Devoted Actors and the Will to Kill and Die: Research on the ISIS frontline and with Al Qaeda Affiliates

Devoted Actors and the Will to Kill and Die: Research on the ISIS frontline and with Al Qaeda Affiliates

Friday, 27 January 2017 - 5:00pm to 6:30pm
Venue: 
Pavilion Room
Speaker(s): 
Scott Atran (CNRS Paris; Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, Oxford)
Convenor: 
Audrey Borowski (Crisis, Extremes and Apocalypse research network, TORCH)
Discussant: 
Faisal Devji (St Antony’s)

Uncompromising wars, revolution, rights movements, and today’s global terrorism are in part driven by Devoted Actors who adhere to sacred or transcendent values that generate actions independently, or all out of proportion, from rationally expected outcomes, calculated costs and consequences, or likely risks and rewards. Field-based observation, surveys and experimental studies in real-world political conflicts show ways in which Devoted Actors, who are unconditionally committed to sacred causes, and whose personal identities are fused within a unique collective identity, willingly make costly sacrifices including fighting and dying, thus enabling low-power groups to endure and often prevail against materially much stronger foes. Explaining how devoted actors come to sacrifice for cause and comrade not only is a scientific goal, but also a practical imperative to prevent and resolve seemingly intractable intergroup disputes that can spiral out of control in a rapidly interconnecting world of collapsing and conflicting cultural traditions in search of salvation. Fieldwork and experiments in Europe, North Africa and on the frontlines in the battle with the Islamic State in Iraq help to make the case.

Scott Atran holds a BA and PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University and a MA in Social Relations from Johns Hopkins. He is currently Senior Research Fellow, Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford; Co-Founder, Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict, Oxford. Research Director in Anthropology, National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Institut Jean Nicod-Ecole Normale Supérieure and Research Professor of Psychology and Public Policy, Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has experimented on ways scientists and ordinary people categorise and reason about nature, on the cognitive and evolutionary psychology of religion, and on the limits of rational choice in political and cultural conflict. He has done experimental studies in the field with frontline combatants, terrorists and political leaders and has been engaged in conflict negotiations in the Middle East, and in the establishment of indigenously managed forest reserves for Native American peoples. Professor Atran advises the UN Security Council Committee on Combating Terrorism and the Secretary General's Advisory Board on implementation of Resolution 2250 (Youth, Violence, and Peace). He is a contributor to numerous scientific and popular publications, and his books include: Cognitive Foundations of Natural History: Towards an Anthropology of Science; In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion; The Native Mind and the Cultural Construction of Nature; Talking to the Enemy: Violent extremism, Sacred Values, and What it Means to be Human; L'Etat islamique est une révolution.

Co-organised by Faisal Devji for the Asian Studies Centre and Audrey Borowski for the Crisis, Extremes and Apocalypse research network.