Collecting survey data from political extremists (or persons affiliated with extremist political groups) presents a set of unique challenges. Many of these challenges are faced by researchers investigating other hard-to-survey populations (e.g., political extremists are rare, difficult to identify, and under some circumstances may be reluctant to participate in research), but not in combination as they are with this particular group of potential respondents. In this chapter, we first develop a working definition of political extremism. We next provide an overview of the challenges faced by researchers who want to study political extremism and examine some of the strategies employed by investigators when attempting to study political extremists. Finally, we examine some of the ethical issues involved in conducting survey research with persons who espouse extremist political ideologies.
Defining “political extremism”
“Political extremists” have multiple self-identities and it is a challenge to develop an operational definition that adequately covers this diversity. In practice, political extremism at the individual level has been defined in two primary ways. First, it is often viewed in terms of the behaviors associated with it. For example, van Es and Koenig (1976) see political extremism as the use of coercion to force change in political institutions and authority. Political extremists, then, have sometimes been defined as those who engage in these behaviors or who advocate them. Secondly, others have defined political extremists in terms of the attitudes or beliefs that they hold. In his Dictionary of Political Thought, Scruton (1982) suggests that political extremism involves pushing ideas to their limits, intolerance of competing viewpoints, confronting and eliminating opposition, and demonstrating a disregard for the rights of others. Similarly, Midlarsky (2011, p. 7) provides a definition of political extremism that integrates both beliefs and behaviors, which he suggests is:
the will power by a social movement in the service of a political program typically at variance with that supported by existing state authorities, and for which individual liberties are to be curtailed in the name of collective goals, including the mass murder of those who would actually or potentially disagree with that program.