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Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory

 Bullying, mugging, dueling, gunfights, looting, mosh pits, soccer hooliganism, snipers, domestic abuse, and on and on. Violence in its many different forms is all around us. Or so it seems.

Like many great studies, Randall Collins’s Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory (Princeton University Press, 2008) begins with social phenomenon of great interest and a counter-intuitive insight about that phenomenon. In his words, “if we consider that everyday life unfolds in chains of situations, minute by minute, most of the time there is very little violence.” Instead of assuming that violence is prevalent and in need of explanation, Collins begins with the observation that although confrontational situations are common, actual violence is rare. How people avoid violence is at least as important as understanding how they engage in it.

 Rather than pursuing violence with fervor, in most cases people do everything they can to avoid it. Therefore, “violence is a set of pathways around confrontational tension and fear.” It is, however, the path less traveled. When taken, it is usually done quickly and clumsily. How exactly this is achieved is the empirical focus of this study, and symbolic interactionism is the theoretical lens.

Although “symbolic interactionism” is commonly taught in introductory sociology courses, rigorous and high profile examples of true interactionist studies are rare. Violence is such an exemplary interactionist analysis, grounding larger social processes and outcomes in emergent interactional situations. Violence from this perspective is not a thing, not a property of individuals or organizations. Violence, rather, is a process, that takes place in a great many micro-situations. In seeing violence emerging in and through interactions between concretely situated individuals, Collins reveals his indebtedness to Erving Goffman and his own work on Interaction Ritual Chains (2004).

At the heart of Collins’ micro-sociological theory is the concept of “confrontational tension.” As people enter into an antagonistic interactional situation, their fear/tension is heightened. These emotions become a roadblock to violence, and so flight and stalemate often result. Actual violence only occurs when pathways around this roadblock can be found that lead people into a "tunnel of violence." Collins identifies several pathways into this tunnel, the most dangerous of which is “forward panic.” In these situations, the confrontational tension builds up and is suddenly released so that it spills forward into atrocities ranging from the Rodney King beating to the My Lai massacre, the rape of Nanking, and the Rwandan genocide. Other ways around the stalemate of confrontational tension are to attack a weak victim (e.g., domestic violence) or to be encouraged by an audience (e.g., lynch mobs). Clearly, these pathways can also be combined, as when a schoolyard bully is encouraged by a crowd of classmates or when forward panic is stimulated by a group of bystanders.

How exactly to study the emergent character of violence is a significant challenge that Collins addresses very resourcefully. Although he did observe at first hand some violent situations, the bulk of the data Collins analyzes is not from fieldwork but from underutilized data sources such as videotapes, audio recordings, photographs, memoirs, historical accounts, and diaries.

Although it comprehensively analyzes what it sets out to, this book self-consciously brackets some aspects of violence, including violence institutionalized in meso- and macro-organizations, warfare and geopolitics, torture and rape. Collins promises to take these topics up in a companion volume. Given all that he has offered here, we look forward to the sequel.

Violence is a distinguished book in its own right, but we cannot help but observe that it is written by a very distinguished author. Randall Collins is The Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the President of the American Sociological Association. With this award, he joins Charles Tilly as a two-time winner of the Distinguished Book Award. Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1998) won the award in 1999.

Violence is being recognized this year alongside Marion Fourcade’s Economists and Societies: Discipline and Profession in the United States, Britain, and France, 1890s to 1990s (Princeton University Press, 2009).

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