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Who & What Defines Terrorism? & How Much Trust Do We Put Into Our Sources?: Subjectivity and credibility when defining & coding terrorism

Who and What Defines Terrorism? & How Much Trust Do We Put Into Our Sources?: The issue of subjectivity and credibility when defining and coding terrorism

Catie Barry

Of the many challenges posed when doing team-based research, consistency in coding and the process is essential when doing qualitative coding. To have a consistent method of coding, it is essential to have a thorough codebook that will produce uniform outcomes when coding variables. Our team also takes a number of other steps in order to ensure we interpret the crimes objectively; for example, ensuring the coded variables are checked and agreed upon by at least 3 other members. However, from coding so many cases, our team has come across cases where qualitatively coding has proved complicated due to subjectivity.

Many documents which we use have as little subjective information as possible—predominately court documents. Nevertheless, within our project, we do come across different definitions of what constitutes terrorism. Within our dataset, we include hate crimes; while these crimes are not often included in the category of terrorism or extremist acts, we adapted definitions of extremism like Berger provided in Extremism. Berger says “extremism refers to the belief that an in-group’s success or survival can never be separated from the need for hostile action against an out-group” (44). Our team uses agreed-upon definitions within our project, rather than universal definitions in order to consistently code our cases. We must be explicit with how we coded our data and why we included certain acts when we release this data to the public.

K. Sophie Will from the Huffington Post in her article ‘A Methodology For Documenting A Certain Type Of Hate’, explored the challenges of creating a database of hate crimes where the perpetrator said some variation of “go back to your country”. In her experience, they often reached out to victims personally for an interview in order to document their experience. Due to this, oftentimes they had a hard time verifying if what they said happened or not without some sort of documentation. Just like in court when attempting to prosecute a crime, “while written documentation or video of the incident is desirable for verification purposes, it’s not always attainable.

HuffPost decided that a victim’s statements without documentation would be credible if there was another witness there, and based on the amount of detail they provide. Some were taken on a case-by-case basis” (Will, 2019). While our project does not allow us to talk directly with victims, we ensure our information is credible by mainly utilizing documents from credible news sources, court documents, State arrest records and government newsletters. However, when the cases are less in the public eye and charged by the state, we have difficulty finding accurate and credible sources. To attempt to resolve this issue, in order to verify a fact within a news source, we have to triangulate the information with other sources before we accept the data is credible and usable.

Another potential matter we must take into consideration when coding our cases is determining not only the credibility of the sources but the credibility of the claim of the attack. When this issue is brought up, one typically thinks of the accused denying the crime. However, on the issue of terrorism, we must consider how these crimes may be falsely claimed or put on another terrorist organization. Erin Kearns spoke with our class about the issue of lying about terrorism and discussed 4 ways in which a group may claim responsibility for an attack that they did not perpetrate:

“First, a group may claim responsibility for an attack that they did not perpetrate. Second, a group may commit false flag terrorism by carrying out an attack and then blaming it on a rival organization. Third, a group may lie by blaming an attack that it did not commit on a rival group, which is termed the hot-potato problem. Fourth, a group may engage in a lie of omission where they perpetrate an attack but neither claim responsibility for it nor blame it on another group” (Kearns et al., 2014).

Kearns elaborates on an important concept that our team must keep in mind when coding for group affiliation. During research, we may come across a claim to a crime and figure out that that source’s information isn’t credible. Determining what is a credible claim or not comes down to how reliable and consistent the data is and where it comes from. Usually, the bigger the organization (i.e. government), the more trustworthy the source is. This is an example of the benefits that come with multiple people checking variables before they go into the finalized dataset, because it allows our team to discuss and analyze claimed terrorist attacks, which calls for a bit of subjectivity. When continuing this project, we do have to realize there will be a fair amount of subjectivity while we are qualitatively coding and interpreting cases; what is important is ensuring our codebook and team all continues to operate under the set definitions and process.


Will, K. Sophie. “A Methodology For Documenting A Certain Type Of Hate.” HuffPost Canada, HuffPost Canada, 5 Nov. 2019, www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/methodology-go-back-to-your-country-documenting-hate_n_5dbc881ae4b0fffdb0f69a8e?ri18n.

Berger, J. M. Extremism. Essential Knowledge Series. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018. Chapter 2—What is Extremism?

Kearns, Erin M., Brendan Conlon, and Joseph K. Young. “Lying About Terrorism.” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism37, no. 5 (May 4, 2014): 422–39.

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