December 14, 2018

Making Sense of The Senseless: A Sociological Perspective on Mass Shootings

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By Lauren Madden

Instructor, Long Beach City College

"You can't make sense of the senseless," said one of the police officers in response to the Borderline shooting on November 7, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, California. This statement really struck me. Shouldn't we at least try? This is what social scientists do; they try to make sense of the seemingly senseless. So how can we make sense of the phenomenon of mass shootings?

One theory, supported by clinical psychologists, is that it is anger, not mental illness, causes violence. "Violence is not a product of mental illness. Nor is violence generally the action of ordinary, stable individuals who suddenly ‘break’ and commit crimes of passion. Violent crimes are committed by violent people, those who do not have the skills to manage their anger," writes Laura Hayes, Slate contributor and psychologist. However, Hayes notes that the mental health community has not found appropriate diagnoses for anger disorders, prevention measures, or a specific framework to help people to comprehend the violence that occurs within their communities.

Sociologists, on the other hand, try to look at the bigger picture, zooming out to study external factors such as the impact of social institutions, cultural norms and values, and patterns in the social environment to explain the "senseless."

The fact that nearly all mass shootings are committed by men leads sociologists to question the link between gender and violence. A growing body of theoretical literature looks specifically at masculinity. Social psychologists talk about "social identity theory," which simply means that if an individual's identity is called into question or threatened, s/he may act out in ways that exaggerate that particular identity.

As Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober argue, when it is men's masculinity that is threatened, there exists the potential for exaggerated displays of gender norms that reflect the dominant definition of masculinity, or hegemonic masculinity, which includes values and behaviors such as aggression, dominance, strength, and virility. The theoretical explanation of “masculine overcompensation” states that these threats and subsequent actions occur because men have more to lose as society evolves and the masculine identity is comprised or transformed, because they currently occupy the top position in the social hierarchy as the more privileged gender in American (and many others) culture.

What causes these men to feel that their masculinity is threatened, or in other words, to feel emasculated in some way? Most of the men that have committed mass shootings tend to be “low status” men (e.g., unemployed, experienced major financial loss, socially isolated, bullied), and they may think that the privilege of being male might be all that they have left.

In a postindustrial economy that favors service-oriented occupations, women's unemployment rates are not as high as men's. Recent research indicates that employment might have a significant effect on male overcompensation. In addition, women have been asserting their rights more vocally within the workplace regarding equal pay and equal treatment (for instance, to work without sexual harassment). Men have complained that they now feel afraid or uncomfortable to work alone with or mentor women for fear of misinterpretation of the interaction as sexual.

The backlash against having their privilege questioned is further illuminated by such online networks as the MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) who are a collection of straight male “separatists” that blame the feminist movement for their current predicaments—whatever that may entail. Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) groups differ slightly in their reaction, choosing action instead of withdrawing, but no different in where they place the blame for what is wrong with society. A more violent backlash to rejection from females is seen in the new "incel" movement. The economy, women’s rights, and social interaction all may contribute to the perception that a man can no longer live up to societal expectations. And today, social media can also aggravate threats to one's identity.

We should explore the connections between psychology and sociology  to tie the psychological theories of anger as a cause of violence. We also need to examine the sociological perspectives of larger social forces that cause the anger, the threat, and the violence for a more balanced view of human behavior.

Also, we should explore what has changed, or is changing, in society that is leading to the intensifying magnitude of mass shootings, both in loss of life and frequency, as evidence shows, particularly in America, a nation that has the highest amount of gun violence of all postindustrial countries. Should we look at the changes in the social structure, the loss of personal, intimate connections in this complex or modern world, which may cause anomie? Are loneliness and social isolation causes of anger? Is it the struggle to succeed in a complex, globalized, and technological world with societal expectations on display twenty-four hours a day through social media?

There are so many unanswered questions that it is no wonder we label these events as senseless. Further research—both psychological and sociological, and perhaps more interdisciplinary—needs to be conducted for a thorough and balanced understanding of mass shootings, its causes, and potential prevention measures and interventions—aside from the obvious need for gun control.

Research on gun violence is hindered by the successful lobbying efforts of pro-gun organizations against funding for this type of research, but that shouldn't stop institutions from making the attempt. The first real step in this research is to focus on the population that makes up the majority of mass shooters: White males. I urge researchers and academics to reach out to this population, perhaps via focus groups, surveys, and online communication to try to gain their perspectives on their identities, masculinity, violence, and society.


Thanks for bringing this article.

I think it's about time to renew the bill before others will be affected.

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