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From empty to angry: Extremism, modernity, and the search for identity

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Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
An increase in the amount of high-profile incidents and attacks in the West perpetrated by individuals subscribing to a variety of extremist ideologies over the past decade has led to an influx of academic research concerned with uncovering how and why it is that individuals become radicalized toward ideologically-motivated extremist violence. While such research has examined a diverse range of social, demographic, and psychological variables and their potential link/correlation to the radicalization process, there has yet to emerge an accurate or reliable ‘profile’ with respect to who is more or less likely to become radicalized or join extremist/terrorist movements. The primary aim of this dissertation is to present a novel theoretical approach which centers the concept of individual identity as the fundamental factor which drives individuals in the West toward involvement with extremist movements. This theory of identity, which presupposes that macro-level structural factors fundamentally dictate how individuals experience and internalize identity on a micro-level, is outlined by tracing how the concept of ‘identity’ has historically evolved in ‘Western’ culture up to its current iteration in modern, hyper-connected, late-capitalist society. Once outlined, this theory of identity is empirically applied to the digital media content of two extremist movements via a mixed-method approach that utilizes topic modelling, sentiment analysis, and thematic/discourse analysis. More specifically, the content of the so-called Islamic State (including videos, magazines, and Twitter posts) and the user-generated comments of the notorious far-right online community r/The_Donald are examined through this theoretical lens and analyzed with this mixed-method approach. Results indicate that, wittingly or not, modern extremist movements routinely incorporate questions of identity into both their propaganda and general discussions in a manner that provides simplistic solutions and answers to the complex problems of identity and self that are created and amplified within modern Western culture. As such, this dissertation argues that the attraction of extremist ideology and the potential for extremist violence is, at current, an inevitable byproduct of modern macro-level structural and economic conditions.
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Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Frank, Richard
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