October 14, 2014

Understanding Violence Sociologically

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

Violence is ubiquitous. We see it in television shows, movies, video games, and advertisements; we read about it in news articles, magazines, and books; we speak about it—both literally when we recount what’s happening in the world, but more often figuratively with an array of violent phrases that pervade our everyday speech;  we fear it with our security systems, gun purchases, and police forces; and we experience it, directly or indirectly, in our homes, schools, communities, workplaces, playing fields, and battlefields.


Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Graffiti_in_Prato#mediaviewer/File:Prato,_graffito_evoluzione_26.JPG

Given the pervasive nature of violence in our everyday lives, it is not surprising that many sociologists make it the focus of their study. And because violence connects to all social institutions and all social processes—from micro-level interactions between friends and family to the macro-level aggressions between nations—sociologists with a variety of scholarly interests may make violence the object of their research. For example, political sociologists might study war, genocide, terrorism and state violence; criminologists research violent crimes and the social conditions that bring them about; educational sociologists often investigate bullying and violence in schools; feminist sociologists examine domestic violence against intimate partners and children; and social psychologists survey our attitudes toward, as well as explanations for, violent acts.

To avoid being overwhelmed by the myriad social theories of violence, I would like to offer a basic, sociological understanding of this complex and multi-faceted concept. To do so, I find it useful to consider the three C’s of violence: contradictions, contextuality, and constructedness.   

Contradictions of Violence.  If you have never thought about the contradictory nature of violence, you only need to reflect on the inconsistent reactions to some recent examples of violence in news: a police officer shoots and kills an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri; a professional football player knocks out his fiancé in an elevator; another football player beats his four year-old son with a stick; a man kicks a stray cat over a fence; a terrorist organization releases numerous videos of beheadings; a five-year program of U.S. military drone strikes has left 2,400 people dead

Although most of us would probably agree on the common definition of violence—the “exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse”—the manner in which we apply this definition is anything but consistent. For all of the examples noted above, there are people (maybe even the majority us) who would vigorously condone the violence that was perpetrated in one incident but be equally passionate about condemning the violence in another incident. If we added to the mix other activities that some people consider violence (football, factory farming of animals, abortion, rape, the death penalty) then none of us would be free from incongruities in our evaluation of violence.

Contextuality of Violence.   From a sociological perspective, it should come as no surprise that the way in which we understand and evaluate violence is uneven, maybe even erratic. Violence, like all forms of behavior, is highly contextual. The examples noted above all exist in a specific time and place, with specific actors. It is impossible to think that there could be a universal “violence barometer” that could objectively determine what is or is not violent without accounting for these factors. To fully understand any act of violence, we must consider the typical questions that we should be asking of all behaviors: when and where did it occur, who was involved, why was it done, what actually transpired, and how did people react. There may be additional questions to be asked but these will at least get us on track for a more complete comprehension.

To say that context matters when it comes to violence also suggests that our attitudes toward violence are not uniform nor are they inherent; instead, we learn through patterns of socialization when to judge some instances of violence as reprehensible and other forms as required. Additionally, socialization teaches us whether to engage in violence or to pursue less destructive paths of action. In your daily interactions with family, friends, and even strangers, you probably see the effects that socialization has on our approach to violence as you try to process and make sense of people’s drastically varying reactions.

Constructedness of Violence. If we agree violence is highly contextual, then it should follow logically that violence is socially constructed. However, for many people, this sociological take on violence is off the mark.   For the non-sociologist, violence has little to do with nurture and almost everything to do with nature. According to this argument, humans, and are close cousins chimpanzees, are both “natural born killers with an almost psychopathic tendency towards violence and slaughter.” The ubiquity of violence, therefore, is merely a manifestation of our biological genes.

It should be obvious that as a sociologist I don’t subscribe to this “natural born killers” hypothesis. However, I realize that it is a compelling position for many people and the reason why I think it’s so compelling is the same reason why I think people gravitate toward victim blaming: it exonerates us from any wrong doing. If violence is indeed our biological destiny, then we need not critically examine the social realities we have constructed that encourage and condone violence. If violence is natural, and if victims deserve what they get, then each one of us need only be concerned with our own behavior; societal effects are secondary to our individual and biological urges.

By rejecting the argument that violence is learned, and by ignoring the ways in which the ubiquity of violence is upheld by socially constructed social structures, we fail to see how our behaviors might be influenced by other biological impulses. We also fail to account for the contradictions and contexualities of violence.

This point was suggested by eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and it is crucial to understanding the nature of violence in society: “Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological—and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.” In other words, we are predisposed to be both violent and compassionate; how we act is largely contingent on culture and the social environment



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