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Entering and leaving the tunnel of violence: Micro-sociological dynamics of


emotional entrainment in violent interactions
Randall Collins
Current Sociology 2013 61: 132 originally published online 13 September 2012
DOI: 10.1177/0011392112456500
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Entering and leaving the tunnel


of violence: Micro-sociological
dynamics of emotional
entrainment in violent
interactions

Current Sociology
61(2) 132151
The Author(s) 2012
Reprints and permission: sagepub.
co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0011392112456500
csi.sagepub.com

Randall Collins
University of Pennsylvania, USA

Abstract
Evidence from close ethnographic observations, photos, videos, and interviews
show that persons in violence-threatening situations experience the emotional state
of confrontational tension/fear (ct/f). This emotion constitutes a barrier that makes
most violence abort. Given one of several interactional patterns that allow violence
to proceed past this barrier, violence is largely clumsy, imprecise, and uncontrolled.
Moments of violence are often experienced as perceptual distortions in the flow of
time, vision, sound, and sense of self, an altered state of violent consciousness that
the author refers to by the metaphor, the tunnel of violence. The latter part of the
article extrapolates the theory to consider mechanisms by which this emotional tunnel
is prolonged into episodes lasting longer than a few seconds. These mechanisms include:
self-entrainment in ones own bodily rhythms; reciprocal micro-coordination between
attacker and victim; audience or team entrainment. Some experienced individuals
learn techniques to manipulate the emotional processes of the tunnel of violence for
their own advantage. Greater awareness of micro-sociological processes hold out the
prospect of heading off violence in the local situation itself.
Keywords
Confrontational tension/fear, micro-sociology, violence

Corresponding author:
Randall Collins, Department of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, 3718 Locust Walk, Philadelphia PA
19104-6299, USA.
Email: collinsr@sas.upenn.edu

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Collins

Introduction
There are many different kinds of physical violence, but they all must go through a crucial micro-sociological moment when an attacker confronts a target. The theory of confrontational tension, outlined here, provides a common denominator affecting whether
threatened violence will be carried out or not, and with what degree of success. We will
examine a small number of micro-interactional pathways and mechanisms that affect
these situational processes and outcomes; different combinations of mechanisms explain
key aspects of different types of violence.
My focus on micro-interactional mechanisms at the moment that violence threatens
aims to fill a gap in theoretical explanations of violence. Most theories deal with structural properties of social location, or biographical conditions in the background of violent individuals, neglecting the situational dynamics of violence itself. My approach is
closer to an opportunity theory of crime (Felson, 1994), but with emphasis on the microsituational dynamics of violent confrontation; and covering not only crime but all kinds
of violence including legitimate violence by police or military. In some aspects, my
micro-situational theory is related to the emphasis on network location in the geometrical
theory of Black (1998), Cooney (1998) and others with its concern for social distance or
closeness to the several sides of a conflict; here again I add a micro-processual component. The micro-interactional theory does not explain all aspects of violence; it complements other theories of long-term motivational patterns of individuals, and the
organizational and institutional structures affecting the initiation and control of largescale violence. Conversely, I argue that even macro-organizational theories need a link
to what happens at the sticking point; even in big organizations like armies or police
forces, micro-contingencies make a crucial difference in actual events.
In what follows, I draw on a variety of data sources. Since I am concerned with what
actually happens in violent situations, I analyze the interactional process among all persons present on the scene in as minute detail as possible, relying heavily on photos and
videos; on ethnographic observations (carried out by myself, my students, as well as in
published sources); secondary sources are also drawn upon, especially interviews with
individuals experienced in violence, including criminals, police, soldiers, domestic abusers, and also interviews with victims. My theory examines violent persons on both sides
of the law, holding that their different moral or professional outlooks do not obviate the
basic micro-situational processes. My analysis often refers to serious violence carried
out with firearms, but unarmed and lightly armed conflicts are subject to much the same
interactional problems of micro-interactional tension.
To begin, let us examine an actual incident of violence in order to point up the difference between the micro-interactional approach and conventional explanations in terms
of motivations.

The sequence of violent interaction: An empirical


example
On New Years night in 2009, in Oakland, California, a white police officer put a gun to
the back of the head of a young black man who was lying on the ground being arrested,

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and killed him with one shot (Associated Press reports; Wikipedia/BART Police Shooting
of Oscar Grant). The incident began with reports that groups of young black men were
fighting on the train; at the train station, four police began making arrests. There was
much loud shouting on both sides, arguments about who was or was not involved in the
fighting. The officer who fired the gun said afterwards that he thought he was reaching
for his Taser a device that shoots an electric charge to subdue a resisting suspect but
pulled out his pistol by mistake. The killing received wide publicity, as many people
recorded it on their mobile phone cameras; it gave rise to large protests as a case of
racially motivated police behavior.
The easy cultural script is for us to interpret this incident as an instance of racism.
Nevertheless, for reasons I will explain, cultural factors like racism are never a sufficient
explanation of violence; most people who are racists are not good at committing violence. They need a conducive situation; and if those situational conditions are present, it
can produce the violence without the racism, or any other cultural motivation.
On that train platform in Oakland, there was a high level of emotion for many minutes
before the shooting. The young men argued and struggled with police officers; one of the
four cops, not the officer who did the shooting, was particularly aggressive, throwing
black youths against the walls, pushing them down, and yelling the word nigger at
them. The officer who eventually shot his pistol was relatively restrained, trying to calm
both the excited cop and the men being arrested; one photo of him, a minute before the
shooting, shows a perplexed expression on his face. Micro-sociologically, the shooting
officer was not acting as a detached individual; he was influenced by the emotional mood
of the entire scene, and especially of his aggressive and quite possibly racist
colleague. Given the general pattern (which I will document below) that individuals in
violent situations are highly emotional, tense, and imprecise with their violence, it is
quite plausible that the officer mistook his gun for his Taser; he seemed genuinely surprised when the shot was fired. Hypothetically, police training should make an officer
automatically select the right weapon; but this supposes an idealized picture of what
police behavior is intended to be, rather than what actually occurs. Our concept of violence as a deliberate, conscious decision by an independent individual, gives a very distorted picture of its dynamics. In the dynamics of this situation, the colleague of the
shooting officer the aggressive police officer was most responsible for escalating the
situation to the point of deadly violence. The entire sequence the holiday atmosphere,
the group fighting on the train, followed by the loud struggle between the black men and
the police at the station, surrounded by an attentive crowd generated the emotional situation that culminated in the killing.

Micro-situational mechanisms determining the process


of violence
Let me now put this case in the context of a general theory of violent situations (Collins,
2008 and sources therein). Detailed micro-sociological evidence from videos, photos,
ethnographies, and reports of subjective phenomenology show that violent confrontations between humans are extremely stressful: peoples facial expressions and body postures show a high level of tension; physiologically, heart beats often accelerate to 160

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beats per minute, as cortisol and adrenaline flood the body; at these levels, fine motor
coordination is lost, and people cannot easily control their fingers, hands, or feet
(Grossman, 2004). Some people freeze up, and are unable to move at all; others go into
a frenzy of throwing fists or kicks, which may or may not hit their intended target. People
with weapons at close range are surprisingly inaccurate; for both cops and criminals,
gangs and soldiers, far more bullets are fired than hit the target, and 50% of the bullets
can miss an enemy less than two meters away (Glenn, 2000; Holmes, 1985; Marshall,
1947; reanalysis in Collins, 2008: 4370).
Micro-sociological evidence shows that violence is difficult, not easy. This is particularly difficult when it is face-to-face, literally two antagonists looking each other in fullchannel social communication.1 If one surveys instances of hostile confrontations, the
most typical pattern is that the confrontation does not rise to the level of actual violence,
but stops at bluster, threat, angry insults, and eventually winding down by mutual withdrawal. Violence comes up against a barrier of confrontational tension and fear. For violence to happen, there must be situational conditions which allow at least one side to
circumvent the barrier. This does not mean that once past the barrier, tension disappears;
high levels of physiological arousal and perceptual distortion remain, which explains why
fighters typically fire so many shots and miss with so many of them. Contrary to our popular images of violence as something easy for people to do, violent threats most of the time
abort they do not get past the barrier; and when they do pass the barrier, violence is
mostly incompetent, not hitting its target, or often hitting the wrong target, innocent
bystanders or even members of ones own side, so-called friendly fire. In short: violence
is emotionally difficult to carry out, and having a motivation is not enough.
This is why most of our theories about violence are very weak predictors of what will
actually happen in a conflictual situation. Being a racist is not sufficient to make someone violent; nor is being poor, subaltern, shamed, hopeless, angry, or filled with religious
fervor. It does not matter how angry or alienated someone is; they still have to get past
the barrier of confrontational tension. Anger mostly produces verbal threats, especially
when conversing with ones own supporters about a distant enemy.
I call this emotional condition confrontational tension and fear (ct/f) because that is
the expression on the faces of people at the moment of violence, in videos and photos;
anger may have been expressed moments earlier but disappears when the violence actually looms. Is this because people are afraid of being hurt? That is a common-sense
explanation, but in fact most people are rather good at accepting pain (as in medical situations); and the kinds of situations in which fighters show the most tension are not those
which are statistically the most dangerous; for instance, distant artillery fire causes far
more casualties than close-up bayonet charges, but soldiers are much more squeamish
about the prospect of sticking someone with a bayonet, especially if one does it to their
face; and most knife killings are done by stabbing in the back. The psychologist Dave
Grossman (1995, 2004), citing this evidence, argues that humans are more afraid of killing someone else than of being killed.
In micro-detail, what humans have greatest trouble with is a violent confrontation with
another human being when they can see each others eyes and face, communicating each
others humanity. In contrast to Grossman, I put the emphasis on the process of confrontation rather than on fear of killing. In my work Interaction Ritual Chains (Collins, 2004), the

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micro-sociology of normal, peaceful interactions, the basic pattern is: when persons are
physically nearby, recognize that each other is attending to the same thing, and share a
similar emotion, a process is set off that builds rhythmic entrainment. Mutual focus of
attention plus emotional contagion generates intersubjectivity, which is both mental but
also especially importantly in this context bodily, physiological. Mutual entrainment,
when it proceeds to relatively high levels, is a version of Durkheims collective effervescence. We can measure the degree of micro-coordination of participants by voice rhythms,
body movements, and emotional expressions; once past a threshold, feedback loops intensify the mutual focus and shared emotion, generating feelings of solidarity, morality, and
emotional energy.
A conflictual confrontation also has the ingredients of an interaction ritual: close bodily presence; mutual focus since violent threat makes everyone intensely aware of each
other; and a shared emotion of anger or hostility. But it adds one other feature: conflict is
action at cross-purposes, each side trying to impose their dominance on the other, both
trying to establish the rhythm that the other will give in to. Violence is an attempt to
establish micro-situational dominance in a tightly shared situation; and this is what generates the confrontational tension. Violence is so difficult because it goes against our
propensity to attune our nervous systems to those with whom we establish intersubjectivity. Quite literally, persons in a conflictual situation, who are close enough to send and
receive signals from each others face and body, feel the tension of simultaneously
becoming highly attuned to each other, while trying to force the other to submit to ones
will. Tensions arising from tight mutual focus at cross-purposes explain why conflict
tends to be so emotional, and why violence often gets out of control, not just when lethal
weapons are used, but also in milder kinds of violence. Thus Grossmans argument, that
tension arises from fear of killing another person, does not go far enough; the tension
arises from a pervasive micro-interactional source, even when killing is not intended.
This micro-sociological dynamic provides the key to explaining not just why violent
situations often abort, and why violence is generally incompetent, but also what factors
make violence successful that is to say, who wins and loses, and how much damage
they do.

Violence as pathways circumventing confrontational


tension/fear
There are many different types of violence. I divide them into pathways circumventing
the barrier of confrontational tension. In brief summary, the four main ways in which this
is done are: (1) finding a weak victim, especially a victim who is emotionally dominated;
(2) orienting to an audience that encourages a small number of performers of violence;
(3) remaining at a distance to launch weapons without having to confront the enemy
face-to-face; (4) a clandestine approach which pretends there is no conflict until the very
last instant.
Let me deal with the last two types first, since these are the ones with the lowest tension.
The easiest way is to avoid face-to-face contact with the person you are fighting (pathway
number 3); it is much easier, emotionally, to fire artillery or drop bombs from a distance, to
engage in arson or vandalism (Grossman, 2004). Quite literally, the faceless enemy is easiest

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to hate. A psychologically similar strategy (pathway number 4) is clandestine violence:


attack so that you do not actually have to confront the enemy; guerrilla strikes on unsuspecting targets, gang drive-bys shooting into a crowd. Suicide bombings use this psychology, since the attacker pretends to be normal and peaceful, until the moment the bomb is
set off (Collins, 2008: 430448). Modern military drones firing rockets by remote control
are the counterpart of the guerrilla and the suicide bomber.2
The more humanly difficult kinds of violence are where the two sides consciously
confront each other face-to-face (pathways numbers 1 and 2). Here the attacker undergoes quite a lot of tension, because the confrontation with the opponent is palpable;
under certain conditions the person gets past this barrier, and now plunges into a situation
in which the tension is transmuted into another emotional state. I will use the metaphor
of entering the tunnel of violence, an altered state of consciousness sometimes described
as dream-like, frenzied, or out of oneself. Interviews with police officers who have been
in shootouts show widespread experience of perceptual distortions: the sense of time is
altered, and events either proceed in slow motion, like running underwater, or speed up
to a blur (Artwohl and Christensen, 1997; Klinger, 2004). Vision narrows in; the enemys
hands may become all that you see, and the rest of the world goes out of focus. Cops
often do not hear the sound of their own gun, or consciously remember how many shots
they fired; they are in a sound-proof tunnel, which suddenly pops back into the world of
noises when the action is over.
The tension and the distortion is maximal at the moment when the barrier of confrontation tension is actually breached. We have evidence from interviews with burglars
(Wright and Decker, 1994); their moment of maximal tension is when they open the
window or door to enter the home; they often have the fantasy that the owner is sitting
inside in the dark with a gun, and will shoot them when they come through the window.
The fantasy is irrational; professional burglars are skilled at picking homes that are
empty, and only in a small minority of cases do burglars encounter inhabitants. The fantasy expresses the confrontational tension of going into the tunnel. Many burglars have
the urge to urinate or defecate a sign of tension and fear but they shit on the floor;
because using the toilet gives them the feeling of being trapped in a small room. For
similar reasons, most prefer to burglarize homes near their own neighborhood, where
they feel comfortable, and avoid distant neighborhoods even though they have richer
booty. If a burglar does encounter the homeowner, however, the latter is likely to be
injured; a trapped burglar often goes into a frenzy of trying to escape, the episode of
crime turning into the tunnel of violence.

Time-dynamics: Short, medium, and long tunnels of


violence the altered states of violent consciousness
How long can people stay in the tunnel of violence, and what enables them to do so? To
understand their dynamics, it is useful to distinguish between emotional tunnels that are
short (a few minutes or less), medium (many minutes up to several hours), and long
(several days, possibly weeks).
Short-tunnel violence (a few minutes or less): Most fights are short, such as brawls
with fists in bars. In most gang fights and police shootouts, the actual shooting is over in

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minutes; surveillance videos show that most armed robberies take less than 60 seconds
(Levine et al., 2011; Sanders, 1994; Jooyoung Lee, personal communication regarding
University of Pennsylvania research on surveillance videos). Much of this short-tunnel
violence is impulsive and unskilled; fighters have barely made it into the mouth of the
tunnel, where they aim their blows or shots under high tension and then are precipitated
back out of the tunnel by the emotional tension.
Medium-length tunnels (lasting up to an hour or more): More extended tunnels of
violence depend on stronger mechanisms which enable perpetrators to keep up their
action, overcoming ct/f or transmuting it into repetitive violence. Medium-length tunnels
include rampage killings such as massacres in schools and workplaces; also certain types
of drawn-out violence such as bullying and repeatedly humiliating a hapless victim, and
the kind of domestic violence that I have called a domestic torture regime (Collins, 2008:
141147). Also in medium-length tunnels are kinds of group violence carried out for
excitement and fun, such as football hooligan violence and flash mobs (a recent phenomenon in the US where a group of youths, notifying each other by electronic communication devices, converge on a downtown shopping street or gathering place and randomly
attack pedestrians or ransack stores).
Long tunnels of violence (several days, possibly weeks): These include killing sprees,
where a small number of persons (usually a duo) travel about breaking into houses, robbing, raping, and murdering for several days (Katz, 1988). Riots typically go on up to
three days; in instances where what is perceived as a single riot goes on longer, the violence moves to a difference venue, with different persons taking part (Collins, 2008: 248).
At the outer limit of emotional tunnels of violence are genocides; for instance the 1994
genocide in Rwanda lasted 11 weeks (Straus, 2006).
Beyond this time period, the emotional mechanism that I have called the tunnel of
violence is superseded by other mechanisms. Some genocides, where there is a strong
component of state organization and direction, can go on much longer than days or
weeks, but these extremely long processes of sustained violence are outside my model of
violence shaped by immediate, situational emotional mechanisms. Genocides covering
years must involve a great deal of emotional variation, with long periods of routine and
emotional callousness. Similarly, regimes of prolonged torture with large numbers of
victims must have different micro-sociological mechanisms (as well as different macroorganizational contexts) than short, sudden episodes of torture. My metaphor of the tunnel of violence is no longer useful for highly institutionalized forms of long-term
violence; in these very long processes, the perpetrators have come out of whatever emotional tunnels they were in at the outset, and now carry on violence under the pressures
of large-scale social organization.

The place of physiological mechanisms in a sociological


theory
As I have noted above, tunnels of violence have in common the subjective phenomenology
of being in an altered state of consciousness, with distortions of perception and the sense of
time; when the perpetrators emerge back into normal consciousness, they often describe it
as waking from a dream, and wonder if that could have been themselves who caused all the

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mayhem. The altered state of consciousness is an effect of the physiological mechanisms


underlying ct/f: the flood of adrenaline and cortisol, the extremely high heart beat, the narrowing of perceptual consciousness to the violent action or some part of it.
Does bringing physiological processes into a sociological theory make it a reductionist theory, giving the privileged explanatory position to physiology? If reductionist
means nothing butx this is not a reductionist theory. As argued above, patterns of
social interaction are the key to triggering the physiological mechanism (high adrenalin,
elevated heart beat, etc.); and how persons deal with this physiological arousal, or fail to
deal with it, is a matter of social interactions which I proceed to describe. These are
above all micro-sociological processes, that is to say, processes in which one individual
orients in refined detail to the gestures, speed, rhythm, and emotional expressions of
other persons who are in the immediate focus of mutual attention; crucial variables are
whether they tightly imitate or become entrained with each other, or whether one side of
the conflict (and particular individuals within the side) takes the lead in establishing the
micro-rhythms. (Evidence on how this happens in non-violent interaction are given in
Collins, 2004: 121125.)
In a violence-threatening confrontation, the physiological arousal is driven to a high
level; and this is the intervening mechanism that produces what I have called confrontational tension/fear. But by itself, an adrenalin rush is undifferentiated, often referred
to as a flight-or-fight mechanism (Mazur, 2005). It is capable of producing both
aggressive advance toward the target, but also panicky flight. Indeed, close microsociological observation of confrontational situations shows there are more alternatives: the antagonists can continue the confrontation into a standoff, neither fighting
nor fleeing, until the tension eventually declines through boredom (an under-analyzed
emotion, but crucial in de-escalation of small-scale conflicts; see Collins, 2008:
361369). Another outcome is to escalate to physical violence but acting under such
high tension that the body movements are clumsy and out of control. Finally, some
individuals have learned techniques for controlling their own ct/f, enabling them to act
effectively in violent situations; it is command of such micro-sociological techniques
that makes them professionals in violence. Which of these sequences occur is steered
by micro-sociological processes.
Reductionism is not the issue here. Everything that humans do has a physiological
substrate; something is happening in the body at the moments when persons move, gesture, talk, or think. Sociology can describe social processes without referring to the concomitant physiology; but where we can add information about the physiological
mechanism, this does not weaken the sociological theory but may provide detailed links
among some of the social processes. A quarrel during which each antagonist raises their
voice, makes vigorous arm movements, talks faster and no longer follows conversational
rules of turn-taking but tries to talk over their opponent such a quarrel is a social process; participants imitate each other, driving the mutual level of noise, anger, and gesturing successively higher. As sociologists, we have our own evidence for these patterns
(including the aid of audio recordings, photos, and videos); we also observe that confrontations often stall or become stalemated, for instance ending in angry exits rather than
fights. We can stay on the sociological level and theorize these patterns as confrontational tension/fear and pathways circumventing ct/f.

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But I go on to incorporate the argument of the psychologist Grossman (1995, 2004)


that the tension and its debilitating effects are due to high levels of adrenaline and cortisol (Mazur, 2005). This enables us to specify in further detail what happens in various
scenarios of conflict: at extremely high levels (a heart beat over 160 beats per minute,
bpm), the physiological tension is so great that people become paralyzed, merely passive
victims of attack; at high but less extreme levels (ca. 150 bpm) fighters can function but
misperceive targets and fight clumsily. A fraction of fighters, through social mechanisms
such as training, and as I shall emphasize, internal loops of self-conscious control, have
learned to focus their attention, and to perform particular bodily postures that enable
them to bring down their physiological arousal to a level at which they can function
effectively in violence. These are all sociological processes, both responding to the physiology, and also controlling the physiology.3
The causal relationship between physiology and social action is not a one-way street, but
flows both ways. This is particularly apparent in the realm of emotional processes since
emotions are combinations of physiological arousal, bodily movements (especially face,
voice, gesture), together with cognitions and micro-interactional communications with other
persons. And among such emotional interactions, violence is emphatically a process involving bodies while remaining quintessentially social; it is the micro-alignment of the bodies in
relation to each other, and the internal loops that make up the process of individual consciousness,4 that determines how the violence will play out, or indeed whether it does not come off
at all. Here the physiological process adds welcome evidence for further details of ct/f and
how it is sometimes circumvented; but I would stress that the major causal flows in the
sequence are social. The interaction among several humans bodies in close communication
with each other is quite literally driving their individual physiology from the outside in.
Returning now to the micro-sociological explanation of the differences among short,
medium, and long-term tunnels of violence: the physiological component is strongest in
short-term and medium-length episodes. I assume that for extremely long regimes of
violence, the adrenaline/cortisol rush and its concomitants are no longer a major part of
what is driving the violent performance; or perhaps it only kicks in intermittently at particular moments. The latter possibility needs empirical research.
What we know about the experience of violence the pounding heart, the confusion,
the being overwhelmed by emotions, the distortions of perception and sense of time
come mostly from descriptions of short, sudden descents into the tunnel of violence.
What happens to these physiological and perceptual mechanisms when the tunnel is
medium or long, going on for hours, or for days?
I suggest three mechanisms, all involving an extension of the micro-interactional entrainment which characterizes interaction rituals: (A) self-entrainment of the violent person in
his/her own bodily rhythms, with little input from the victim; (B) reciprocal entrainment
between the bodily rhythms of perpetrator and victim, such that the attacker sets the rhythm
but also responds to the victims attempts to resist or cooperate; (C) audience or team
entrainment, where the perpetrator of violence is oriented chiefly to a supporting group
rather than to the victim.5 These are ideal types, and can overlap in a particular case, as well
as appear in relatively pure forms; but each has a distinctive mechanism that can be more
prominent than the others. The mixed cases, in principle, could be measured in terms of the
strength at which each of the three mechanisms is playing its part.

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(A) Self-entrainment in ones own bodily rhythms


Self-entrainment is typical of severe domestic violence: a man strangling his spouse at the
climax of a long argument, or a parent beating a child repeatedly in a rage (Collins, 2008:
134155). Such violence seems paradoxical, because the more devastating its effects, the
more the perpetrator piles abuse on the pathetic victim. The violent abuser has become
entrained with him/herself; his consciousness narrows to his own anger, caught up in his
own bodily rhythms of heavy breathing, shouting, hitting. In this type of self-entrainment,
an important feature is that the victim is extremely weak, unable to do anything that alters
the momentum of the attacker. It is a closed circuit, a self-perpetuating tunnel.
Self-entrainment by the attackers is the chief mechanism of military atrocities, where
enemy soldiers who cease fighting are massacred, or civilians who have the bad luck to be
in the path of victorious soldiers in the moment they have established emotional dominance in battle (Collins, 2008: 89111). The passivity of the victims is characteristic of all
such massacres, emotionally defeated and thus unable to disturb the self-entrainment of
the victors in their own violence.
The self-entrainment mechanism can also operate in situations where the enemy is
no longer accessible, resulting in a wild, pointless frenzy of noise and sometimes hilarity. A US Marine lieutenant in Vietnam describes a battle in which he was shouting
myself hoarse to control the platoons fire. The marines were in a frenzy, pouring volley after volley into the village, some yelling unintelligibly, some screaming obscenities. . . . A bullet smacked the earth between us and we went rolling over and came
rolling back up again, me laughing hysterically. As enemy fire fades away, and reports
come in by radio that the Viet Cong are retreating, the lieutenant tries to find a way to
get his platoon across the deep river to finish them off. The platoon became as excited
as a predator that sees the back of its fleeing prey . . . I could feel the whole line wanting to charge across the river. But there turns out to be no way to get across, and the
lieutenant has trouble coming down from his emotional high. I could not come down
from the high produced by the action. The fire-fight was over, except for a few desultory exchanges, but I did not want it to be over. He then deliberately exposes himself
to draw enemy fire so that a sniper can be located walking back and forth and feeling
as invulnerable as an Indian wearing his ghost shirt; when nothing happens, he begins
shouting and firing wildly, and when his own troops begin to laugh at him, he laughs
uncontrollably too. Eventually he calms down. The whole episode apparently takes
about an hour (Caputo, 1977: 249ff.).
This hilarity is also evidenced during rampage killings. In the 60-minute massacre at
Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, the pair of students who did the killing were
shown on security videos shouting and laughing (www.wikipedia/Columbine High
School Massacre). Analytically, we should regard this not so much as a sign of the viciousness of the killers, but of the extreme degree of their physiological arousal and altered
state of consciousness metaphorically, the depth of the tunnel of violence they have
entered. There were two killers at Columbine, but they stayed together rather than splitting up, although that would have been a more effective way of killing more victims. Their
shared laughter, as well as their shooting, was part of their self-entrainment; laughter is a
rhythmic, self-sustaining, involuntary repetition taking over the body and permeating
ones mood and consciousness, and high levels of laughter depend on group participation.

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It appears that this kind of sustained laughter only occurs in rampage killings when there
are at least two attackers (although I have not systematically investigated all the available
cases in regard to this detail) (see also Newman et al., 2004). Laughter is a good example
of a self-entraining process, and thus may be regarded as an especially powerful selfsustaining interaction ritual (more detail and references in Collins, 2004: 6566); it exemplifies what I mean by saying that a prolonged tunnel of violence is based on a mechanism
of self-entrainment.

(B) Reciprocal micro-coordination between attacker and victim


Habitually or recurrently violent individuals are those who have learned how to locate
weak victims. But a weak victim is not just physically lacking in muscles or weapons;
he/she is weak emotionally. Bullies in schools or prisons have learned a social skill, reading the interactional cues to find persons they can easily dominate. The bullying relationship is the archetype for specialists in violence, such as armed robbers and career
criminals, but also guerrillas, and hitmen; all have learned the technique of finding victims at the moments when they are situationally weak. Such people have learned the
technique by which they can do something most other people find very difficult, circumventing the barrier of confrontational tension. They have learned how to enter the tunnel
of violence, to stay in the tunnel, to perform fairly well in the tunnel that is, not necessarily highly competent at violence, shooters who can hit their targets, but better than
those they choose to fight against. Persons skilled at violence have learned to use their
victims confrontational tension against themselves.
This kind of skilled violence may be professional and instrumental, whether it is used for
crime, war, or legitimately sanctioned state violence. But it also can be used as an end in itself,
done for the sake of the emotional satisfaction. In the terms of interaction ritual theory, here
violence is an extremely asymmetrical interaction ritual, with strong common focus of attention by both sides, attackers and victim, and tight rhythmic coordination; but the rhythm is set
entirely by one side, and the other side is forced to accede to it (Collins, 2004: 111138). It is
a ritual producing Durkheimian collective effervescence, but where all the emotional energy
and solidarity goes to one side. The victim is not only beaten repeatedly, much more than
necessary to establish dominance in the situation, but also taunted, made to show signs repeatedly of his/her subservience. Dutch sociologist Don Weenink (2011), in an investigation of
hundreds of court cases, calls this playing the humiliation game. A bullying group of toughs
pick out an isolated or socially incompetent target, and proceed not only to hurt him at length
but to humiliate him by repeatedly demanding self-denigrating expressions. Such humiliatorbullies excuse their violence by the dominant discourse of he offended me, but the provocative behavior typically is no more than being nerdy or different. The victim is made to beg for
mercy, to take the blame on oneself, to make derogatory comments about oneself echoing the
accusations of the dominators.
The longest tunnels, the most prolonged immersion in the altered state of consciousness,
are sustained by a series of self-reinforcing feedback loops, involving the overt or tacit
communications between dominant attackers and passive or humiliated victim, and the
bodily movements of violent attack. On the physiological level, the flooding of the body
with adrenaline and cortisol starts already during the phase of confrontation and increases

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during the escalation into violence. What determines variations in how long this arousal
persists needs further analysis. My hypothesis is that social/interactional mechanisms and
subjective loops of self-interaction can prolong this physiological arousal. Alternatively,
the adrenaline/cortisol arousal may subside, but the behavioral pattern of violent attack
continues on, as a kind of momentum imparted initially by physiology and taken up by
social/interactional mechanisms that I have described as various types of entrainment.
Self-entrainment in ones own rhythms (mechanism A) and reciprocal micro-coordination
between attacker and victim (mechanism B) appear to be characteristic of medium-length
tunnels of violence. Self-entrainment is the shorter-lasting mechanism. Individuals come
down from an adrenaline/cortisol rush within an hour or less;6 and it is their self-absorption
in their own pounding heart, flailing limbs and repeated use of weapons, or involuntary
laughter, that is the repetitive feedback loop that keeps them in the tunnel, and so out of
touch with their surroundings. Reciprocal micro-coordination (mechanism B) goes on
longer because perpetrators need not be in a self-enclosed frenzy; their victims behavior is
a larger part of the feedback system. Thus bullies/humiliators are calmer than purely selfentrainment types of violent persons, having learned to provoke their victim into the behavior that makes it easy for them to renew their emotional high by tormenting the victim
again (Weenink, 2001).
Turning now to mechanism (C), I suggest it is especially important in long tunnels
(over a few hours, up through days or weeks); but mechanism (C) may also be involved
in shorter tunnels when combined with other mechanisms.

(C) Audience/team entrainment


Here a group of violent attackers greatly outnumber their victim, or a large audience
encourages the violence; thus the micro-social feedback loop is chiefly between perpetrators and their supporters. We see this pattern in photos of violence in riots, where
almost all the violence happens in groups of between three and six attackers beating up
a single victim who has fallen to the ground (Collins, 2008: 115131). Evenly matched
forces, in contrast, are more likely to engage in standoffs, doing no more than blustering
at each other. A great disparity in numbers makes one side dominant emotionally, so that
they become entrained in their group rhythm, their mutual focus eclipsing confrontational tension with the victim. They make violence a Durkheimian solidarity ritual
among themselves. In riots, the great majority of the crowd does not take part in the
violence; using data from photos and videos, I estimate 9099% (Collins, 2008: 413
429, 520). But the non-participating part of the crowd is not superfluous. They provide a
necessary backdrop to the small clusters of violent activists, by cheering or otherwise
just making noise; they provide the emotional support that enables the violent elite to
keep up their emotional energy. The crowd creates an emotional attention space, the
center of which is occupied by the violent activists. They are the center of attention, and
know that they are; the tacit orientation between violent activists and crowd supporters
is what makes this form of violence successful.
My data show that the attitude of the crowd controls how long and severe the fight
will be: when the audience enthusiastically cheers the fight, it is prolonged; when the
audience is indifferent, fights are mild; when the audience actively opposes a fight or

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becomes bored with it, the fight quickly ends (Collins, 2008: 203204).7 The exception
is where the number of attackers is relatively large; here the attitude of the surrounding
crowd does not matter, since the fighters constitute a big enough audience for themselves. This might be referred to as team entrainment: the members of the attacking
force circulate emotional signals among themselves, amplifying their polarization
against the enemy, and egging each other on to keep up the attack. I suggested at the
outset that the Oakland cop who shot a prone man in the back of the head was reacting
more to the agitation of his police partner than to the behavior of the victim.
Comparisons show that the more police officers are called to a chase or standoff, the
more likely police violence is to happen, the arrested person being beaten or shot
(Collins, 2008: 129; Worden, 1996). The mechanism of team entrainment produces
more violence, on both sides of the law. This appears to be the same mechanism in
prolonged crime sprees, usually carried out by pairs or small groups of perpetrators. In
contrast, work rampages (where a disgruntled employee or former employee returns to
attack the workplace) are usually carried out by a solo individual; their tunnel of violence is usually fairly short, on the order of minutes, rarely as long as an hour. Such
violence lacks support both from audience and from a team.

Tunnels with no exit


Another important variant becomes apparent when we look at tunnels of violence as
short, medium, or long. Some of them are relatively easy to cut off. As noted, in many of
the short tunnels, an emotional shift in the initial confrontation can precipitate some
persons over the brink into violence; but ct/f is still very strong, no rhythm is set up, and
the fighters quickly are precipitated back out again. Particularly when sides are relatively
evenly matched, such as confrontations between rival gangs, the confrontation is mostly
bluster, hitting or shooting if it happens is very brief and inaccurate, and both sides beat
a hurried retreat (see evidence in Wilkinson, 2003). The mechanisms of self-entrainment
(A), reciprocal entrainment (B), and audience/team entrainment (C) can keep violence
going on longer, producing medium or long tunnels. But the medium and longer tunnels
vary among themselves in another way: for most of them, the tunnel eventually ends; the
altered state of consciousness passes, and the perpetrator is back into normal consciousness, the violence finished. But in a dramatic subset, usually the most violently destructive cases, the perpetrator enters the tunnel permanently.
It is not clear whether such attackers consciously plan their violence to be a suicidal
life-ending episode by seeking to be killed, or whether they just find their way into the
tunnel, where perception of time is distorted and there is no future, and never find their
way out. In some circumstances, persons who enter this killing frenzy cannot stop. In the
Indonesia massacre of Chinese in 1965, some participants went on marauding even after
their racial targets were dead, and eventually were shot down by the Indonesian army
(Cribb, 1990). This appears to be related to the tradition of amok, in which an individual
who wants to end his life and/or avenge a grievance launches himself into a frenzied
attack on everything around him, until he is finally killed (Westermeyer, 1973).
But the tunnel with no exit is not entirely a matter of cultural traditions; in the US and
Europe, school rampage killings and work massacres often end with the perpetrators

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killing themselves or being killed by the police; and murderous crime sprees typically
end with the death of the marauders (Katz, 1988; Newman et al., 2004). They enter into
their spree and make no effort to bring it to an end. This is not necessarily a matter of
suicidal intention at the outset, but may emerge as the spree goes along.8 The mechanisms that cause this kind of perpetual self-entrainment in the tunnel of violence are not
well-understood. The physiological arousal of adrenaline and cortisol will eventually
come back down to normal, but some other kinds of social and cognitive/subjective
mechanisms can prolong violence.

Conclusion
To recapitulate the key points: Most conflicts do not escalate to violence because they
cannot circumvent the barrier of ct/f. Some situational circumstances precipitate violence, but the tunnel is usually short, a few minutes or less, because the high level of
emotional/physiological rush makes fighters incompetent, disoriented, and uncomfortable, and precipitates them back out again as soon as they can find a way to escape. Some
circumstances produce a medium-length tunnel of violence, up to an hour or more; here
the violence is prolonged by the mechanisms of self-entrainment in ones own rhythms;
by reciprocal entrainment between the attacker who imposes the rhythm and the victim
that follows it; or by entrainment between audience/team and violent actor. For relatively
long tunnels of violence those lasting for hours or days the physiological mechanisms
must be prolonged or taken over by social interactional mechanisms, including subjective feedback loops of consciousness and emotion, that keep up the emotional engrossment and the altered state of consciousness, long past the point at which the adrenaline/
cortisol rush would normally subside. I have raised the question as yet unanswered as
to why some perpetrators stay in the tunnel of violence until their own death brings it to
an end, while most perpetrators eventually come down from their emotion and return to
normal consciousness.
I will add two points. First, there are some individuals who manipulate the tunnel of
violence for their own advantage. They are sophisticates of violent situations; they recognize that adrenaline rush will occur, that there will be perceptual distortions, that they
will experience a state of altered consciousness. They become experts at stepping into
and out of the tunnel of violence, under their own conscious control. Professional enforcers for organized crime those whose job is to intimidate persons who owe money or
otherwise try to evade control by a criminal enterprise often deliberately practice a
ferocious demeanor; they do this not in order to be out of control, in the zone of ferocious
violence, but precisely for the opposite purpose, to scare the victim but keep him/her
alive and functioning for the organization (Collins, 2008: 435436). Bully gangs who
specialize in humiliating their victims at length enjoy their activity, talk and laugh about
it among themselves, and plan their forays in the tunnel as deliberate episodes of recreation (Weenink, 2011). Similarly, members of police SWAT teams, some specially trained
soldiers, and other official specialists in violence cultivate their ability to perform inside
the tunnel of violence (Collins, 2008: 381409; King, 2005; Klinger, 2004). Their violence is not necessarily cold and emotionless, but it is instrumental; such sophisticates of
violence operate on a meta-level of consciousness, recognizing the emotional forces of

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the tunnel and adjusting to them for calculated purposes. Clearly, such sophisticates are
operating in an entirely different fashion from those who enter the tunnel with no exit.
Finally, I would urge a program of micro-sociological research on the subjective phenomenology, and the detailed emotional and physical expressions, of persons in these
various kinds of violent experience. We need data from interviews and other methods on
people who have taken part in these various kinds of violence the different pathways
around ct/f , the different length tunnels of violence as to their experience of their own
physiology and sensory perception. Do they all experience the pounding heart beat that
makes motor coordination so difficult? What kinds of sensations, if any, do they feel in
their bodies? How much distortion of sounds, how much slowing down or speeding up
of time, how much visual blur or visual clarity? Are there different patterns for persons
in very short tunnels, compared to those in medium, long, and no-exit tunnels? My discussion above implies that for the longer tunnels, the extremely intense physiological
rush and perceptual distortions, characteristic of impulse, short-tunnel violence, are mitigated in some ways for longer tunnels.
A key role here may be internal dialogue. Researchers (Archer, 2003; Collins, 2004;
Wiley, 1994) have now made some progress in methods of collecting and analyzing selftalk utterances that go through peoples minds as they talk to themselves.9 Highly
competent users of violence some police, snipers, hitmen use internal dialogue to
guide themselves through violent situations (Artwohl and Christensen, 1997; Klinger,
2004). These are the individuals who appear to have the greatest amount of sophisticated
meta-consciousness of the pressures of violent situations and how they themselves can
best perform in them. We know less about internal dialogue for persons whose violence
is shaped by other mechanisms. Does all internal dialogue blank out for them? If so, this
would unpack another dimension of the often-reported experience of being in an altered
state of consciousness, since inner dialogue is a key feature of normal conscious life. Do
they go on autopilot, feeling they are merely going through a rhythm that takes them
over? Police officers and soldiers often say my training took over, i.e. they did what
they had learned to do as an unconscious habit, without verbally thinking about it. But
also, violent persons could go on autopilot in a negative sense, simply feeling out of
control, pushed around by forces internal or external to their own bodies and
consciousness.
We would also like to know this for victims of violence, those who are dominated by
others: do they blank out their internal dialogue, into a generalized passivity? Does the
freezing up of bodily movements that characterizes many victims of extreme violence
extend to mentally freezing up as well? Yet another possibility is that some violent individuals have a runaway interior dialogue; at the extreme, they hear voices that they do not
own as their own (part of the clinical definition of psychosis).10 But it may be that the
chaos of external impressions is matched by a chaos of internal voices one way to perform incompetently in a violent situation is to be overwhelmed by an incoherent internal
dialogue. These conjectures are for the most part very hypothetical; there is no good evidence that the stereotyped raving lunatic produces much violence, and I have argued as
to why persons who are severely mentally ill would be unlikely to have the micro-interactional sensitivity that is one of the bases of performing violence competently (Collins,
2008: 187189). On the whole, I am inclined to expect that lack of internal dialogue goes

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along with the stronger processes of entrainment, and that only those sophisticates who
use meta-consciousness to instrumentally manipulate violent situations have much internal dialogue.
Finally, what is the value of penetrating deeply into these micro-mechanisms, to the
level not only of emotions but physiology, and the details of their time-dynamics? Such a
research program is an important step for testing the theory of violence as a set of pathways
around confrontational tension/fear. Since the process of violence, and its triggering-off,
involves both the perpetrators own ct/f, and their targets, we need to pay close attention to
the micro-details of persons on all sides of a threatening episode not just the person who
retrospectively becomes called the perpetrator, but also the victim or loser, as well as audience and bystanders. Such comprehensive data from real-life violent episodes are becoming increasingly available, with new techniques such as mobile phone cameras and CCTV
surveillance cameras (an example is the research of Levine et al., 2011).
Examining the micro-sociology of participants in situations where violence threatens
also promises important payoffs on the applied level. From micro-interactional ethnographies, we know that threatened violence often aborts; even in military situations, standoff is more common than attack. This means that the triggering mechanisms for escalating
violence in terms of my theory, finding pathways around ct/f are crucial for violence
or for heading it off, in each immediate local situation. Self-awareness of emotional
mechanisms and feedback loops opens up the possibility of human actors controlling
their emotional mechanisms, and thus their violence. For example, Klusemann (2010)
showed by analysis of videos how the tipping point to a massacre came about in the
ethnic cleansing wars in former Yugoslavia in 1995. More widespread awareness of the
micro-sociological mechanisms that allow or that prevent violence are literally a matter
of life of war or peace, potentially under the conscious control of participants in the local
situation. In this respect, where most theories of violence are pessimistic pointing to
long-term patterns of life-course, social inequality, or cultural grievance micro-sociological theory of violence is optimistic. The macro-conditions leading to violence are
relatively intractable, and our chances of changing them in the foreseeable future are
dim. But whatever the grievances or structural tendencies toward violence, all potential
violence must pass through the eye of the needle which is situational ct/f. Situation by
situation, violence can be avoided. Conscious awareness of how to promote this is what
the micro-situational theory of violence can provide.
Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or
not-for-profit sectors.

Notes
1. As evidence, violence is easiest to carry out when the attacker cannot see the eyes or face of
the victim. Armed robbers prefer to perform a hold-up from behind, and become tense when
victim and robber stare in each others faces; Mafia hitmen specialize in shooting their victim suddenly in the back of the head (Collins, 2008: 430440). German special police units
executing Jews in Poland during the Holocaust were most successful when their victims were
lying face down to be shot in the back of the head, and were most likely to shirk in their killing

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2.

3.

4.

5.

6.
7.

8.

9.

10.

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duties when they could see the victims face (Browning, 1992). Violence in prisons and in
police raids is higher when either the attackers or the victims wear hoods over their head,
thereby hiding their human expressiveness (Grossman, 1995).
Distant and clandestine violence are action-sequences extending further back in time than the
immediate micro-situation; they are often institutionalized tactics, planned and set in motion
by formal organizations. But these tactics have been chosen and institutionalized because
they solve the micro-sociological obstacle of ct/f. The macro-sociological organization of
violence is responsive to the micro-sociology of the Schwerpunkt.
Some analysts (Barchas and Mendoza, 1984) have referred to this type of linkage as sociophysiology, to emphasize the role of social interaction among persons in triggering physiological mechanisms.
I am invoking a symbolic interactionist theory of the inner self as social, in which the key
activity of consciousness is comprised of thought, internalized dialogue. See Collins (2004:
183220) and Wiley (1994). The subjective experience of consciousness also involves internalized emotions coming from social interactions, reshaped and amplified in various ways
through interaction among the various parts of the self; this is an aspect of the sociological
theory of the self that needs more close study.
Earlier, I began by dividing different kinds of violence into four main pathways around the
barrier of confrontational tension/fear. Two of these types (pathway number 1: finding a weak
victim) and (pathway number 2: orienting to a supporting audience) now come into play with
my present examination of the micro-mechanisms that sustain emotional impetus for tunnels
of various length. (A: self-entrainment) and (B: reciprocal micro-coordination) are both components of (pathway number 1: finding a weak victim); (C: audience or team entrainment) is
an explication on the micro-level of (pathway number 2: orienting to a supporting audience).
This is a rough estimate from observations of violent situations; the actual length is subject to
variation with other conditions yet to be spelled out. See Mazur (2005).
This is based on my analysis of 89 incidents of unarmed fights, observed by myself and my
students. A hypothesis arising from the above is that the audience support mechanism produces tunnels of violence that are more easily, or more abruptly, truncated than other types
of violence. The violence depends largely on an external mechanism, much less dependent
on internal physiological and emotional feedback loops with the violent actors. On the other
hand, if the audience favors violence, it can keep it going for a longer time in the absence of
strong internal emotional mechanisms.
In this respect murderous sprees have a different mechanism than serial killers; the latter
usually kill one victim at a time, with long intervals between; and serial killers usually have
a well-controlled normal identity, which they use as their cover during the intervals between
killings, and as a tactical device for approaching their victims (Hickey, 2002). For this reason,
I hesitate to include serial killers as operating through the mechanisms of the various tunnels
of violence. Their explanation must lie elsewhere.
There is scattered information of self-talk during episodes of violence (Collins, 2008: 435),
but as yet there are no systematic comparisons among different scenarios and types of
violence.
Wiley (1994) theorizes mental health and strong self-agency as the ability to use internal
dialogue to maintain ones own plan of action against external pressures and unwelcome emotions alike; and mental illness as impairment of internal dialogue.

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Author biography
Randall Collins is Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
He was President of the American Sociological Association, 2010-2011. Previously he has taught
at the University of Virginia, University of California Riverside, University of Chicago, Harvard,
and Cambridge University where he was Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions.
Among his books are Macro-History: Essays in Sociology of the Long Run (Stanford University
Press, 1999), The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Harvard
University Press, 1998), Interaction Ritual Chains (Princeton University Press, 2004), and
Violence: A Micro-Sociological Theory (Princeton University Press, 2008). His blog, The
Sociological Eye, is at: sociological-eye.blogspot.com/

Rsum
Des lments dobservations ethnographiques prcises, de photos, de vidos et dinterviews
montrent que les personnes qui sont dans des situations de menaces violentes prouvent
un tat motionnel de tension conflictuelle/peur (ct/f). Cette motion constitue une
barrire qui stoppe la plupart de la violence. tant donn lun des modles dinteraction
qui permettent la violence de dpasser cette barrire, la violence est en grande partie
dsorganise, imprcise et incontrle. Des moments de violence sont souvent ressentis
comme troubles de la perception du temps, de la vision, des sons et de soi-mme, un tat
altr de conscience violente auquel je fais rfrence par la mtaphore de tunnel de violence.
La deuxime partie de larticle extrapole sur la thorie pour considrer les mcanismes par
lesquels le tunnel motionnel est prolong en pisodes de plus de quelques secondes. Ces
mcanismes incluent lauto-entranement dans les propres rythmes du corps, une microcoordination rciproque entre lagresseur et la victime, lentranement de lassistance ou
du groupe. Quelques personnes exprimentes apprennent des techniques pour manipuler
les processus motionnels du tunnel de la violence leur propre avantage. Une plus grande
conscience des processus microsociologiques donne lespoir dune possibilit de dtourner
la violence au niveau de la situation locale mme.
Mots-cls
Violence, tension confrontationnelle/peur, microsociologie

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Resumen
La evidencia de observaciones etnogrficas detalladas, fotos, vdeos y entrevistas indican
que las personas en situaciones de amenaza violenta experimentan un estado emocional
detensin/temor antagnico (ct/f del ingls confrontational tension/fear). Esta emocin
constituye una barrera que hace abandonar la mayor parte de la violencia. Dndose uno
de los diferentes patrones de interaccin que permiten que la violencia contine pasada
esta barrera, la violencia se convierte en algo torpe, impreciso y descontrolado. Los
momentos de violencia se experimentan con frecuencia como distorsiones perceptivas
en el flujo del tiempo, visin, sonido y la nocin de uno mismo en un estado alterado de
conciencia violenta al que yo me refiero a travs de la metfora: el tnel de la violencia.
La ltima parte del estudio extrapola la teora con el fin de considerar los mecanismos
por lo que este tnel emocional se prolonga en episodios que duran ms de unos pocos
segundos. Estos mecanismos incluyen la auto-captura de los ritmos corporales de la
persona, la micro-coordinacin recproca entre el atacador y la vctima; y la captura
del pblico o del equipo. Algunas personas con experiencia aprenden tcnicas para
manipular los procesos emocionales del tnel de violencia para su propio beneficio.
Una mayor consciencia de los procesos micro-sociolgicos proporciona la posibilidad
de desviar la violencia en la propia situacin local.
Palabras clave
Violencia, tensin/temor de confrontacin, micro-sociologa

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