Spreading resistance

January 21, 2010

As Malcolm Grant puts it, the recent discussion about the prevention of violent extremism in universities centred on the issue that "intellectual freedom on campus cannot be compromised" ("Freedom of thought is all we foment", www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 31 December). What has not entered the debate is the social psychology of group influence and conversion processes.

Universities have an obligation to teach. By teaching the classics in these and related fields, they can make a critical contribution without getting mired in debates about ideology or intellectual freedom. Yet in all the discussions about how a privileged student from a wealthy family became an attempted suicide bomber, not a word has been spoken about these well-researched yet often forgotten causes. It is not, as Grant states, "a mystery".

Over the past 60 years, academics have researched influence and conversion. This scholarship had its roots in trying to understand why "good Germans" performed the most horrific acts under Hitler's leadership.

There is a great body of work relevant to helping students resist recruitment attempts that is seldom taught except in occasional social psychology classes.

What universities can do is to use their educational brief to teach students about these processes to which we are all vulnerable. We warn students about unsafe sex, substance abuse, even unlicensed minicabs: isn't it time we took seriously our duty as educators to warn them about our vulnerability to group processes?

Using existing literature, we can teach students to recognise recruitment attempts, be aware of the potential dangers and costs to themselves, and understand how they can resist.

Alexandra Stein, Visiting lecturer in sociology, University of Westminster; Tutor in social psychology, Birkbeck, University of London.

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