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Mapping the ecology
of danger


SOME OF THE BLOODIEST academic debates of the last decade, ironically, have been over violence. While some projects concentrate strictly on the biological aspects, often drawing fire for this focus, other research looks at the causal roles of culture and society--even the very institutions designed to staunch violent behavior.

Mark Mattaini, associate professor at Columbia's School of Social Work, believes violence is functional. "Violence is behavior," he says, "and people do what they do because it works for them in some way, because there are positive or negative consequences. And in some settings, violence functions to obtain a positive consequence--recognition in the form of attention, approval, or respect."

Mattaini says much recent work, such as the National Research Council's study Understanding and Preventing Violence,(1) has focused on physiological and bio-behavioral explanations. "If you look at the NRC studies," notes Mattaini, "there's an emphasis on what's happening physiologically, as in rage and anger. That's largely because it's easier to study the limbic system of a cat. But lots of violence among kids is driven not by anger but by fear of the group. Violence in that setting becomes what you have to do just to survive." Families, neighborhoods, schools, and peer groups serve as what Mattaini calls "coercive matrices" or microcultures of violence.(2)

Society, Mattaini says, has made a "fine art" of coercion, to the point where we can no longer see alternatives to it. "Coercion is deeply embedded in American culture: You reduce crime or change a child's behavior by punishment, of course. Many other cultures don't do that and have better results.

"If people grow up in a matrix of reciprocal coercion," he adds, "then it's what they know. Much violence is just one extreme form of this coercive pattern, ranging from the level of the nation-state to that of the individual. There are most certainly alternatives, rooted in reinforcement." To test these alternatives, Mattaini and colleagues are developing the Violence Initiative, a research and intervention program coordinated with New York City community groups and schools. "We emphasize consequences rather than antecedents," he says. "We apply a contracting model to re-organize the microculture of the family while creating a new microculture of the preventive group."

William Chambliss, professor of sociology at George Washington University and past president of the American Society of Criminology, wonders how a nation so dedicated to coercion can expect its citizens to act non-violently. "The premise that we don't accept violence is simply untrue," says Chambliss. "People want to be armed to protect property, we accept police brutality as a matter of course, most people see the death penalty as legitimate, and no one ever calls what the CIA does criminal, despite its lengthy record of assassination and conspiracies to commit murder."

Chambliss points out that even U.S. prisons have come to accept violence as an ordinary part of penal life. "We tolerate violence in the prisons to a degree no other industrialized country in the world does," he says. "Prisons are run on violence, and it's become a form of social control. For instance, there is no reason for people in prison to be raped. In most of Europe, where prisons are structured to prevent such violence from occurring, you don't see prisoners raping one another."

At Columbia's School of Public Health, Jeffrey Fagan recently was named founding director of the new Center for Violence Research and Prevention. His early interest in criminology and violence research was sparked by the 1971 riots at Attica prison. As an engineering student in nearby Buffalo, Fagan became involved in inmate defense work and began to study criminology, eventually broadening his interests to include violence within families.

His research suggested that men prone to spouse abuse were also predictably violent toward strangers. Later, he began to see connections between infra- and extra-familial violence and the kind of violence he had witnessed during the Attica siege. "I realized these people didn't live in isolation, but in specific social and economic contexts," says Fagan. "I became fascinated with a question: Why do the most powerless among us often turn on their own?"

The critical variable, says Fagan, is "situational control. Most people are provoked into anger at a variety of moments and manage to control their anger. But situations that reflect the convergence of different forces, like poverty and isolation, compromise people's control. At that moment, when people are aroused or motivated, violent events occur."

Fagan is working to develop what he calls an "ecology of danger," understanding contexts in which violence erupts. "If someone is socialized to see almost every exchange as potentially threatening," says Fagan, "the accumulation of reactions to those threats over time will shape one's cognitive landscape to reflect the perception that danger is everywhere."

Fagan hopes that the center will provide a community for medical and social-science researchers studying violence, develop a graduate curriculum, and analyze injury and assault data with the help of city agencies like the Department of Health. "It's a tall order," says Fagan, "but Columbia is committed to the project."

One difficulty in any research endeavor is establishing the boundary between the substance of the work and the imperatives of the institutions that support it. Violence research is a notorious minefield in this respect. "You do violence research according to where you can get money," says Peter Breggin of the Center for the Study of Psychiatry in Bethesda, Md. "You can't get money for critiquing social institutions, especially the institution of psychiatry itself." Breggin, a well-known critic of the National Institutes of Health and the organizer of a conference charging the NIH and the National Institute of Mental Health with overlooking the social causes of violence in favor of purely biological explanations,(3) has been described from various perspectives as either part of the solution or part of the problem, but his comments offer the nation's researchers a legitimate challenge. One of the more promising signs in this field is the rise of new institutions that incorporate an unflinching recognition of how violence and social structures are intertwined.

  1. A.J. Reiss, Jr., K.A. Miczek, and J.A. Roth, eds. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1994. Vol. 2.

  2. His work draws on Murray Sidman's Coercion and Its Fallout. Boston: Authors' Cooperative, 1989.

  3. See Stone, Richard, "Panel Finds Gaps in Violence Studies," Science, June 11, 1993, v. 260, pp. 1584-85. For Peter and Ginger Breggin's social critique of violence research in the United States, see their book The War Against Children (New York: St. Martin's, 1994).

GERRY O'SULLIVAN is editor emeritus of The Humanist magazine and co-author of The "Terrorism" Industry: The Experts and Institutions That Shape Our View of Terror (Pantheon). He has written for The Philadelphia Inquirer and In These Times, among other publications. He can be reached via e-mail at gerryo@netcom.com.


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