Sociological perspectives on Islamist radicalization – bridging the micro/macro gap

Date01 May 2021
AuthorJeppe Fuglsang Larsen,Sune Qvotrup Jensen
Published date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
European Journal of Criminology
2021, Vol. 18(3) 426 –443
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1477370819851356
Sociological perspectives
on Islamist radicalization –
bridging the micro/macro gap
Sune Qvotrup Jensen
and Jeppe Fuglsang Larsen
Aalborg University, Denmark
Radicalization research has been characterized by a sharp opposition between micro and macro
perspectives. This article discusses three existing theoretical perspectives and argues that they
may bridge the micro/macro gap. A masculinity, gender and intersectionality perspective can help
analyse radicalization as a strategy for remasculinization by situating feelings of emasculation in
a broader societal frame. A neo-Birminghamian conception of subculture relates individual and
group processes to a broader social context by viewing radicalization as an oppositional answer
to a shared situation of social and economic marginalization, and othering. Sociology of religious
emotions provides an understanding of how emotional outcomes of social marginality can be
transformed into individual religious emotions within radical Islamist groups.
Gender, jihadism, masculinity, radicalization, religious emotions, subculture
Across the academic world, interest in Islamist radicalization, jihadism, extremism, ter-
rorism and political violence is growing exponentially. Several researchers and research
projects are devoting their energy to grasping the dynamics and mechanisms of Islamist
radicalization, extremism and political violence. The reason for the growth is obvious: in
the last 10 years, the world has witnessed a relatively large number of attacks carried out
by jihadists, radical Islamists, militant Islamists or whatever the preferred term is. We
have also witnessed the emergence and growth of substantial milieus that support both a
Corresponding author:
Sune Qvotrup Jensen, Department of Sociology and Social Work, Aalborg University, Fibigerstræde 13, 73,
9220 Aalborg East, Denmark.
851356EUC0010.1177/1477370819851356European Journal of CriminologyJensen and Larsen
Jensen and Larsen 427
strict and traditionalist interpretation of Islam and, at least in rhetoric, such attacks
(although the latter does not necessarily follow from the first). In parallel, recent years
have seen the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa, which has attracted a large
number of foreign fighters born and raised in the West. At the time of writing, ISIS is
suffering military defeat, although this is likely to lead to more clandestine forms of
operating rather than the disappearance of the organization and its supporters. Because
of these developments, gaining knowledge of what we refer to here as radicalization (for
lack of a better term; see discussion below) is high on the research agenda.
We consider the large number of scholars and academics active in the field – and the
large number of theoretical and empirical approaches employed – to be productive and
fruitful (see Kleemans, 2008). A downside of the multidisciplinary research field, how-
ever, is the division – and relative lack of dialogue – between perspectives that focus on
societal, socio-economic and social contexts – including power structures – and perspec-
tives that focus on individuals and their psychology. Following Kimmel (2018), we
might speak of an opposition between overly macro-structural explanations and psycho-
logical reductionism. In addition, this opposition has been asymmetrical, because radi-
calization research has generally tended towards an individualistic bias (Crone, 2016;
Kundnani, 2012; Sedgwick, 2010). As criminologists with disciplinary roots in sociol-
ogy, we also find that research on Islamist radicalization is strangely uninformed by
existing – and highly relevant – sociological theoretical traditions. Consequently, this
article has two aims. The first is to discuss three theoretical approaches that have the
potential to inform, strengthen and enrich radicalization research. These are the sociol-
ogy of gender and masculinity, new debates within subcultural theory, and the sociology
of religious emotion. The second aim is to discuss how these sociological perspectives
may help us bridge the gap between the micro/individual and macro/societal levels of
understanding Islamist radicalization. The three theoretical approaches represent a soci-
ological view on radicalization and are thus not an attempt to paint the whole picture.
There are undoubtedly other traditions inside and outside sociology that can help grasp
how, for example, holy texts politicize subjects. Our ambition is, however, more modest.
We present these three approaches because they are relatively underutilized in the
research field and because we believe they can help us overcome the micro/macro gap.
Strictly speaking, the three perspectives are not completely absent from radicalization
research. However, as we will demonstrate, they have far greater potential in the research
field than has previously been realized. We believe that they are useful for analysing how
overall social mechanisms affect individuals and groups.
Radicalization and jihadism is a global field of research, but we limit our discussion
to Islamist radicalization in the West, and we do not argue that these theoretical approaches
have (the same kind of) relevance elsewhere. We also stress that our discussion is not
limited to actual perpetrators of violent terrorism but engages with the emergence of a
broader supportive milieu. It should furthermore be emphasized here that when we refer
to Islamist radicalization we do not imply that the majority of Muslims are potential ter-
rorists. Representing Islam as a whole as a violent religion would reproduce a highly
problematic – although rather widespread – postcolonial and orientalist fantasy of the
other as inherently dangerous, predatory, cunning, pathological and uncivilized. This
fantasy is at odds with reality for many reasons, including that globally the majority of

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