Theories of Violence

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A Critical Perspective on Violence was published in Advancing Critical Criminology: Theory and Application (2006, Lexington Books) edited by Walter S. DeKeseredy and Barbara Perry,


This chapter provides a critical perspective on violence by exploring the most prominent scientific or academic theories of violence in general rather than those of violence in particular. Over the course of my examination of general theories of violence, I maintain that a satisfactory picture of both the individual and collective pathways to violence requires nothing less than a theoretical framework that incorporates a reciprocal integration of interpersonal, institutional, and structural violence. 

Nearly all mainstream or traditional explanations of violence begin as “ad hoc” explanations that try to account for the observed regularity of various forms of isolated and self-contained violent events in such singular entities as gender, class, or ethnicity as these are, in turn, related to differences in biology, psychology, sociology, culture, and mass communication. Accordingly, most conventional explanations of violence remain partial and incomplete as they separately emphasize different yet related phenomena of violence, without ever trying to provide for a comprehensive explanation or framework that encompasses the full range of interpersonal, institutional, and structural violence. In fact, most of these one-dimensional explanations of violence underscore the behavioral expressions of persons to the relative exclusion of the institutional and structural expressions (Barak 2003).

These “interpersonal” explanations of violence can typically be classified into one of four kinds, based not only on the etiology of individual violence as either internal or external, but on the particular focus or orientation assumed about the relationship between human nature and violence. Traditionally, these explanations of general violence are associated with theories that locate the origins of violence within the person or within the social environment. Concurrently, some ad hoc theories maintain that humans are naturally inclined to act violently, requiring little in the way of stimulation or motivation, and that violence is, ultimately, the product of a failure of constraint or control. Other ad hoc theories maintain that humans are naturally inclined to conform to the rules of custom and order, requiring much in the way of stimulation or motivation, and that violence is, ultimately, the product of unusual or “deviant” impulses. From this dualistic (either/or) non-critical perspective, violence is “normative” in one case and “aberrant” in another case. Dialectically, however, it may very well be the case that various forms of violence are normative and aberrant at the same time; depending on whether or not they are sanctioned or unsanctioned as culturally and socially appropriate or inappropriate.

            Whatever the case, the problems associated with ad hoc interpersonal theories of antisocial and violent behavior as well as with the dualistic approaches are being tackled by the recent emergence and development of  life-course, developmental, and/or integrative perspectives. These epistemological approaches when applied to violence assume a complexity of human interaction that cuts across both the behavioral motivations and cultural constraints existing inside or outside the person. When compared to the earlier and more traditional, ad hoc, and one-dimensional explanations of violence, life-course and integrative explanations of violence constitute models that are conceptually (more) dynamic, developmental, and multi-dimensional in nature.

Life-course models of violence focus attention on the developmental trajectories of persons toward and away from specific courses of behavior. Integrative explanations focus attention on the dynamic relationships between the internal and external influences of violence and, in some instances, nonviolence, and the pushes (motivation) toward and pulls (constraints) away from violence/nonviolence. The application of these pathways to violence and/or nonviolence recognize the accumulative natures of these behaviors, the reciprocal consequences of abusive and non-abusive behavior, and the integral relationships between events, situations, and conditions in the course of one’s personal and social experiences.


Ad hoc/mainstream/one-dimensional explanations of general violence break down into those theories that explain violence in one of two fundamental ways: First, in terms of  “properties” or “processes” that are either external to individuals--externally motivated--or inside people--internally motivated. In either circumstance, people are  stimulated to act violently. Second, in terms of the failure, absence, or lack of  internally or externally grounded constraints to inhibit or prohibit people from acting on their violent impulses. These constraints are typically represented as self-control and social control.

            What these explanations of violence all have in common is the tendency to reduce violence to one primary variable or set of variables. These one-dimensional explanations of violence often acknowledge the importance of other variables, but rarely do they factor them into their examinations and analyses. For example, several explanatory frameworks have been advanced to make sense out of violence in general. These include: exchange theory, subcultural theory, resource theory, patriarchal theory, ecological theory, social learning theory, evolutionary theory, sociobiological theory, pathological conflict theory, psychopathological theory, general systems theory, and inequality theory. Out of these twelve theories, eight of them address only one of the four cells from a typology of interpersonal explanations of violence (see figure ?.1).

Figure ?.1

A Typology of

 Interpersonal Explanations of Violence: Unicellular Models


Origin of Cause


                                              External                                           Internal

Nature of Cause






         Social Learning



















Of the four remaining explanations of violence: pathological conflict theory takes into account both internally motivated and constrained variables; ecological theory takes into account both externally motivated and constrained variables; inequality theory takes into account both internally and externally motivated variables; and general systems theory takes into account both internally and externally motivated variables as well as externally constrained variables (see figure ?.2).


Figure ?.2

A Typology of

Interpersonal Explanations of Violence: Multi-cellular Models


                                                             Origin of Cause   

                                             External                           Internal

    Nature of Cause





     General Systems


    Pathological Conflict

       General Systems





     General Systems


    Pathological Conflict




            In terms of these two typologies, externally motivated explanations of generalized family violence, for example, are represented not exclusively by the disciplines of social-psychology, social anthropology, and sociology. These explanations of violence as well as of aggression, vulnerability, and risk stress the importance of structural-functionalism and the processes of socialization. As categorized above, these explanations of violence are most commonly expressed by sociobiological, social learning, subcultural, and patriarchal theories.

The sociobiological theories are used to explain rape, child abuse, infanticide, and other forms of domestic violence (Alexander 1974; Daly and Wilson 1981; and Lightcap, Kurland, and Burgess 1982). These explanations of intimate violence are based on the inclusive fitness theory which postulates that individuals will behave in ways to increase the probability that their genes will be transmitted to future generations. There are, indeed, associations between cases of child abuse and paternal uncertainty, handicapped or stepchild status, and among poor families when the allocations of limited resources require the hierarchal ranking of offspring.

            By contrast, the social learning or sociocultural theories of violence, of which the subcultural and patriarchal theories are simply a variation of, are less about nature than they are about nurture. These explanations of aggression and violence address issues of gender-centric attitudes and maintain that these behaviors are learned and precipitated by a combination of contextual and situational factors (O’Leary 1988). The social context of the “dysfunctional” family, for example, produces stress, aggressive personalities, and violent behavior. Or the situational factors like alcohol or drug abuse, financial problems, or marital infidelity accommodate exercises in aggression and violence.  Probably, the most familiar of these social learning theories is the intergenerational transmission of family violence explanation which contends that people who have witnessed or suffered physical family violence when growing up have a greater likelihood of living in a violent domestic situation later on in life. There are also associations between those people who have been sexually abused, especially boys, becoming sexually abusing teenagers and adults (Straus, Gelles, and Steinmetz 1980; Pagelow 1981; Groth 1983; Kaufman and Zigler 1987).

            The subcultural theories of violence such as the “culture of violence theory” (Wolfgang and Ferracuti 1967) argue that within large, complex, and pluralistic societies, sub-groups learn and develop specialized norms and values through differential associations and organizations that emphasize and justify the use of physical force above and beyond that which is regarded as “normative” of the culture as a whole. Family and street violence, for example, are viewed as the products of an exaggerated ethos of masculinity or of machismo, characteristic of “lower class” society. The various patriarchal theories have been advanced mostly, but not exclusively, by feminist social and behavioral scientists, who argue that violence is used by men to control women, to suppress the latter’s rebellion and resistance to male domination, and to enforce the differential status of men and women that have traditionally been translated into laws and customs, in order to serve the collective interests of men. These theories argue both in the past and present, but less so today, that the unequal distribution of power between the sexes has resulted in societies that have been dominated by men and that most women occupy subordinate positions of power, increasing their vulnerability to violence, especially within the family (Martin 1976; Dobash and Dobash 1979).

            Externally constrained explanations of generalized family violence are represented not exclusively by anthropologists, sociologists, and economists (Berreman 1987; Lenski and Lenski 1970; Pryor 1977). Evolutionary theories maintain that aggression and violence in technologically developed and highly stratified societies, for example, are used during childhood socialization as means of securing youngsters’ obedience and conformity both within the family and larger society. The argument assumes that:


In simpler and less technologically advanced societies,

independence and self-reliance are encouraged in youngsters.

This also means less adult supervision, more individual

freedom, and therefore less demand for obedience and

submission and fewer occasions for punishment. Instead,

in complex, advanced, and hierarchical societies, compliance

and obedience are the preferred traits. One had only to think

of an industrial assembly line or of a large legal firm working

on an important case to realize the pressure toward unquestioning

acceptance of assignments and directions along rank lines

(Viano 1992: 9).

            The two other externally constrained explanations of family violence are of a negative kind. That is to say, exchange theory is essentially a cost-benefit analysis of violence. “People hit and abuse other family members because they can” (Gelles 1983: 157). Similarly, the resource theory argues that the family member with the most power or aggregate value of resources (e.g., money, property, prestige, strength) in society, traditionally the male, commands higher power in the marital and family relationships than other members, namely, women and children who are in subordinate and vulnerable positions (Blood and Wolfe 1960). Like exchange theory, resource theory views violence in the nuclear family as a product of a lack of external constraints.

 Internally motivated explanations of generalized family violence are represented not exclusively by the fields of psychology, psychoanalysis, psychiatry, physiology, and biology. These explanations of family and domestic violence range widely in scope. Some of these explanations of violence may include those favoring: internalized feelings of shame and humiliation leading to feelings of anger, hostility and rage (Hale 1994); Freudian systems of ego pathology and impaired object relationships in the development of sexuality or concerns about dominance, submission, and control as unresolved conflicts originating during the anal period of development);  pathophysiological models such as “cognitive fracture” where it is hypothesized that “hyperaroused orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices tonically inhibit the amygdala and are no longer regulated by visceral and somatic homoeostatic controls ordinarily supplied by subcortical systems” (Fried 1997: 1845); abnormal trace-metal concentrations such as the presence of elevated serum copper and depressed plasma zinc in the blood of violence-prone individuals (Walsh et. al. 1997); and general psychopathology models such as those involving the American Psychiatric Association’s label of “conduct disorder” where repetitive acts of patterned aggression toward animals and people are significant to the diagnosis (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, edition IV).

All of these explanations despite their differences, share in common the attempt to account for personality dynamics and psychopathology that are unique to violent assailants. In other words, affected individuals, regardless of their particular origin of violence, are suffering from some kind of physiological and/or psychological imbalance/s expressed by combinations of obsessive ideation, compulsive repetition, poor impulse control, rapid desensitization to violence, diminished affective reactivity, failure to adapt to changing stimulus-reinforcement associations, hyper dependence, depression, or anxiety, low self-esteem, paranoia, dissociation from their own feelings, antisocial tendencies, failure to empathsize, fear of intimacy, etc.

Moving in a more inclusive direction, then, are the four other explanations of violence. Three of these consider two cells and one considers three cells from the typology of interpersonal violence.  Each of these theories—pathological conflict, ecological, inequality, and general systems—is an improvement over the one-dimensional ad hoc theories of violence already discussed.

            Pathological or social conflict theories are not exclusively represented by social psychologists, cultural anthropologists, and sociologists. These models of violence as pathological conflict, whether addressing marital disputes or large-scale conflicts, focus attention on communication processes and the tensions between the internal constraints or “bonds” and “attachments” among individuals, especially families as well as the larger communities, on the one hand, and the internal motivations of  “abandonment,” “shame,” and “alienation,” on the other hand. Pathological or emotional conflict in the forms of aggression and violence occur, whether individual or collective, when unacknowledged humiliation, dissociation, or depression is transformed into reactive anger and rage (Retzinger 1991; Gilligan 1997).

            Ecological theories are not exclusively represented by such disciplines as mental health, social work, ecology, sociology, and criminology. These explanations of aggression are sensitive to social milieus such as neighborhood context, social support networks, poverty, and value systems that may coalesce to breakdown the external constraints to violence while simultaneously legitimating the external motivations to violence. For example, child abuse has been associated with the isolation of the nuclear family in contemporary advanced societies, on the one hand, and with the associated rationales for using violence against children, on the other hand (Garbarino 1977).

             Inequality theories are advanced by virtually all of the disciplines of the behavioral and social sciences. These explanations of aggression and violence are related to the differential ways in which inequalities, privileges, hierarchies, discriminations, and oppressions, on the one hand, externally motivate some people to abuse, exploit, and generally take advantage of those labeled as socially inferior and, on the other hand, internally motivate those persons subject to the labels of inferiority to resist and rebel violently against their statuses. These explanations of violence are grounded in the political economies of private property and capitalist development (Iadicola and Shupe 1998).

             Finally, general systems theories are also advanced by several of the social and behavioral sciences. These explanations of aggression and violence focus on positive feedback loops involving the interactions of individuals, families, and societal spheres (Straus 1978). These theories assume that optimal levels of violence are necessary or needed to maintain and reproduce the system. With the exception of internally constrained mechanisms of violence, these explanatory models take into account various sets of behavioral factors, including: high levels of conflict inherent in the family; the integration of violence into personality and behavioral scripts; cultural norms that legitimate violence; and the sexist organization of families and society (Viano 1992).


 There are at least six problems with most of these types of ad hoc explanations of interpersonal violence. First, they are overly deterministic and one-dimensional, focusing on a limited rather than a broadened number of specific empirical regularities of violence. Second, they overemphasize one of the four binary combinations – EM, IM, EC, IC – to the relative neglect of the other three. Third, they represent one-directional and linear formulations of violence that split “causation” into either/or categories of  internally and externally motivated or constrained acts of violence. Fourth, they are generally static and stable models of violence, locating the etiology of violence or antisocial behavior mostly in the early years of life. Fifth, they ignore and lack any explanation for the interconnections between individual forms of violence, on the one hand, and institutional and structural forms of violence, on the other hand. Sixth, they fail to consider the factors or properties involved in the desistance of antisocial behavior and violence (Barak 2003).

            As already noted, all of these one-dimensional ad hoc explanations of violence are too narrowly focused, each excluding more variables of importance to violence than they include. With respect to some forms of violence, each of these explanations may be partially correct, plausible, and in some way or another empirically demonstrated (i.e. correlated), however, there remain many cases with respect to each of these that do not square with their models. In sum, the dynamics of violence are far more complex in nature than any of the ad hoc one-dimensional explanations imply. It may, therefore, make more sense to talk about these ad hoc relationships (correlations) as properties of

violence. In other words, it may be more viable to view violence as a product of the

interactive processes created by the four cells of interpersonal violence in relation to a reciprocal set of cells operating at the institutional and structural levels of society, as each of these intersects with the other spheres of violence.

            In the next section, I turn to an overview of the recent development of those “critical” theories that accommodate, at a minimum, explanations of violence (and some times of nonviolence) inclusive of the four cells at the interpersonal, if not, also at the institutional and/or structural levels of social intercourse.


            It has been written that “life-course theories systematically examine the multitude of causal influences that shape offending behavior over time” (Piquero and Mazerolle 2001: 87). As part of the development of a newly emerging and dynamic paradigm in the study of human behavior and social change, the life-course and integrative explanations bring together the interdisciplinary nature of  the interaction between biography and history. At the same time, these reciprocal explanations of human interaction reject the ad hoc, one-dimensional, and over-determined explanations of antisocial and violent behavior.

            The “life-course” or “developmental” as well as “integrative” studies of  human behavior and social structure have tried to address the ongoing interaction between individuals and their social environments over time. These overlapping and converging orientations to the interplay of human agency and historical conditions, appreciate the diverse ways in which individual lives are linked and connected through social integration with, and unlinked and disconnected through social separation from, families, communities, nations, and the world. In contrast to the ad hoc theories discussed above, each of the developmental models or theories of human behavior and social interaction provides an explanation capable of taking into account the four dimensions of the interpersonal typology of violence.

Two central concepts currently lie beneath the analysis of life-course dynamics: trajectories and transitions.  A “trajectory” is a pathway or a line of development over the life span. Trajectories might include, for example, the growth (or lack) of self-esteem, depression, aggression, passivity, marriage, parenthood, a career, and so on. Trajectories or pathways by definition refer to long-term patterns and sequences of behavior. By contrast, a “transition” refers to a change of state or condition that is abrupt or involves shorter time spans. Transitions, such as a first marriage, a first child, or a first job, are specific life events that are viewed as embedded in trajectories or pathways of longer duration.

            More specifically, the life course “can be viewed as a multilevel phenomenon, ranging from structured pathways through social institutions and organizations to the social trajectories of individuals and their developmental pathways,” both subject to changing conditions and future options as well as to short-term transitions that are usually chronologically grounded (Elder 2001: 4). In the developmental scheme of things, life course analyses assume that earlier trajectories and transitions have implications for subsequent experiences and events. In fact, theoretically informed panel studies have already begun to “document the mechanisms of reciprocal influence between social and developmental trajectories” (Ibid: 5). At the same time, however, the majority of young antisocial children do not become adults who engage in antisocial behavior. Hence, the contradictory realities of continuity and change “are best seen as two aspects of a single dialectical process in which even major transformations of individuality emerge consequentially from the interaction of prior characteristics and circumstances” (Quoted in Sampson and Laub 1992/2001: 33).  

            Taken together, the life-course/developmental and integrative perspectives on antisocial behavior, regardless of orientation, share in common a concern for the dynamic, interacting, and unfolding nature of biological, psychological, and social processes through time.  In opposition to the time-invariant or static interpretations of the ad hoc explanations of violence, the life-course perspectives focus “on systematic change, especially how behaviors set in motion dynamic processes that alter future outcomes” (Sampson and Laub 1996/2001: 147). Nevertheless, within most of the research, so far, there has been a tendency to attribute continuity to time-stable personality traits and social-psychological processes over structured mechanisms of social allocation or inequality, even though both are capable of producing differentiating tendencies in successive cohorts (Dannefer 1987).

In the rest of this section, attention is paid to four related and developing theoretical articulations of the life-course and/or integrative perspective and to some of the supportive research findings:

Life-Course Persistent Antisocial Behavior

            Terrie Moffitt (1993/2001), a psychologist, has offered a two-pronged theory of  “adolescence-limited” and “life-course-persistent” antisocial behavior. Her contentions are that each of these types of antisocial offenders have unique natural histories and etiologies. In the case of the adolescence-limited theory of antisocial behavior, “a contemporary maturity gap encourages teens to mimic antisocial behavior in ways that are normative and adjustive” (Moffitt 2001: 91).  In the case of the life-course-persistent theory of antisocial behavior, “children’s neuropsychological problems interact cumulatively with their criminogenic environments across development, culminating in a pathological personality”(Ibid.). Comparatively, the antisocial behavior of the first group is temporary, situational and less extreme than the antisocial behavior of the second group, represented by a relatively small number of males whose behavioral problems are acute, stable and persistent over the life course.

Research studies have shown that antisocial behavior is stable across time and circumstances for a small percentage of people, ranging from 3% to 9%, yet decidedly unstable for most but, not necessarily, all other groups of birth cohorts, such as those who are regarded as being at moderate risks (Fergusson et al. 1991). Epidemiological research has also shown that there are virtually no persons diagnosed with adult antisocial personality disorder who did not have conduct disorder as children (Robins 1966; 1978). Other research has found continuity between disobedient and aggressive behavior at age 3 to later childhood conduct disorder and finally to arrest in early teen years (White et al. 1990), and between those who were first arrested between the ages of  7 and 11 and those who were also arrested as adults (Loeber 1982). Moreover, research reveals that life-course persistent antisocial persons lie at home, cheat at school, fight at bars, steal or embezzle at work, drive drunk, batter spouses, abuse and neglect children (Farrington 1991; Farrington and West 1990; Loeber and Baicker-McKee 1989; Sampson and Laub 1990). Finally, research has also born out the relative distinctions between life-course-persistent and adolescent-limited wrongdoers and the career relationships between serious, violent, and chronic juvenile and adult offenders (Kempf-Leonard et al. 2001).

In short, “continuity is the hallmark of the small group of life-course-persistent antisocial persons. Across the life course, these individuals exhibit changing manifestations of antisocial behavior: biting and hitting at age 4, shoplifting and truancy at 10, selling drugs and stealing cars at age 19, robbery and rape at age 22, and fraud and child abuse at age 30; the underlying disposition remains the same, but its expression changes form as new social opportunities arise at different points in development” (Moffitt 2001: 100). At the core of Moffitt’s explanation of life-course-persistent  antisocial behavior is a theory that “emphasizes the constant process of reciprocal interaction between personal traits and environmental reactions to them”(Ibid: 2001: 111).

Moffitt locates the roots of stable antisocial behavior in factors that are present before or soon after birth. She hypothesizes that “the etiological chain begins with some factor capable of producing individual differences in the neuropsychological functions of the infant nervous system” (Ibid: 2001: 102). Whether such factors as disruption in the ontogenesis of the fetal brain due to physical injury, poor prenatal nutrition, maternal drug abuse during pregnancy, pre- or postnatal exposure to toxic agents are the proximate elements associated with elevated rates among violent offenders and subjects with antisocial personality traits (Fogel et al. 1985; Kandel et al. 1989; Paulhus and Martin 1986), or whether neuropsychological development is disrupted later by neonatal deprivation of nutrition, stimulation, and even affection (Cravioto and Arrieta 1983; Kraemer 1988; Meany et al. 1988), or later yet, by more deliberate child abuse and neglect cases associated with brain injuries and histories of delinquents with neuropsychological impairment (Lewis et al. 1979; Milner and McCanne 1991; Tarter et al. 1984), Moffitt (2001: 102) argues there is good evidence to believe that “children who ultimately become persistently antisocial do suffer from deficits in neuropsychological abilities” (Moffitt 2001: 102).

            Moffitt cites research demonstrating: the intergenerational transmission of severe antisocial behavior, especially involving aggression; the resemblance between parents and children on temperament and personality as well as on cognitive ability; and the stacking of the social and structural aspects of the environment against those children who enter the world at risk. She refers to this negative co-variation in the nature of the child-environment relationship as providing a source of interactional continuity. She then turns her attention to the reciprocal relationships between the emergence of antisocial behaviors and what she refers to as the problem of parent-child  interactions.

            More specifically, Moffitt identifies three person-environment interactions that she believes are important in promoting an antisocial style and maintaining its continuity across the life course. These interactions are: evocative, reactive, and proactive. Of the three types of interactions, Moffitt suggests that evocative interaction is perhaps the most influential. Evocative interaction refers to when a child’s behavior evokes distinctive responses from others. The point being that children with neuropsychological problems evoke challenges for even the most resourceful, loving, and patient families (Tinsley and Parke 1983). Similarly, numerous studies have shown that the problem behaviors of toddlers, for example, affect the parents’ disciplinary strategies as well as subsequent interactions with adults and peers (Bell and Chapman 1986; Chess and Thomas 1987). The other two types of interaction are triggered by early behavioral difficulties and are maintained through the development of persistent and repetitive antisocial behavior, a function over time of the evoking responses exacerbating the child’s tendencies. In other words, “the child acts; the environment reacts; and the child reacts back in mutually interlocking evocative interaction” (Caspi et al. 1987: 308)

            Moffitt continues that once the evocative interactions are set in motion, that reactive and proactive interactions promote the further extension or continuity and pervasiveness of antisocial behavior throughout the life course, so long as the same underlying constellation of traits that got a person into trouble as a child remain in tack. In other words, reactive interactions over time become conditioned defensive responses. In new or ambiguous interpersonal situations, for example, hyperactive or aggressive children are more likely (than non-aggressive) to attribute harmful intent to others and to act accordingly (Dodge and Frame 1982). Proactive interactions refer to the fact that antisocial individuals appear to selectively affiliate with others of similar personality configurations, including the non-random mating patterns of spouses who have both been convicted of crimes (Buss 1984; Baker et al. 1989). Finally, Moffitt’s theory of life-course persistent antisocial behavior argues that these early causal sequences are dominated by chains of cumulative and contemporary continuity that restrict a person’s behavioral repertoire and opportunities to succeed positively in life.

 Informal Social Control and Cumulative Disadvantage

            Robert Sampson and John Laub (1990; 1992/2001; 1993; 1996/2001) , who were among the first in the early 1990s to popularize the life-course perspective in the field of criminology, have consistently focused their developmental work “on continuities and discontinuities in deviant behavior over time and on the social influences of age-graded transitions and salient life events” (1992/2001: 21). The life-course perspective argues that there is both stability of individual differences over time as well as changes in adolescence or adulthood that cannot be explained by early childhood development, or by the pathways first traveled and experienced in life.

Criminologists Sampson and Laub (1996/2001) have provided a theory of “informal social control and cumulative disadvantage” that I believe nicely complements Moffitt’s two-pronged theory of antisocial behavior. Their explanation of antisocial behavior argues that there are important events and conditions that alter and redirect deviant pathways. Their theory is built upon three related themes or arguments. First, that structural factors or conditions such as poverty or racism impact the development of social bonds. Second, that a combination of social conditions and labeling processes can lead to cumulative disadvantage and the stability of antisocial behavior across the life span. Third, that the development of social capital later in life, especially during adulthood, can alter antisocial trajectories toward conformity. What holds this theory of “cumulative disadvantage” together is “a dynamic conceptualization of social control over the life course, integrated with” what they argue is “the one theoretical perspective in criminology that is inherently developmental in nature—labeling theory” (Sampson and Laub 1996/2001: 147).

            While it is certainly true that the labeling perspective is developmental in nature because of its emphasis on processes such as “primary” and “secondary” deviance, to say that there are no other theories in criminology that are developmental is to reflect narrowly on the field of criminology. It is to reflect only about the sociological contributions to crime and deviance, ignoring the biological, psychological, and evolutionary models that are more often than not developmental in their structural approaches. Nevertheless, I believe that Sampson and Laub are correct for emphasizing the interactive nature of labeling, identity formation, exclusion from normal routines and conventional opportunities, and the increased contact with and relative support from other deviant or antisocial subgroups, as converging to create a “cumulative disadvantage.”

Specifically, they argue that “the cumulative continuity of disadvantage is thus not only a result of stable individual differences in criminal propensity, but a dynamic process whereby childhood antisocial behavior and adolescent delinquency foster adult crime through the severance of adult social bonds” (Ibid. 1996/2001: 155). In the process, they link the pathways of cumulative disadvantage and the constraints of subsequent development to four key institutions of social control—family, school, peers, and state sanctions—and to the causal sequential link in a chain of adversity between early childhood delinquency and adult criminal behavior.  Following the lead of Gerald Patterson (1993; Patterson et al. 1989; Patterson and Yoerger 1993) and his colleagues, Sampson and Laub talk in terms of a “cascade” of secondary problems (e.g., school failure, peer rejection, depressed mood, and involvement with deviant peers) and of antisocial traits as a “chimera” of socially constructed and interactive aspects of racial, socio-economic, and structural locations.

Gender Diversity and Violence

            James Messerschmidt            (1993; 1997; 2000; 2004) utilizes structured action theory in combination with an analysis of “doing” masculinities and femininities to derive his gendered based “sociobiological” theory of violent behavior among adolescent boys and girls. “Structured action theory has a long-established emphasis on the salience and fluidity of gender (as well as of race, class, age, and sexuality) and, therefore, offers” a theoretical model for exploring violence in relationship to both the body and society (Messerschmidt 2004: 146). Moreover, a “structured action theory acknowledges that both boys and girls are capable of ‘doing’ masculinities and femininities as well as other forms of gender embodiment” (Ibid.).

The key to understanding the various forms of gender construction and their relation to violence, lies in the way in which embodied social actions are structured by specific gender (as well as race, age, class, and sexuality) relations within particular social settings. Messerschmidt argues that the interactive and reciprocally gendered relations in the family, school, and street settings, provide the necessary motivation for violent and nonviolent behavior among boys and girls alike. By scrutinizing the life-histories of small samples of both boys and girls, grounded in the personal choices, experiences, and transformations that occur during early and late childhood, including adolescence, he identifies the social processes involved in youths becoming violent or nonviolent participants. In short, to understand male or female adolescent roles of  violence/nonviolence, one must appreciate how structure and action are woven inextricably into the ongoing activities of violent predispositions, masculinity and femininity challenges, motivations, opportunities, and the resulting violent or nonviolent behaviors. 

            Messerschmidt demonstrates how the predispositions to violence and nonviolence arise from the reciprocal interplay of home, school, and street, and from the possibilities and pressures imbedded in those interactions. More specifically, adolescent boys and girls in relation to their bodies, to their socialization experiences, and to the constructions of hegemonic, subordinate, and oppositional masculinities as well as to the alternate constructions of femininity, adopt violent or nonviolent behaviors in the course of doing different types of gender.

            For example, in his discussions on embodied violence, Messerschmidt reveals the interactive life-course experiences of the home and the school or the street. With respect to two of his male subjects, he concluded that  both were gender conformists. Yet, at the same time, they produced in particular settings specific but different types of embodied masculine practices through the use of different forms of assaultive violence and nonviolence: Both Lenny and Perry embodied situationally complicit (yet subordinate) masculinities at home, yet because Lenny did not experience masculinity challenges in this setting—as Perry did—he constructed a nonviolent masculine self, whereas Perry eventually embodied a violent masculine self in this milieu. Outside the home context different types of masculinities by Lenny and Perry emerged from practices that likewise

reflected different social circumstances and different bodily resources (Messerschmidt 2004: 118).

        With respect to two of his female subjects, Messerschmidt (2004: 128) similarly concluded that: “The life history data highlight the time- and place-specific aspects of Tina and Kelly doing gender through assaultive violence and nonviolence, depending upon the particular gender relations and their position in those relations. Indeed, such gender relations specific to certain settings resulted in both girls embodying nonviolence in different contexts—Kelly at home and Tina on the street—as well as assaultive violence in the same (the school) and different (the home vs. the street) milieus.” In addition, in specific settings each of the girls embodied power and powerlessness. Finally, making matters more complicated, Messerschmidt also discovered what Jody Miller (2001; 2002) had found in her examinations of girls, gangs, and gender: namely, that gender diversity rather than gender dichotomy captures the complexity of what some have referred to as a “third gender.” 

A Reciprocal Theory of Violence and Nonviolence

Gregg Barak’s (2003; 2004; 2005a; 2005b) reciprocal theory of violence and nonviolence is derived from an extension of the same logic used by the more traditional integrative, pathway, and multidimensional life-course theories. At its core, my approach to violence maintains that the key to understanding the dialectics of violence and nonviolence can be discovered, on the one hand, in the adversarial and mutualistic tendencies of social intercourse and, on the other hand, in the reciprocal relations of violent and nonviolent properties and pathways. More specifically, the reciprocal theory argues that the struggle between violence and nonviolence is a struggle about the contradictory relations or tensions between adversarialism and mutualism, that universally intersects virtually all individuals, groups, and nation-states alike, as these express themselves as competing properties. In addition, my theory contends that there are also pathways for culturally organizing personal and societal identities that, ultimately, navigate and guide individual, institutional, and structural behavior with respect to non/violent outcomes. 

Found throughout families, neighborhoods, classrooms, boardrooms, workplaces, country clubs, or in a variety of settings involving other groups of people or institutions such as the military, law enforcement, judiciary, mass media, and the church, there are a diversity of violence and nonviolent expressions. There are also common or established “properties” and “pathways” that operate across a two-sided continuum of interpersonal, institutional, and structural relations of social and cultural organization that simultaneous promote violence (adversarialism) and nonviolence (mutualism). The interconnections between the interpersonal, institutional, and structural spheres constitute a reciprocal playing field where the constellations of pathways to non/violence are mutually reinforced, resisted, or negotiated.

Properties of violence refers to the essential attributes, characteristics, elements, factors, situations, routines, hot spots, conditions, and so on identified by any of the ad hoc, life-course/developmental, and integrative theories of antisocial behavior. These properties of violence, unsanctioned and sanctioned, may include negative emotional states involving feelings of alienation, shame, humiliation, mortification, rejection, abandonment, denial, depression, anger, hostility, projection, and displacement. They may also include a lack of emotional states associated with the properties of nonviolence such as empathy and compassion stemming from positive experiences of love, security, attachment, bonding, identification, altruism, mutualism, and so on.

When the properties of violence or “emotional pathogens” as James Gilligan (1997) refers to them, form in the familiar, subcultural, and cultural interactions between individuals and their social environments, and these states of being are not checked or countered by the states of being associated with the properties of nonviolence, then the potential for violent interactions involving the battered psyches of persons, groups, and nation-states alike, persists. That is to say, feelings of  shame and humiliation, or of self-esteem and well-being, may be experienced by individuals, families, communities, tribes, nations, and other social groupings or subcultural stratifications based on age, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. In short, to the extent that individuals and groups feel abandoned by or bonded with their parents, peers, schools, communities, and nation-states, or to the extent that people experience connection or disconnection, they will be prone to relate or not relate, to identify or not identify, to empathize or not to empathize, to take or not take responsibility, to project or not project hostility and aggression, to make war or love, to make violence or nonviolence, to be anxious and uptight, or to be contented and calm.

As for the production of violence, over time and space, the transitions or trajectories toward or away from non/violence accumulate, forming an array of divergent pathways that may facilitate or impede one state of being over the other. It makes sense, therefore, to view adversarialism, violence, and abuse, or mutualism, nonviolence, and empathy, as occurring along a two-sided continuum where the actions of individuals, groups, and nation-states are capable of stimulating, accommodating, or resisting pathways to one or the other. In terms of time and place, these pathways refer to the spatial webs of violence and nonviolence expressed at the familiar, subcultural, and cultural levels of social, political, and economic organization.

All combined, there are nine possible pathways to violence and nine possible pathways to nonviolence. In the structural spheres of violence and nonviolence alone, for example, there are the same informational, financial, and media networks that form an underside of global capitalism, global terrorism, and global peacemaking. Whether operating for prosocial, antisocial, or no particular purposes, these expanding infrastructures have created virtual realities in which once-secure societies now find themselves becoming “permeable webs that both allow and require new communication systems, circulation patterns and organizational structures” (Taylor 2001: B14). As societies and people adapt, as we find ourselves moving from industrial to network organization, and as the new technologies interact with both isolated individuals and collective villages of globalized culture, pathways to violence and nonviolence are reproduced.


            This chapter has presented an overview of ad hoc, life-course/developmental, and integrative models of explaining violence and violent behavior. Comparatively, it was argued that the ad hoc theories -- exchange, subcultural, resource, patriarchal, ecological, social learning, evolutionary, sociobiological, pathological conflict, psychopathological, general systems, and inequality -- are inadequate explanations because, for the most part, they each ignore more relevant variables than they explore. Eight of these explanations address only one of the four interpersonal dimensions of internal as well as external motivation and constraint. Explanations derived from models of inequality, ecology, and pathological conflict address two of the four interpersonal dimensions, while general systems explanations address all but the internal constraints.

            By contrast, the life-course/developmental and integrative models were judged to be superior explanations, as most of these, tried to account for all four dimensions of the interpersonal typology of violence. Such models as Moffitt’s two-pronged theory of adolescence-limited and life-course-persistent antisocial behavior, Sampson and Laub’s theory of informal social control and cumulative disadvantage, and Messerschmidt’s theory of gender diversity and violence, all recognize the interactive, reciprocal, and dialectical relationships leading to violent and nonviolent behavioral outcomes. While these models are, indeed, an improvement over the primarily ad hoc one-dimensional models, these explanations also reveal themselves to be incomplete. Though they usually account for internal as well as external motivations and constraints at the interpersonal level, they generally ignore similar interactive, reciprocal, and dialectical relationships involving the structural and at times, the institutional, domains of violence. Finally, omitted from these explanations of violence are the reciprocal or mutually reinforcing relationships between the spheres of interpersonal, institutional, and structural violence and nonviolence.

As a more comprehensive explanation of violence, the reciprocal theory of violence and nonviolence was introduced. This model argues that both the properties of and pathways to violence or nonviolence, across both the spheres of interpersonal, institutional, and structural relations and the domains of family, subculture, and culture, are accumulative, mutually reinforcing, and inversely related.






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