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Vincenzo Ruggiero

Political violence includes an array of conducts and events that defy unilateral examination. It may be authorized or unauthorized violence, and while the latter is almost always associated with crime, the former is normally deemed an expression of the legitimate monopoly in the use of force characterizing modern societies. There are institutional and anti-institutional forms of political violence, namely violence of the authority and violent expressions of defiance against authority. Both have been the object of analysis by sociologists and criminologists, with some contending that theories of “common” violence should be applied to the analysis of political violence. It is assumed, for example, that both types of violence possess a goal-directed character: achieving results, extracting something of value from others, or exercising justice by punishing wrongdoers. Other analysts, however, link political violence with social conflict derived from collective grievance around inequality and injustice, thus locating this type of violence within the tradition of social movement analysis and the dynamics of collective action. Conflict theory provides a prime framework for this type of analysis, which focuses on contentious issues, organizational matters, and the shaping of identities that lead aggrieved groups to turn to violence. Sociological and criminological theories also offer a rich analytical patrimony that helps focusing on political crime committed by states and their representatives occupying powerful social positions. Many contributions, in this respect, cover atrocities perpetrated by institutional actors and the different forms of conscious, unconscious, personal, cultural, or official denial accompanying such atrocities. The term political crime, therefore, ends up relating to state crime, political and administrative corruption, and a variety of crimes of the elite normally included under the umbrella definition “the crimes of the powerful.” Conversely, when the focus moves onto political violence perpetrated by anti-institutional or non-state actors, the term “terrorism” is usually referred to, a term that is not likely to meet universal acceptance or unquestioned adoption due to the difficulties social scientists find in defining it. In sum, political violence and crime present scholars and practitioners with the same ambiguity that connotes definitions of social behavior and the processes of its criminalization. Such ambiguity becomes clear if, as proposed in the following pages, political violence and crime are examined through multidisciplinary lenses, particularly those offered by social theory, philosophy, and political science, along with criminology.


Since the attacks of 9/11, research on radicalization has burgeoned. Most theories of radicalization postulate multiple pathways to radicalization, grievance as a major radicalizing force, emotion rather than ideology precipitating radicalization, and small-group dynamics contributing to radicalization. Empirical data have consistently supported the distinction between activism and radicalism and between radical opinion and radical action. Research into the special category of the radical actor, or lone attackers, uncovered two possible profiles: disconnected-disordered and caring-compelled, each motivated by a kind of disordered emotional state. Internet and social media have amplified and broadened radicalization of both opinion and action. Extrapolating from these findings to the recent increase in right-wing radicalization, a new definition of radicalization is proposed, suggesting a shift in researchers’ and policymakers’ focus from identifying instances of radicalization to identifying its causes. In this conceptual view, radicalization is a result of perceived widespread injustice, where shared narratives highlight grievances (radicalization of opinion) and motivate a few to act against perceived perpetrators (radicalization of action). Implications for research and policy are discussed.