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.

Comments

It sounds like you would be interested in "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" by Dave Grossman. It has been a while since I read it but, he interviews soldiers and police who have killed in the line of duty. He also discusses the differences in the psychological costs of killing over the last century. In the end, he argues that the vast majority of people have to be taught how to kill and there is nothing natural about it. This was published ~10 years ago.

or the extremely high violent death rates of pre-agricultural societies in general.

why basketball has fewer fights than football or hockey (no padding)

Baseball players are unpadded, yet fights during baseball games are not uncommon.

In this post Tyler notes the possibility that MR readers may suffer "book fatigue" this year, so apparently smart people are putting a lot of effort into writing books, while the subsequent post of the interview with Cory Doctorow suggests that business models based on selling books are on the way out.

While the two ideas are not in direct contradiction, it does seems like there is tension between the two themes.

Is this year's crop of splendid published work a relic - the product of habits and long years of investment in book length thinking? Are more of the important works being produced by tenured faculty, who don't rely on book income to survive? A freelancer/public intellectual may not be able to afford to devote a few years of life into a book that may or may not sell, but a tenured faculty can take that risk.

(By the way, I'm not necessarily implying any criticism of tenure.)

Charles Tilly wrote a book with much the same thesis titled "The Politics of Collective Violence". He categorizes types of violence (violent ritual, coordinated destruction, opportunism, individual aggression, etc) and gives examples of the emergence of each type in a variety of contexts. It's worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the topic.

A simple theory of violence is that people naturally don't like a fair fight. The War Nerd has written a lot about "war without battles" as the natural state of affairs. That's what we've seen in the Congo for the last decade: ambushes, massacres, raids, etc., but not a lot that would remind anybody of, say, the Battle of Waterloo or Gettysburg. In contrast, for two fairly evenly matched armies to line up facing each other on the battlefield and pound away lethally at each other for hours takes a huge amount of cultural conditioning.

Baseball players are unpadded, yet fights during baseball games are not uncommon.

I disagree. Yes, there is a ritual, frequently enacted, during which teams rush from their respective dugouts and act belligerent, but close examination reveals that they usually find a partner on the other team, and the pair does a sort of dance that vaguely resembles a fight but is harmless. Few serious punches are thrown.

I would tend to agree with S. Sailer in that violence comes fairly naturally to a lot of people. Here's a link to an article that agrees with the notion that the good ol' days were actually more violent:

http://www.gwiep.net/period/ic156209.htm

Baseball players are unpadded, yet fights during baseball games are not uncommon.

I disagree. Yes, there is a ritual, frequently enacted, during which teams rush from their respective dugouts and act belligerent, but close examination reveals that they usually find a partner on the other team, and the pair does a sort of dance that vaguely resembles a fight but is harmless. Few serious punches are thrown.

Serious punches are uncommon in baseball fights because of the way in which the fights develop. Typically, the batter charges the mound after being hit or brushed back by a pitch. Given the distance between the mound and the batter's box, the pitcher has ample time to prepare for the confrontation, and of course the catcher often grabs the batter before he can get to the pitcher. This physical separation between the primary combatants largely eliminates the possibility of sucker punches or other quick attacks. The other players on the field aren't likely to throw serious punches because they're not directly involved in the original confrontation and have no real reason to fight.

In short, while it's true that you don't usually see serious fisticuffs in baseball fights, it isn't necessarily because baseball players are peaceful sorts.

As for hockey fights, it's my suspicion that hockey players fight mainly because it's a long (dis)honorable tradition :)

Matches my experience. Most martial arts fights are over in a few seconds. Once you land that blow, the other guy isn't getting up.

and the explanation was that people are hardwired not to kill or cause serious injury and violent confrontations are meant to be about shows of dominance.

'Is there argument for opportunity cost? "If I hurt someone I'll go to jail"?'

This is known in criminology as "stake in conformity". Happy googling.

For those interested, there is a video of Stephen Pinker posted within the last week or so over at edge.org.
A History of Violence:

http://www.edge.org/

I think Collins too quickly downplays the importance of evolutionary biology (most fights are between young males)

This poses a puzzle for evolutionary theory; children scuffling starts at quite young ages, and often involves aggression by little girls, which is gradually restricted as they get older (Trembley 2004). In sheer quantity, the greatest frequency of incidents of violence occurs at non-reproductive ages, and is not exclusively intra-male.

I'm definitely going to like this book. It may be that I still come out thinking male-male fights are more important than child fights, but the idea of focusing on children fighting is a totally new perspective for me. I like books that twist my mind like that. Collins' writing style may not be your favorite but the content is there. Another example is how he ignores the kind of prison violence TV shows like Oz focus on and reviews videos of food fights in the cafeteria. (I shouldn't say "ignores" -- he also mentions that most assaults in prison occur in the presence of guards, just as most fights by children occur in the presence of parents. People need the reassurance that the fight they start isn't going to get out of control.)

I read the first chapter...what a tough read...not the best writer. I'm afraid the writer has never been in a real fist fight or group fight. I've been in many - a good fight is exhilirating. A lot of men like it. It's true, most fights are short lived but the more violent the man the better the fighter and more likely it will be short. The first chapter is a bunch of crap...poorly written and academic nonsense.

"In reality, the murder rate among contemporary hunter-gatherers is extremely high. Even among the Bushmen, the famous "Gentle People," it resembles that of Detroit, while among other bands, it's radically higher than anything we are familiar with."

Evidence, please- to you or anyone else saying similar things.

It seems like people are imposing their own bias on the data, from both sides...

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