Lorne Dawson: Pioneer Researcher on Home Grown Terrorist Radicalization

lorne“Canada doesn’t have specialists within the field of terrorism research“. — Lorne Dawson hopes to fill that void.


“There is almost nobody in Canada talking specifically about terrorist radicalization,” Lorne Dawson recounts his experiences over the last five years, about the times he has been asked to participate in panels on the subject of radicalization. He is now sought after to share his expert opinion on terrorism and radicalization, although it wasn’t until recently that it became a focus within his research. Forming TSAS as one of the three executive committee members, Dawson is about to change what Canada is talking about.

As the Chair of the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo, Dawson has previously researched and written extensively on new religious movements and charismatic leaders, but is now trying to understand the more complex underpinnings of terrorism. His shift was prompted by the continuous invitations to round tables and debates that made him realize that he was considered the closest thing to an expert on radicalization in the Canadian context. “I’m such a newbie to the field”, Dawson says, but continues to explain that there is a gap in Canadian knowledge about radicalization, and that he sees an opportunity to fill it.

His current research is on homegrown terrorism and the circumstances surrounding the Toronto 18. Gaining insight on how to impact governmental policies concerning prevention and de-radicalization is one of the goals of Dawson’s research. “It is necessary to understand how young people moved into this extreme position, and that requires a more subtle and precise understanding of the terrorism process than what we see today. The causes of homegrown terrorism are far more complex than simple economic deprivation or the appeal of ideology.” Dawson believes TSAS will be able to provide a more sophisticated understanding of small groups dynamics, identity issues and challenges of marginalization that will give insight into what actually causes homegrown terrorism.

Dawson’s new focus is reflected in his upcoming book, Religion, Radicalization and Securitization in Canada and Beyond (University of Toronto Press), co-edited with Paul Bramadat at University of Victoria. The book is the result of their collaborative project on the relationship between the forces of radicalization (within particular minority religious groups in Canada) and securitization (by the state and society).

TSAS and Canada’s unique position.
The fact that there are already a vast number of research facilities around the world focusing on terrorism, does not worry Dawson. He points out Canada’s unique position, and how the country is quite different from our neighbours south of the border. Since we are so different from other countries Canada needs a distinct response, Dawson says, and TSAS will provide this through a multidisciplinary approach, less engrained in the traditional disciplines. “In a way, we will be pioneers.”

A collaborative model will form TSAS’ response, where the network of scholars will strive to create theoretical tools based on empirical findings: the analysis of case studies and primary data that Canadian policy makers can then utilize and implement on the ground. The multidisciplinary approach of TSAS enables collaborations along new lines. An important focus for TSAS is to create these collaborations between graduate students and established researchers. Dawson is not foreign to this mode of work, and has several grad students under his wing. Several of his students are affiliated with TSAS and other research projects, and have shown great promise in this new field. One graduate student is assisting him directly in the compilation of a literature review for TSAS, while others inspire with the field- work they do. Being able to see the connections between on-the-ground practices and policy is one of the objectives of good sociology and in line with the search for original and primary data that TSAS is promoting.

In addition to the finishing stages of editing his upcoming book, Religion, Radicalization and Securitization, in Canada and Beyond, Dawson is also the main coordinator for TSAS’ first workshop on Terrorist Radicalization, taking place in Toronto on November 10th. Ultimately he intends to write a book that provides a comprehensive examination of religious extremism and violence.

by Sarah M Przedpelska, October, 2012
UBC graduate student