Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Center for International Security and Cooperation Stanford University


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Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production

Journal Article

Lisa Stampnitzky - Predoctoral Fellow (former) at CISAC

Published by
Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 34 no. 1
December 2010

“Terrorism” has proved to be a highly problematic object of expertise. Terrorism
studies fails to conform to the most common sociological notions of what a field of
intellectual production ought to look like, and has been described by participants and
observers alike as a failure. Yet the study of terrorism is a booming field, whether measured
in terms of funding, publications, or numbers of aspiring experts. This paper aims to
explain, first, the disjuncture between terrorism studies in practice and the sociological
literature on fields of intellectual production, and, second, the reasons for experts’ “rhetoric
of failure” about their field. I suggest that terrorism studies, rather than conforming to the
notion of an ideal-typical profession, discipline, or bounded “intellectual field,” instead
represents an interstitial space of knowledge production. I further argue that the “rhetoric of
failure” can be understood as a strategy through which terrorism researchers mobilize
sociological theories of scientific/cultural fields as both an interpretive resource in their
attempts to make sense of the apparent oddness of their field and their situation, and as
schemas, or models, in their attempts to reshape the field. I conclude that sociologists ought
to expand our vision to incorporate the many arenas of expertise that occupy interstitial
spaces, moving and travelling between multiple fields.