/ Social Perspectives on Violence


Violence is not a single kind of activity, but rather a socially defined category of activities that share some common features. This article presents a social perspective on violence that calls attention to the meanings of violence and to other social factors that promote and support or, alternatively, oppose and restrict violence. Implications for prevention and intervention are examined.

Key Words: violence, theory, social, constructionism, systems

    1. Thomas W. Blume, Ph.D., LMFT, LPC, is Assistant Professor, Department of Counseling, Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, 48309-4401 and is in private practice as a family therapist in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 48304. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to blume@oakland.edu.return to text

    Violence is a social phenomenon. For an action to be considered violent, it needs a victim or a group of victims. The interpersonal nature of violence seems to call for explanations or understandings that also are interpersonal. Rather than look inside the perpetrator for the causes of violence, social perspectives look in the social situation for factors that may explain why violence is not universal but instead varies in frequency and intensity. The social question is not, "Why does violence occur?" but rather "Why does this naturally occurring, socially undesirable activity happen more in some circumstances than in others?" Attention to the social aspects of violence can seem to excuse individual actions and, as a result, to encourage more violence. Rather, this review is intended to help prevent violence by contributing to the understandings of the social influences contributing to violence.

    Social Realities

    People's individual experiences become social as they are shared. Individuals can be in the same place or be exposed to the same events electronically, or they can use a symbolic means to communicate their experiences to others. It is the combined experiences of many individuals, shared in these ways, that makes up a culture, a society, or a family. Within cultures, societies, and families, shared experiences are organized into categories of events referred to variously as concepts, constructs, and schemas.

    The social construction of reality occurs naturally at an informal level. Informal conversations about events and experiences tend to take the form of "accounts "—naturally occurring conversations in which people attempt to make sense of an experience (Scott & Lyman, 1968). An older person is jostled by a group of young people, returns to his or her peers, and talks about how and where it occurred, about who was present and how the bystanders responded, and about the characteristics of the assailants, etc. As such accounts are shared, a social group builds a model of common experience in which the personal experience becomes universal and members of the group see each other and their social world in similar ways. It is not only the "victim" who participates in constructing such accounts; the "aggressor" as well relives the experience with others who see the event in similar ways (e.g., Blumenthal-Kahn, 1972; Brown, 1974). In many cases, the account works to justify further or increased violence (Staub, 1990).

    In the formal process of theory-building, scholars also attempt to understand and to explain social phenomena. Scholars are expected to recognize the limitations of their shared experience, rather than to generalize their conclusions to all people and all situations. Scholars are also expected to be careful and methodical about their ways of gathering and handling information. Theorists may organize events sequentially, looking at the causal factors and consequences of violence, or they may organize events into abstractions—such as levels of violence or forces acting on individuals to create violence. As opposed to popular accounts, formal theories are supposed to undergo a rigorous examination to determine their validity (their faithfulness to the data) and their usefulness. Quite different theories may each be useful in different ways, and each may also be valid as it describes a part of the whole experience. Some social theorists have attempted to create "metatheories" that incorporate and reconcile a number of more limited, specific theories.

    The social approach to violence includes both formal and informal understandings. What these understandings have in common is their emphasis on the common—rather than the individual—experience. Because of this emphasis on shared experience in social groupings, social theories are most useful in suggesting ways in which behavior change can be accomplished by addressing social phenomena rather than by attempting to alter the individual.

    The Social Construction of Violence

    Violence was not always the concern that it now is (Brown, 1979). In the past, some violent acts were integrated into society by either justifying the violent actions or by attributing the actions to individual psychopathology. In the family environment, the violent male was seen as enforcing a natural rule that men should direct the activities of their wives and children. Violence in a political context—war and revolution—was seen as the inevitable outcome when opposing rulers struggled over resources or when an oppressed people attempted to free themselves. When the actions of an individual or a group of individuals were too hard to justify, societies protected themselves by judging the offender(s) to be different from other people. Over the years, such individuals were viewed as possessed by devils, suffering from brain fever, mentally retarded, or having missing out on emotional connections with other humans.

    There are continuing debates about whether or not society has actually become more violent (Warr, 1994). Popular accounts describe a changed world—one in which the idyllic community of the 1950s has given way to a violent society characterized by drug wars, sexual assaults on children, robbery and killing on neighborhood streets, and violence in school corridors. Some scholars challenge these accounts, suggesting that the peaceful community—if it ever existed—was not as prevalent in Western societies as in various tribal or indigenous societies (Knauft, 1994). Social harmony, then, is only one kind of social experience: one from which it may be possible to learn how to help modern communities move toward the ideal of a violence-free society.

    One viewpoint explains the apparent change in violence as the breakdown of a "myth" that prevailed in Western society (see Brown, 1979; Steinmetz & Straus, 1974). According to this view, the myth of harmonious, loving families participating in a society which offered freedom from pain, oppression, and want was perpetuated by a small group of the elite who controlled public images. People whose lives did not conform to the myth lived "on the other side of the tracks" and their social experience—one in which family beatings, assaults in public places, starvation and sexual exploitation were common—was not shared with the larger society. The myth has been exposed as modern transportation and modern communication have eliminated social barriers, making violence visible (Marr, 1994).

    Other scholars explain the apparent change as one of social redefinition; the social category of violence has been expanded (Gelles & Straus, 1979; Reiss & Roth, 1993). Coercive sexual behavior serves as a good example of this redefinition (see Koss & Cook, 1993; Yllo, 1993). Not so long ago in the U.S., commonly held assumptions about human sexuality served to condone men's use of force and manipulation in overcoming women's sexual refusals. Such behavior was considered acceptable because it was believed that women were intensely ambivalent about sex and therefore the man was doing the woman a favor. Changing social assumptions, especially an increased concern with the psychological effects of involuntary sexual activity, have gradually led to an environment in which more and more people agree that marital rape is a form of violence. Attitudes toward corporal punishment of children are beginning to change in the same way (e.g., Turner & Finkelhor, 1996).

    Despite the possible challenges to such perceptions, it remains likely that violence levels in the U.S. have increased. Increases in reported violent crimes and in incarcerations can be documented (Cohen & Canela-Cacho, 1994), and certain kinds of violence are clearly more prevalent (Reiss & Roth, 1993). Public attitudes demonstrate high anxiety about violence, leading to changes in lifestyles and even place of residence (Warr, 1994). Formal theorizing about violence should both assist in understanding any changes and help to guide efforts to reduce levels of violence.

    Social Theories

    Social theories of violence can be grouped into several categories; only a few of these categories will be reviewed in this paper. The reader will detect some overlapping concepts, and indeed some theories include essentially the same elements—differing only in the ways in which the elements are seen as interacting.


    According to this broad theoretical tradition (e.g., Parsons, 1977), social groups have a number of functional requisites; certain needs must be met in order for a social group to survive. Various lists of functional requisites have appeared over the years. The following examples serve to illustrate the approach.

    Social and political change. Families, communities, and nations often evolve in ways that benefit some of their members and work to the disadvantage of others. Societies have created a variety of mechanisms including elections, courts, and mediation with the intent of facilitating change and eliminating injustice. But such mechanisms have their limitations. For example, courts create a need for either education or money to guarantee a fair hearing of a grievance. Violence is often explained as the only alternative for individuals and groups who do not see a nonviolent way to break out of a position of disadvantage.

    Social stability. Many of the mechanisms that serve the goal of social change have been created by a powerful elite with a goal of ensuring that change happens gradually and doesn't threaten their privileges. In this case, violence is seen as a natural response when a social heirarchy is threatened. The Watergate incident and the highly publicized beating of Rodney King brought out viewpoints of this kind; many people did not doubt that official misconduct had occurred, but they considered such tactics as necessary if society was to be defended against internal disruption or external attack.

    Socialization. Children must be taught the expectations of their social group and must be helped to acquire the skills and understandings to take their place in the group. Violence may result when children do not acquire necessary skills to handle interpersonal relationships, to manage their own lives, and to become economically self-sufficient. Effective socialization requires more than just the presence of adults who can teach skills. Farrington (1991), for example, found deficiencies in the parenting experiences of violent adolescents; their childhood was characterized by harsh discipline, lack of nurturance, and poor supervision.

    Stress management. Since there can be no such thing as a stress-free society, every social group must manage stress; companionship, play, and sex are among the aspects of social life that can serve a stress management function. Linsky, Bachman, and Straus (1995) documented a connection between stress levels and levels of violence. When stress management fails, either through decreasing effectiveness of familiar approaches or through increases in stress beyond the group's capacity, it seems that violence is among the likely outcomes.

    Conflict management. Conflict theorists suggest that conflict is a positive force in society and that human groups must handle conflicts in productive ways. Sprey (1974) described the informal mechanisms that traditional community and family structures offered for the management of conflict. For example, in the extended/multigenerational household any conflict between intimates could be mediated by others who were not as intensely involved. Neighborhoods also offered ready access to concerned others who could assist with a family or other dispute. Lacking the support of concerned others, disputants may use violence in an attempt to achieve resolution.

    Control. Social control is another essential function; a society needs ways to ensure that its members do not harm each other. Violence, from this perspective, demonstrates failures in the control process. Research supports this theory: Shaw and McKay (1942) identified a high correlation between ethnic heterogeneity, low socioeconomic status, residential mobility, and delinquency. They theorized that neighborhoods lacking stable, cohesive networks of informal social control experience more problems with youth gangs and violence. Formal social control also is associated with violence; Wilson (1987) has pointed out that law enforcement is inconsistent in "ecological niches" characterized by drug sales and high crime.

    Functionalist contributions. Functional analysis has identified many factors that may help to explain contemporary violence. Many people consider violence to be a necessity that comes into play when the various mechanisms of society do not address social needs. High stress levels, rapid technological, social, and economic change, and conflict between social groups make sense as contributors to violence. These understandings of violence have the advantage of leading directly to action; if a society knows what is broken, it can organize attempts to fix it. On the other hand, a functionalist approach can point to so many possible areas of change that the result is essentially a "laundry list" of problems and proposed solutions. The theory does not explain how to set priorities or coordinate interventions.


    An increasingly popular approach to violence views human interaction through language, a primary symbolic tool through which people share their experiences (see Sarbin and Kitsuse, 1994). Constructionist theories of violence focus on discourse themes—shared meanings—that either justify violent acts or else redefine violence so that it is acceptable behavior. Three such discourse themes will be examined here.

    Gender and family violence. Violence is strongly associated with gender; males not only commit more violent acts, they also are the primary consumers of entertainment with violent themes (Kruttschnitt, 1994). The constructionist theory of gendered violence suggests that men perpetuate this pattern in their discourse (Blumenthal, Kahn, Andrews, & Head, 1972). Anecdotal evidence seems to support this idea. Boys differentiate themselves from girls with shared play themes of fighting monsters and evildoers. Elementary school boys make threats, deride weaker boys, and encourage aggressors. In this male social reality, the person who can be victimized deserves it; being dominated in any way is a source of humiliation. For the young male, winning is the only thing that is important. Young men's stories revolve around potential if not actual violence, and violent episodes are a necessity if one is to really validate one's masculinity.

    Young men also typically become interested in girls and sex; sexual success is valued by the male peer group. But girls, despite their presumed inferiority, control access to this valued activity and the young male is in danger of being dominated. The male solution to this dilemma is coercion. Women, according to the male myth, don't even know how much they like sex; the male believes that he must introduce the reluctant female to this activity, and assumes that she will be eternally loyal to the man who first gives her sexual fulfillment.

    Caring, on the other hand, is a job to be left to the specialists: women. Love is seen as a sign of weakness, a sure way of being distracted from the fight. Bull Meachum, the Marine fighter pilot depicted in the film The Great Santini, gradually taught his son that no matter how much it hurts, he must become tough and distant so that he can take over the role of protecting his loved ones. Meachum also told a colleague of his discomfort being "a warrior without a war." In a real-life parallel, General Westmoreland was quoted during the Vietnam war as justifying the violence of his off-duty soldiers. It was not fair, he said, to expect people to be trained killers six days a week and Sunday-school teachers the seventh.

    The power of this male discourse is supported by research. Linsky, Bachman, and Straus (1995) found that rape was a more likely response to stress when cultural norms favored violence, women's status was low, and men viewed women primarily as sex objects. Other studies have found attitudes "conducive to rape"—negative views of women, resentment and fear of domination, and beliefs about women's ambivalence toward sex—in a variety of male samples (Reiss & Roth, 1993).

    The violent society. Graham (1979) argued that the American tradition is one in which violence is a constant theme. The preferred version of history emphasizes the rule of law, the development of effective political mechanisms, and cooperative efforts. But folklore (Lynn, 1979) and official histories feature a series of violent conflicts and the exploits of violent heroes. The U.S. was founded on violent overthrow of a civil authority, and its children have been brought up to emulate a series of violent role models: Hopalong Cassidy, the U.S. Cavalry, G.I. Joe, the Six-Million-Dollar Man, and—more recently—the X-men, Ninja Turtles, and Power Rangers. Carrie Nation is remembered because she was violent, and most Americans feel some personal pride in winning two world wars.

    The American fascination with violence is not only focused on violent heroes, however. Victims of violence, displayed in newspapers and on television news, bring to life another part of the discourse: fear. Fear of an enemy helps to justify more violence. An armed citizenry stands ready to attack, but cannot agree on the identity of the enemy. In contemporary society the young are still being trained to be killers; video games have enabled the child in the 1990s to develop perceptual skills and eye-hand coordination in preparation for space wars as well as street warfare. But these young people are also growing up in a world where cooperative efforts are increasingly valued and violence is increasingly punished. As the number of arrests for violence is increasing, the number of individuals imprisoned for violence also increases. But the ideal remains the same; toughness is valued, and the young know what really matters. The societal response—meeting violence with violence—does nothing to alter the theme.

    Economic and racial segregation. Violence also seems to be more common among groups who are excluded from the mainstream (Reiss & Roth, 1993). A constructionist theory of such marginalization calls attention to differing views of opportunity and success. Among those who see themselves excluded from well-paying employment, success through nonviolent means seems to be based on luck. Stories told in the economically deprived underclass are more likely to describe the folk hero who "got over" on the wealthy than the person who succeeded through hard work, study, and consistency. Not only do marginalized groups generally lack skills that are obtained only through family socialization or extended schooling, but many of their members exhibit patterns of behavior—speech and dress, for example—that limit their access to higher-status jobs (Reiss & Roth, 1993). On the other hand, violent means to success are portrayed as highly effective and have the additional advantage that violent acts bring social recognition.

    This violence-supporting discourse is promoted by the fact that members of marginalized groups are unlikely to be exposed to mainstream society where success and opportunity are described in other terms. Role models are likely to validate a belief in discrimination and limited opportunity, just as they are likely to demonstrate the success that can be achieved through violent means. Young people may grow up with detailed knowledge of guns, but lacking equivalent knowledge of appropriate behavior.

    Constructionist contributions. Social constructionism focuses not on the objective social system but rather on the ways in which it is understood by its members. Whereas functionalist approaches to violence call for changing the situation, constructionist approaches call for changing socially constructed views of the situation. The advantage of such an approach lies in its ability to identify and describe many different discourse themes that contribute to violence. The theory also suggests a strategy for change: intervene in the public and private conversations that make up the discourse. This approach empowers every person to be an agent of change even as it focuses attention on the mass communicators whose messages reach large numbers of people. The theory does not, however, describe what changes should take place to produce a discourse that does not support or encourage violence.


    Finally, in the most integrative of the efforts to understand human behavior, systems theories have both philosophical and pragmatic roots. The term "system" is one that may be used in many ways. In simple usage it refers only to the fact that separate elements are connected in some way. In more sophisticated usage, systems theories predict the nature of interactions among the individuals, families, or groups that make up the system that is being studied. Bateson (1979) focused on the epistemological error of using individual-level theories (e.g., frustration) to explain phenomena at the level of a pattern of interactions. Systems approaches to intervention (e.g., Minuchin, 1974)—on the other hand—tend to focus on the practical issue of identifying the proper system level (i.e., marital dyad, household, extended family) where efforts will be most likely to succeed in resolving a problem.

    Systems theorists view all social interactions as somehow patterned in ways that regulate violence—along with all other forms of behavior. System levels are nested, and each level operates according to its own rules. Feedback processes enable each level to assess its effectiveness and to make necessary modifications to continue functioning. Systems are always in a state of change but the changes do not disturb the stability of the system. Understanding the processes, however, is not sufficient for planning and implementing more permanent change. Systems theorists believe that direct efforts to change any system element will fail; the system will restore the missing piece or replace it—often in a more exaggerated form. Making a long-term change in a system problem—such as violence—requires a coordinated approach that includes an understanding of how violence fits into the system.

    A complete systems analysis of violence (see Straus, 1973, for a partial example) would locate sources of violence (a) in the individuals; (b) in dyadic interactions as varied as infant/caregiver and teacher/student; and (c) in family subsystems, neighborhoods, communities, ethnic and religious groups, and the larger society. Subsystem contributions would be seen as organized in ways that both encouraged violent acts and imposed limits on violence. The various system levels would be seen responding to changing resources, challenges, opportunities, and barriers. Above all, the analysis would demonstrate that various attempts to reduce or eliminate violence seem to have instead activated a "positive feedback loop" in which the problem appears to be getting worse.

    Systems contributions. Systems theory has proved most useful for sorting through complex situations and guiding action. A systems approach suggests that interventions will be most effective if they are carefully coordinated. The systems-oriented professional monitors changes at all levels as various interventions "perturb" the system. Efforts that increase the problem are stopped, even if they made sense as possible solutions. The systems approach is pragmatic; if it works, it should be continued until it stops working, at which time something else should be done.

    The strength of systems theory lies in its ability to describe the relationships among events and the actors—groups and individuals—who take part in them. With this awareness it is possible to focus interventions at the levels where they are most likely to be effective and to monitor whether or not the interventions are working. Systems theory is value-free, however, and other theories are needed to suggest desired directions for change.

    Implications for Prevention and Intervention

    This article has summarized social understandings of violence, showing ways in which violent acts are linked to the social environment. Attempts to reduce or eliminate violence would be expected to be most effective if they use these linkages, and in fact many policymakers, teachers, social workers, and corrections personnel are familiar with social theories. But the community response to violence tends to be fragmented and inconsistent; socially-aware programs coexist with approaches based on mechanistic assumptions of individual punishment and reward. What appears to be missing is the kind of coordination and monitoring called for by an understanding of system change.

    Control efforts continue to present a challenge. Violence on the part of law enforcement personnel can be seen as actually increasing the levels of violence in the community. Informal control structures offer other possibilities for nonviolent, supportive means of averting potential violence. But existing values emphasize individual autonomy at the expense of the community. A major effort is required before private citizens without official status will feel empowered to step into conflicts in their communities. In the meantime, training in nonviolent tactics needs to continue in attempts to reduce or eliminate institutional violence.

    Constructionist theories point to the underlying problem: social meanings of violence. Our society should be working toward a more accurate picture of violence that includes its limitations and its costs both to the victim and to the attacker. Research on violence has already started to precipitate such a change among many professionals; they are less tolerant of violence and more willing to work toward its elimination. Other groups in society are also working to change their ways of talking about violence: Feminist groups, for example, are encouraging women to speak up for their right to a safe environment. Men—many who have recently begun to organize a discussion of their shared experience—have the potential to redefine their social world and reject violence as a solution.

    The discourse of violence would lose much of its power if groups differing on gender, racial, ethnic and economic bases had more complex and realistic views of each other. Genuine dialogue should reduce the tendency to exclude "the other" (Staub, 1990) and justify violence. At the family level it has been demonstrated that genuine exchange can replace the rhetoric of power and domination: Couple relationships as well as parent-child relationships can be restructured on the basis of mutual respect. Family therapists have a singular opportunity to reduce violence, one family at a time.

    Finally, the communications media carry special responsibility for the community's discourse on violence. The perception of imminent violence, for example, has come to exist largely through highly-publicized news stories. Fictional portrayals of violent heroes demonstrate unrealistic success in their ventures and rarely suffer negative consequences. Films, music videos, and television programs promote violence by creating a social reality in which violent actions are the norm. Voluntary self-censorship and an effort to build a realistic community view of violence—while difficult to imagine—offer the potential for system-wide change and virtual elimination of violence in America.


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