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date: 27 May 2018

A Social Interactionist Approach to Violent Crime

Summary and Keywords

Since criminal violence involves doing harm to someone (as well as rule breaking) a theory of aggression is needed to help explain it. A social interactionist (SI) theory of aggression fits the bill. According to this perspective there are strong incentives for aggression. Sometimes individuals harm or threaten to harm others in order to force compliance. They compel the target to do something for them or deter them from doing something that offends them. Sometimes they punish someone who offends them in order to achieve justice or retribution. They feel morally justified and self-righteous about their behavior. Sometimes they are attempting to assert or protect their self- or social image. Finally, some violence involves thrill seeking. These are basic motives of human behavior, and they can readily explain the incentives for both verbal and physical aggression.

An SI perspective is a challenge to frustration-aggression approaches (including general strain theory) that claim that aversive stimuli and negative affect instigate aggression. Negative affect plays a much more limited causal role in producing violence from an SI perspective. A bad mood after an aversive experience may facilitate an aggressive response if people fail to consider costs and moral inhibitions when they are in a bad mood. The aversive experience does not instigate aggression unless the person responsible is assigned blame. Blame is critical because it leads to a grievance and a desire for retribution.

Some acts of criminal violence are predatory, and some stem from verbal disputes. The violence of the robber, the rapist, and the bully are usually predatory. Most homicides and assaults stem from disputes. It is therefore important to study the social interaction during disputes in order to understand why they sometimes escalate to violence. A social interactionist approach suggests it is important to study interpersonal conflict that underlies dispute-related violence, since conflict often leads to grievances. Cooperative face-work (i.e., politeness) prevents violence because it avoids attacks on selves. When such attacks occur, they tend to lead to retaliation and the possibility of escalation. Third parties can influence the outcome if they instigate or mediate the dispute, or just serve as a passive audience. Mediators can allow both sides to back down without losing face, but they can also encourage weaker parties to fight. Finally, violence can be considered a form of informal social control when social control by third parties is ineffective.

An SI approach emphasizes the importance of adversary effects (i.e., the physical threat posed by adversaries). People take into account the relative coercive power of their opponent when they decide whether to engage in violence and what tactics to use. If they attack adversaries who are physically stronger, they may rely on weapons or allies. Adversary effects explain why armed violence spreads across a community and why it lowers rates of unarmed violence. They help to explain variation in violent crime across nations, regions, and racial/ethnic groups.

Keywords: violence, victimization, social interaction, conflict, race, region, guns international, disputes

Violent crime involves violence as well as crime. The offender is harming the victim and breaking the law. A theory of aggression as well as criminological theories of deviance and conformity are therefore necessary to understand it. In this entry, a social interactionist (SI) approach is used to understand violent crime as “harm-doing.” The approach emphasizes the role of verbal disputes, adversaries, third parties, relative coercive power, and other situational factors. It also emphasizes motives related to social influence, grievances, the social self, and thrill seeking.

An SI approach treats all aggression and violence as instrumental behavior (i.e., as a means to an end). It is a challenge to frustration-aggression approaches (including general strain theory) that treat most violence as an irrational response to any kind of negative experience. SI is sometimes described as a rational choice or instrumental approach, since it focuses on the effects of incentives and costs on decision making. However, rationality is limited due to the effects of emotion, low self-control, alcohol, and other factors that impair decision making. In the heat of the moment, costs and moral inhibitions may not be considered.1 However, bad decisions committed impulsively are still decisions.

The basic assumptions of an SI approach to violence are presented in the first part of the entry. Decision making is discussed with consideration of the motivation for aggression, cognitive biases that enhance the tendency to blame others, the role of emotions, and whether people attack those who provoke them or displace their aggression. Then the focus shifts to the social interaction between antagonists and third parties. This section includes a discussion of politeness as an inhibitor of aggression and social conflict and social control as instigators of aggression. The latter part of this article focuses on two applications of the theory. The first involves domestic violence, including violence between intimate partners, siblings, and parents and children. The second application focuses on the threat posed by adversaries and how that threat affects weapon use and other characteristics of violent incidents. Adversary effects are used to understand international, regional, and racial variation in violence.

Decision Making


Interpersonal aggression is typically defined as behavior intended to harm another person (Berkowitz, 1962). Behaviors that are intended to harm but are unsuccessful are included, while behaviors that involve accidental harm are excluded. Anger is excluded unless it is directed at someone and has an intent to harm. Violence refers to a particular method of doing harm: the use or threat of physical force. Finally, intended harm-doing is included even when it is viewed as socially desirable. We may approve of self-defense and parental punishment, but these behaviors usually involve deliberate harm-doing, at least in the short term. We should avoid the tendency outside science to describe harm-doing as just punishment when we approve of it and as aggression when we view it as deviant (e.g., Kane, Joseph, & Tedeschi, 1976).

Deviance and aggression are overlapping domains that can be represented by a Venn diagram. Some aggression is deviant, and some deviance is aggression. For example, illicit drug use and other victimless crimes involve deviance but not aggression, and just punishment is aggression but not deviance. Criminal violence is both. Criminal violence can also be a response to deviance when it is used as informal social control.

Some violence is dispute-related and some is predatory, depending on the offender’s attitude toward harming the victim. In dispute-related violence, offenders value harm to the victim. They are angry and have grievances with their victims; they want to see their victims suffer. Most homicides and assaults stem from disputes but so do some robberies and rapes (Black, 1983). People can punish someone who has offended them, for example, by taking their money and forcing them to have sex. For predatory offenders, on the other hand, harm is incidental. They deliberately harm victims but are not angry at them and do not have a particular desire to harm them. Rather, they have some other goal in mind, and they are willing to harm the victim to achieve it. For example, robbery and rape typically involve predatory violence. Most robbers and rapists are indifferent to the victim’s suffering. They use violence to force the victim to comply because compliance will allow them to get something else they want (e.g., money or sex) (e.g., Felson, 2002; Wright & Decker, 1997). Finally, a predatory incident can become a dispute if, for example, the offender or victim have a violent response to some provocation during the incident.

Social Motives

From an SI perspective, the motivation for most violence is based on basic principles of social psychology. People attempt to influence others because others provide them with rewards. They believe in justice, and they think that those who engage in wrongdoing deserve to be punished. They want the esteem of others and to think favorably of themselves. These general motives can be involved in aggression. People harm others in order to force compliance, restore justice, and achieve a desired social identity or self-image. In all cases, harm is a means to an end but not an end in itself.

First, aggression can be a social influence tactic, an alternative to using persuasion and the promise of rewards. Threats, for example, can be used to compel a target to do something when non-aggressive methods fail. Predatory offenders, such as robbers and rapists, often use threats to force compliance. Aggression can also be used to deter unwanted behavior. For example, parents use threats and punishment as a deterrent when their children misbehave or disobey them.

Second, aggression can reflect a belief in retributive justice and a desire to punish wrongdoing. The offended party has a grievance and believes that justice will be restored if the offending party receives an appropriate punishment. It is ironic that people who engage in dispute-related violence often feel self-righteous and view their behavior as an act of justice. They may believe that failure to punish the misdeeds of others is itself morally wrong. Note that it is not necessarily the offended party who engages in punishment. The tendency for third parties to use violence against a wrongdoer has been called “altruistic punishment” (e.g., De Quervain et al., 2004).

Retributive justice may not be a purely social motive. Brain imaging studies suggest there may be an evolutionary basis for punishment and justice seeking (e.g., De Quervain et al., 2004). In addition, it is somewhat arbitrary whether to describe justice seeking as goal-oriented behavior (using the language of rational choice) or as conformity to a norm. However, in both cases, people are choosing to behave in a way that achieves something they value. Finally, grievances motivate conflict and violence whether they are legitimate or not. An SI perspective focuses on the subjective point of view of the participants (i.e., their “definition of the situation”). Attributions of blame, biases in those attributions, and misunderstandings all affect the outcome.

Third, people use aggression to enhance or protect their image. Those who use violence are often attempting to demonstrate to themselves and others that they are powerful and courageous. They are engaged in defensive self-presentation when their violence is provoked by a verbal or physical attack and assertive self-presentation when it is not. Assertive self-presentation motivates some predatory violence. For example, bullies attempt to demonstrate their superiority through aggression without provocation, usually in front of an audience. The best target, from a social interactionist perspective, is someone with enough power that dominating them is an accomplishment but not so powerful that they cannot be dominated.2 It is frequently asserted that men’s violence against women is an attempt to demonstrate power. However, it seems unlikely that is a typical motive since men who are violent toward women are more likely to be viewed as cowardly. In addition, the presence of an audience inhibits male violence against women (Felson, 1982).

Retaliation is a form of defensive self-presentation: it is a way of “saving face” or maintaining one’s honor when one has been attacked. Antagonists who are losing a verbal battle may turn to violence to save face. If winning the physical battle is impossible, showing a willingness to fight maintains some level of honor. By retaliating, actors avoid appearing weak and ineffectual, but their attacks create the same predicament for their adversaries. A competition or “character contest” has a zero-sum quality: one adversary’s loss is the other’s gain. While retribution leads adversaries to limit their punishments to fit the offense, self-presentation leads adversaries to try and win the contest. Identity concerns, then, lead to a more punitive attack than concerns about retributive justice.

Demonstrating toughness is probably more important for young men and for participants in honor cultures. The notion of honor has been used to explain higher homicide rates in southern states and in African American neighborhoods (e.g., Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz, 1996). However, the effect of honor is not limited to young men or to particular cultures or neighborhoods. According to Gould (2003), questions of honor arise in any symmetrical relationships where domination of one party over the other needs to be established (see also Griffiths, Yule, & Gartner, 2011).

Threats have strong implications for social selves. As described earlier, the purpose of most threats is to influence the other person to comply. However, those who comply when threatened appear weak. As a result, threats often fail to achieve their purpose and lead to retaliation instead (Deutsch & Krauss, 1960). In addition, those who make threats feel it necessary to carry out the threat if the target is not compliant. Failure to do so would reveal the source as bluffing, weak, and lacking in credibility and undermine the effectiveness of future influence. These considerations provide strong motivation for the source to deliver the threatened punishment, even when it is costly to do so (Tedeschi, Horai, Lindskold, & Faley, 1970).

A fourth motive—thrill seeking—is not a social motive. Some people enjoy participating in violent activities because they are exciting and entail some risk. Perhaps they like to gamble and ride roller coasters. The desire for thrills and the enjoyment of risk provides an incentive for predatory violence, particularly among young men (see Katz, 1988). They may enjoy a certain degree of physical danger or the risk of being caught by the police. From this perspective, individuals view risk itself as a value rather than as a reflection of potential costs. They seek it rather than avoid it. Research suggests that individual differences in thrill seeking at least partly reflect biological differences (see Raine, Brennan, & Farrington, 1997). People who engage in antisocial behavior tend to be physiologically under-aroused, as indicated by lower resting heart rates. These persons may seek out exciting activities to compensate for their physiological under-arousal. Resting heart rates have also been found to be lower for violent offenders than nonviolent offenders (e.g., Farrington, 1987), suggesting that thrill seeking may be a more important motive for violence than for other criminal behavior. However, it is probably not as common as the social motives.

The Role of Cognitive Biases and Blame

Cognitive biases may lead individuals to unfairly assign blame. From an SI perspective, blame is critical because it leads to a grievance and a desire for retribution—two motives involved in aggression. Laboratory studies show that participants attack confederates who they believe intended to shock them, even when they do not actually receive the shock (e.g., Epstein & Taylor, 1967). The results suggest that “bad intentions,” not bad experiences, lead to aggression, because they imply blame. Another laboratory study shows that participants are more likely to retaliate when a person shocks them than when a machine shocks them (Sermat, 1967). The pain is the same, but the meaning differs. Participants only retaliate when they think that a person has mistreated them.

There are several well-known cognitive biases that increase the likelihood of aggression. First, the negativity bias (i.e., the tendency of people to weigh negative information more heavily than positive information) is likely to lead to grievances and grudges (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001). One nasty remark outweighs many compliments. Second, individuals may commit the fundamental attribution error where they ignore exonerating circumstances when they judge others (Ross, 1977). They attribute bad behavior to the person’s character and ignore the situational factors that led to the behavior. Third, the self-enhancement motive may lead individuals to blame others to avoid self-blame. They are motivated to blame their adversary when there is a disagreement, or when they are working unsuccessfully with someone on a task. For example, they blame their spouse for marital problems, and they blame their business partner when the business fails. Finally, those who have a “hostility bias” are quick to assign blame and respond with aggression (Dodge & Coie, 1987). At the extreme are mentally ill people who suffer from paranoia; they think others are plotting against them and are likely to become violent in response (Felson, Silver, & Remster, 2012; Link, Monahan, Stueve, & Cullen, 1999). Their aggressive response is “rational” given their definition of the situation (Silver, 2006).

The Role of Emotions

Some scholars believe that the cause of most violence is negative affect or emotion (e.g., Berkowitz, 1989; Dollard, Miller, Doob, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939). Frustration-aggression approaches posit that aversive stimuli produce negative affect and that triggers an innate tendency to harm others.3 In other words, the negative emotions they have after an unpleasant experience leads them to engage in aggression. These scholars acknowledge that some violence is instrumental—a means to an end—but that is not their focus. According to general strain theory—the criminological version of frustration-aggression approaches—negative affect explains all types of criminal behavior (e.g., Agnew, 2006). It is somewhat vague on why people in a bad mood should be more likely to break laws.

If negative emotion and aversive stimuli instigated violent responses, violence would be common at funerals and hospitals. People would become violent when they are told that they have a terminal illness or that a loved one has died. That rarely happens. Insults are much less aversive, but they are much more likely to lead to violence. In addition, people feel worse when they blame themselves than when they blame others, but blaming others leads them to engage in violence. And, as noted in the previous section, they almost always target the person they blame.

A social interactionist approach recognizes that mood can play a role in violence, but it assigns it a much more limited role. It suggests that negative emotions and arousal after an aversive experience may facilitate an aggressive response if it interferes with careful decision making, but it is not an instigator (e.g., Loewenstein, 1996). It is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce aggression. Bad moods may also have an indirect effect on violence if they lead to behaviors that offend others. People who are depressed or in distress tend to perform poorly and, as a result, may become the target of grievances (e.g., Adler et al., 2006; Schreck, Burek, Stewart, & Miller, 2007).

From an SI perspective, individuals are making decisions even when they are “in a rage.” They must decide how to carry out the attack and how to respond to counter-attack. For example, hockey players remember to drop their stick and gloves when they fight. Even those who are in a rage almost always limit their attack. That is one reason why minor violence is much more frequent than serious violence. Decisions are sometimes made without much thought about costs and consequences, but they are still decisions. Inhibitions may be overwhelmed when individuals are angry and really want to hurt someone, but the source of that desire is not a biological urge caused by aversive stimuli. Research suggests that people only get angry when they believe they have been mistreated—a particular type of aversive stimuli (Averill, 1983).

Research showing a relationship between the experience of stressful life events and violence appears to provide support for the idea that aversive stimuli or general strain instigate violence. However, from an SI perspective stress is a facilitator, not an instigator, in that it leads to careless decisions. Stress also interferes with competent performance including the tendency to use cooperative face-work; people under stress may be less polite and impoliteness angers others. This argument is supported by evidence showing that individuals who experience stressful life events are more likely to be victims of violence (Felson, 1992; Schreck et al., 2007; Silver, 2002). The relationship between stress and violence generally reported in the literature may be due to the fact that people under stress are more likely to make careless decisions and more likely to generate grievances and get into conflicts.

Displaced Aggression

One challenge for an SI approach is to explain why people who have been provoked by one person sometimes attack someone else. A tendency for provocations to lead participants to aggress against individuals who did not provoke them has been demonstrated in laboratory studies (see, e.g., Finkel, 2014). Frustration-aggression approaches, including general strain theory, would argue that the provocation causes negative affect and that negative affect instigates aggression (or crime) against anyone who happens to be available or vulnerable.

Displaced aggression, however, is quite rare outside the laboratory. It is almost never mentioned in descriptions of homicides and assaults (e.g., Felson & Steadman, 1983; Luckenbill, 1977). The motive almost always has something to do with the response to the victim. This is well known among criminal justice practitioners. When the police look for suspects they target people who had a grievance with the victim, not people who had a grievance with someone else. Prosecutors also cite grievances with the victim when they attempt to “establish motive.” Finally, impoliteness may be misinterpreted as displaced aggression. For example, people who are irritable as a result of experiences at work may be perceived by their spouse as being aggressive when they come home. They are irritable or unenthusiastic in their greeting. They have no intent to harm, but they fail to engage in cooperative face-work.4

Some scholars have posited a mechanism involving “triggered displaced aggression.” They suggest that people are especially likely to respond aggressively to a minor provocation if they have recently experienced a larger provocation from an unrelated third party (e.g., Bushman, Bonacci, Pedersen, Vasquez, & Miller, 2005). Finkel (2014) suggested that the first (larger) provocation increases the intensity of the proclivity to aggress and that the second (smaller) provocation instigates the aggression (see also Miller, Pedersen, Earleywine, & Pollock, 2003). Frustration-aggression approaches would attribute the effect of the initial provocation on displaced aggression to add-on negative affect. An SI approach would suggest that the effect of the initial provocation is due to impairment of decision making.

Social Interaction

Since violence almost always involves personal confrontation it is important to examine the characteristics of face-to-face interaction that precede the physical attack. An SI perspective, therefore, emphasizes the impact of situational factors (see also Athens, 2005; Kennedy & Forde, 2005). Violent outcomes are not predetermined by the characteristics or initial goals of offenders. Participants can become motivated offenders during an interaction if there is a provocation. Disagreements over trivial matters may escalate into something much more serious when antagonists retaliate. Conversational turn taking violations tend to increase as participants attempt to take and hold their turns, resulting in interruptions and shouting. Either or both parties may then perceive the other’s interruptions and shouting as a personal attack. Also, evolving commitments to various lines of action may affect the outcome. For example, people may make threats with no intention of carrying them out. When the adversary calls their bluff, they may attack to avoid losing face. On the other hand, adversaries may lose their motivation to harm if their antagonist apologizes or engages in some other remedial actions.

Participants often find it difficult to anticipate the consequences of their actions since those consequences are not under their sole control. Game theory has proved useful in understanding the dilemma. When participants in experimental conflict games engage in aggression they cannot predict whether their adversaries will cooperate or retaliate. The fact that outcomes depend on both adversaries makes nonviolent outcomes more difficult to achieve. Outside the laboratory, the dilemma is revealed in research on the effects of taking an aggressive stance and using weaponry. Sometimes an aggressive stance and weapons deter adversaries from becoming violent (Anderson, 1999; Kleck, 1997). At other times, toughness elicits toughness and escalation and weapons produce arms races (e.g., Deutsch & Krauss, 1960; McCarty & Meirowitz, 2007; Myerson, 1991; Stewart, Schreck, & Simons, 2006).


In most interactions, participants are concerned about their social identity or image and the implications of that image for their status. They are also concerned that the people with whom they interact are able to present themselves favorably (Goffman, 1959). Friendly face-to-face interaction involves “cooperative face-work” where participants support the identities of other participants. Goffman (1982) described an interaction ritual where participants are given deference and selves are treated as sacred, “ritually delicate objects” (p. 31). Every participant in the interaction is uncomfortable when anyone is embarrassed or loses face. Because of cooperative face-work and the interaction ritual, people avoid expressing their grievances to those who have offended them. The likelihood of verbal aggression and therefore the likelihood of a violent encounter is reduced. On the other hand, the vulnerability of selves makes it easy for people to inadvertently offend others. In addition, a neutral response can be taken as an offense when positive support is expected. For example, people may take offense when a greeting is not enthusiastic enough. Finally, the tendency to engage in cooperative face-work may produce more serious disputes later on. Without corrective feedback people continue to offend others, leading those who are offended to have a history of complaints. When they finally express their grievance, they may be particularly angry.

Social Conflict

An SI perspective emphasizes the role of conflict or divergent interests. Since violence often stems from verbal disputes, situations that lead to conflict create opportunities for violence. For example, conflict is likely when people are in competition. Thus the SI approach has been influential in the study of violence in the workplace (e.g., Neuman & Baron, 2011). The role of conflict is also important in the study of violence between intimate partners and between siblings (Felson, 2002), which is discussed in the section on domestic violence. Finally, a recent study of homicide in San Francisco from 1849 to 2003 suggested that high rates during the gold rush were due to a higher incidence of disputes, including duels and disputes over land, mining claims, and gambling (Felson, forthcoming).

Individual differences in the tendency to provoke others and become involved in disputes also help explain variation in violence. For instance, those who engage in deviant behavior, who lack social skills, or who perform poorly in their roles are more likely to generate grievances and get involved in disputes that lead to their victimization. These factors may explain why those who suffer from mental illness have higher rates of victimization (Silver, 2002). The provocative behavior of offenders may help explain the offender-victim overlap (i.e., why offenders have such high rates of victimization) (Berg & Felson, 2016). It is important to study the effects of provocations by victims, even when we think the provocations are trivial and do not justify the violent reaction to them. Unfortunately, the fear of accusations of victim blaming has inhibited the study of the role of conflict in violence.

Social Control

Interpersonal conflict is also likely when agents of social control (such as police and parents) attempt to do their jobs. The inherent conflict between social control agents and their charges creates opportunities for violence. Agents sometime use violence if non-violent forms of social control are ineffective. Targets of social control sometimes resent attempts to control them and resist with violence. When people believe that their freedom is being unfairly constrained, they are inclined to do the opposite of what they are told (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Targets of control also sometimes get angry if they think they are not getting a fair hearing; this is known as the issue of procedural justice (Mikula, 1993). Thus, the target’s concern for status, image, or fairness can produce rebellion or “reactance” that culminates in a violent incident.

Examples of conflicts stemming from social control include the interaction between the police and suspects. These interactions create opportunities for violence by both parties (see, e.g., Engel, 2003). Police officers are never in greater danger of being killed or injured as when they are making an arrest (Brandl, 1996). In 2011, about 10% of police officers experienced an assault (U.S. Department of Justice, 2012); many of these assaults occurred when suspects were resisting arrest. Corrections officers and private security guards also experience relatively high rates of victimization (Harrell, 2011). Finally, many violent conflicts in bars are between bartenders (or bouncers) and patrons. They often occur when the bartender refuses to serve patrons who are underage or extremely intoxicated (Felson, Baccaglini, & Gmelch, 1986). Patrons feel aggrieved when they are denied service. As a result, bartenders experience a relatively high rate of victimization (Harrell, 2011). In sum, attempts at social control can be catalysts for violence.

The Role of Third Parties

Third parties can have an impact on whether disputes become violent partly because they heighten identity concerns. Experimental research suggests that the mere presence of an audience can encourage violence or discourage it, depending on perceptions of what will gain their approval (e.g., Borden, 1975). Third parties can also instigate a verbal or violent dispute. Milgram’s (1974) study of obedient aggression is the most famous example of the strong impact of instigation. Participants inflicted what they thought was intense shock when a third party instructed them to do so.

The effects of third parties depend on the gender of adversaries. Felson (1982) found that the presence of an audience during a verbal dispute increased the likelihood of violence if the antagonists were males and decreased it if one of them was female. A man’s status can increase if he is violent toward other males, but it is lowered if he is violent toward women. That is why violence toward women is likely to occur “behind closed doors.”

Third-party mediation typically inhibits violence since mediators help with negotiations and allow both sides to back down without losing face. However, mediation affects relative coercive power as well as motivation. Weaker parties may be more willing to engage in violence if they anticipate mediation by third parties. They may confront the stronger party knowing they will be protected. For example, when siblings fight, parents tend to intervene on behalf of the younger sibling (Felson & Russo, 1988). However, their desire to protect the younger sibling has a cost. Parental intervention increases the willingness of younger siblings to fight and, therefore, increases the frequency of sibling violence. It also increases the tendency of girls to fight with their brothers. Finally, it may be that women are more willing to engage in verbal aggression and violence toward their husbands when they think that the legal system or other third parties will protect them from retaliation. Intervention by third parties can turn weakness into a strength.

Mediation is more likely, and violence less likely, when adversaries have common social ties (Cooney, 1998). On the other hand, close social ties sometimes produce opportunities for violence. If someone offends or attacks family members, friends, or intimate partners, individuals may feel obligated to protect them. Also bias toward in-groups can lead third parties to become involved. Individual conflicts can become group conflicts.

Individuals sometimes rely on third parties to handle their grievances. If they are victims of illegal acts, they can rely on the criminal justice system to punish the offender. However, when the criminal justice system is unavailable or ineffective in addressing a grievance, they are more likely to use “self-help,” that is, take the law in their own hands (Black, 1983). For example, when victims are themselves engaged in illegal behavior, they may engage in self-help because going to the police is costly. The unavailability of the criminal justice system is one reason why prostitution and the drug trade are dangerous businesses (e.g., Topalli, Wright, & Fornango, 2002). The situation is comparable to sports contests where there is no referee and the participants police themselves. One suspects that pick-up games are more likely to involve violence than organized games. Also, one reason for violence in professional hockey may be the difficulty referees have observing violations. With ineffective refereeing, players engage in self-help.

Application: Domestic Violence

Family members frequently have disputes, particularly if they live together (Sprey, 1969).5 These disputes sometime become violent. Family members sometimes have divergent interests, and they are interdependent—the behavior of one affects the outcomes of the other. In addition, they have difficulty avoiding each other’s company. Avoiding contact can be a method of avoiding violence.

Conflict between intimate partners is inevitable regardless of gender or attitudes about gender. Research suggests that violence is just as prevalent in same-sex relationships as in heterosexual relationships (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). This comparison suggests that conflicts inherent in relationships account for intimate partner violence against partners, not sexism. Intimate partners fight over rejection, extra-marital affairs, divorce settlements, and child custody. Conflict is almost inevitable when people flirt, have illicit liaisons, or lose interest and pick new partners. Intimate partner violence is, not surprisingly, more likely to occur when couples are breaking up (Felson, 2002). Offended parties who are violent toward the partner or rival may be interested in deterring future liaisons, gaining retribution, or protecting their self-image. In homicides based on love triangles, males tend to target male rivals while females tend to target their male partners (Felson, 1997). This preference for killing males is probably due to normative constraints on harming women, but it may also be affected by an identity contest between male rivals.

Evidence suggests that marital violence is common because marital conflict is frequent and not because people think it is legitimate to hit one’s spouse (Felson, Ackerman, & Yeon, 2003). When one controls for the level of conflict, violence is much less likely to occur among intimate partners than among other people. In general, individuals are less likely to use violence during an altercation if the antagonist is a family member than if the antagonist is a stranger. People apparently have stronger inhibitions about hitting family members than hitting strangers, and as a result, family violence is infrequent relative to the level of conflict (Felson et al., 2003).

Assortative mating also contributes to the rate of intimate partner violence. Those who marry people who are violent or provocative are more likely to be violent and provocative themselves. Both partners may have a history of personal problems and bad decisions (Krueger, Moffitt, Caspi, Bleske, & Silva, 1998). When two difficult people are married to each other, it may have multiplicative effects on opportunities for conflict and violence.

There is some evidence that siblings fight because of their conflicting interests (Raffaelli, 1997; Roscoe, Goodwin, & Kennedy, 1987). Felson (1983) found that young siblings have conflicts over material resources, such as the use of the family television set. The potential for conflict is high between siblings because of competition for resources and unclear ownership of these resources. While property legally belongs to parents, siblings often have some claims on their clothes and other items. Even when particular goods have been assigned to one sibling, the other sibling may be permitted limited access to them. If parents require children to share their goods with siblings, conflicts are likely. Further, young children may routinely violate the property rights of their older siblings because they do not understand them. Finally, proprietary rights may shift over time as children age. In the case of “hand me downs,” goods belonging to the older sibling may be passed on to the younger one. In either case, the shifting distribution of property may result in conflict since each change needs to be renegotiated.

The division of labor in the family is another source of conflict for siblings (Felson, 1983). Siblings may attempt to avoid the performance of undesirable chores in the household. When one sibling does not do her share, the other sibling’s workload increases—a zero-sum situation. Thus, one would expect disputes over who is to perform what chore and who is making a greater effort when they both do the same chore. These conflicts may be more frequent if parents do not establish clear rules.

The control and disciplining of children are routine activities that create opportunities for physical abuse. Thus, Libbey and Bybee (1979) found that most of the cases of abuse they studied were preceded by disobedience or arguments with parents. Evidence also shows that children with behavior problems are more likely to be subsequently abused than children who are better behaved (e.g., Wolfe, 1985). Corporal punishment is also a routine activity that creates opportunities for abuse, since parents sometimes inadvertently injure the child. Finally, the escalation process is important. Children who defy their parents and retaliate when disciplined are particularly likely to be the target of severe punishment. Patterson (1982) found that parental punishment resulted in an escalating cycle of attack and counter-attack in abusive families.

Application: Adversary Effects and Group Differences

An SI approach emphasizes the importance of adversary effects (i.e., the physical threat posed by adversaries). Violent confrontations are dangerous so there is a strong incentive to pay attention to the skills, resources, and violent tendencies of adversaries. Offenders consider their relative coercive power in their decisions about whether to resort to violence. Their estimates of risk depend, in part, on whether they think their coercive power is sufficient to overcome their adversary’s coercive power. Experimental studies show that individuals are more likely to engage in violence when they have more coercive power than a target (e.g., Smith & Leginski, 1970; Benard, Berg, & Mize, 2017). A study based on survey data suggests that people are more likely to attack adversaries who are physically smaller and weaker (Felson, 1996). Size and strength, however, had no effect in incidents involving weapons. Individuals who possess a gun or other weapon alter the power equation in their favor and reduce the importance of physical characteristics.

People contemplating violence also consider the threat posed by their adversaries when they consider tactics. If adversaries are physically stronger, they may rely on weapons or allies. Because of adversary effects, violent offenders are more likely to use guns when they think their potential victim is a greater threat. A common reason offenders give for carrying guns is the possibility that their victim will be armed (Wright & Rossi, 1986). Research also shows that offenders are more likely to use guns when they confront males than when they confront females (e.g., Felson & Messner, 1996).

Adversary effects are likely to cause violence or armed violence to spread across a community and amplify differences between communities. People often retaliate when they have been victimized, and they adopt aggressive postures and arm themselves when they anticipate victimization. Violent crime may be more contagious than non-violent crime because it involves adversary effects as well as the effects of peers or third parties. Discussions of differential association usually emphasize peer effects, but associations with different adversaries may be more important when violence is involved. Adversary effects are likely to be important in any type of competitive relationship. For example, Burt (1987) found that doctors are more likely to adopt a medical innovation in response to its adoption by competitors than in response to the influence of their associates. Whether a medical innovation or violent tactics are involved, it is costly not to consider threats from competitors.

While the prevalence of firearms increases the likelihood of gun violence, it may deter violence without guns. Individuals are reluctant to engage in unarmed assaults if they believe their adversaries are armed and prone to retaliate. Antagonists may also be reluctant to engage in violence with less effective weapons when they anticipate that adversaries possess guns. Adversaries know not to “bring a knife to a gun fight.” In general, serious aggression may reduce the likelihood of minor aggression. People may be more polite in communities where people are armed or prone to violence. Their cooperative face-work may reduce the likelihood of violence. Anthropological evidence suggests that members of violent cultures tend to be more polite (see Cohen & Vandello, 2004, for a review). In places where people tend to be armed and quick to retaliate, others are careful not to offend.

The deterrent effect of adversaries may explain why cities with high rates of gun ownership tend to have lower rates of robberies that do not involve firearms (Kleck & Patterson, 1993) and why youth are less likely to threaten others with weapons when they live in counties where guns are prevalent (Cook & Ludwig, 2004). According to McGrath (1984) gun toting in mining towns in the 19th century increased the incidence of homicide but deterred property crime. As a result, homicide rates were much higher in these mining towns than in eastern cities, but robbery rates were no higher, and burglary rates were lower.

Adversary effects help to explain variation in violent crime across groups. It leads to a focus on variation in the nature of violence rather than the overall frequency. Since young men engage in fistfights in most communities, rates of unarmed assaults do not vary much. Armed violence is much more variable.

International Patterns

The idea of adversary effects can help to explain variation in violent crime across countries. Evidence shows that the United States has a much higher rate of gun homicides than European countries, a somewhat higher rate of non-gun homicides, and a similar rate of assault and non-violent crime (Zimring & Hawkins, 1997; see also Killias, 1993). Theories of crime cannot explain this pattern. One needs a theory of violence that addresses the issue of weapons and coercive power.

A study based on homicide data and the International Crime Victimization Survey suggests an explanation of the pattern (Felson, Berg, & Rogers, 2014). Aggregate analyses showed that there was much more variation across nations in homicide rates and non-lethal gun violence than in unarmed violence. The results supported the idea that gun violence, some of it resulting in death, was highly variable but that fistfights were ubiquitous. A factor analysis showed that homicide rates and nonlethal gun violence rates loaded on a separate underlying factor than unarmed violence and violence with other weapons. The results suggest that a country’s homicide rate tends to reflect its offenders’ use of firearms—a more lethal weapon—when they commit violence, not their tendency to engage in violence. Gun violence is contagious because of adversary effects; as a result, it is much more frequent in some countries than in others.

It was suggested earlier that gun violence encourages more gun violence but that it inhibits violence without guns. Individuals are reluctant to engage in unarmed assaults if they believe their adversaries are armed and prone to retaliate. Supporting evidence comes from a contextual analysis of data from the International Crime Victimization Survey (Felson et al., 2014). The study found that living in countries with high rates of gun violence lowered an individual’s risk of an unarmed assault and assaults with less lethal weapons. This deterrent effect of gun violence on less serious forms of violence may help explain why rates of unarmed violence do not vary much across nations.

Adversary effects may contribute to higher homicide rates in another way. When offenders know that their adversaries have access to guns, they may be more likely to have lethal intent. Injured victims might retaliate later on with a gun if allowed to live. For their own protection, offenders may “finish them off.” Research suggests that during assaults offenders are more likely to kill adversaries who have guns or who otherwise pose a greater threat (e.g., Felson & Messner, 1996). According to this research, the use of firearms by offenders may increase the homicide rate because they increase the frequency of lethal intent. This process may explain why the United States has somewhat higher rates of non-gun homicide than European countries. Firearms have a direct effect on homicide rates because of their lethality and an indirect effect because adversary effects lead to greater lethal intent (Felson & Painter-Davis, 2012).

Regional Patterns in the United States

Adversary effects also help explain why homicide rates are much higher in Southern U.S. states than in Northern ones. Evidence shows that the regional difference is only observed for gun violence (Felson & Pare, 2010a). White Southerners are at much greater risk of being assaulted and killed by someone with a gun than white Northerners, but they are no more likely to be assaulted without guns, and they are only slightly more likely to be killed without guns. Southern white citizens are also much more likely than Northern white citizens to carry guns (Felson & Pare, 2010b). In addition, an analysis of incidents of assaults shows that offenders are more likely to use guns when they assault Southern whites, regardless of their own race. We assume that offenders anticipate that Southern whites are likely to be armed with guns and prone to retaliation.

Given that unarmed assault is much more frequent than homicide and armed assault, it is inaccurate to say that Southerners have higher rates of violence. One cannot attribute this pattern to an honor culture in the South since it is extremely unlikely that an honor culture would affect gun assaults but not other assaults among Southern whites. It would be more accurate to talk about a gun culture or a gun-carrying culture (Felson & Pare, 2010a, 2010b). However, there is some convincing evidence for a Southern subculture of violence (e.g., Cohen et al., 1996). Perhaps the use of guns by Southern whites deters unarmed violence in their communities (Felson & Pare, 2010a). The presence of guns may also deter verbal aggression and overt conflict. Perhaps this explains why Southerners are thought to be more polite than Northerners (Cohen & Vandello, 2004; Cohen, Vandello, Puente, & Rantilla, 1999).

Adversary effects also help explain why honor subcultures and gun carrying may persist even after the disappearance of frontiers, herding economies, or whatever circumstances led to their development (e.g., Cohen et al., 1996). In other areas of social life, one might expect to observe a cultural lag in which a cultural element slowly disappears when circumstances have changed and it is no longer adaptive (Ogburn, 1922). In conflict relationships, on the other hand, an aggressive posture creates new circumstances that are self-maintaining.

Race Patterns in the United States

Adversary effects are also important in explaining why rates of violent crime are much higher in black communities than in white communities (Berg, 2014; Felson & Painter-Davis, 2012; Felson & Pare, 2010a, 2010b). As before, it is useful to determine the exact patterns. Race differences are particularly strong for homicide and for armed violence (e.g., Deane, Armstrong, & Felson, 2005).6 In addition, African Americans have much higher rates of armed assault victimization than whites, but they do not have higher rates of unarmed assault victimization (Felson & Pare, 2010a). A fight between two young black males is six times more likely to involve a firearm than a fight between two young white males. These patterns suggest that violence in African American communities is much more serious than violence in white communities. The key problem in black communities is more the nature of violence than its frequency (Berg, 2014).

Adversary effects play a role in understanding why violence is more serious in African American communities. Offenders are much more likely to use guns when they assault blacks than when they assault whites, regardless of their own race (Baumer, Horney, Felson, & Lauritsen, 2003; Felson & Messner, 1996). They are particularly likely to use guns when they assault black men (Felson & Painter-Davis, 2012). It is not clear to what extent the offender’s stereotypes about the greater threat of black men reflect bias or statistical discrimination due to actual race differences in the danger posed by black men who may be armed. Blacks are more likely to carry guns and knives than whites (Felson & Pare, 2010b).

The perception of dangerous adversaries in African American neighborhoods also leads people to adopt an aggressive posture to avoid victimization. Anderson (1999) describes this posture as a “code of the streets.” He argues that black youth in inner-city communities—even those who are not otherwise prone to use violence—adopt an aggressive posture for protection.

The guns, however, are the key factor in African American neighborhoods. An arms race may have developed where individuals carry guns to protect themselves from others who are also armed (Blumstein, 1995; Nielsen, Martinez, & Rosenfeld, 2005). Griffiths and Chavez (2004) found a diffusion of gun homicides from the most violent neighborhoods to adjacent neighborhoods in Chicago. This diffusion was not observed for homicides that involved other weapons or no weapons.

Perhaps the use of firearms rather than social disorganization explains neighbourhood effects on violence. Assaults in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty are more likely to involve firearms than assaults that occur elsewhere (Baumer et al., 2003). Otherwise, the characteristics of assaults in different neighborhoods are similar. Also, studies of the effects of concentrated poverty in neighborhoods do not provide much support for a social disorganization perspective. When contextual effects are found, they are weak (controlling for individual and family factors), and they may be due to selection (e.g., Sariaslan et al., 2013). In addition, concentrated poverty either does not affect non-violent crime or its effect is in the opposite direction (Pare & Felson, 2014). These inconsistent effects do not support social disorganization theory or any theory of crime. A theory of violence that takes into account the social interaction of adversaries is needed to understand the patterns. Adversary effects help explain why violence spreads and why offenders tend to use weapons.

The Social Psychology of Violence

An SI approach locates the cause of violence in basic features of social life. People want justice; and to have their grievances redressed, they are concerned about their social identities and desire to influence others when it suits their purposes. These concerns can lead people to harm others, sometimes using physical means. Sometimes they engage in predatory violence to force compliance or demonstrate a powerful image. More often, they use violence during disputes, as a response to verbal attacks. It is important to understand the role of provocations and over-reactions to provocations to understand dispute-related violence. The assignment of blame is a key factor, since it leads to grievances and the motivation to punish the wrongdoer. Cooperative face-work is also important, since it inhibits the expression of grievances.

An SI approach suggests that research is needed on social conflict and its relationship to violence. For example, is variation in the rates of homicide and assault attributable to changes in the frequency of conflict? What kinds of conflict situations create opportunities for grievances? How do verbal disputes escalate? Are disputes between people of similar status more likely to escalate? What is the role of negative affect and depression? Why does alcohol lead to victimization? More surveys need to include questions about incidents so that we can examine the role of situational factors. Violent incidents can be compared to incidents involving only verbal aggression and incidents where people have grievances but do not express them. We also need research on the effect of individual differences on involvement in verbal disputes and behavior during disputes. For example, can an SI approach help explain the offender-victim overlap? Do offenders generate more grievances because they are more likely to engage in behavior that provokes others? Are they more likely to be verbally aggressive and less likely to engage in remedial actions during their disputes? Is their aggression more likely to have the support of third parties, given their social contexts. These tendencies may explain why disputes involving offenders are more likely to escalate to violence—and why offenders are more likely to become victims.

Criminology should recognize that many crimes involve aggression. A theory of aggression is needed along with theories of deviance to explain these crimes. An SI approach is supported by experimental research as well as studies of social interaction in incidents of criminal violence. It increases understanding of the role of situational factors such as firearms and alcohol. It helps explain domestic violence and group variation in violence. Finally, it performs these tasks using well-established principles from social psychology.

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(1.) An SI approach is compatible with a social learning approach, although its focus is on current rewards and costs. In addition, violence may be an overlearned behavior for some individuals (i.e., a habitual response based on past rewards rather than the anticipation of future ones) (Bushman & Anderson, 2001).

(2.) For a social interactionist approach to bullying at work, see Neuman and Baron (2011).

(3.) It seems unlikely that aversive stimuli or bad moods have a biological link to aggression from an evolutionary perspective. If such a link exists, it must have contributed to the survival of the species at some point in human history; it must have been instrumental aggression in the past. It is difficult to imagine how attacking people when one is in a bad mood would have contributed to human survival.

(4.) Social psychology offers some other explanations of why people sometimes attack a different person than the one they believe provoked them (see Tedeschi & Felson, 1994 for a review). For example, perhaps they experienced a loss of self-esteem because their response to the provocation was weak, and they are trying to improve their self-image.

(5.) For applications of a social interactionist approach to intimate partner violence, see Felson (2002) and Wilkinson and Hamerschlag (2005).

(6.) Race differences in non-violent crime are small.