Although research on violent extremism traditionally focuses on why individuals become involved in terrorism, recent efforts have started to tackle the question of why individuals leave terrorist groups. Research on terrorist disengagement, however, remains conceptually and theoretically underdeveloped. In an effort to enhance our understanding of disengagement from terrorism and pave the way for future empirical work, this article provides a multidisciplinary review of related research from psychology, sociology, and criminology. Significant promise for moving beyond the existing push/pull framework is found in Rusbult and colleagues’ investment model from psychology and Ebaugh’s research on voluntary role exit from sociology. Rusbult’s investment model offers insight into when and why individuals disengage from terrorism, while accounting for individual, group, and macro-level differences in the satisfaction one derives from involvement, the investments incurred, and the alternatives available. Ebaugh’s research on voluntary role exit provides a deeper understanding of how people leave, including the emotions and cuing behavior likely to be involved. The article highlights the strengths and limitations of these frameworks in explaining exit and exit processes across a variety of social roles, including potentially the terrorist role, and lends additional insights into terrorist disengagement through a review of related research on desistance from crime, disaffiliation from new religious movements, and turnover in traditional work organizations.
Turning away from terrorism: Lessons from psychology, sociology, and criminology
7 September 2014
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