Aggressive bleg

I’m sorely disappointed with the political science and economics literature on violence. Why do some people riot, destroy property, beat on others, or get into scraps? Is there any relationship between the propensities for interpersonal and communal or political violence?

I don’t buy the opportunity cost argument (crime maybe, aggression and riots, not so much) and “frustration-aggression” theories, while intuitive, don’t always merit the label ‘theory’.

Psychology, sociology and evolutionary biology must have interesting things to say, but Google scholar and various other sources are failing me. Pointers to interesting literatures will be appreciated.

39 thoughts on “Aggressive bleg

  1. I’m a fan of James Waller’s “Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing” ( It does a great breakdown of biological, cognitive, and (Waller’s area of expertise which sounds like it might be of the most interest to you) social psychology. Yeah, it touches on but goes beyond the usual Milgram Experiment type of discussion and focuses on the local social mechanics of small group acts. Now is there an edge between starting a riot over austerity programs and starting to hunt people down but Waller discusses how quickly arbitrary assignment to groups can instill intergroup competition and aggressiveness. So just seeing that wall of cops might be enough to get everyone else to pick up concrete after the first stone is thrown.

  2. Agreed. I like this book, and have it on my pile waiting for a second look, but my recollection is that it dwelt on Collins’ view of the world, and Collins’ evidence, and didn’t articulate or tackle alternative explanations. I also recall a dearth of testable hypotheses. But I need to reread…

  3. The trouble may be in thinking about violence as something unique. After all, people are upset about things all the time, and trade off the costs and benefits of trying to change them. They go to court, they negotiate. The costs and benefits determine the optimal action, and, sometimes this is violence. Or maybe this thinking is exactly what you’re tired of.

  4. I’m working on this at the moment. David Keen is good (“Complex Emergencies” and “Conflict and Collusion in Sierra Leone” as well as other articles.”) James Gilligan has interesting things to say on atrocities/extreme violence. Judith Zur on why people joined violent groups in Guatemala. Not sure this is quite what you want but i’ll keep thinking.

  5. Hey Chris, I’ve noticed the same lack of research connecting the two. Apologies for the self-promotion, but my dissertation (in progress) focuses on the ways that interpersonal aggression influences public opinion in the U.S., including beliefs about the appropriateness of political violence. You can check out a working paper on political violence here:

    It may not be polished enough to merit your “theory” criterion, and it uses attitude measures rather than behaviors, but I hope it’s a start. I haven’t seen any other lit on individual-level, non-collective political violence. (Thanks to Brendan Nyhan for alerting me to your post.)

  6. As the man who hired me, I definitely had to read this one. But this is really about the strategic use of violence by armed groups rather than drivers of personal aggression, no?

  7. I accept this, but I suspect there i, in addition,s a potential expressive preference for violence (i.e. in some cases it is valued intrinsically rather than instrumentally) and that there may also be “irrational” components.

  8. Totally agree with your frustration. These won’t solve your problems, but Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill, is a fun read – chronicles a sociologists theory of why some commit crimes, and I think it’s quite convincing. Also, Roger Nisbett “Culture of Honor” on why homicide rates are higher among whites in the south is a fun read, which attempts a cultural argument.

    It’s connecting the personal/criminal propensities to the political that intrigues me…

  9. Let me second Adria’s endorsement of Rhodes’s book. It has some affinities with the approach Collins takes, but I think it is better. In particular, the notions of “violent coaching” and “successful violent performance” strike me as very useful. The book lacks academic standing on two counts: Rhodes is a popular writer and the researcher he writes about was a complete professional failure.

  10. What about “Crowds and Power”, by Elias Canetti, Nobel Prize in Literature, and “Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings” subtitled “why violence erupts in close-knit communities – and what can be done to stop it?”, by Katherine Newman

  11. For the more sociologically inclined, check out Roger Gould’s books “Collision of Wills” (Chicago, 2003) and “Insurgent Identities” (1995). Bill Buford’s “Among the Thugs” is not at all scholarly, but is a lot of fun.

  12. “Is there any relationship between the propensities for interpersonal and communal or political violence?” At OCV this fall, the historian Stanley Payne presented some draft papers on “revolutionary civil wars” as a distinct form of conflict. I asked him what he thought would be the elements of a theory of “participation in revolutionary conflict”. I think his analysis provides some insights on your question. He talked about the different roles in the making of a revolutionary uprising. He said that as revolution unfolds, you can distinguish between various types taking part in the drama: ideological revolutionaries who have been pushing for revolution “forever” and provide the sparks, which only catch fire under certain conditions; sophisticated types who come around to accepting its necessity due to some major change and provide a critical level of intellectual ability; those seeking adventure who leap on the opportunity for actualization and provide the force; those who are eventually compelled to side with the revolution adding to the force; those who jump on board opportunistically if the revolution picks up steam moving the revolution toward ultimate success. It’s a constellation of roles and types necessary in its totality. Each is activated according to distinct psychological and social logics—psychologies of revolutionary fervor; rationalities of seeking dramatic political change; psychologies of adventure seeking; etc.

  13. I can’t point at any academic work, but your question is topical for me. Yesterday I was wondering about the recent street violence in Greece (over austerity measures) and Italy (over Berusconi) compared with the total lack of street violence in Australia over politics. I think that rioting in the streets is just not part of our culture. Though we use large scale peaceful demonstrations to make political statements, our public violence is usually small scale, alcohol-fuelled gang behaviour that is personal not political.

    Cultural norms play a large part in the form of mass public demonstrations. We have no history of students tearing up cobble stones to make a point. Maybe ‘expressive preference’ as you say.

    Also, I can’t see rational arguments of cost-benefit going far in explaining public violence. There is often a tipping point when violence gets out of control — then it is beyond rationality.

  14. Try exploring some of the literature on gender based violence? There’s some great theory there, and while I’m sure it’s not the focus of your research, analysis around gender based violence does a good job of tackling some of your questions with a politics/ power/economics lens. Rachel Jewkes from South Africa could be a good place to start.

  15. In our field work as an NGO, we try to assume that at least two theoretical constructs are at play: the classic “greed” and “grievance” debate. Power & economics do have some explanatory power, as do socio-cultural, linguistic, religious, and psychological grievances. But these broad categories of ’causes’ interact in complex ways that no meta-theory has yet been able to put together. I’ve done workshops with local aid workers in Africa, S.East Asia, South Asia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Latin America and in each instance it’s different. In DRC people have reasonable grounds to assume the conflicts there are really about looting valuable resources and little else. In Kosovo, however, the balance went almost entirely the other way – what drives people to violence today are offensive comments made about people who died 700 years ago. Most of the rest of the places I’ve worked turn up a jumbled, tangled mess of conflict that’s driven by a deadly dance of greed and grievance.

  16. Nils Christie is great, but I am not sure about how much of his work is available in English. I’ve also heard good stuff about Randall Collins, but I haven’t had the time to read anything of him yet, so I can’t guarantee. Another author who throws out some thoughts about violence is Jared Diamond. Although interesting, it is nothing close to a theory, and perhaps not anything extra-ordinary.

    It could perhaps also be interesting to look into some of the literature on the so-called Nordic Model – on how the Nordic countries went from record levels of violent labour-market conflicts in the 1930’s, to the calmest and most stable societies on the planet after WW2.

  17. i disagree Chris; in terms of intimate partner/domestic violence (DV), possibly the worst type of violence in my book, i think all three of these make contributions:

    1.) anna aizer (AER, forthcoming): DV and the gender wage gap
    ungated copy:

    2. ) card and dahl (QJE, forthcoming): DV and emotional cues
    ungated copy:

    3.) stevenson and wolfers (QJE 2006): DV and divorce laws
    ungated version:

  18. Unsurprisingly, you’ll find that some of the most thorough reflections on the nature and causes of violence (individual and collective) and the interplay of psychological, sociological, political and economic incentives can be found in the field of Genocide Studies.

    Though I’m not sure whether this is exactly what you’re looking for, I found the following very stimulating:

    1) Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State (London and New York, 2005). This is a two volume work (Vol 1: The Meaning of Genocide and Vol. 2: The Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide). It’s very wide-ranging, and always interesting, even if the central argument is open to dispute.

    2) Christian Gerlach, Extremely Violent Societies – Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) –
    I haven’t yet read the book, but his article of the same name in the Journal of Genocide Research, 8 (4), 2006, 455-471 provided a lot of food for thought.

    Though important, it’s a pretty unpleasant subject to get into.

  19. If you read Rhodes’ book, you might as well read the primary material of his subject, Lonnie Athens. His book “Violent Criminal Acts and Actors: A Symbolic Interactionist Study” is a good place to start, although I would agree with earlier posters that Athens’ work has not been favorably viewed in the academic community.

    Also, while not directly comparable, Elijah Anderson’s work on “The Code of the Street” is also helpful in clarifying the cultural differentiation of violence among certain communities.

  20. On collective violence, it sounds like you need an introduction to social movement theory. A good place to start would be Nick Crossley’s book Making Sense of Social Movements. Crossley does a good job of evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the various theories, and proposes an innovative approach himself.

  21. Of course. Maybe this is a useful distinction to make in our thinking: One can think of violence as varying by the person or group (heterogeneous preferences for violence), holding the issue at hand constant. This seems to be the variation you’re interested in above. I was thinking that holding the individual constant, different circumstances (or say, issues to resolve) would cause different responses. There are then two ideal experiments: (1) see if given a dispute over land, people rich people resort to violence differently than the poor. (2) if, for a set of people, they resort to violence at a different rate in a dispute over land vs. a dispute over water. Do you think this is a useful distinction? I think economists are better equipped for thinking about the second one. The challenge is, of course, thinking hard about which dimensions the “issues” vary across, so that they fit into the different stories (opportunity cost, ect.)

  22. I second whoever suggested looking at the literature on gender based violence. In particular, there’s some good stuff out there by anthropologists who have looked at “feminicide” (some call it “femicide”, while others think those words refer to separate phenomena) in Latin America and the Middle East. There’s some interesting analysis there of the continuum between “private” violence (domestic abuse), and “public” violence (rape as a weapon of war or genocide), and how, when a state withdraws protection from certain groups of women, that increases everyone’s tendency to resort to private violence.

  23. Have you read Horowitz’s The Deadly Ethnic Riot? It’s been quite awhile since I read it as a first-year graduate student, but I seem to remember there being a good bit in there on individual motivations for fighting.

    Also, it is sad but true that when I got attacked by a mob in Goma one day in 2006, all I could think about was that book and its description of the different kinds of riots.

  24. Sitting here in Berkeley at WGAPE with Ted Miguel, who urged me to chime in. A few of us grad students are dissertating on this topic and are presenting our unpublished work this weekend. [shameless plug] Check out the WGAPE site for a gander at some works in progress ( See esp. Willa Friedman’s paper and my paper (Lisa Mueller). If you can wait a few years, I think there will be some exciting dissertations using rich fieldwork and individual-level experimental, survey, and ethnographic data (NSF review committee, are you hearing me now?). I agree that the literature is currently fragmented between social psych and econ/polisci, but grad students aren’t missing opportunities to study violent protest participation at the intersection of grievances and collective action problems.

    I’ve drawn on many of the sources that your other readers have cited, but especially the riots lit (in the old school, Paul Brass; in the new school, Alexandra Scacco and Steve Wilkinson). I also draw on the social movements lit (Sid Tarrow; Susanne Lohmann on info cascades) and anything about political entrepreneurship.

    I’m excited that this topic is on the radar! Hopefully it still will be when folks like me and Willa hit the market. ;)


  25. Hi Chris, my friend Jon Rose suggested I check out your blog. Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges have some excellent transdisciplinary research addressing the question of motivations and mobilization in intergroup conflict—their model deals with deontological (versus instrumental) reasoning:
    I published an article in Security Studies that noted a need for new approaches within political science and economics…and discussed a survey I ran dealing with motivations in Balata Refugee Camp, the West Bank:
    Hope these are of use.

  26. Fascinating set of comments to which I will add a shameless self-promotion: here’s a (very in-progress) working paper on why individuals might cooperate to defend their group: . It takes a rather biological perspective — that just happens to be the puzzle that interests us. Here’s a poster with the main idea: .

  27. Read Michael Signer’s book, Demagogue. Plato and the Founders got it right when they described political hate in terms of a leader-follower relationship. What motivates the leaders and what motivates the followers are two different phenomena, but the leader is key in motivating the follower. I’d also look to evolutionary biology. Chimps routinely kill members of competitor troupes. Bonobos never do. Humans switch it up. Why? Clues from neuroscience are emerging in piecemeal fashion, but it’s almost impossible to track because of a deficit in searchable terminology. We (desperately) need a behaviorally oriented classification system so other disciplines can access relevant advances in neuroscience.