Social Causes of Violence

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What causes an individual to engage in criminal and violent behavior?

This week my life has been impacted by violence: a mentor and friend of mine committed suicide by shooting himself; I observed juvenile court proceedings one day in which the docket started and ended with cases of kids bringing knives to school; and a friend told me how she was having difficulty because her two-year-old son was the “biter” in class in response to social stress. These three examples demonstrate a range of violence from a middle-aged man (self-directed) and two teenagers who possessed weapons at school and a two-year-old in daycare (directed at others).

Professor Robert Agnew outlines that sociologists have elaborated at least 3 different theories about why people engage in violence.

1. Strain Theory: While most individuals cope with strains in a legal way, strains (or stressors) increase the likelihood an individual will commit crime. Strains that are most likely to result in crime include harsh/excessive/unfair discipline; child abuse and neglect; negative school experiences; abusive peer relations; work in “bad” jobs; unemployment; marital problems; criminal victimization; discrimination; homelessness; or failure to achieve certain goals. Strains create negative emotions and one method of coping is violence. The self-directed violence by my friend may have been influenced by his failure to achieve certain goals (he thought his performance at work was not where it should be) and relationships in his personal life. One boy accused of bringing a knife to school brought it because he was afraid of being attacked by other kids on the way to school. The best way to reduce the negative impact of strains it to help equip individuals with traits and skills necessary to avoid strains and to avoid and to alleviate social and economic stress. Programs that might promote that goal include parental training programs and anti-bullying campaigns.

2. Social Learning Theory: suggests that an individual learns behavior (including criminal or violent behavior) by observation. People learn how to act from their environment. Elements of the social environment that impact behavior include its values, beliefs, nature and operation of the family, school, church, community, and peer groups. One way the environment impacts behavior is that certain behavior is rewarded and other behavior results in being punished. This theory utilizes concepts of there is what is called positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement, in the context of violence, is when you engage in violence and something good happens. Negative reinforcement is where you engage in violence and something bad is removed. For example, when the child bit the other kid who was too close to him, biting made the child go away. Upon the bite, the bitten child gave him more space. Positive reinforcement would say that the biter problem, for example, can be addressed by giving the child candy when he comes home from day care if he hasn’t bitten anyone. Teaching values and belies that counter violence and crime may be beneficial.

3. Control Theory: asks the question “why do most of us not commit deviance?” Societal social control mechanisms in society dissuade people from being deviant. These relationships may be between individuals or the community at large. People’s relationships and values encourage them to follow the laws of their community. This theory explains why people do not always act on their deviant impulses. If you have strong social bonds connecting you to other people in the community you are less likely to commit crime. This bond makes someone more likely to conform to the laws and values of the community Someone with weak bonds to those in the community are more likely to commit crime. Community development programs, education improvements, and parental training programs can strengthen an individual’s bond with the community.

Professor Agnew explained that each theory has merit but serious violent offenses are often the result of a combination of factors. Given this conclusion, it seems that a combination of policies and programs suggested as solutions under each theory may be warranted.

Information conveyed in this post comes from lecture given by Professor Agnew to our class on February 11th at Emory, 2013 and the articles Control and Social Disorganization Theory by Robert Agnew published in The Routledge Handbook of Deviant Behavior; Strain Theories by Robert Agnew published in 21st Century Criminology A Reference Handbook Volume 1; Social Learning and Violent Behavior by Gary F. Jensen.

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