A short podcast with Professor Harvey Whitehouse on causes of extremism, ahead of our Cumberland Seminar on 8 November 2017

Published Date: 
Thursday, 9 November 2017

Our Principal, Ed Newell, recorded this short podcast with leading anthropologist Professor Harvey Whitehouse from Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, ahead of the evening seminar on 'What Motivates Extremism?'.

Prof Whitehouse gave the opening address at our Cumberland Seminar on 'What Motivates Extremism?', which was followed by group discussions and a plenary session.

The event brought together social commentators, parliamentarians, NGO leaders and researchers. 

Public policy is driven by the principle that violent extremist beliefs cause violent extremist behaviour, but building on a vast body of evidence from anthropology and experimental psychology, Prof Whitehouse argues that the real motivation for extreme behaviour is ‘identify fusion’ (an especially powerful form of group bonding) coupled with perceptions of out-group threat. On this view, religious beliefs are just post-hoc rationalisations, rather than the real drivers of extreme behaviour.

If the hypothesis above is true, then a startling conclusion follows: the suicide bomber who claims that he is acting because of religious beliefs is wrong, and deluded about what is motivating him. It also means our countering violent extremism strategies should focus less on the hot-air produced by extremist beliefs, and more on what really motivates violent extremism.

Prof Whitehouse’s own research spans the globe, from Papua New Guinea tribal cultures to Libyan fighters. He believes that shared experiences of fear, pain (psychological and physical) and emotionally charged experiences, lead to particularly strong fusion within groups. And when fused groups feel threatened, they are liable to exhibit extremist behaviours and to perceive their actions as primarily defensive.

If this is the case, then should countering violent extremism strategies focus on disrupting or redirecting the fusion process, rather than challenging the extremist’s explicit religious beliefs and arguments?

The seminar went on to discuss these issues in depth. A short blog with further insights into these discussions, written by one of our PhD Scholars, will be published here shortly.