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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

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
abstractionssuch 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 commonrather than the individualexperience. 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 contextwar and revolutionwas 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
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 communityif
it ever existedwas 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 experienceone 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
elementsdiffering only in the ways in which the elements are seen as

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
Stress management. Since there can be no such thing as a stressfree 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 meaningsthat 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
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 sexin 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, andmore 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 responsemeeting violence with
violencedoes 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 wellpaying 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 examplethat limit their access to higherstatus 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 handtend 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 violencealong 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 itoften in a
more exaggerated form. Making a long-term change in a system
problemsuch as violencerequires 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 actorsgroups 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
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
experiencehave 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 violencewhile difficult to imagineoffer the
potential for system-wide change and virtual elimination of violence in

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Blumenthal, M. D., Kahn, R. L., Andrews, F. M., & Head, K. B.
(1972). Justifying violence: Attitudes of American men. Ann Arbor, MI:
Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan.