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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.


Vincenzo Ruggiero

Political violence includes an array of conducts and events that defy unilateral examination. It may be authorized or unauthorized violence, and while the latter is almost always associated with crime, the former is normally deemed an expression of the legitimate monopoly in the use of force characterizing modern societies. There are institutional and anti-institutional forms of political violence, namely violence of the authority and violent expressions of defiance against authority. Both have been the object of analysis by sociologists and criminologists, with some contending that theories of “common” violence should be applied to the analysis of political violence. It is assumed, for example, that both types of violence possess a goal-directed character: achieving results, extracting something of value from others, or exercising justice by punishing wrongdoers. Other analysts, however, link political violence with social conflict derived from collective grievance around inequality and injustice, thus locating this type of violence within the tradition of social movement analysis and the dynamics of collective action. Conflict theory provides a prime framework for this type of analysis, which focuses on contentious issues, organizational matters, and the shaping of identities that lead aggrieved groups to turn to violence. Sociological and criminological theories also offer a rich analytical patrimony that helps focusing on political crime committed by states and their representatives occupying powerful social positions. Many contributions, in this respect, cover atrocities perpetrated by institutional actors and the different forms of conscious, unconscious, personal, cultural, or official denial accompanying such atrocities. The term political crime, therefore, ends up relating to state crime, political and administrative corruption, and a variety of crimes of the elite normally included under the umbrella definition “the crimes of the powerful.” Conversely, when the focus moves onto political violence perpetrated by anti-institutional or non-state actors, the term “terrorism” is usually referred to, a term that is not likely to meet universal acceptance or unquestioned adoption due to the difficulties social scientists find in defining it. In sum, political violence and crime present scholars and practitioners with the same ambiguity that connotes definitions of social behavior and the processes of its criminalization. Such ambiguity becomes clear if, as proposed in the following pages, political violence and crime are examined through multidisciplinary lenses, particularly those offered by social theory, philosophy, and political science, along with criminology.