Student-Faculty Collaboration Shines Light on Causes of Terrorism

June 29, 2011

Ramirez Davison


Academic research is an amazing thing. It can create clarity, heighten awareness and it can encourage people to question widely held assumptions that form the foundation of important policy and economic decisions. The latter is exactly what Professor of Political Science Joan Davison and Roxana Ramirez (Class of 2011) hoped to accomplish when they focused their student-faculty research project on the correlation between weak states and domestic terrorism. 

“Ever since 9/11, there has been the assumption that weak states are prone to support terrorist organizations,” explained Davison. “Weak states are places in the developing world that have a low capacity to deliver basic services such as law and order, security, basic education, health care, food and shelter.”

“Before we started any research, I was convinced that terrorism was linked to poverty and education levels,” Ramirez reflected. “I figured, like most individuals do, that as an individual becomes more educated, he/she is less likely to support or partake in terrorist activities.”

Davison and Ramirez focused their research on exploring whether weak states tend to have a higher propensity for terrorism, factors that increase the rate of terrorism and, given the causes, policies that might reduce or eliminate terrorist instances in those areas of the world. An assumption was that economic problems such as poverty, unemployment and inequality caused terrorism and therefore economic development assistance might help alleviate terrorism.

Using the Failed State Index and the Index of State Weakness, the team identified the 43 weakest states in the world and began to analyze the number of terrorist instances in each area over a period of six years. “We looked at countries like Malawi, which has no history of terrorism, and places like Sri Lanka, which has lots,” said Davison. Through the Global Terrorism Database, created by the Department of Homeland Security, Davison and Ramirez could look at the precise number of terrorist occurrences and begin to survey the common factors of states with high numbers. 

“We looked at lots of different variables and characteristics in terms of economics, unemployment, income level per capita, poverty level and economic inequality,” Davison explained. The team also looked at whether there were major ethnic divisions in the area and whether the country was known to experience a high number of human rights abuses. 

“We researched whether the law was fairly applied to all people and whether the police force was able to enforce law and order,” said Davison. They also considered social characteristics such as whether there was a large 15-35 youth bulge, often a factor widely attributed in the media to high instances of terrorism.  

At the end of months of research, the team concluded that the social and economic characteristics of a state, such as unemployment and education, didn’t matter. “In fact, ethnic differences, percentage of Muslim people in the populations, the youth bulge – all factors widely reported in the media as being causes of terrorism – none of these things mattered,” shared Davison. “What mattered was the level of human rights infringements, fair law enforcement, and amount of corruption in the police and legal system. When a group of people was treated unfairly or differently from another, those places tended to have higher instances of terrorist activity.” 

The team also concluded that countries where people perceived the government as unable to maintain law and order tended to have more terrorist activity. 

“Everything came down to the government’s ability to protect and serve its citizens fairly and justly,” said Davison. “What we concluded was that we need to give political and technical aid to address the political problems of human rights abuses, rule and law, and political stability. Education and health care don’t impact terrorism.”

 “As political stability and the quality of rule of law increases, terrorism decreases,” Ramirez concluded. “Likewise, as human rights conditions improve, terrorism is less likely to occur. It was surprising to see that lack of education and poverty levels did not prove to have a significant relationship with terrorism.”

Like most participants in the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program, Davison and Ramirez’s collaboration extended into the fall and then became the basis for Ramirez’s honors thesis. “I really enjoyed working with Dr. Davison. I learned valuable research skills that I would not have been able to acquire anywhere else. It’s incredible what you can learn from professors outside of the classroom,” Ramirez shared. “Working with Dr. Davison also helped improve my writing and public speaking skills. She encouraged me to work at my highest potential and her dedication to the project pushed me to work harder than I ever had. This research helped me grow as a student and an individual. It is an opportunity that every student should take advantage of.”

In March of 2011, Ramirez and Davison presented their research at the International Journal of Arts and Sciences Conference at the University of Malta.

By Kristen Manieri

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