From cults to homegrown terror: How Lorne Dawson found his academic calling

From 1980s cults to 2010s jihadis: Sociologist Lorne Dawson's interest in how homegrown terrorism takes root came from a chance academic assignment early in his career.

Sociologist's interest in radicalization grew from study of new religious movements

Global grievances and cult-like leaders can lead youth toward violent vengeance 5:52

A very ordinary situation that arose early in his academic career ignited Lorne Dawson's interest in homegrown terrorism and how it can emerge from an otherwise ordinary life. 

After Dawson landed a post-doctoral fellowship in the sociology department at the University of Waterloo in southern Ontario, he had to teach a course.

His work on the sociology of religion was "very theoretical," he says, and his supervisor told him, "That's great, Lorne, but you need to get some kind of concrete, empirical area that the theory can start to be applied to."

So Dawson was offered the opportunity to teach a class on new religious movements, otherwise known as cults.

His classes at Waterloo and McMaster University in Hamilton proved popular in the late 1980s and 1990s.

"The cult scare was still going on," he says. "I think it had just kind of an exotic feel at the time."

Dawson's interest in the topic grew, taking him into a broader study of apocalyptical and millennialist movements where the importance of charismatic leadership emerged as a significant factor.

Then, as Dawson and a handful of other scholars sought to get a sense of the reasons behind what was happening within cults, his work caught the eye of federal public safety, security and intelligence officials.

'Tricky question'

He was eventually asked by the Canadian Centre for Security Studies to write an essay flowing from a presentation on charismatic authority and leadership, applying those issues to terrorism.

"That became my first publication," says Dawson, who is now chair of Waterloo's department of sociology and legal studies, and co-director of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society.

Dawson doesn’t have an immediate answer when he ponders why he finds this field of study so fascinating.

"It's a tricky question," he says. "I guess I've just always been intrigued by human nature."

He says he's not religious, but when he studies these issues, he's gripped most by the roots of those who become involved.

"Almost always the story is that you have very ordinary people doing very extraordinary or unusual things, and you consistently can find it has little or nothing to do with their intrinsic features. It's not because they're a certain kind of people," he says.

"Consistently, it seems to be more about their experience and the process."

When he considers that process, particularly for those who become radicalized, he offers up the comparison of a funnel.

Sliding through

Using that metaphor, he describes how certain individuals, who experience common elements of contemporary life with others of their age, can nonetheless slide through and end up embracing something like the jihadi narrative.

"These are young people who are mainly men. They are remarkably ordinary," says Dawson. "They're pretty much like most other young people."

But something happens along the way, and only a few end up on the path to radicalization.

"With each layer of explanation, you're reducing the pool of potential candidates who could become a terrorist. So it's like a funnel. The funnel element is key because there are elements that are common to almost all people who radicalize that happen to be common to wide swaths of people in our population."

Dawson sees several factors leading to radicalization. They include:

  • Globalization and the internet.
  • An immigrant background.
  • A quest for significance.
  • A willingness to take risk.
  • The role of a charismatic leader.

There is often also a precipitating factor, such as the death of a parent or loss of a job.