Ernesto Oyarbide: What does their violence mean? The risk of moral epistemologies in analysing changes in organised violent conflict

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Over the past years, scholars have addressed how subconscious psychological biases can affect decision-making. When it comes to security policy, one prominent bias is the individual’s tendency to adopt a single and sometimes simplistic epistemological approach to explain the origin of violence. In a world where characteristics of violent organised conflict are in constant flux, a one-sided or unsystematic application of one’s preferred epistemology to interpret violence may lead to costly mistakes. Building on Chris Fleming’s study entitled “The End of Politics” (see here), I summarise the most common epistemological biases in our interpretation of violence and detail implications for security policy. The discussion suggests that multidisciplinary and multi-methods research on organised violent conflict may help overcome those biases.

Chris Fleming proposes three common ways in which violence is usually explained. Each represents a different answer to the question of what is the nature of the violence that we are witnessing. These three ways may not cover every possible kind of account on offer in the public sphere, but still tend to be the most common to interpret violent conflict.
The ideological epistemology relies on the importance of ideas. In the case of Islamic fundamentalism, it would claim that any conflict associated with this ideology is the natural result of a growingly violent interpretation of Islamic texts and ideals. By tracing ideas, the ideological worldview helps to identify broad trends in changes in conflict (see here). However, it can turn into faulty idealism and provide blanket-statement explanations about why agents chose a course of action.

  1. The ideological epistemology
  2. The political epistemology
  3. The individualist epistemology

Staying with the example of violence associated with Islamic fundamentalism, “left” leaning groups may counter the ideological view, in this instance, by using the political epistemology. The political epistemology gives primacy to structural factors when assessing conflict, such as state institutions, class, gender, race, history and so on. Accordingly, proponents of this worldview posit that people in Muslim majority countries suffer of social regression, economic recession and Western exploitation. The experience of socio-economic hardships and injustice can drive individuals and groups into violent actions. Thus, the second epistemology tends to show more on-the-ground reflexivity than the first one.

The third epistemology, the individualist, is usually applied on a need-to-use basis. It assigns the source of violent conflict to either psychological pathology (“He committed a violent act because of mental illness”) or personal morality (“because he was vindictive”).

All in all, Fleming presents three epistemologies that people, including policy makers and analysts, regularly use to interpret violence. One relies on the importance of ideas, one on the primacy of socio-economic, historic and institutional factors, and the last one on the psychological and moral differences between individuals. However, one can already appreciate that these explanations run a risk of being not merely explanatory. Indeed, the circumstances and contexts in which these epistemologies are used can sometimes denote the different ethical and political orientations of those who use them. According to Fleming, epistemological bias come from an inherently human tendency to give a moral reading to violence by identifying victims and perpetrators. The tendency comes with the risk that people have ready-made victims and perpetrators.

Western politicians on the right recently give examples of the ideological worldview to interpret conflict. Viewing Islamic religion as something inherently “evil” and therefore a driving factor of violent clashes has subsequently led to overly simplistic policy proposals to combat terror and violence in the name of Islam (see here, here and here). Combining the ideological epistemology with a political one would allow for more nuance and accuracy. However, an inflexible application of the political epistemology is not without risks either. The overt focus on external circumstances leading to violence may lead analysts to deny what the perpetrators of the violence say about their own meaning of the violence.

Misinterpretation is also a likely danger when our epistemology of choice collides with our already established personal interpretations of life and society. For example, what if we are Western conservatives dealing with a Christian terrorist? Or what if we are progressive thinkers assessing violent outrage from financial corruption? In those instances, erroneous interpretation may stem from adopting a different epistemology to make reality “fit” with our preferred narrative. Whenever we see our ready-made victims as culprits, we risk the danger of trying to look the other way and disregard the evidence. In this scenario, the individualist epistemology becomes a last-resort temptation (“the violent perpetrator was a mentally ill lunatic”). The individualist worldview declares the case as exceptional and irrelevant for devising security policy. This might be strategically trivial for decision-makers on a personal level, but it can lead to very faulty decisions in the establishment of efficient policies.

Fleming’s description of common epistemologies for the analysis of violence can prove of great help for policymakers, as it can assist them in keeping personal biases in check during the deliberation process. Notably, it shows the importance of uprooting any a priori victimizing narrative from strategic decisions. Beyond demanding from policy-makers and analysts to reflect on their own biases, today’s research should also explicitly challenge single-minded epistemologies of organized violent conflict. A way to do so is to develop research projects that account for different (and perhaps contradictory) voices, perceptions and experiences of victims and perpetrators of violence. This also means that researchers from multiple theoretical and disciplinary perspectives (history, psychology, political science, anthropology and so forth) should join forces to foster a more nuanced understanding and evidence of changes in organised violent conflict.