The Dynamics of Violence

Sociologist Randall Collins argues that violent confrontations go against human hardwiring.
May 29, 2008

From genocidal politics half a world away to school shootings in our back yards to the meticulously choreographed bloodshed that permeates our entertainment — human beings, it seems, have a natural propensity toward violence. But Randall Collins, the Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology, argues that violent confrontation actually goes against human physiological hardwiring.

In his new book, Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory, Collins draws on photojournalism, video footage, forensics and ethnography, to examine violent situations up close. Contrary to many standard views about the root causes of violence, he concludes that although violence is a very real part of human existence, it comes neither easily not automatically to us.

Collins feels that scholarship on the issue often does not appreciate how psychologically difficult it is for one person to confront and harm another. He agrees that human prehistory embedded in our nature the ability “to get angry and mobilize the body to do something.” However, he faults many evolutionary-psychological interpretations of violence with relying too heavily on this holdover from early human brain development. “The more recent human brain has built the capacity to be sensitive to other humans,” Collins says. “This is important because it creates group solidarity and feelings of membership. It’s pretty much the foundation of society.” In a conflict situation, Collins explains, these two Darwinian drives run up against each other and create a “barrier of confrontational tension and fear.”

The inspiration for this book came from Collins’ 1975 book, Conflict Sociology. “I was writing about latent conflicts between races, classes, ethnicities, but then I realized that people rarely actually did anything to each other,” Collins says. “So, I decided to start studying violence, which is the most overt form of conflict.”

The data Collins collected indicated that in most confrontational situations, the parties involved usually don’t get past the emotional barrier to commit physical violence. He cites one study, by military historian S.L.A. Marshall, which found that only about 15 to 25 percent of American infantrymen in World War II fired their weapons in combat. When violence does occur, Collins explains, it is because individuals have found pathways around this barrier.

Such an opening can occur when one side becomes a weak victim and the other is allowed emotional dominance in the situation. Collins’ study of riot photos, for example, shows that violent behavior is usually committed by four or five people against a lone victim. “This makes real violence, such as the video of the Rodney King beating, look very shocking to us when we see it,” Collins says. “Violence on T.V. looks different because the antagonists are usually evenly matched.”

Collins argues that even when people do get past the barrier, tension is still present. As a result, “people hit the wrong person or shoot the wrong person — real violence is messy and ugly.” Another consequence of humans’ confrontational anxieties is a phenomenon Collins calls “forward panic.” During a confrontation in which one side suddenly shows weakness, the other is sometimes propelled by tension to respond with overkill. “I picked the word ‘panic’ because it implies a strong emotional compulsion that overwhelms your higher brain function,” Collins says. “People will commit a lot more violence than is necessary, and the result is usually an atrocity.”

Advances in photography, videography and forensic science have allowed Collins to examine the situational triggers in violent confrontations in detail. Rather than studying violent individuals, Collins chose to examine the micro-interactions common across incidents of violence. “We like to think that violent people come from specific backgrounds, but most people who might be strongly motivated to attack others aren’t capable of doing it,” Collins says. “I think it’s also a keyhole view that separates people caught for crime and doesn’t examine those involved in other forms of violence, such as wars or police brutality or sports violence.”

Despite its dark subject, Collins feels his theory is more “optimistic than most,” and offers new routes to solutions that focus on altering situations rather than people. For example, Collins explains that violence can often be avoided when one or both sides in a conflict refrain from escalating the fight.

“Ninety-five percent of criminology is how people are caught in a trap and they can’t get out of it,” Collins says.  “If you take my micro-interactional approach, no matter what their background is, they still have to get through that moment.”