Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory

That’s the new book from Randall Collins. The main argument is that people are not as predisposed to violence as we might think.  Collins cites a wide array of evidence, from military behavior in the field to, most intriguingly, video studies of the micro-expressions of violent perpetrators.  People are more naturally tense and fearful, sometimes full of bluster but usually looking to avoid confrontation unless they have vastly superior numbers on their side.  The prospect of violence makes people feel weak and scared.  The greatest dangers of violence arises from atrocities against the weak under overwhelming conditions, ritualized violence enacted in front of supportive audiences, or clandestine terrorism or murder.

"Violence is not primordial, and civilization does not tame it; the opposite is much nearer the truth."  Similarly, most political violence does not follow from centuries-old grudge matches, but rather from recently fabricated, dynamically dangerous social ritual interactions.  Violence can appear on the scene rapidly but it can vanish as well, so there is hope for Iraq.

In reality most violent encounters end almost immediately, contrary to TV and the movies.  Someone runs away or a single punch ends the struggle.  The actual gunfight at O.K. Corral took less than thirty seconds, whereas the famous movie scene extends for ten minutes.

In combat it is just as dangerous to be a medic as a soldier, but medics experience far less combat fatigue.  Collins argues this is because killing is in so many ways contrary to human nature.

This book has soo many interesting parts, including the micro-dynamics of the Rape of Nanjing, how British soccer stadium designs were (but now less) conducive to violence, how demonstrations can turn into violent confrontations with the police (lines break down and micro-situations of overwhelming power arise), which children and schools are most conducive to bullying, why basketball has fewer fights than football or hockey (no padding), the dynamics of a mosh pit, and how hired assassins motivate themselves, among many other topics.

You economists all spend so much time studying voluntary interaction, surely you can devote one book’s worth of effort to the study of violence, and yes I mean violence at the micro level.

I don’t agree with everything in this book.  I think Collins too quickly downplays the importance of evolutionary biology (most fights are between young males), and it is not always clear if he has a systematic theory or instead a catalog of causes of violence.

Here is the book’s home page, including chapter one.  Here is a page on Collins.  Here is an interview with Collins.  He is now working on a theory of sexual interactions.

Quite simply, Collins is one of the most important writers and thinkers today.

I know many of you have a bit of book fatigue from MR, but that is because it has been such a splendid year for the written word.  Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory is one of the most important social science books of the last few years. I’ll go even further and say the same is true for any random one hundred pages you might select from the volume; it is also a wonderful for browsing.

It’s due out January 10, you can pre-order at the links.


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