The Terror Label: How International Dialogue Constructs Its Exceptions

Charlie Carter


Following the “practice” or “linguistic turn” in the social sciences, critical International Relations theorists have increasingly turned to interpretivist, social constructivist, and discourse-analysis approaches to explain state behaviour. In particular, scholarly attention to issues of identity, difference, knowledge, and power in international affairs has highlighted the role states play in actively constituting their shared political reality through language and dialogue. Terrorism studies is ripe for this approach. The performative speech act of designating individuals or groups as “terrorists” demarcates the line between abiding members of the international society and its deviant exceptions. As a consequence, this label carries significant implications for how states and other international entities engage with such individuals or groups. Understanding the dynamics that underpin the labelling of terrorists and studying the meaning that is discursively attached to such labels over time is, thus, key to understanding much of present-day conflict. To achieve this, this research seeks to model the terrorism discourse with text-analytic methods and two-mode social network analysis. By identifying semantically equivalent discursive statements in United Nations General Debate speeches from 1970 to 2019 with dependency parsing and word embedding models, we generate a bipartite network, with nodes representing states and discursive statements. An edge is present between these nodes if a state has made a statement represented by a node. Exponential random graph models (ERGMs) account for state intersubjectivity with the inclusion of structural covariates alongside state-level variables in predicting the probability of a state making a particular discursive statement. We expect this research to make an important contribution toward the literature on international terrorism discourse and patterns of state communication by identifying the significant variables affecting the endorsement or contestation of particular discursive frames.

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