#Reviewing Violence

Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory. Randall Collins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Violence remains an uncomfortable if necessary part of the profession of arms. As the United States has shifted to more limited ways of conducting war, so too have our views on the appropriate application of force. Seminal works like On Combat and On Killing by David Grossman began the discussion of how soldiers are trained for war and killing, and offer an organizational perspective on how individuals can be trained for violence. These books operate on the questionably documented assertion[1] that humans are inherently reluctant to engage in violence.[2]

Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology, Dr. Randall Collins

Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology, Dr. Randall Collins

Dr. Randall Collins is a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. His career has covered the expansion and breakdown of states over the long run of history, as well as micro level interactions in the tradition of sociological greats such as Erving Goffman, whose work on total institutions informs military studies to this day. As a boy, he worked at West Point as a landscaper and recently returned to present a section of his work on violence at the 2016 Alpha Kappa Delta Honor Society in the Sociology Department. His recent research on violence includes discussion of violence at the micro and macro level as well as proposes solutions to the problem of police violence.[3] His development of a theory of violence is a critical read for any leader who may be responsible for the ethical application of force, either domestically or abroad.

Collins’ approach to history has led him to studying the sociological patterns in violence. His understanding of sociological theory offer needed context for Violence. America’s hyper-individualist culture tends to ignore the role of factors above individual desires and responsibility for situations. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory offers a contextual account for violence where violence is the product of interactions rather than the result of individual violent tendencies. Where psychological works such as On Killing or On Combat would place the responsibility for violence with the individual, Collins instead looks at the interaction between individuals. By bracketing questions about “bad apples” or “bad barrels” and instead focusing on the interaction between individuals, he opens up a vibrant discussion that offers an in depth look at how organizations can gain insight on, or avoid violent conflict, more generally.

“No doubt there are readers who will bridle at the suggestion: for them, violence naturally falls into hermetically sealed sections, and “bad” social conditions should be responsible for “bad” violence, whereas “good” violence – which is not seen as violence at all, when it is carried out by authorized state agents – is not subject to analysis since it is part of the normal social order.” [4]

By acknowledging the common patterns between all violence, whether deviant or endorsed by the state, Collins brings the reader into uncomfortable territory, forcing us to consider that the same violence we consider the realm of bad actors is methodologically the same as actions we deem good because they are conducted with the endorsement of authority.

The “Dirty secret of Violence” chapter argues that humans are actually bad at violence and that most violent confrontations do not actually result in physical harm. By arguing that most violence is confrontation and rarely escalates to the level of actual, physical violence, he counters the notion that humans are inherently violent. He limits his discussion of violence to actual, physical violence. He does acknowledge there are those who are inherently violent, calling them the “violent few,” but argues they are not the norm in violent interactions. 

By arguing that most violence is confrontation and rarely escalates to the level of actual, physical violence, he counters the notion that humans are inherently violent...

Violence discusses a variety of violent situations such as sports violence, domestic violence as well as violence at war and police violence. All of these situations present a similar pattern of confrontation, tension and emotional flow. The critical aspect that Collins brings to the theory of violence is one of emotional “patterns of confrontation, tension, and emotional flow, which is at the heart of the situation where violence is carried out.”[5] In this argument, Collins asserts that violence is not inherent in any individual but is a product of the emotional interaction between two individuals and that conditions must be met before violence can occur. This potentially stands in contrast to Grossman’s assertion that violence can be trained and taught. By understanding the idea that violence in situations is caused less by violent actors and more by the situational pressures of confrontation and tension, leaders can better shape situations to better control where and how violence is unleashed.

While most readers might not consider emotion in the discussion of violence, this is where Collins’ work truly advances our understanding of violent interactions. If one accepts the premise that violence is the result of a pattern of confrontation and tension, then moving into the emotional patterns that enable true violence to erupt follows logically. Collins argues there are two critical elements that enable violence: forward panic and attacking the weak.

Forward panic results after an overload of confrontational tension and a sudden release. The most dangerous time in a violent interaction is when one party turns away from the other.

“Forward panic starts with tension and fear in a conflict situation. This is the normal condition of violent conflict, but here the tension is prolonged and built up: it has a dramatic shape of increasing tensions, striving toward a climax…There is a shift from relatively passive == waiting, holding back until one is in a position to bring the conflict to a head—to be fully active. When the opportunity finally arrives, the tension/fear comes out in an emotional rush. Ardant du Picq…called it ‘flight to the front’. It resembles a panic and indeed the physiological components are similar: instead of running away, caught up in a mood in which running and fear feed each other...fighters rush forward, toward the enemy...they are caught up in an overpowering emotional rhythm, carrying them on to actions they would normally not approve of in calm, reflective moments.”[6]

Attacking the weak builds on the idea of forward panic arguing “both parties are out of control; since one is very much weaker than the other, the tension of the struggle turns into the hot rush and vicious overkill of the forward panic.”[7] The implications for the military application of this theory are significant. By acknowledging the role of power in violent interactions, military leaders can recognize where situations may be fostering the increased likelihood of non-sanctioned violence, such as the situation surrounding the actions in Black Hearts or the kill team in Afghanistan.

A first reading of this suggests that thinking of violence as an interaction offers excuses linked to an overly socialized conception of man where soldiers have no agency or responsibility. The value in this level of analysis is that it allows outside parties to engage in setting conditions that enable the breaking of emotional tension and confrontation that develops prior to the hot rush of the forward panic. Understanding violence as an interaction is not an easily digestible theory, especially considering it pushes back against our ideas about violence being caused by bad actors. It’s also simpler from a responsibility perspective: identifying bad actors and removing them from the population is a task to accomplish and also clearly definable and measurable. Preventing atrocities at war or keeping someone from being caught in the cycle of domestic violence, however, is much more difficult. The continued focus on the individual as the causal agent is more satisfying in many ways because we can assess blame and responsibility on individuals. Moving the level of responsibility to the interaction changes the moral calculation that goes along with assigning blame and responsibility.[8]

Collins’ work stands as a solid companion for anyone who has read Grossman’s works and who is interested in the subject. Violence excels in offering evidence in support of the argument and is backed by data from a variety of well-documented sources. The argument is compelling and relevant for leaders looking to understand how violence occurs beyond psychological factors, which offer more limited accounts. The depth of the author’s approach to the subject may be daunting for those not familiar with his work but it offers a needed perspective from an organizational leadership approach.

Regardless of the reader’s opinion of Collins’ theoretical argument, perceiving violence as the product of an interaction is a fundamentally different way of looking at this very complex subject. It is a solid companion for any reader who wants to broaden their understanding of a complex human interaction. Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory offers valuable insights into how leaders can and should shape the environment to avoid emotional entrainment and forward panic and enable the more rational application of violence.

Jessica Scott is an Iraq war veteran, an active duty army officer and the USA Today bestselling author of novels set in the heart of America’s Army. Follow Jessica on Twitter at @JessicaScott09. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header image: Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnamese chief of the national police, executes a suspected Viet Cong.


[1] John Whiteclay Chambers, et al, “SLA Marshall’s Men Against Fire: New Evidence Regarding Fire Ratios,” Parameters 33, no. 3 (2003): 113–121.

[2] Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature (New York, NY: Viking, 2009). http://www.contentreserve.com/TitleInfo.asp?ID={F2046F48-1A56-4325-A446-45DD255940C5}&Format=50.

[3] “Randall Collins, Ph.D. | Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.” Accessed April 11, 2017. https://sociology.sas.upenn.edu/r_collins.

[4] Randall Collins, Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 43.

[5] Ibid, 14.

[6] Ibid, 75.

[7] Ibid, 112.

[8] Bertram F.Malle, Steve Guglielmo, and Andrew E. Monroe, “A Theory of Blame,” Psychological Inquiry 25, no. 2 (2014): 147–186.