Book Review: ‘Violence’ by Randall Collins

Randall Collins is an ambitious sociologist. His aim is to build a comprehensive theory of violence, in all of its different manifestations. This includes violence in military contexts, police brutality, mugging, bullying, domestic abuse, violent carousing, violent sports such as boxing, violence during sporting events such as fights during a baseball match or audience violence after a football match, dueling in the 19th century, and even mosh pits.

The thesis that connects all these manifestations of violence? Violence is very hard for humans.

He proposes that all human beings whenever put in a situation that is potentially violent, come up against a wall of “confrontational tension and fear”. This is his primary theoretical construct. The source of this confrontational tension/fear is not explored in detail; he proposes that it is a consequence of attempting to override fundamental human instincts towards mutual emotional entrainment and instincts towards engaging in solidarity rituals. Importantly, it is not just fear of injury or death. This is evidenced, for example, by the fact that soldiers in battle experience much more fear than medics in battle, though they have similar exposure to danger.

If we accept this fundamental difficulty to committing violence, then his task is to illustrate the situations in which some people are able to overcome the tension/fear and proceed to violence. His focus is always on the situation and far less on background factors such as race, socioeconomic status or criminal history. As he repeatedly points out, background factors only account for very little in the causes of violence: most poor people do not commit crime; most criminals are not violent; most drunken people do not carouse violently; most police arrests do not turn violent; most young men are not violent; most child-abuse victims are not violent and so on.

He proposes different and varied situational pathways that allow people to overcome confrontational-tension/fear. For example, most police brutality incidents, such as the famous Rodney King incident, can be seen as a case of ‘forward panic’: a situation where tension builds up—the high-speed chase, in the case of Rodney King—due to the threat of violence and it is released all of a sudden when one party—the police, in this case—realize that they are much more stronger than the other party—King, in this case. The released tension leads to ugly and brutal violence unleashed by a strong party upon a weaker party.

Forward panics produce the most viscerally ugly forms of violence: take the classic example of police beating up a lone protestor. The Rape of Nanking is another famous example, and is analyzed in the book. The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre also comes to mind, though it is not mentioned in the book.

In bullying and in domestic abuse, the confrontational-tension/fear is overcome by repeated emotional entrainment. The bullied—over a period of time—get trained in their relation to the bully. They ‘learn’ to play the role of the victim. Collins points out that most bullying happens in “total institutions”: closed-off institutions whose status hierarchies do not change over time, and there is little opportunity for participants of the institution to go somewhere else. The classic examples: prisons, high-schools and families. In total institutions there are more opportunities for both bullies and the bullied for repeated interaction and thus repeated emotional training.

And similarly, he dissects dozens of forms of violence. The overarching theme is that violence is hard. Violence needs certain situational variables to be conducive. And even when it is conducive, violence is usually limited to a very small number of people and is generally incompetent. A striking example: on average, only 15% of frontline US Army troops during World War II even fired their guns.

As any good theorist, he realizes that there are exceptions to any rule and he tries to understand them. For example, some military snipers have a fantastic record of kills, far more than most people in the fighting force. Similarly, ace pilots and famous mafia hitmen. All of these are among the very few people in the world who are competently violent.

What situational dynamics makes this possible? Snipers for instance, operate under cover, very far away from the enemy and never making eye contact: this allows them to overcome confrontational-tension/fear. Similar mechanisms are proposed for other competently violent people.

Overall, this is a fantastic book. It is beautifully written and the language is kept as plain as possible. I’m not a sociologist, but I was able to understand most of this book clearly. Whether his theory is successful or not is an open question.

His analysis is always honest, and he is always willing to look at the exact places where his theory seems to fail. And he is willing to accept the parts that his theory does not explain. In fact, he hints at a much broader theory that would simultaneously account for both background and situational variables.

I worry whether some of his explanations about how confrontational-tension/fear is overcome aren’t too contrived. He repeatedly points out that most situations that have conflict do not proceed to violence. And he attempts to clarify the situational dynamics which allows violence. While definitely he goes some way in explaining the dynamics, I don’t know if he really completes the picture. But then again, he says that he is setting up a companion volume to this.

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