Sociology of Violence Research Paper

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I. Forms and Characteristics of Violence

II. Origins of the Sociology of Violence

III. Individual-Level Explanations

A. Human Nature

B. Sociobiology

C. Biology

D. Frustration

IV. Structural Explanations

A. Strain

B. Social Disorganization

C. Benefits

V. Major Research Areas

A. Juvenile Violence

B. Family Violence

C. War, Peace, and Intergroup Conflict

VI. Public Policy and Future Research Initiatives

I. Forms and Characteristics of Violence

In its broadest meaning, the term violence refers to a range of human activities intended to inflict harm or injury (Levine and Rosich 1996). Some acts of violence are spontaneous and informal, occurring without premeditation or structure; others are methodically planned in advance. Some violence is interpersonal, enveloping one or a few individuals; other violent acts are vastly broader and more formal, encompassing numerous victims, entire groups, or even whole societies. Violence can be directed inward as in self-destructive behavior, including suicide; it can also be aimed at other human beings. Finally, violence is frequently aimed at causing physical injury; but it might also be intended to create embarrassment or loss of face.

Based on the informality/formality of its source as well as the amount of destruction it generates, violence can be said to range from the micro level (e.g., “Losing his temper, a man takes a knife from the kitchen drawer and stabs to death his wife”), through the midlevel (“Having planned for 13 months, two students open fire at their high school, shooting to death 12 schoolmates and a teacher”), to the macro level of behavior (“More than 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda are massacred”).

Destructive behavior directed against property may also have a basis in violence. Certain property crimes have a symbolic component that acts as a threat to do physical harm. Dating back to the end of the Civil War, for example, cross burning was historically linked to the murder of former slaves in the South who competed with whites for jobs (Lane 1997). A burning cross was designed therefore to send a threatening message not only to the primary victim but also to black Americans in general. In contemporary American society, burning a cross on the lawn of a black family that has recently moved into a previously all-white neighborhood is taken as a threat of violence to come (Levin and McDevitt 2002).

Violence is an interdisciplinary concept, some variant of which has had a place in the research and teaching of several of the behavioral sciences. Introductory social psychology texts almost invariably contain a chapter on aggression in which the causes and consequences of microlevel (interpersonal) and midlevel forms of violence are addressed. Topics typically include issues such as frustration-aggression, the effects of punishment, and social learning. By contrast, political science texts focus mainly on macrolevel acts of violence, including war, revolution, and terrorism.

Criminologists have played a major role in conducting research into the development and maintenance of violence in society. Not surprisingly, they have focused on forms of violent behavior that have been negatively sanctioned in criminal law.

Sociologists have emphasized, however, that not all violence is criminal in nature. In fact, certain violent activity is positively sanctioned either formally or informally. During wartime, for example, the willingness to kill the enemy is regarded as a patriotic act, whereas the failure to engage the enemy in mortal combat is a punishable offense. Moreover, in middle and high schools around the country, bullies are frequently found not among the geeks, nerds, and dorks but among the most popular students. And professional boxers, wrestlers, and football players—those most adept at playing combative sports that attract large audiences—have been rewarded with salaries of millions of dollars. Moreover, their images are honorifically placed on trading cards, on T-shirts, and sometimes on the cover of celebrity magazines.

Even criminal violence can be positively sanctioned. Informal sanctions for violent behavior can be found when gang members encourage one another to fight their shared enemy. Some racist skinhead gangs permit members who have done harm to a person of color to receive their version of “merit badges,” spider web or twin-lightening bolt tattoos worn proudly on their arms and shoulders (Levin and McDevitt 2002).

The influence of roles in the construction of violence has been well-represented in the sociological literature. According to Campbell (1993), gender helps to determine whether a particular act of violence will be negatively or positively sanctioned. Traditionally, boys have been rewarded but girls punished for engaging in the same sorts of aggressive behavior.

Just as it is in the wider society, violence is an important area of interest in the field of sociology. In such courses as social problems, deviance, family violence, and criminology, violence is a major topic. Moreover, much sociological research has addressed various aspects and forms of violence, including war/genocide/terrorism, family/gender, and youth/gang violence. Such interest appears to have gained momentum in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

II. Origins of the Sociology of Violence

The sociological approach to violence owes much of its original form and substance to the work of nineteenth-century positivists who employed scientific observation and measurement to explain violent crime. Adolphe Quetelet (1836, 1969), a Belgian mathematician in the early nineteenth century, applied statistical techniques to the investigation of crime as a social rather than an individual phenomenon. In particular, Quetelet studied the impact of poverty, education, sex, age, and season of the year on French crime rates. Many of his findings continue, to this day, to find confirmation in social research. For example, rates of violent crime tend to rise during the summer months and are relatively high among impoverished and uneducated populations. Rates of violence over time and cross-nationally as a result of structural variables—for example, availability of firearms, expanded drug markets, racial discrimination, and exposure to violence—continue, to the present day, to occupy the attention of research sociologists (see, e.g., Beeghley 2003).

Later in the nineteenth century, French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1988, 1996) suggested that crime was both normal and inevitable and that criminal behavior had functional consequences for society. For example, crime calls the attention of society’s members to the prevalence of human suffering and the need for social change. There is no human society in which crime does not exist, according to Durkheim. Such a society would stifle all forms of creativity and demand absolute conformity from all its members. Under these conditions, positive forms of social change would be impossible.

Early sociologists examined violence in the context of a breakdown in social order. Durkheim suggested that anomie (i.e., normlessness) increases under conditions of rapid social change—that is, knowledge of the correct ways of behaving are disrupted by a weakening of traditional values and standards, so that individuals no longer see the socially prescribed rules of behavior as making sense. The guidelines for appropriate behavior fall away.

Tonnies (1963) and Simmel ([1903] 1988) advanced this view by stressing the importance of social ties that connect residents to each other and provide stability and cohesiveness. During a time of rapid social change, weak ties among residents weaken social control and make communities unstable and less safe. Also, disorder and disruption of previous orderly life lead to criminal behavior that is followed by violence.

Karl Marx (1956) was another important nineteenth-century figure in the history of the sociology of violence. His ideas about group conflict subsequently became a basis for those contemporary sociologists who take a conflict approach.

For Marx, social class was the most basic division in any society. Under capitalism, conflict existed between those who owned the means of production and those who worked it. Capitalism also created the economic conditions responsible for various forms of crime and violence. Marx believed in the inevitability, through revolution, of an egalitarian state of communism in which workers both owned and worked the means of production. Until the utopian state of communism was achieved, however, class conflict would rule the day.

For Marx, social order was not based on consensus but on the coercion of powerful actors who established the rules of society and benefited from them. The same powerful individuals also controlled societal resources and were in charge of distributing rewards and punishments. The struggle over those resources created conflict that could escalate into violence. Resources included economic assets, political power, and moral values.

Conflict theory underlies present-day research, which has established a positive association between economic inequality and homicide rates as one of the most consistent findings in the cross-national literature on homicide (LaFree 1999). Similarly, conflict theorists have explained urban riots, including those that occurred in major cities of the United States during the 1960s, as a product of blocked or limited opportunities for economic and political development (Sears and McConahay 1973). The more recent riots during the 1990s and 2000s in Great Britain, Germany, and France, in which second- and third-generation immigrant children were involved, also point to similar causes such as isolation from mainstream society, unemployment, and lack of hope for the future.

Into the twentieth century, sociologists in what was known as the Chicago School (because of their location at the University of Chicago) empirically investigated the impact of the declining social and physical conditions of a neighborhood on increases in crime and violence. A study of Chicago neighborhoods by Clifford Shaw and his associates found that delinquency was highest in areas marked by physical deterioration and a declining population. This explanation was known as the theory of social disorganization (Shaw et al. 1929).

Also early in the twentieth century, George Herbert Mead (1925) and other symbolic interactionists directed the attention of sociology to the influence of childhood socialization on an individual’s conformity or nonconformity to the social order. Mead suggested that an individual’s self develops out of social interaction. Initially, children are capable only of imitating their significant others without truly understanding the meaning of their acts. With greater cognitive maturity, they then learn to take the role of specific others—that is, to place themselves in the position of important people in their lives and to view themselves from the point of view of these individuals. Finally, to the extent that socialization is successful, children come to take the role of the generalized other, meaning that they see themselves from the standpoint of their entire language community or society. In interaction with others, they develop a consistent self-image and become law-abiding, conforming members of their social group. Conversely, those who suffer a failure in socialization are more likely to resort to crime, violence, and other forms of antisocial behavior.

Mead’s work promoted an interactionist perspective. In explaining violence, the victim is seen, from this perspective, as playing an active role in a dynamic exchange. Rather than being a passive recipient, the victim behaves in such a manner as to affect the behavior of the perpetrator who seeks to manage the impression he gives to others. Felson (1982) found, for example, that individuals are more likely to attack a victim who has insulted them. Similarly, Felson and Steadman (1983) determined that perpetrators are more likely to murder rather than assault victims who express aggression against them. According to Felson, Ribner, and Siegel (1984), the presence of an audience—a set of bystanders—can help either to mitigate or to escalate violent behavior by suggesting to the potential perpetrator that violence is supported or discouraged.

III. Individual-Level Explanations

The predominance of individual-level explanations—those rooted in biological or psychological characteristics—is a result of social psychologists and psychiatrists dominating the field over the last few decades. The abundant presence of behavioral scientists trained in psychology or psychiatry also accounts for the heavy emphasis historically on microlevel incidents of violence.

A. Human Nature

The work of evolutionary psychologists has posited the operation of a constant in human nature—the continuing existence of murder as an effective survival mechanism in a hostile environment. Psychologist David Buss (2005) has recently argued that murder is a normal product of a long-term evolutionary process in which human beings compete for survival and reproductive advantage.

B. Sociobiology

Using an evolutionary perspective, some sociobiologists have proposed that violence (or at least the choice of a victim of violence) is determined by what they call “a selfish gene” (Wilson 1999). In other words, violence is a result of a biological urge to increase the likelihood that an individual’s genes will survive to be passed to the next generation. Thus, any given individual is more likely to kill someone who does not share his heredity—more likely to murder strangers than cousins, more likely to murder cousins than brothers or sisters.

C. Biology

Early biological theories of violent behavior tended to emphasize the influence of body constitution (e.g., Sheldon’s somatotyping), heredity (e.g., the XYY chromosome syndrome debate), and intelligence (e.g., IQ as a predictor of delinquency). In more contemporary biological explanations, these variables have been all but replaced by research on hormones (e.g., cortisol and testosterone), learning disabilities, paradoxical reactions to antidepressants, neurological pathology, and repeated head trauma (see Lewis 1999).

D. Frustration

One of the most important contributions of social psychologists to the study of violence is the frustration-aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al. 1939). Derived from research conducted in the mid-twentieth century, this hypothesis was initially stated in absolute terms: Individuals who experience goal blockage, that is, those who are unable to achieve their goals or objectives, were predicted inevitably to become aggressive or violent; conversely, aggression or violence was hypothesized always to be preceded by frustrating circumstances. More recent conceptions no longer depict the relationship as perfect or automatic (frustrated individuals may instead lower expectations, change their philosophy of life, blame themselves). Moreover, there are many sources of aggression, not just frustration. Still, there is a large body of research that continues to confirm that frustrated individuals tend to become aggressive and that aggression is frequently preceded by frustration (see, e.g., Rhodes 1999).

IV. Structural Explanations

More than their counterparts in psychology and psychiatry, sociologists have tended to focus their research agendas on large-scale incidents of violence or on differential rates of violence between cities, states, and nations or over time. In addition, sociologists have sought to locate important sources of violence in social relationships rather than in individual characteristics.

A. Strain

In strain theory, sociologists have expanded and enlightened the frustration-aggression hypothesis. They have also indicated the structural (as opposed to the personal and idiosyncratic) sources of frustration in everyday life. In 1957, Columbia University sociologist Robert Merton built on Durkheim’s concept of anomie to argue that deviant behavior, including violence arises from social strain or imbalance between the culturally approved goals and the socially acceptable means for achieving these goals.

Drawing on Merton’s work, Agnew’s (1992, 2004) general strain theory proposes that criminal violence is a result of strain, defined to include a range of emotional reactions—frustration, anger, disappointment, fear, and depression—originating in unhealthy and threatening social relationships. In other words, the propensity for violence develops not only in response to frustration but more generally from the way that individuals are treated by others, especially members of their family, neighborhood, workplace, and schools.

Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld (1994) examined the relationship between the American preoccupation with material success or “the American Dream” and violent crime rates. These analysts argue not only that material success has come to dominate American culture but also that other social institutions—education, family, politics— have tended to become subservient to the economic system. For example, business executives are expected to put aside family values and relocate their family members if it means furthering their own career opportunities. In the educational system, students’ decisions about attending college depend almost entirely on maximizing their job opportunities after graduation. Based on Messner and Rosenfeld’s earlier work, Beeghley’s (2003) analysis encompasses a number of important structural variables, including income inequality and racial discrimination.

B. Social Disorganization

In the 1980s, researchers observed that physical and population decline in Chicago had led to an increase in crime in neighborhoods whose primary activity was industrial production (Taub, Taylor, and Dunham 1984:4). Similar findings were found for other cities such as Baltimore (Taylor 2000) and Schenectady and Albany (Rabrenovic 1996).

Such factors as broken windows, loud and uncivil youth, trash and junk on the streets, vandalism and graffiti, and boarded-up or abandoned buildings were blamed for first creating perceptions of fear that induce residents to withdraw from social life. The sense of danger and the residents’ withdrawal led, in turn, to a decrease in sources of informal social control, which was conducive to crime (Wilson and Kelling 1982). Moreover, where physical deterioration was not addressed, it contributed to a further destabilization and decline of the neighborhood, according to social disorganization theorists (Skogan 1990).

Ralph Taylor (2000:5) operationalizes signs of social disorganization into social and physical incivilities. Social incivilities refer to actions of individuals and groups in the neighborhoods that are perceived by the local residents to be disorderly, troublesome, and threatening. They include behaviors such as hanging out on the street corner, drinking in public, fighting on the streets, and aggressive panhandling. Physical incivilities, on the other hand, represent the conditions of the neighborhood itself such as the presence of trash on the streets, graffiti on the walls, poorly maintained or deteriorated housing, abandoned housing, and vacant lots.

C. Benefits

Much evidence has accumulated to suggest that violence is more likely to occur when the constraints are weak and the motivations are strong (Agnew 2004): The perpetrator chooses to be violent to the extent that he or she perceives that the costs are low (i.e., the violent individual probably won’t get caught, but if he or she does, the punishment will be minimal) and the perceived benefits are substantial (i.e., the perpetrator will gain in an important economic, political, or psychological sense). The rational aspects of violence can be seen in the finding of Felson and Messner (1996) that many killers are motivated to commit murder to avoid being attacked by a victim they had assaulted or to avoid being prosecuted on the word of an eyewitness.

In what he calls “the seductions of crime,” Jack Katz (1990) has suggested that criminal violence can have an emotional payoff. The perpetrator feels a sense of excitement and a rush of power and dominance. The murderer may “get high” on the sadism and brutality.

James A. Fox and Jack Levin (2005) have applied this conception to sadistic serial killers who torture, rape, and humiliate their victims to achieve a sense of power and dominance. Choosing to inflict pain and suffering in an “up close and personal manner,” these killers seek control over their victims’ lives. They exalt in the suffering they cause their victims to suffer; and they then exercise ultimate power by deciding who lives and who dies.

In the past, widespread political support for genocide has been suggested as a basis for personal costs and benefits. Brustein (1996) argued that during the 1930s many German citizens joined the Nazi party because they envisaged Nazi party membership as

a ticket to employment or career advancement in a future National Socialist Germany. In late 1930, the party used membership as an inducement to attract civil servants, by hinting that in a Nazi state civil service jobs would go only to registered Nazi Party members. (P. 163)

Similarly, it is now suggested that hate crimes offer an emotional benefit. On the basis of police arrest records, Levin and McDevitt (2002) developed a typology of hate crime motivations that suggests the majority of hate crimes are committed for the thrill by groups of teenagers or young adults. Selecting victims who are generally different in terms of race, religion, sexual orientation, or disability status, youthful perpetrators gain “bragging rights” among their peers and achieve a sense of superiority over their victims. Many other hate crime offenders have a more practical objective: Their attack is defensive in that they encourage “intruders” to move out of the neighborhood, workplace, or dormitory. Finally, a few hate crime offenders are on a mission—the intent is to eliminate members of another group from their community, their country, or the world. These mission offenders usually make a career of hatemongering, a condition that is often enhanced by membership in hate groups.

V. Major Research Areas

Much of the recent sociological research into the causes and consequences of violence has concentrated on institutions such as the school and the family. As concern about school shootings and family abuse has found its way into popular culture and politics, sociologists have increasingly turned their attention to these areas. Also, because of a soaring rate of youth violence documented during the 1980s and 1990s, criminologists have sought to understand and counteract the sources of such youthful crime. Finally, the interest of sociologists in issues of war and peace, and terrorism increased substantially after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

A. Juvenile Violence

From 1986 through 1992, there was a dramatic increase in the number of murders committed by teenaged boys. Then, beginning in 1993, the rate of teen homicide plummeted. In Boston, for example, there were 39 homicides committed by teenagers in 1990; by 1998, teenagers were responsible for only three murders.

The reduction in violent teenage crime has been explained by such factors as a declining use of crack cocaine, zero-tolerance policing, and effective gun control (see Blumstein and Wallman 2000). According to a U.S. Department of Education report (Sinclair et al. 1998), during the 1996 to 1997 school year, the first in which such statistics were compiled, there were 6,093 expulsions for firearm violations in schools across the country. To counter this kind of experience, schools have become actively involved in the center of effective community efforts to reduce teen violence. High school principals adopted a zero-tolerance policy regarding students who carry firearms to school. In addition, by means of conflict-resolution programs built into the curriculum, many schools began teaching students to have empathy for victims, to control one’s anger, and to manage impulsive behavior. Finally, through athletics and other extracurricular programs, schools are increasingly providing adult supervision, guidance, and control.

Moreover, in communities where a substantial decrease in violent juvenile crime is observed, residents have become active in reestablishing a sense of community, recognizing they can make a difference in the lives of local youths. At the grassroots level, parents, teachers, psychologists, religious and business leaders, social workers, college students, and police officials worked together to take the glamour out of destructive behavior and to provide constructive activities for after-school hours. Through myriad new programs, adults provide inner-city teenagers supervision, structure, guidance, and some hope for the future (Levin 1999).

However, other problems such as bullying persist. Although long considered nothing more serious than a youthful rite of passage, bullying has recently been recognized as one of the most disturbing crimes among students. The National Association of School Psychologists estimates that 60,000 children miss school each day because they fear being bullied. Kaufman et al. (1999) report that bullying peaks in the sixth grade and is four times more likely to occur in the sixth grade than in the twelfth grade.

Bullying not only hurts its victims but also risks injuring perpetrators when victims retaliate. Painter (1999) points out that many bullying victims bring guns to school for the purpose of protecting themselves or getting even. Moreover, Fagan and Wilkinson (1998) suggest that “bullying is a precursor to stable antisocial and aggressive behavior that may endure into later adolescence and adulthood” (p. 74). The two youngsters who in April, 1999, massacred 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, had endured years of taunting and bullying prior to their rampage. Consequently, there are now more studies investigating how and why students bully and how their targets respond.

A source of conflict in many schools is the perceived or real problem of the biased and unfair treatment by teachers and classmates of students who are different in terms of their ethnicity, race, gender, class, religion, disability status, sexual orientation, nationality, or physical appearance. Data on the prevalence of “bullying” or harassment among 11-, 13-, and 15-year-olds from the 1998 World Health Organization survey of Health Behavior of School Children in the United States shows that 25.8 percent of these youth had been bullied because of their religion or race and 52 percent were exposed to inappropriate sexual comments or gestures (Nansel et al. 2001).

In many schools, students (mostly males) negotiate their social status in a group based on hierarchical structure consisting at the top of bullies, then of onlookers or bystanders, and at the bottom victims. Usually in the majority, onlookers who hold respect for human dignity can play an important role in dismantling this pecking order, so that bullying becomes devalued in school culture. As a result of effective antibullying programs and policies, more bystanders have come forward to report bullying among their peers. Breaking the culture of silence in many middle and high schools has helped reduce the prevalence of school shootings around the country (Newman 2004).

One explanation for increased levels of conflict and violence in schools focuses on the characteristics of the school as a social organization. In this view, schools are bureaucratic organizations based on hierarchical structure and are dominated by rules and regulations that define school activities (Brint 1998). Pedro A. Noguera (1995) suggests that many of the current problems schools experience are the products of the emphasis on maintaining order and control over students as opposed to creating a humane environment in which learning is maximized. Similarly, Hawkins et al. (1997) report that conflict is most visible in middle school and high school because these institutions are often overly managed and have too many restrictive rules and regulations, all of which suppress adolescent development toward self-organization.

B. Family Violence

Violence has distinct normative elements and reflects the political and social realities of the society in which it occurs. For example, violence in a family was until recently defined as a “normal” part of family life. It took a change in societal norms and the introduction of the term abuse to describe the sorts of behavior that are no longer so tolerated or acceptable in our society.

However, there is still much controversy surrounding family violence. One of the reasons is the private nature of family life and the lack of support for public scrutiny over what happens “behind the closed doors” of the home. The level of privacy experienced of nuclear family life may lead to social isolation, which in turn could make members of the family more vulnerable to family violence (Laslett 1978; Williams 1992). Another explanation offered as a reason for family violence is based on the belief that parents should have power over their children and authority to choose appropriate punishments. Moreover, abuse is based on a moral evaluation, meaning that it depends on the moral judgments of people (Gelles and Straus 1979).

Early studies of family violence focused on the personality characteristics of abusive parents, abused children, and abusive and abused spouses. Because the most likely offenders were men, violence was conceptualized as a problem of individual males. However, feminist scholars moved beyond the analysis of individual characteristics and behaviors to study the macrolevel characteristics of the larger society. Concentrating primarily on how the patriarchal ideology and structure of society leads to violence, this feminist perspective addresses the pervasive sexism inherent in the norms, values, and institutions of society. Although there are several different approaches within the feminist framework, most feminists see family violence as shaped by gender and power (Dobash and Dobash 1998). On the basis of the coercive control model, domestic violence is defined as a tactic of entitlement and power, a tactic that is deeply gendered (Yllo 1998:615). However, such a model does not hold any utility for explaining child abuse, women’s abuse of men, or abuse in gay and lesbian relationships.

Another challenge is found in the need to incorporate race, class, and ethnicity as important analytical variables. Aida Hurtado (1997) demonstrates the importance of doing so by showing how gender subordination is experienced differently by white women and minority women. In particular, Hurado’s complex analysis of male coercive power allows gender subordination to be examined as women’s connection to or distance from white male power.

Resource theory conceptualizes force as a personal resource that can be used to resolve conflicts. From this perspective, force is most often a resource of “last resort,” used when all else fails (Goode 1971). Thus, economically disadvantaged parents might use physical force more than economically advantaged parents do in disciplining their children because they do not have options for sanctions that are more socially acceptable such as sending their children to their rooms or denying them the use of a computer or electronic game systems (Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1980).

Overall, the number of homicides of husbands and wives has declined steadily from just under 2,200 in 1976 to fewer than 800 in 2002 (Fox, Levin, and Quinet 2005). Part of the reason for the substantial reduction in domestic murder seems to involve the liberalization of divorce laws over the second half of the twentieth century (Fox et al. 2005). No-fault divorce laws have permitted couples to separate before the level of antagonism reaches violent proportions. Another factor is that the stigma associated with being an abused spouse or a divorcee has greatly declined. Besides divorce, the presence of a number of legal and social remedies and interventions for abused partners—restraining orders, police arrest procedures, hotlines, shelters, and support groups—has provided viable options to those who might, during an earlier era, have either remained in a vulnerable position or resorted to violence as a defensive reaction.

C. War, Peace, and Intergroup Conflict

International conflict and violence have long been the domains of political scientists who prefer to study violent conflicts among nations. However, during the past century and into the twenty-first century, violent conflicts have occurred increasingly within nations. Improved military technology not only has made war more deadly to combatants but also significantly increased civilian casualties. Since World War II, 80 percent of all war causalities have been civilian. And most of these deaths and injuries have been inflicted by political authorities against their own people (Hauchler and Kennedy 1994).

Among the first to demonstrate interest in the area, Helen Fein (1979) employed a quantitative approach to examine the variability in Jewish victimization during the Holocaust in Europe. To account for differences in national responses, Fein used several variables such as the prewar size and visibility of the Jewish community, the intensity of prewar anti-Semitism, the extent of SS control in each country, the character of native government response, the amount of warning time, and the behavior of selected resistance movements (Fein 1979). It is noteworthy that Fein was criticized for attempting to quantify this “emotionally charged” subject (Horowitz 1980). Other sociologists argued that it was inappropriate for sociologists to study “single historical events” such as the Holocaust. Nevertheless, an increasing number of sociologists have followed the lead of Fein’s study of genocide to examine the conditions under which large-scale violence occurs.

More recently, Robin M. Williams (2003) explained the causes and consequences of violent intragroup conflict by focusing on who the actors are and how they define and differentiate themselves from their enemies. Most societies are ethnically diverse, and ethnic conflicts are at the heart of “wars within.” They are fueled by economic competition, by political manipulation of people’s fears, and by culture wars that promote ethnic identities that are distinct and opposed to one another.

Williams argues that elites try to minimize interaction among different ethnic groups so as to forestall any interdependence that might develop. In addition, elites representing dominant ethnic groups use discrimination and the power of government to suppress and minimize the influence of minority ethnic groups. Over time, the domination of minority ethnic groups leads either to the mobilization of these groups toward conflict or to an accommodation among the competing groups.

Another area of study that has drawn the interest of sociologists involves “ethnic cleansing.” Known as genocide, such acts of violence are committed with the intent of annihilating an entire group of people based on differences in their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or national origin. One of the important findings is that most recent ethnic conflicts are resolved not through large-scale confrontations but through political accommodation and negotiation (Gurr 2000). The important issue therefore becomes how and why group conflicts escalate into violence. In response, Levin and Rabrenovic (2004) state that ethnic conflicts are not unavoidable consequences of human diversity. Rather, such conflict is constructed by political leaders and culture elites who employ violence to gain psychological, social, and economic advantage. They do so by manipulating fear of one group against another in an effort to justify the use of violence (see also Glassner 2000).

Local media also play an instrumental role in the construct of hate. When elite and media characterizations of ethnic minorities as dangerous threats amplify each other, the results can be disastrous. To illustrate the process whereby elites and the media collaborate to escalate the level of ethnic conflict, Levin and Rabrenovic (2004) cite examples of ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, and India, among other places. During periods of economic instability, structural change, or political turmoil, members of the majority group often react to a threat, whether real or perceived, by turning against the members of the minority groups. Operating under a zero-sum definition of the situation (i.e., someone else’s loss is viewed as a personal gain), they try to limit the minorities’ civil rights and access to economic resources. The failure of the formal governing structures to protect the human rights of all residents and to ignore growing social inequalities become the root cause of many ethnic conflicts that explode into violence. The riots of minority youth in London in 1981 and in Paris in 2005 were products of growing segregation between the native-born white population and the native-born minority population that left minority youth without equal access to the resources of mainstream society. In their quest to absorb immigrants as fast as possible, many European societies used the policies of the welfare state to provide newcomers with minimum resources such as housing, schooling, and health care but at a lower standard and in segregated communities. These new ethnic groups also lacked political power and representation, which led them to feel as though they were second-class citizens in their own country.

In extreme forms, ethnic conflicts can lead to expelling and executing minority group members for the purpose of creating ethnically homogeneous societies as occurred in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

VI. Public Policy and Future Research Initiatives

Violence is regarded widely as a serious social problem— so serious, in fact, that policymakers have turned to social science to help them design programs to prevent or reduce violent behavior. For example, research in the area of family violence has spurred the development of many programs and services for addressing the needs of victims of violence as well as for empowering them to combat violence on their own. Similar developments have been seen in the area of school violence, where research conducted by social scientists has informed programs and policies to reduce bullying and to implement effective conflict resolution programs in the schools (Fox et al. 2005).

Much of the violence documented in this research paper is related to structural factors and thus can only be effectively reduced by making changes in society as a whole. For example, many cities have developed programs and activities that address the causes of criminal behavior by targeting the social, political, and economic forces that foster them. As we discussed earlier, the substantial decrease in violent crime that many urban communities experienced since the mid-1990s can be partially explained by neighborhood mobilization around important crime issues as well as by an increase in the number of community-based programs and local resources that target youth and young adults, providing them with adult supervision and hope for the future (Blumstein and Wallman 2000). Similarly, the existence of a civic infrastructure consisting of independent political parties and civic organizations as well as the separation between government and religious organizations seems to help societies threatened by ethnic conflict to avert an escalation of those conflicts into destructive violence (Williams 2003).

To this point, the influence of violence research on public policy has been quite limited. It is hoped that social research in the area of violence will, in the years ahead, become even more relevant for policymakers and practitioners. The heavy reliance on the criminal justice system to deter criminal violence by incarcerating large numbers of offenders, mostly minorities, is not only costly but does not solve the problem in the long run. It appears that harsh punishment may dissuade certain adult offenders but not their juvenile counterparts.

It should be emphasized, at the same time, that the impact of social research on public policy has been limited by economic and political circumstances (Wilensky 2005). In the United States, single-issue research proposing short-term solutions has too often been supported and encouraged by a decentralized and fragmented political and economic system. In many cases, the findings of social research have been used not for policy planning purposes but only as rhetorical weapons in the public relations arsenal of politicians and government officials.

The future influence of sociology on public policy in the area of violence is, at this juncture, unclear. We can only hope that, in the years ahead, violence research will play an increasingly significant role in informing public policy and public opinion.

See also:


  1. Agnew, Robert. 1992. “Foundation for a General Strain Theory of Crime and Delinquency.” Criminology 30:47–87.
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