Sunday, April 25, 2021

Most Members of the Military are not White Supremacists

That people are much more likely to join social movements or religious groups where they know someone (i.e., have a "tie") than those where they do not is about as close to a “law” as you will find within the social sciences. For example:
  • Back in the 1960s, when John Lofland and Rodney Stark (1965) observed individuals converting to the Unification Church (aka, the "Moonies"), they discovered that "the group had never succeeded in attracting a stranger" (Stark 1996:16)
  • In a 1980 analysis of individuals converting to the Mormon Church, Stark and William Bainbridge, 50% first came in contact with a missionary through a Mormon friend
  • In another 1980 study, David Snow and several colleagues examined several social movements (some religious, some secular) and found that for most, 70-90% of those who joined had a friendship or kinship tie with someone who was already a member
  • Doug McAdam's exploration of the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register Black Americans living in Mississippi to vote, found that having a prior tie to the Civil Rights movement was the strongest predictor of whether someone ultimately traveled to Mississippi to participate in the campaign
  • And Marc Sageman's 2004 analysis of what he called the "global Salafi jihad" (which would include those who participated in 9/11), found that of those who joined, 83% had a friendship, kinship, or mentor tie to the group
Be careful interpreting these results of studies, though. It's not unusual for people to draw the (incorrect) conclusion that most of the people who have a tie to a group will join. That's not what these studies show. They show that most of those who join a group have some sort of tie to the group, but that doesn't mean most people who have a tie to the group will join. Put differently, it's possible (maybe even likely) that of those who had a tie to one of these groups, only 1%-2% joined. Maybe even fewer.

Similarly, we need to be careful when interpreting data about the January 6th Capitol riot. Available data indicate that a disproportionate number of the rioters (about 1 in 5) were current or retired military, law enforcement, or government service employees. And Georgetown's Project on Extremism found that military individuals who participated in the riot were about four times more likely to be involved in domestic extremist organizations, such as the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers.

However, that doesn't mean that the military, law enforcement, and the government is littered with individuals associated extremist organizations or who embrace racist ideologies. Certainly not 1 in 5, probably not even 1 in 100, and maybe not even 1 in a 1,000. To be sure, a 2006 FBI report warned that white supremacist groups were trying to infiltrate law enforcement departments, and we need policies and procedures to minimize the hiring (and retaining) of folks officers Derek Chauvin. But don't assume that most law enforcement officials and members of the military are white supremacists.

Because they're not.


John Lofland and Rodney Stark. 1965. "Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective." American Sociological Review 30: 862-75.

Doug McAdam. 1986. "Recruitment to High Risk Activism: The Case of Freedom Summer." American Journal of Sociology 92: 64-90.

Marc Sageman. 2004. Understanding Terror Networks. University of Pennsylvania Press.

David A. Snow, Louis A. Zurcher, and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. "Social Networks and Social Movements: A Microstructural Approach to Differential Recruitment." American Sociological Review 45: 787-801.

Rodney Stark William Sims Bainbridge. 1980. "Networks of Faith: Interpersonal Bonds and Recruitment to Cults and Sects." American Journal of Sociology 85(6): 1376-95.