Social Fringe Groups Workshop – Day One

Day One

After a light, milk-less breakfast, the day began.

And what a day it was: ten hours of academics trying to grapple with what would seem to be a very simple concept: “fringe groups.” The problem: no one could agree what kind of thing a “fringe group” is meant to be.

We tried our best: Ken Boff, the principal behind the workshop and a jovial fellow to boot, started off proceedings by talking about just how vague the descriptions and constituations of these “fringe groups” are in the literature. This is a problem, he went on to say, because not knowing what these groups are and how they function (in general terms) means that we can’t make claims about their future behaviour, how they develop and suchlike. It seems like we should just intuitively know the definition of a “social fringe group” but as we don’t, it means we might (and we did) talk at cross purposes. For example, I can claim that the CIA and MI5 were fringe with respect to the WMD rationale for the invasion of Iraq, but is the kind of definition other people operate with?

To use a terrible term, we need a consensus “going forward.”

After a round of introductions, where I learnt that the military personnel here are highly qualified individuals, and that the most common research interest appeared to be on issues of trust and how trust is established and breaks down, we got on to the first of our three seminars of the day.

Arie Kruglanski – From Mainstream to Rsdical Fringe: How Ordinary People Become Terrorists

I wasn’t sure about some of Arie’s talk, because it seemed like he might have been conflating radicalism with terrorism. The problem is trying to work out the causal connection between being a radical (like me) and being a terrorist. So, for example, arguably the US military engage in terror activities in the Middle East, but are the US military radicals? I can see an argument as to how they might be, but maybe they are not: if you buy an argument about the latter, then terrorists are not necessarily radicals.

He also cited an interesting example to do with how Hizbollah and Eta use socialisation to encourage children to join the fight. This was put forward as an example of how groups radicalise a section of society, but surely most more Western liberal cultures do this to some extent as well? We present the military life as a noble one and we celebrate their sacrifices. Perhaps we don’t quite focus on giving up your life for the cause, but it’s part of the story. Before I was able to raise the question someone else asked about the role armies play in our cultures. His response was that Western ideologies are not destructive, but that it just avoiding the issue: by defining Western activity as non-terrorist rather than grappling with the issue you have a definition which seems to carve out a conceptual space that seems quite controversial.

Axel Gelfert – Rumour, Gossip, and Co.: Communicative Pathologies or Cases of Epistemic Dependence

Axel was going to talk about conspiracy theories as well as runours and gossip, but in order to tell a finessed story about how rumours might be reliable, he skipped over issues to do with conspiracy theories and told people to talk to me.

Not that anyone has, as of yet.

Axel and I are basically on the same page when it comes to social epistemology, so my notes on this ttalk aren’t particularly interesting. I liked the talk of “coverage-reliability” and “epistemic routines” as an explanation of how we, as limited epistemic agents reliant on external sources for information, get our knowledge of the world from newspapers, blogs and the like: we have routines for gathering information and have a wide array of sources to ensure that we get all the information we think we need. We can sum this up as a coverage heuristic: If things were different from what I believe them to be, then I would have heard about it by now.

However, this is only as good as our coverage environment, so this explains how people might legitimately not know or accept some claim that other people take to be plausible.

I wasn’t quite so taken with Cass Sunstein’s work on rumours: I wasn’t impressed by his book at all, but that’s a matter for another time.

James Liu – From Indigenuous Rights to Estonian Street Riots to Islamic Terrorism: Representations of History and Religious Ideology as Warrants of Legitimacy for Fringe Groups

James’s talk was about how we finesse warrants of legitimacy. He started out by talking about how governments derive their legitimacy and then how this warrant affects feelings of social deprivation and how this then results in particular kinds of political action. It was a fairly complex model and whilst I understood the gist of it, I can’t really think of a way to describe it at this very moment in time. In essence, there are at least three kinds of warrant operating in society: an appeal to history, an appeal to religion and an appeal to a social contract. He used examples of how these warrants affect political activity. Part of his story concerned Indonesia and how a religious warrant of legitimacy gives ardent theists a different, not necessarily psychotic, rationale for their actions. If they sincerely believe the world is broken, then they will try to fix it. As he said:

“You have a corrupt secular world. How do you save it? Sharia law.”

The Working Groups

After the seminars we were divided up into our four working groups to discuss the research issues that Ken and his team had identified as important for developing an idea of how to deal with and talk about Fringe groups. I’ll save talking about the working group sessions for now; there are still two to go and I think I need to see where we end up before I can tell a story about how each one went.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.