GV4A8      Half Unit
Political Violence and Terrorism

This information is for the 2021/22 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof James Hughes


This course is available on the MSc in Conflict Studies. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

Availability to students outside the MSc Conflict Studies is subject to space. This course is capped at two groups.

Course content

How can we distinguish legitimate resistance and political violence from terrorism? What is the relationship between war and terror? What distinguishes a combatant from non-combatant? Should we erode civil liberties and democratic values to fight terrorism? How do social scientists theorise about political violence and terrorism? This course attempts to answer these and similar questions by a comparative examination of the theories and ethics of political violence and the root causes, nature and types, and dynamics of violence. This course also evaluates different political and security policies and methods of conflict resolution as change agents. A number of case studies of historical and contemporary conflicts are examined to illustrate the theoretical and policy dilemmas. The course has two parts. Firstly, it examines definitions and concepts, the principles and efficacy of the laws and norms of armed conflict and ethical dilemmas in their application. We explore the causes and motivations for engaging and not engaging in political violence. We examine the historical evolution of policies of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism from the colonial era to the present day. The effects of dealing with resistance, from  coercive to cooperative approaches, is analysed, and the impact on the balance between security and liberty in democracies is mapped. Secondly, the course explores the key issues and debates through a number of case studies that analyse political violence and terrorism in democracies and non-democracies, including the insurgency and counterinsurgency in Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and  the transnational challenges posed by Islamist violence, and forms of White Supremacist violence. Throughout the course comparisons will be made and lessons drawn from the performance of different regime types (colonial, democratic, and authoritarian) in managing political violence. This is a Moodle course.


This course is delivered through a combination of seminars and lectures totalling 31 hours per group in the Michaelmas Term, including a one hour Q&A on the summative essay preparation. Some or all of this teaching will be delivered through a combination of online and on-campus lectures and seminars. There will be a reading week in week 6 of the MT for private study and assessment preparation.

Formative coursework

One essay of 1,500 words, to be on a topic that differs from the summative essay. Students must also contribute to a team presentation.

Indicative reading

Tore Bjorgo ed. Root Causes of Terrorism, Routledge (2005); Andrew Silke ed. Terrorists, Victims and Society, Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences, Wiley (2003); David Whittaker, The Terrorism Reader, Routledge (3rd edn, 2007); Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, Basic Books (1992); Arguing about War, Yale University Press (2004); Michael Ignatieff The Lesser Evil. Political Ethics in an Age of Terror, Edinburgh University Press (2005); James Hughes, Chechnya from Nationalism to Jihad, University of Pennsylvania Press (2008); Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press (2004) and Leaderless Jihad, Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century, University of Pennsylvania Press (2007), and Misunderstanding Terrorism, University of Pennsylvania Press (2016); Jeff Victoroff and Arie W. Kruglanski eds, Psychology of Terrorism. Classic and Contemporary Insights, Psychology Press (2009); Cas Mudde, The Populist Radical Right: A Reader, Routledge (2017).


Essay (100%, 5000 words) in the LT.

Course selection videos

Some departments have produced short videos to introduce their courses. Please refer to the course selection videos index page for further information.

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2021/22 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the differing needs of students in attendance on campus and those who might be studying online. For example, this may involve changes to the mode of teaching delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2020/21: 25

Average class size 2020/21: 14

Controlled access 2020/21: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication