The challenges of conceptualizing terrorism

Leonard Weinberg, Ami Pedahzur, Sivan Hirsch-Hoefler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This analysis begins by exploring various reasons that the concept of terrorism has evaded a widely agreed upon definition for so long despite the efforts of so many writers. Emphasis is placed on the difficulties associated with all "essentially contested concepts." In addition, the investigation calls attention to such problems as conceptual "stretching" and "traveling." In an effort to solve the difficulties, the inquiry attempts to determine a consensus definition of terrorism by turning to an empirical analysis of how the term has been employed by academics over the years. Specifically, the well-known definition developed by Alex Schmid, based upon responses to a questionnaire he circulated in 1985, is compared with the way the concept has been employed by contributors to the major journals in the field: Terrorism, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and Terrorism and Political Violence. The 22 "definitional elements" of which Schmid's definition is composed are compared to the frequency with which they appear in the professional journals. If these elements appear frequently in both the Schmid definition and those employed by the journal contributors, they are then used to form a consensus definition of the concept. The most striking feature of this academic consensus over the meaning of terrorism is the virtual absence of references to the psychological element, heretofore widely thought to be at the heart of the concept.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)777-794
Number of pages18
JournalTerrorism and Political Violence
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Safety Research
  • Political Science and International Relations


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