Armed militias and rural America: a Q&A with Ariel Perkins

Exploring the role of state institutions in shaping mobilisation around gun rights

Ariel is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Government  

Battling through the rough patches of my studies made me even more resilient and secure in my work.

Ariel Perkins

Ariel Perkins
Ariel Perkins

What are you currently researching?

I am conducting fieldwork with armed civilian groups in the United States on both sides of the political spectrum.

While formal citizen militias were consolidated into the National Guard in the early 1900s, countless local armed civilian groups exist nationwide, including the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, John Brown Gun Clubs, and Socialist Rifle Associations.

Through interviews with these activists, I ask why individuals seek out arms training from these communities and explore the role of state institutions in shaping mobilisation around gun rights.

What attracted you to this area of research?

During my doctoral studies I began applying ideas from my background in nationalism and conflict studies to firearms in my own country.

Throughout US history, gun rights were tied to racial definitions of citizenship, and the government sometimes offered direct support to rifle clubs. Yet, the role of the state is frequently neglected in explanations of social mobilisation around guns.

There are many pejorative stereotypes of rural America, particularly with firearms use, that neglect structural context in favour of cultural explanations. As an Appalachian Kentuckian, I hope my research on private arms can add nuance to broader debates on rural grievances.

How will your research have a wider impact on society? Can you give some real-world examples of the impact your research will have?

US gun policy is highly polarised. Civilian paramilitaries often represent some of the most ardent gun rights supporters and tend to be very politically active. Academic research on these groups may answer wider questions about the persistence of civilian firearms in America.  

Many of the paramilitaries I work with are also associated with populist movements. Consistent narratives across the left and right-leaning groups I interview include distrust of state capacity, belief in pervasive political corruption, and privatised views of protection. All of these themes align with larger discourses in populist movements.

What have been the highlights of your PhD/research project so far?

During my time at LSE I formed life-long friendships with brilliant scholars across disciplines. My friends make the highs and lows of the PhD that much better.

Last year I also received a US Centre Summer Research Grant. The funding helped me add more trips to the US for fieldwork, and the Centre continues to provide networking, support, and encouragement.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

One of the toughest parts of a doctorate is presenting and defending your research in academic settings. However, battling through the rough patches of my studies made me even more resilient and secure in my work.

What is your favourite way to de-stress?

I am fortunate to live in London. I am an avid concert goer and made many friendships attending shows across the city. Before LSE, I studied studio art and worked as a graphic designer, so I also take advantage of the world-class art exhibits in the capital. If the weather is nice, there is nothing better than sitting on Primrose Hill in the sun with friends.

What do you hope to do career wise, long term?

While I find teaching fulfilling (my mother is a professor as well), the academic job market is demanding and competitive. Prior to LSE, I enjoyed working in policy research and international development. After graduation, I plan to continue in research, whether that is in higher education or the policy sphere.