Countering Violent Extremism: An Ill Wind?

There’s an ill wind blowing through the world of psy-science, inhabited by psychiatrists, psychologists and psycho-analysts. For the past couple of decades, two prevailing paradigms have been battling for dominance, both involving the approach to diagnosis and thus prognosis.

One the one hand, there is the medical or ‘illness’ approach, in which the ‘disorders’ are considered largely inherent in individuals, with environment only featuring as a contributing factor. This approach leads to the classification of such illness (via the notorious Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, commonly known as DSM) with prescribed prognoses and often resulting in generic prescription of medical solutions, or good old fashioned pills. This paradigm matches public perceptions of approaches to ‘illness’, the immediate effects are relatively quick and inexpensive, and therefore it is an easier sell to the tax-paying and voting public. Hence it is the dominant approach. However, it could be argued that this tackles the immediate illness but not the cause.

Alternatively, there is the biopsychosocial approach, which assumes the uniqueness of individual circumstances, environment and medical condition, resulting in treatment, from therapeutic to medicinal, tailored to specific individual situations. This could be seen as tackling both the condition and cause. However, this is by far the more demanding on diagnosticians and health and social care services, is not easily explained, or sold, and thus has difficulty gaining widespread attraction on a grand scale within the field.

Both paradigms have merit, but practicalities, expediency and cost, as opposed to outcomes, weigh heavily in favour of the former.

So what does this have to do with preventing or countering violent extremism (P/CVE)? Let’s do some experimental conflation, bearing in mind its limitations. The prevailing approach to P/CVE could be seen as similar to the ‘illness’ model stated above, in which the ideology, and its narrative, is the illness and the pill is merely a mechanism of diverting the susceptible from being drawn to that ideology. The P/CVE version of the DSM simply categorises those radicalised or susceptible as a type and often prescribes, especially in the case of actual or potential foreign fighters, clever social media interventions, amongst others as the ‘fix’. This approach is to counter the ideological narrative.

However, there is a slowly growing recognition of the psychosocial approach to P/CVE which considers environmental factors much more seriously, whilst also accounting for the psychological factors of identity alongside ideology. Those environmental factors could be education, gender relations, family structures, human rights, governance, rule of law, physical infrastructure and technology as well as cultural factors, social support, physiological conditions, identity politics, rituals, behavioural norms, values and semiotics (and many more). It considers the individual context as highly important in radicalisation and avoids careless categorisation. This approach espouses alternative narratives. It is more holistic and complex, takes time and widespread effort; it is not a quick win.

Both paradigms have merit, but practicalities, expediency and cost, as opposed to outcomes, weigh heavily in favour of the former.

Yet, as in the psy-sciences, the latter paradigm is much more encompassing. The psychosocial approach to P/CVE does not abandon the undoubted utility of media and communication interventions and ‘counter-narratives’ but does encourage a genuine holistic perspective to be taken. It examines the individual but may also recognises the environment (and how, without tackling environmental issues, the individual will remain susceptible). Yet, as in the psy-sciences, the latter paradigm is not an easy sell, politically, financially or practically – it’s easier to ‘fix’ the individual than actually deal with the environmental causes. And even when it is expounded as a holistic approach, as can be seen in the UN’s ‘Global Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism’, or approached from a Public Health angle, as recommended by Georgetown University, it does demand considerable multi-stakeholder effort, excruciating patience and tough decisions. As a result, the seductive nature of the quick and easy fix has a great pull.

Paradigms matter because their dominance can overwhelm others that may have considerable merit. P/CVE is too important to allow a single paradigm to dominate, no matter how seductive, politically, financially or practically, it may be. P/CVE cannot afford an ill wind within.

Written by our Director of Training and Innovation, Jem Thomas