Identity Reconfiguration and the Core Needs Framework: Exit Narratives among Former Far-Right Extremists


  • Amy Fisher-Smith University of Dallas
  • Charles R. Sullivan University of Dallas
  • John D. Macready Collin College
  • Geoffrey Manzi Richland College


far-right extremism, disengagement, deradicalization, core need, social identity


This empirical study examines intensive interview data collected from eight (N=8) former members of white supremacist organizations in order to understand the meanings of exit – that is, disengagement and deradicalization – from the extremist’s perspective.  Using a thematic analysis approach, our findings build on the distinction in the existing exit literature between push and pull factors and the process of role exit identified by Ebaugh (1988).  These push and pull factors as well as social identity, we argue, are subsumed within a complex exit process, which includes disengagement, identity deconstruction, and transgressive and transitional relationships. For some, this process culminated in an accomplished identity reconstruction and deradicalization.  Most importantly, our findings suggest that exit is linked to entry by a developmental drive that we call the participant’s core need.  The core need was the background motivator of entry, disengagement, exit, and ultimately deradicalization.  We think that this identity reconfiguration and core needs framework may help make heterogenous exit trajectories that have remained puzzling for researchers more understandable.


Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, C. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A

psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Altier, M. B., Boyle, E. L., Shortland, N. D., & Horgan, J. G. (2017). Why they leave: An

analysis of terrorist disengagement events from eighty-seven autobiographical accounts. Security Studies, 26(2), 305-332. DOI: 10.1080/09636412.2017.1280307

Altier, M. B., Thoroughgood, C. N., Horgan, J. G. (2014). Turning away from terrorism:

Lessons from psychology, sociology, and criminology. Journal of Peace Research, 51(5), 647-661. DOI: 10.1177/0022343314535946

Barrelle, K. (2015). Pro-integration: Disengagement from and life after extremism. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression, 7 (2), 129-142. DOI: 10.1080/19434472.2014.988165

Bjørgo, T. (2009). Processes of disengagement from violent groups of the extreme right. In Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan (Eds.,). Leaving terrorism behind: Individual and collective disengagement (pp. 30-48). New York: Routledge.

Bjorgo, T. (2011). Dreams and disillusionment: Engagement in and disengagement from militant extremist groups. Crime, Law, and Social Change. 55 (4), 277-285.

Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss. Vol 1: Attachment. (2nd ed). New York: Basic Books) (Original work published 1969)

Braun, V. & Clarke, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3, 77-101. DOI: 10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Bubolz, B. & Simi, P. (2015). Life-course transitions and self-change. American Behavioral

Scientist, 59 (12), 1588-1608. DOI: 10.1177/0002764215588814

Churchill, S. D., Lowery, J. E., McNally, O, & Rao, A. (1998). The question of reliability in interpretative psychological research: A comparison of three phenomenologically-based protocol analyses. In R. Valle (Ed.), Phenomenological Inquiry in psychology: Existential and transpersonal dimensions (pp. 63-85). New York: Plenum Press.

Dalgaard-Nielsen, A. (2010). Violent radicalization in Europe: What we know and what we do not know. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 33, 797-814. DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2010.501423

Dalgaard-Nielsen, A. (2013). Promoting exit from violent extremism: Themes and approaches. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 36 (2), 99-115.

Della Porta, D. (2009). Leaving underground organizations: A sociological analysis of the Italian case. In Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan (Eds.,). Leaving terrorism behind: Individual and collective disengagement (pp. 66-87). New York: Routledge.

Ebaugh, H. R. F. (1988). Becoming an ex: the process of role exit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Erikson, E. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Fisher-Smith, A., Sullivan, C. R., Macready, J., & Manzi, G. (in press). Methodology matters: Researching the far right. Researching the Far Right: Theory, Method, and Practice, A. Winter, G. Macklin, & J. Busher (Eds.). Routledge.

Gadamer, H. G. (1975). Truth and Method. (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans). 2nd

Revised Ed. New York: Continuum. (Originally published 1960)

Harris, D. J., Simi, P., & Ligon, G. (2016). Reporting practices of journal articles that include

interviews with extremists. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 39 (7-8), 602-616. DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2016.1141009

Horgan, J. G. (2009). Walking away from terrorism: Accounts of disengagement from radical and extremist movements. New York: Routledge.

Koehler, D. (2017). Understanding deradicalization: Methods, tools, and programs for

countering violent extremism. New York: Routledge.

Kruglanski, A. W., Chen, X., Dechesne, M., Fishman, S., & Orehek, E. (2009). Fully

committed: Suicide bombers’ motivation and the quest for personal significance. Political Psychology, 30, 331-357.

Kruglanski, A. W., Gelfand, M. J., Belanger, J. J., Sheveland, A., Hetiarachchi, M., Gunaratna, R. (2014). The psychology of radicalization and deradicalization: How significance quest impacts violent extremism. Advances in Political Psychology, (35), 69-93. DOI: 10.1111/pops.12163

Ricoeur, P. (1976). Interpretation theory: Discourse and the surplus of meaning. Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University Press.

Rusbult, C. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development and

deterioration of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 45 (1), 101-117.

Sageman, S. (2004). Understanding terror networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sieckelinck, S., Sikkens, E., van San, M., Kotnis, S., & de Winter, M. (2017). Transitional

journeys into and out of extremism: A biographical approach. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 1-21. DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2017.1407075

Sikkens, E., van San, M., Sieckelinck, S., & de Winter, M. (2017). Parental influence on

radicalization and de-radicalization according to the lived experiences of former extremists and their families. Journal for Deradicalization, (12), 192-225.

Simi, P., Blee, K., DeMichele, M., & Windisch, S. (2017). Addicted to hate: Identity residual among former white supremacists. American Sociological Review, 82 (6), 1167-1187. DOI: 10.1177/0003122417728719

Simi, P., Sporer, K, & Bubolz, B. F. (2016). Narratives of childhood adversity and adolescent misconduct as precursors to violent extremism: A life-course criminological approach. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 1-28. DOI: 10.1177/0022427815627312

Windisch, S., Simi, P., Ligon, G. S., McNeel, H. (2016). Disengagement from ideologically-

based and violent organizations: A systematic review of the literature. Journal for Deradicalization, 9, 1-38.

Windisch, S., Ligon, G. S., & Simi, P. (2017). Organizational [Dis]trust: Comparing

disengagement among former left-wing and right-wing violent extremists. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 1-23. DOI: 10.1080/1057610X.2017.1404000