Scholars of political violence are increasingly concerned with the motives, beliefs and mindsets of violent actors. This reflects shifts in both the dominant theoretical paradigms and the central objects of research in the social sciences. In particular, expanding literatures on terrorism, genocide, mass killing, and religious and ethnic conflict have frequently emphasised an important role for ‘ideology’. But existing work – whether affirming or dismissing the importance of ideology – is often held back by latent notions of a single sort of ‘ideological actor’, a single sort of ‘extremist’ ideology, and a single sort of way that such an ideology might encourage violence. Empirical research provides abundant evidence, by contrast, that perpetrators of violence are in fact ideologically diverse – in both the content of their ideologies and the role those ideologies play in shaping their behaviour. Moreover, this diversity not only exists between groups but also between group members: perpetrating organisations are not unitary minds but comprised of ideologically heterogeneous populations. Theoretically engaging with such ideological diversity is, I argue, amongst the foremost challenges political scientists now face in the study of political violence. After showing how existing work has not successfully addressed this challenge, I seek to advance present thinking in this paper by drawing a series of distinctions in analysing the specific causal pathways linking ideology and violence, especially anti-civilian atrocities. I particularly emphasise equifinality between these pathways, and the diversity of ideological actors that participate in violence. I conclude by briefly explicating the implications of these distinctions for broader theories of violence, conflict prevention, and post-conflict reconstruction.


Dr Jonathan Leader Maynard's research focuses on the recurring ideological dynamics of violence against civilians, examining in particular how ordinary people come to see the killing of civilians as justified in genocides, terrorism, war crimes and other mass atrocities. He is currently working on a book on this topic, and has published scholarly and policy-oriented work focused more generally on the role of ideology in political violence, and the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities. Jonathan is a member of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the International Studies Association, and the British International Studies Association.