. Therefore, it falls to interdisciplinarity to synthesise these various viewpoints to devise a viable solution to terrorism.

To devise a solution, we must first understand the causes of terrorism. Of the three disciplines examined in this essay, politics has the broadest range of factors contributing to the issue of terrorism: ideological factors, socio-economic factors, and psychological factors. Meanwhile, social policy and economics place more emphasis on religious extremism (an ideological factor) and poverty (a socio-economic factor), respectively. Regardless, all three disciplines recognise social and economic marginalisation as a critical factor behind radicalisation. Therefore, any attempt to solve terrorism must address the factors contributing to marginalisation.

As discussed in social policy, UK government policy has contributed to the social marginalisation of the Muslim community. Similarly, on a wider scale, the western media often demonises Muslims as the sole perpetrators of terrorist activity. Therefore, as highlighted in politics, there is a desperate need to change the way terrorism and Islam are framed as social discourses. To do this, I would recommend that media outlets begin reporting more fairly on terrorist activities committed by non-Muslim groups such as the far-right. Furthermore, media outlets should also portray Muslims in a more positive light to counteract the decades of negative stereotypes which have fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment. In addition, economics has highlighted a need for reduced wealth inequality and increased economic growth to deter terrorism. To achieve this, I suggest governments invest more money into communities at risk of radicalisation.

Overall, using an interdisciplinary approach has proven to be both a challenging and informative experience. While it has equipped me with a broad range of knowledge, I do not feel I am particularly well-versed in any one of the disciplines studied in this essay. Furthermore, the time constraints of this particular project meant that I could not devise a fully-fledged solution to the problem of terrorism. I am sure I could devise a much better solution if I had more time and resources. Thus, my experience with interdisciplinarity reflects the primary issue associated with the approach: ‘breadth-over-depth’.


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