violence, individual or relational?


Violence is a gritty topic. Movies and books often glorify violence and treat it as an individual feat. Some individuals are violent, most are not. This common view of violence – seeing it as an individual outcome – easily leads us to see violence as causally determined by innate tendencies or characteristics, some of which may be products of genes or hormonal differences. Thus, we can say with some confidence that men are more violent than women because of differences in biological makeup.

Randall Collins’s new book from Princeton University Press, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, challenges this conception of violence. Collins recognizes, of course, that some individuals are more predisposed to violence than others. A predisposition to violence could be biologically or biographically caused, but a predisposition is not a sufficient cause for violent behavior. If it were, we’d see much more violence than we actually see. Violence as a behavior is relatively rare and tends to be concentrated in particular kinds of situations. Most people who are demographically and biologically predisposed to violence are rarely, if ever, violent towards others. How do we explain the variation in observed versus expected violent behavior?

Collins reasons that violence is relatively rare because it is an outcome of group/relational processes. Violence stems from a group emotional focus on particular individuals who are situated to engage in violent behavior and benefit from the public attention it generates. Without this group focus of emotional energy, individuals would likely flee confrontation because of fear or unwillingness to assume the costs of being violent. In fact, the most common outcome of confrontational tension is not violence but stalemate. Because individuals fear violence so much, violent situations are much more likely to end in bluster than with punches. The situations that lead to real “hot” violence are those where groups facilitate the exchange through encouragement and emotional support.

Usually hot violence comes from the emotional flow of an assembly whose attention has become sharply focused, whether as companions, audiences, or antagonists. The most typical hot emotion is anger; but there are other emotional varieties and blends….It is worth repeating that the mere presence of hot emotion is not enough for successful violence to occur; the hot emotion needs to be configured in such a way across the group so that confrontation fear/tension is overcome (pg. 449).

Thus, focus of group attention on a confrontatioal situation facilitates people overcoming fear and the generation of violence. Violence is so rare because the attention space itself is limited. Groups cannot pay attention to every confrontation nor can they expend emotional effort to support every situation that could potentially lead to violence. Attention space tends to get allocated to those individuals who have a reputation for violent behavior. Thus, people who have committed a lot of violence in the past tend to be the object of collective attention during confrontation, which in turn leads them to commit more violence. Violence then is reproductive. Individuals with reputations for being violent tend to get the emotional support needed to maintain their positions/niches in emotional attention space.

Collins’ theory of violence is very clever and seemingly accurate. His theorizing builds on his past work, especially his analysis of attention space in philosophy circles. He posits that both kinds of interaction – philosophizing and violent behavior – tend to produce elite groups of individuals that stick out from the rest and become the focus of group attention. Once an individual enters the intellectual or violent elite, they have the social resources needed to reproduce that status position. The highly-intellectual and the overly-violent are structurally similar.

The book is a nice read. Collins is a clear and engaging writer. Some of the chapters get bogged down with empirical detail (Collins has a very clinical way of describing fairly grotesque violence), but still interesting. While a bit long overall, I recommend reading certain sections thoroughly. I found the chapters in part three to be the most interesting.

Written by brayden king

January 25, 2008 at 6:37 pm

Posted in books, brayden, sociology

5 Responses

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  1. An engaging book indeed, nicely toggles between the descriptive and the theoretical.

    I actually got my copy just this morning, so have been skimming and selectively reading. The book’s quite a tome.

    One frustration I had was that I felt that the centrally important “why” question was not addressed as thoroughly as it could have been. Though, perhaps that was not the focus. Not until chapter 9 (p.337) does Collins get into the why: “To this point, I have discussed how people fight; I have not yet answered the question of why they fight.” That chapter could have been significantly expanded (well, maybe part 2 is in the works); though, that said, the conclusion with its focus on attention space, emotion etc does also offer some interesting theoretical insights.



    January 25, 2008 at 6:50 pm

  2. oh my. i’m guessing that professor collins had little use for a century of criminological work saying pretty much the same thing. please tell me that he didn’t ignore luckenbill’s homicide as a situated transaction.



    January 26, 2008 at 6:31 am

  3. chris, he cites Luckenbill. I suspect we have the same reservations about this book, but I do respect Collins’s work, and am anxious to read it. (Not so anxious that I have cast aside the other 10 things I have to do just to read the book, though. I wonder if I’m engaging in avoidance.) I posted about my wariness the other day.

    I have, however, obsessively scanned the bibliography to see which criminologists were cited or listed in the Acknowledgments. There are many, but not always the ones I would have expected. And some are cited multiple times, and I’m not sure why (again, reading the actual book might help here).

    Brayden, was this your snowy day book?



    January 26, 2008 at 2:42 pm

  4. Chris – My copy of the book is at school and so I can’t tell you who he cites (or in what capacity) right now. But it’s a thick book, and so there are plenty of opportunities for citation. Looks like he at least cites Luckenbill.

    Ktel – no, I read this one in December actually. This was a travel book that I took with me on several trips I made. One of my snowy day books was the new book about boycotts by Gay Seidman (which is a delight to read, btw).



    January 26, 2008 at 3:18 pm

  5. […] From OrgTheory: violence, individual or relational? […]


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