Differentiating Violent and Non-Violent Extremists: Lessons from 70 Years of Social Control Theory


  • Daren Fisher Center for Criminal Legal Systems Research, RTI International https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7901-4856
  • Meagan N. Abel Center for Criminal Legal Systems Research, RTI International
  • Wesley S. McCann Center for Criminal Legal Systems Research, RTI International


Violent Extremism, Prevention, P/CVE, Social Control Theory


P/CVE programs engaging in primary (prior to radicalization) or secondary (following exposure to radicalizing influences) prevention are often predicated on delivering interventions to individuals or groups at-risk of engaging in violent extremism. Preventative actions must take place before the potential negative outcome; however, additional research is still required to identify and empirically validate the factors that distinguish violent from non-violent extremists. In the interim, P/CVE programs have instead targeted all individuals within a community or those deemed “at-risk” of adhering to extremist belief systems or movements. Due to resource limitations, this approach dilutes the allocation of resources to individuals and/or communities with higher propensities for extremist violence and may incidentally increase the likelihood of violence. This paper argues that empirical and theoretical insights from criminological theories of social control can enhance the understanding of violent extremism and can be used to tailor P/CVE programs. Unlike most criminological theories, social control theories focus on why people do not commit these acts, giving it a unique perspective on identifying how to prevent violent extremism. Drawing on 70 years of research, we explore how variation in various forms of control can explain differences in extremist offending. We hypothesize how the antecedents to low social control may be connected to violent extremism and propose a research agenda to test these hypotheses. Finally, we examine how existing measures of self-control can be incorporated by P/CVE programming to better distribute services to their target population and reduce the risk of adverse outcomes.


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