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Research & Innovation Spotlight

Sara Thompson








What triggers extremist behaviour? And are there ways to stop the process? Those are the critical questions behind a study that is being led by two Toronto researchers.

Sara Thompson is a professor of criminal justice and criminology at Ryerson, and Sandra Bucerius is a professor of criminology at the University of Toronto. Together, the researchers are lead investigators on a one-of-a-kind project that is exploring how to build and foster resilience among ethnic communities. The three-year initiative, which has received $145,000 from Public Safety Canada, aims to advance understanding of youth radicalization, and how collective dynamics can increase or decrease the risk of violent extremism.

In an increasingly connected world, where social and political views are no longer limited by geographical boundaries, the radicalization of ethnic youth in one region often occurs as a result of movements and events happening elsewhere. Religious ideology and social alienation are also contributing factors.

To that end, Thompson and Bucerius are examining two concepts in ethnic communities: collective efficacy (also called social cohesion or solidarity, which is coupled with the willingness of community members to intervene on behalf of the common good) and cultural capital (the many factors that facilitate social mobility, especially credentials and familiarity with bourgeois culture).

“Up until now, collective efficacy has mainly been studied from a positive perspective, in terms of its crime and violence-reducing potential. But it is a value-neutral term, which means that high levels can also lead to negative outcomes, from a national security perspective,” says Thompson.

“On one hand, collective efficacy can help people,” continues Bucerius. “For example, members of the community share information or borrow money from each other in times of need. On the other hand, it can also imply that community members might stand up for a cause that can pose a threat to national security.”

Indeed, social solidarity serves as a powerful motivator. It can, for instance, prompt individuals to come together and engage in increasingly radical activities as a way of belonging to a larger faction.

As part of their research, Thompson and Bucerius are focusing on two ethnic groups in Toronto: the Somali and Tamil communities. Both groups have been tied to broader global movements and external organizations.

 “While it’s still early days in our study, we’re finding that the situations are more complicated than we could have ever anticipated,” says Thompson.

For example, previous work by other researchers indicates that the Somali community perceives it has been largely excluded from Canadian society. Those circumstances, combined with low social cohesion within the Somali community, leave some individuals especially vulnerable to radicalization. Therefore, increasing social cohesion in the Somali community will be an important element of Canada’s counter-terrorism efforts.

In contrast, while the Tamil community already has a high level of social cohesion, efforts to further enhance that solidarity could actually increase the risk of extremist behaviour. One of the factors that unifies them is their disappointment with federal initiatives that have labelled customary activities in the community as being connected to terrorism. One example is that community members send money to Sri Lanka to fund the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which many countries consider a terrorist organization. In a similar vein, there is growing disappointment with the international community for not putting enough pressure on the Sri Lankan government to be held accountable for its actions during the country’s civil war.

By gaining knowledge of the factors that cultivate positive cohesion and integration, and determining whether those dynamics vary among ethnic groups, Thompson and Bucerius hope to find ways to guide young people away from crime, violence and terrorism. The researchers’ work will also help to create programs and policies that promote positive social cohesion and integration within specific ethnic communities.

“Our goal is to understand how collective efficacy works from different perspectives so it can be used to strengthen communities,” says Thompson.


Ryerson's Sara Thompson, right, and Sandra Bucerius, of U of T, lead a unique study on how community dynamics can increase or decrease the risk of terrorist activity.