Research Article

The allure of essentialism and extremist ideologies


Abstract

This paper examines different reasons that make essentialist thinking, and by extension extremist ideologies based on such logic, attractive to individuals. Drawing from theories of personal and social identities, we examine the benefits derived from adopting an essentialist and reductionist ideology: an increased sense of clarity and agency, ease of moral judgements and a simple interpretative framework and prescriptions for social life. We also show the consequences of being on the receiving end of essentialist and reductionist discrimination, and the challenges of escaping essentialism and recognising the multiplicity of self. Our theoretical reflection is based on the life story of Muhammad Elvis Ngum, a young Cameroonian migrant to South Africa who became radicalised in a neofundamentalist religious group.

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