Higher education and political violence

There’s a fascinating study by Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog, of the London School of Economics, first published in 2008, where amongst other findings they noted a disproportionate number of engineers were found in right-wing groups that practice or advocate political violence. Since the 2008 publication,¬† Gambetta and Hertog have continued the study and are preparing to publish a book on their work. Steven Curry at the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) Spectrum recently (Sept. 15, 2010) interviewed Hertog about the findings. You can find the podcast here.

Thanks to Christine Peterson’s (Foresight Institute) Sept. 16, 2010 posting for pointing to this podcast and here are a couple of excerpts on her thoughts about the study,

I have not listened to this, but the obvious answer would seem to be that many people might wish to be effective terrorists, but only the more technical ones have the needed skills to carry out an action that causes significant harm. (I have often been thankful that the superb technical people I know appear to have no leanings in that direction.)

For now, nanotechnologies are primarily being developed by people who are not likely to deploy them for terrorist purposes, but as time passes this will change. It took about a century for airplanes to be used outside traditional warfare to do major harm; probably that sequence will be faster for nanotechnologies.

I did listen to the podcast and Hertog was very careful to make clear that there are some nuances to be considered. First, the study was not focused on engineers or right-wing groups.¬† As he points out in the podcast, left-wing groups also practice or advocate political violence but they don’t tend to have disproportionate numbers (as compared to what you’d expect from a random sampling of the population) of engineers. If I understand Hertog correctly, left-wing groups tend to attract students and graduates from the humanities and social sciences and can be just as successful with their attempts at political violence. (Note: In the Vancouver (Canada) area, there was the Squamish Five [aka Direct Action] in the early 1980s who firebombed three porn video outlets, a munitions manufacturer (located in the Toronto area), and a BC Hydro substation on Vancouver Island amongst other activities to protest capitalism and the failure of other forms of political activism. Not a single one of the ‘activists’ was an engineer. Wikipedia essay here.)

In much the same way that trying to establish simple causal relationships has led to some of the disappointments in gene therapy and other recent scientific endeavours (my Sept. 21, 2010 posting), Hertog is careful to provide some nuance to this social discussion.

The researchers broke down Islamist and other groups by country and found that in Middle Eastern countries engineers are held in high esteem so ambitious young people study to be engineers. High numbers of recently graduated engineers when coupled with a poor labour market in Middle Eastern countries that also host groups advocating/practicing political violence had a higher than expected¬† proportion of engineers. In other words, the engineers’ job prospects were not good.The two Middle Eastern countries with the best labour markets for engineers didn’t have disproportionate numbers of engineers in right-wing groups advocating/ practicing political violence.

The researchers also noted that engineers regardless of their geographic location tend to be more politically right-wing than other occupations which, if they are frustrated, may predispose them to right-wing causes. By that token, I imagine that frustrated social scientists and humanities graduates would be predisposed to left-wing causes. In any event, having a predisposition to left-wing or right-wing causes and being frustrated in the labour market doesn’t guarantee that you will be practicing political violence. It’s not that simple but the study does provide some food for thought as we try to figure out why people are moved to political violence and whether we can find better ways to respond ahead of time. Bravo to Steven Curry and the IEEE for opening a discussion about this work.

One thought on “Higher education and political violence

  1. Pingback: Mexico, nano, and bombs « FrogHeart

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