During recent months, U.S. news media have reported deeply
disturbing events involving the intrusion of violence into
hitherto less vulnerable settings, namely schools and churches.
The multiple school shootings of 1998 paled in light of the
Columbine High School massacre last spring in Colorado. The
late-summer multiple-murder/suicide incident at a Baptist
Youth Meeting in Texas brought further angst and perplexity
to citizens. Although feelings of outrage surface appropriately,
in order to learn from these troubling occurrences, it is
important to examine them with an objective lens.
American cultural discourse has always included the kind
of violence portrayed in media, such as homicide and urban
rioting; it has only recently begun to acknowledge violence
in the home, in the forms of family violence and child abuse
(e.g., Gelles, 1987). The intrusion of violence into the traditionally
safe havens of school and church has intensified public concern
about violence and brought it to the attention of most segments
of the population. Political figures and bodies have responded,
but with superficial analyses of the problem. Although the
visibility of individual-level violence is unmistakable, systematic
understanding of underlying processes is lacking. To accomplish
any appreciable reduction of societal violence, it is necessary
to understand its complexity. Causes, interventions, and prevention
strategies are contingent upon the validity of definitions
available. Here I consider issues of definition that need
to be addressed in an undergraduate course on violence, with
implications for scientific and public-policy circles as well.
Problems of Definition | Earlier attempts to define
violence have been hampered by several factors. First, researchers
and policy makers have categorized the forms too rigorously,
concentrating their efforts on such varied topics as homicide,
domestic violence, and urban rioting but generally not searching
for common themes. Although each form of violence is complex
and worthy of scrupulous analysis in its own right, only rarely
does one find the boundaries crossed from one topic to another.
Identifying the commonalities among different forms of violence
could advance violence studies significantly.
Second, there is a culturally induced tendency in America
to focus on questions of personal pathology in most violence-related
inquiries, whether the setting is the home or the street.
Comments about sanity and craziness permeate discussions.
Analysis searches for who is to blame and what might be wrong
with a person who commits violent acts. Although questions
regarding psychological factors and personal pathology require
attention, exclusive emphasis on this type of explanation
precludes any analysis of social-structural and interpersonal
factors. When the need to blame motivates a search for the
"bad guys" responsible, one will, of necessity,
miss any social-structural dimensions.
The second problem brings into focus the issue of level of
analysis needed for each form of violence. Violence occurs
at both individual and collective levels. A more fine-grained
approach, advocated by Turpin and Kurtz (1997), would distinguish
the national and global levels as well. They cite the feminist
argument that "the personal is political" to communicate
the importance of understanding micro-level violence in the
home in informing our perceptions of violence at broader institutional
levels (Brock-Utne, 1997). Similarly, Eisler (1997) argues
that the connection between physical and structural violence
is the "missing link" in the area of human rights
Both of the above problems create rigid distinctions between
various forms of violence that hamper a clearer understanding
of the causes of violence. By contrast, Turpin and Kurtz offer
a different model, a "web of violence," which synthesizes
the divergent areas of violence studies and allows fludity
across levels. For Turpin and Kurtz, there is a dialectic
between the macro- and micro-levels of violence, and there
are common factors underlying different forms of violence
(e.g., street assaults and child abuse) at any level of focus.
C. Wright Mills's classic notion of "sociological imagination"
stresses the importance of looking beyond people at the individual
level to the structural backdrops of all personal lives. Drawing
our attention to the intersection of biography and history,
he argues that the individual can understand his own experience
and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his
period, that he can know his own changes in life only by becoming
aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances (1959:5).
His contemporary, Peter Berger, also appreciates the importance
of social location in understanding individual actions. According
to Berger, to be located in society means to be at the intersection
point of specific social forces. Commonly one ignores these
forces at one's peril. One moves within society within carefully
defined systems of power and prestige (1963: 67).
Location is generically important because it influences a
whole gamut of conditions ranging from life-chances and health
to worldview. Without an appreciation of location, one fails
to see the contrasting perceptions of or vested interests
in violence based on one's place in society. Children of a
lower social class have been subjected to physically dangerous
conditions at school for several decades, in contrast with
middle-class students, for whom violence and its consequences
are only a more recent phenomenon. Ignoring this intersection
of people and social structures has serious ramifications
for violence studies in that analyses will be short-sighted
and incomplete at best.
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