Understanding extremism in Scotland: evidence review

A report which reviews evidence on defining extremism and the extent and nature of extremism in Scotland.

3. Defining extremism

This section reviews how extremism is defined in the existing evidence base. It firstly outlines some of the challenges with defining extremism, before exploring ways in which authors have sought to categorise different types of definition.

3.1. The challenges with defining extremism

Many authors have noted the challenges with defining extremism (e.g., Lowe, 2017; Redgrave et al., 2020; Schmid, 2014; Sotlar, 2004). For example, Sotlar (2004) discusses how various factors can influence the way that extremism is understood, such as the prevailing political culture, value systems and personal characteristics and experiences, making the process of reaching a definition inherently subjective. Wilkinson and van Rij (2019) also discuss how extremism is often conceptualised as a continuum of beliefs and behaviours rather than a discrete phenomenon, which makes it difficult to capture in a concise definition (Wilkinson and van Rij, 2019).

A further difficulty noted in the literature is the sensitive nature of the concept; Redgrave et al. (2020) discuss how defining extremism too broadly risks impeding rights to free speech and protest but defining it too narrowly can lead to elements being overlooked. These conceptual challenges have meant that while a range of definitions of extremism have been proposed, there is a general lack of consensus on how the term should be defined (Bötticher, 2017; Busby, 2022; Lowe, 2017; Martins, 2020; Nasser-Eddine et al., 2013; Redgrave et al., 2020; Saija et al., 2021; Schmid, 2013).

3.2. Categorising definitions of extremism

Although no universally accepted definition of extremism exists, attempts have been made to categorise different types of definition (Ford, 2017; Redgrave et al., 2020). For example, Ford (2017) has suggested that there are broadly three types of definition of extremism. The first of these focuses on extremist values, describing values as extremist if they are atypical, unpopular or deviant. In this definition, extremist values are typically viewed as those furthest away from the values usually associated with liberal democracy, 'on the horizons of legitimate political attitudes' (Ford, 2017: 145). Ford (2017) argues that definitions within this category highlight the subjective nature of extremism: 'one person's norm is another's extreme'.

Rather than focusing on extremist values, the second type of definition instead emphasises extremists' lack of openness or receptiveness to the perspectives of others, highlighting the centrality of intolerance to difference. Extremists are conceptualised as closed-minded and absolutist, which is contrasted with the open-mindedness and pluralism central to liberal democracy.

Finally, the third type of definition focuses on the synthesis between extremism and violence. In this definition, extremist ideologies are viewed as synonymous with violence, by inciting adherents to either engage in violence themselves, or to support the violence of others. Ford (2017) suggests that while at times only one of these definitions is used, often two or even all three types are employed together to define extremism.

As well as these three key conceptual types of definitions, Redgrave et al. (2020) suggest that definitions of extremism also often fall into two categories: those which are descriptive (i.e., seeking to describe or explain what extremism is), and those which are iterative (i.e., listing common features of extremist behaviours or groups). Appendix B contains some definitions of extremism from the evidence identified when carrying out this review, and categorises them according to the groupings presented by Ford (2017) and Redgrave et al. (2020).

3.3. Summary

Extremism has been defined in a variety of ways, and while common features between definitions can often be identified, they can also diverge on important elements. Knight and Keatley (2020) highlight the potential challenges associated with this. For example, when definitions differ, it can be difficult to compare findings from different research studies, because fundamental aspects of the studies depend on the definitions adopted. A related problem is that the term extremism often ends up being used interchangeably with terms such as terrorism and radicalisation, without clear demarcation between the concepts (Ali, 2021; Nasser-Eddine et al., 2011; Onursal and Kirkpatrick, 2019; Torregrosa et al., 2021).


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