The ethics of researching ‘terrorism’ and political violence: a sociological approach

Tom Mills, Narzanin Massoumi, David Miller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this article, we propose a sociological model for the assessment of ethics in research on conflict and terrorism. We move beyond the rather narrow, procedural approaches that currently dominate contemporary discussion, seeking to broaden ethical considerations to include questions of social power, academic freedom, and the politics of knowledge production, as well as a consideration of the public function of the university. We argue that social scientists have both a professional responsibility to protect the integrity of scientific knowledge, and public responsibilities to the wider societies of which they are part. Navigating ethical questions, we suggest, therefore requires a reflexive engagement with the social conditions of knowledge production; a careful consideration of the social impact of research; and a dialogue with a variety of ‘publics’, not merely policy actors. The main body of the paper reviews the range of writing on the ethics of ‘terrorism studies’, engages with the question of institutional oversight and then examines the ethics of the current ‘impact agenda’ in UK universities. We conclude by drawing on our empirical findings and applying them to our proposed model to argue for: a significant revision to ethical policies and guidelines (and better means of enforcement) so as to better protect vulnerable research subjects; offer greater protections to researchers from (especially) powerful interests which attempt to smear, constrain or undermine independent research; make unethical research (which we argue is widespread) more visible, with the intent that it be managed down.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)119-133
Number of pages16
JournalContemporary Social Science
Issue number2
Early online date16 Sept 2019
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (
licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


  • Ethics
  • political violence
  • public university
  • terrorism


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