A Social Interactionist Approach to Violent Crime
- Richard B. FelsonRichard B. FelsonDepartment of Sociology and Criminology, Pennsylvania State University
Since criminal violence involves doing harm to someone (as well as rule breaking) a theory of aggression is needed to help explain it. A social interactionist (SI) theory of aggression fits the bill. According to this perspective there are strong incentives for aggression. Sometimes individuals harm or threaten to harm others in order to force compliance. They compel the target to do something for them or deter them from doing something that offends them. Sometimes they punish someone who offends them in order to achieve justice or retribution. They feel morally justified and self-righteous about their behavior. Sometimes they are attempting to assert or protect their self- or social image. Finally, some violence involves thrill seeking. These are basic motives of human behavior, and they can readily explain the incentives for both verbal and physical aggression.
An SI perspective is a challenge to frustration-aggression approaches (including general strain theory) that claim that aversive stimuli and negative affect instigate aggression. Negative affect plays a much more limited causal role in producing violence from an SI perspective. A bad mood after an aversive experience may facilitate an aggressive response if people fail to consider costs and moral inhibitions when they are in a bad mood. The aversive experience does not instigate aggression unless the person responsible is assigned blame. Blame is critical because it leads to a grievance and a desire for retribution.
Some acts of criminal violence are predatory, and some stem from verbal disputes. The violence of the robber, the rapist, and the bully are usually predatory. Most homicides and assaults stem from disputes. It is therefore important to study the social interaction during disputes in order to understand why they sometimes escalate to violence. A social interactionist approach suggests it is important to study interpersonal conflict that underlies dispute-related violence, since conflict often leads to grievances. Cooperative face-work (i.e., politeness) prevents violence because it avoids attacks on selves. When such attacks occur, they tend to lead to retaliation and the possibility of escalation. Third parties can influence the outcome if they instigate or mediate the dispute, or just serve as a passive audience. Mediators can allow both sides to back down without losing face, but they can also encourage weaker parties to fight. Finally, violence can be considered a form of informal social control when social control by third parties is ineffective.
An SI approach emphasizes the importance of adversary effects (i.e., the physical threat posed by adversaries). People take into account the relative coercive power of their opponent when they decide whether to engage in violence and what tactics to use. If they attack adversaries who are physically stronger, they may rely on weapons or allies. Adversary effects explain why armed violence spreads across a community and why it lowers rates of unarmed violence. They help to explain variation in violent crime across nations, regions, and racial/ethnic groups.