Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory

Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory

by Randall Collins

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ISBN-13: 9781400831753
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/03/2009
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 584
File size: 16 MB
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About the Author

Randall Collins is the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology and a member of the Department of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Interaction Ritual Chains (Princeton) and The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change.

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Violence A Micro-sociological Theory

By Randall Collins Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13313-3

Chapter One The Micro-sociology of Violent Confrontations

THERE IS A VAST ARRAY of types of violence. It is short and episodic as a slap in the face; or massive and organized as a war. It can be passionate and angry as a quarrel; or callous and impersonal as the bureaucratic administration of gas chambers. It is happy as drunken carousing, fearful as soldiers in combat, vicious as a torturer. It can be furtive and hidden as a rape-murder, or public as a ritual execution. It is programmed entertainment in the form of sporting contests, the plot tension of drama, the action of action-adventure, the staple shocker of the news edition. It is horrible and heroic, disgusting and exciting, the most condemned and glorified of human acts.

This vast array can be explained by a relatively compact theory. A few main processes, in combination and in differing degrees of intensity, give the conditions for when and how the various forms of violence occur.

Two moves will set up the analysis. First, put the interaction in the center of the analysis, not the individual, the social background, the culture, or even the motivation: that is to say, look for the characteristics of violent situations. That means looking for data that gets us as close as possible into the dynamics of situations. Second, compare across differentkinds of violence. We need to break down the usual categories-homicides in one research specialty, war in another, child abuse in another, police violence yet elsewhere-and look for the situations that occur within them. Not that all situations are the same; we want to compare the range of variation in situations, which affects the kind and amount of violence that emerges. This will turn the wide variety of violence into a methodological advantage, giving clues to the circumstances that explain when and in what manner violence unfolds.


Not violent individuals, but violent situations-this is what a micro-sociological theory is about. We seek the contours of situations, which shape the emotions and acts of the individuals who step inside them. It is a false lead to look for types of violent individuals, constant across situations. A huge amount of research has not yielded very strong results here. Young men, yes, are most likely to be perpetrators of many kinds of violence. But not all young men are violent. And middle-aged men, children, and women are violent too, in the appropriate situations. Similarly with background variables such as poverty, race, and origins in divorce or single-parent families. Though there are some statistical correlations between these variables and certain kinds of violence, these fall short of predicting most violence in at least three aspects:

First, most young men, poor people, black people, or children of divorce do not become murderers, rapists, batterers, or armed robbers; and there are a certain number of affluent persons, white people, or products of conventional families who do. Similarly, the much asserted explanation that violent offenders are typically past victims of child abuse accounts for only a minority of the cases.

Second, such analysis conveys a plausible picture of the etiology of violence only because it restricts the dependent variable to particular categories of illegal or highly stigmatized violence; it does not hold up well when we broaden out to all kinds of violence. Poverty, family strain, child abuse, and the like do not account for police violence or for which soldiers do the most killing in combat, for who runs gas chambers or commits ethnic cleansing. No one has shown that being abused as a child is likely to make someone a cowboy cop, a carousing drunk, or a decorated war hero. No doubt there are readers who will bridle at the suggestion; for them, violence naturally falls into hermetically sealed sections, and "bad" social conditions should be responsible for "bad" violence, whereas "good" violence-which is not seen as violence at all, when it is carried out by authorized state agents-is not subject to analysis since it is part of normal social order. In this way of thinking, there is an intermediate category of innocuous or "naughty" violence (i.e., carousing that gets out of hand), or violence that is committed by "good" persons; this is explained, or explained away, by another set of moral categories. Such distinctions are a good example of conventional social categories getting in the way of sociological analysis. If we zero in on the situation of interaction-the angry boyfriend with the crying baby, the armed robber squeezing the trigger on the holdup victim, the cop beating up the suspect-we can see patterns of confrontation, tension, and emotional flow, which are at the heart of the situation where violence is carried out. This is another way of seeing that the background conditions-poverty, race, childhood experiences-are a long way from what is crucial to the dynamics of the violent situation.

Third, even those persons who are violent, are violent only a small part of the time. Consider what we mean when we say that a person is violent, or "very violent." We have in mind someone who is a convicted murderer, or has committed a string of murders; who has been in many fights, slashed people with a knife, or battered them with fists. But if we consider that everyday life unfolds in a chain of situations, minute by minute, most of the time there is very little violence. This is apparent from ethnographic observations, even in statistically very violent neighborhoods. A homicide rate of ten deaths per 100,000 persons (the rate in the United States peaking in 1990) is a fairly high rate, but it means that 99,990 out of 100,000 persons do not get murdered in a year; and 97,000 of them (again, taking the peak rate) are not assaulted even in minor incidents. And these violent incidents are spread out over a year; the chances of murder or assault happening to a particular person at any particular moment on a particular day during that year are very small. This applies even to those persons who actually do commit one or more murders, assaults, armed robberies, or rapes (or for that matter, cops who beat up suspects) during the course of the year. Even those persons who statistically commit a lot of crime scarcely do so at a rate of more than once a week or so; the most notorious massacres in schools, workplaces, or public places, carried out by lone individuals, have killed as many as twenty-five persons, but generally within a single episodes (Hickey 2002; Newman et al. 2004). The most sustained violent persons are serial killers, who average between six and thirteen victims over a period of years; but these are extremely rare (about one victim per five million population), and even these repeat killers go months between killings, waiting for just the right situation to strike (Hickey 2002: 12-13, 241-42). Another kind of rare cluster of violence, crime sprees, may continue for a period of days, in a chain of events linked closely by emotions and circumstances so as to comprise a tunnel of violence. Leaving these extended sequences of violence aside for the moment, I want to underline the conclusion: even people that we think of as very violent-because they have been violent in more than one situation, or spectacularly violent on some occasion-are violent only in very particular situations. Even the toughest hoodlums are off duty some of the time. Most of the time, the most dangerous, most violent persons are not doing anything violent. Even for these people, the dynamics of situations are crucial in explaining what violence they actually do.


Surveys of individuals orient our theories to the characteristics of individuals, packaged in the terms of standard sociological variables. To move to a sociological theory, not of violent individuals, but of violent situations, we must emphasize a different way of collecting and analyzing data. We need direct observation of violent interaction to capture the process of violence as it actually is performed. Our theories are constrained by having been based upon statistics assembled after the fact, packaged by the criminal justice system, or upon interviews with convicted prisoners or other participants. Victim surveys are a step in the right direction, but they remain limited, not only by the issue of to what extent victims are telling the truth, but also by the problem that persons are generally not good observers of the details and contexts of dramatic events. Our ordinary discourse does not provide the language in which to describe micro-interaction well; instead, it offers a set of clichés and myths that predetermine what people will say. This is true also of military violence, riots, sports violence, or even ordinary quarrels; when participants talk about violent situations, they tend to give a very truncated, and by their own lights, idealized version of what went on.

A new era has emerged in recent decades as it has become possible to study violence as recorded on video tape from security systems, police recordings, and news and amateur video photographers. When ordinary observers see such recordings, they are usually shocked. A riot eventually followed the publicity given to a video recording, taken by an amateur with a new camcorder, of the Rodney King arrest in Los Angeles in 1991. Events are always interpreted in terms of prevailing ideological categories; the concepts easily at hand were those of a racially motivated beating. But what was so shocking about the Rodney King video was not its racial aspect; it was the beating itself, which did not look at all like what we think violence is supposed to look like. Visual evidence shows us something about violence that we are not prepared to see. The pattern looks much the same in a wide range of incidents, in many different ethnic combinations within and across ethnic group lines (we will examine some of these in chapters 2 and 3). Racism may contribute to building up some situations of violence, but it is one lead-in condition among others, and neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition; the situation of violence itself has a dynamics that is more pervasive than racism.

Violence as it actually becomes visible in real-life situations is about the intertwining of human emotions of fear, anger, and excitement, in ways that run right against the conventional morality of normal situations. It is just this shocking and unexpected quality of violence, as it actually appears in the cold eye of the camera, that gives a clue to the emotional dynamics at the center of a micro-situational theory of violence.

We live in an era in which our ability to see what happens in real-life situations is far greater than ever before. We owe this new vision to a combination of technology and sociological method. The ethnomethodologists of the 1960s and 1970s took off as an intellectual movement in tandem with the use of newly portable cassette tape recorders; this made it possible to record at least the audio part of real-life social interactions, and to play it back repeatedly, slowing it down and subjecting it to analysis in a way that had been barely possible with fleeting observations in real time, giving rise to the field of conversation analysis (Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1974; Schegloff 1992). As video recording devices became more portable and ubiquitous, it has been possible to look at other aspects of micro-behavior, including bodily rhythms, postures, and expressions of emotion. Thus it is not surprising that the period from about 1980 onward has been the golden age for the sociology of emotions (Katz 1999, among many others).

It is not literally true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Most people will not see what is in a picture, or will see it through the most readily available visual clichés. It takes training and an analytical vocabulary to talk about what is in a picture, and to know what to look for. A picture is worth a thousand words only for those who already have internalized an adequate vocabulary. This is particularly so when we have to train ourselves to see micro-details: the movements of some facial muscles rather than others that distinguish a false smile from a spontaneous one; the movements that display fear, tension, and other emotions; the smoothness of rhythmic coordination and the hitches that indicate disattunement and conflict; the patterns in which one person or another seizes the initiative and imposes a rhythm upon others. The methods of visual and auditory recording now available open up the potential to see a vast new landscape of human interaction; but our ability to see goes in tandem with the expansion of our theories of what processes are out there to be seen.

This is so also in the micro-sociology of violence. The video revolution has made available much more information about what happens in violent situations than ever before. But real-life recording conditions are not like Hollywood film studios; lighting and composition are far from ideal, and the camera angles and distance may not be just the ones a micro-sociologist would prefer. We need to disengage ourselves from the conventions of dramatically satisfying film (including TV commercials) where the camera cuts to a new angle every few seconds at the most, and a great deal of editing has gone on to juxtapose an interesting and engaging sequence. A micro-sociologist can spot the difference between raw observational recording and artistically or editorially processed film, usually within seconds. Raw conflict is not very engaging, for all sorts of reasons; as micro-sociologists, we are not in it for entertainment.

Other approaches besides live video have opened up the landscape of violence as it really happens. Still photography has gotten better throughout the past century and a half; cameras have become more portable, and lenses and lighting devices have made it possible to capture scenes that previously would have been limited to static posed shots in relatively sheltered conditions. Professional photographers have become more intrepid, particularly in riots, demonstrations, and war zones; the number of photographers killed has gone up drastically in the past ten years, far above any previous period. This too is an opportunity for micro-sociologists, although the aforementioned caveats again apply. Still photos are often better than videos for capturing the emotional aspects of violent interaction. When we analyze a video of a conflict sequence (or indeed any video of interaction), we may slow it down to segments of micro-seconds (frame-by-frame in older camera film) to pull out just those details of bodily posture, facial expression, and sequence of micro-movements. In depictions of riots, which I use extensively in this work, still photos dramatically show the division between the active few on the violent front and the supporting mass of demonstrators. The danger is in assuming one can read the still photo without sociological sensibilities. Highly artistic or ideological photographers are less useful here than routine news photographers; some photos of demonstrations or combat have an artistic or political message that governs the whole composition; we need to look from a different vantage point to get at the micro-sociological aspects of conflict.

An intellectual stance on what to look for has gone along with technological advances, and sometimes preceded them. The military historian John Keegan (1976) set out to reconstruct battles from the ground up, investigating what must actually have happened as each segment of troops rushed forward or fell down; as horses, men, and vehicles got tangled in traffic jams; as weapons were wielded skillfully, accidentally, or not at all. Other military analysts have found out how many guns were loaded when recovered from dead troops on battlefields; and historical battles have been reconstructed with laser beams. What we have learned about soldiers in combat has opened the door for understanding violent situations in general. The emotional relationships between soldiers and their comrades, and between them and their equally human enemies, provided one of the first clues to how violent situations unfold.


Excerpted from Violence by Randall Collins
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables ix
Acknowledgments xiii

Chapter 1: The Micro-sociology of Violent Confrontations 1
Violent Situations 1
Micro-evidence: Situational Recordings, Reconstructions, and Observations 3
Comparing Situations across Types of Violence 8
Fight Myths 10
Violent Situations Are Shaped by an Emotional Field of Tension and Fear 19
Alternative Theoretical Approaches 20
Historical Evolution of Social Techniques for Controlling Confrontational Tension 25
Sources 29
Preview 32
The Complementarity of Micro and Macro Theories 34

PART ONE: The Dirty Secrets of Violence 37

Chapter 2: Confrontational Tension and Incompetent Violence 39
Brave, Competent and Evenly Matched? 39
The Central Reality: Confrontational Tension 41
Tension/Fear and Non-performance in Military Combat 43
Low Fighting Competence 57
Friendly Fire and Bystander Hits 59
Joy of Combat: Under What Conditions? 66
The Continuum of Tension/Fear and Combat Performance 68
Confrontational Tension in Policing and Non-Military Fighting 70
Fear of What? 73

Chapter 3: Forward Panic 83
Confrontational Tension and Release: Hot Rush, Piling On, Overkill 89
Atrocities of War 94
Caveat: The Multiple Causation of Atrocities 99
Asymmetrical Entrainment of Forward Panic and Paralyzed Victims 102
Forward Panics and One-Sided Casualties in Decisive Battles 104
Atrocities of Peace 112
Crowd Violence 115
Demonstrators and Crowd-Control Forces 121
The Crowd Multiplier 128
Alternatives to Forward Panic 132

Chapter 4: Attacking the Weak: I. Domestic Abuse 134
The Emotional Definition of the Situation 134
Background and Foreground Explanations 135
Abusing the Exceptionally Weak: Time-patterns from Normalcy to Atrocity 137
Three Pathways: Normal Limited Conflict, Severe Forward Panic, and Terroristic Torture Regime 141
Negotiating Interactional Techniques of Violence and Victimhood 148

Chapter 5: Attacking the Weak: II. Bullying, Mugging, and Holdups 156
The Continuum of Total Institutions 165
Muggings and Holdups 174
Battening on Interactional Weakness 186

PART TWO: Cleaned-up and Staged Violence 191

Chapter 6: Staging Fair Fights 193
Hero versus Hero 194
Audience Supports and Limits on Violence 198
Fighting Schools and Fighting Manners 207
Displaying Risk and Manipulating Danger in Sword and Pistol Duels 212
The Decline of Elite Dueling and Its Replacement by the Gunfight 220
Honor without Fairness: Vendettas as Chains of Unbalanced Fights 223
Ephemeral Situational Honor and Leap-Frog Escalation to One-Gun Fights 226
Behind the Fac¸ade of Honor and Disrespect 229
The Cultural Prestige of Fair and Unfair Fights 237

Chapter 7: Violence as Fun and Entertainment 242
Moral Holidays 243
Looting and Destruction as Participation Sustainers 245
The Wild Party as Elite Potlatch 253
Carousing Zones and Boundary Exclusion Violence 256
End-Resisting Violence 259
Frustrated Carousing and Stirring up Effervescence 261
Paradox: Why Does Most Intoxication Not Lead to Violence? 263
The One-Fight-Per-Venue Limitation 270
Fighting as Action and Fun 274
Mock Fights and Mosh Pits 277

Chapter 8: Sports Violence 282
Sports as Dramatically Contrived Conflicts 283
Game Dynamics and Player Violence 285
Winning by Practical Skills for Producing Emotional Energy Dominance 296
The Timing of Player Violence: Loser-Frustration Fights and Turning-Point Fights 302
Spectators' Game-Dependent Violence 307
Offsite Fans' Violence: Celebration and Defeat Riots 311
Offsite Violence as Sophisticated Technique: Soccer Hooligans 315
The Dramatic Local Construction of Antagonistic Identities 324
Revolt of the Audience in the Era of Entertainers' Domination 328

PART THREE: Dynamics and Structure of Violent Situations 335

Chapter 9: How Fights Start, or Not 337
Normal Limited Acrimony: Griping, Whining, Arguing, Quarreling 338
Boasting and Blustering 345
The Code of the Street: Institutionalized Bluster and Threat 348
Pathways into the Tunnel of Violence 360

Chapter 10: The Violent Few 370
Small Numbers of the Actively and Competently Violent 370
Confrontation Leaders and Action-Seekers: Police 375
Who Wins? 381
Military Snipers: Concealed and Absorbed in Technique 381
Fighter Pilot Aces: Aggressively Imposing Momentum 387
In the Zone versus the Glaze of Combat: Micro-situational Techniques of Interactional Dominance 399
The 9/11 Cockpit Fight 409
11. Violence as Dominance in Emotional Attention Space 413
What Does the Rest of the Crowd Do? 413
Violence without Audiences: Professional Killers and Clandestine Violence 430
Confrontation-Minimizing Terrorist Tactics 440
Violent Niches in Confrontational Attention Space 448

Epilogue Practical Conclusions 463
Notes 467
References 527
Index 555

What People are Saying About This

Eiko Ikegami

A masterful study of the microdynamics of violence. This book will undoubtedly provoke excitement and controversy among a wide group of readers, including educated nonspecialists as well as academics, journalists, law-enforcement professionals, and policymakers. Truly an original book.
Eiko Ikegami, author of "The Taming of the Samurai"

Donald Black

I have no doubt that this book will be hailed as one of the most important works on violence ever written. After reading it, it is difficult any longer to imagine that all that is needed for violence to occur is a motive to engage in violence. Collins argues persuasively that the situation must also be right if violence is actually to occur.
Donald Black, author of "The Social Structure of Right and Wrong"

Jack Katz

Covering infinitely recurrent strips of social action running from blustering confrontation to intimate physical attack, Violence is peppered with breakthrough insights, demonstrating the power of systematic theory and even concluding with that rarest of sociological contributions, a short list of eminently practical suggestions. The concept of 'forward panic' alone makes the book indispensable. This book is a milestone contribution to criminology, to micro-sociology, to the sociology of emotions, and to a field that knows no academic boundaries: the history of efforts to control violence. Randy Collins has developed a framework that should guide a generation of research.
Jack Katz, University of California, Los Angeles

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