Violence and Society: A Reader

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9780130967732: Violence and Society: A Reader

Focusing exclusively on the explanation of violence, this anthology examines why violent conduct occurs—whether or not it is defined as a crime. It reflects a distinctive perspective on the social construction of violence as normative conduct, deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of society, and supported by specific legal traditions that are difficult to change. The book also explores the structural origins of social violence, such as the role patriarchal social institutions play in explaining gender violence. A six-part organization contains articles by well-known scholars on the social construction of anger, social inequality and the production of violence, culture: violence and values, family violence, sexual violence, and criminal violence. For individuals seeking to understand the social causes of violence, and working to reduce the level of violence in families, gender relations, and a wide variety of social contexts in which violence appears to be an all too frequent occurrence.

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Some years ago, I attended a conference at which Murray Straus, whose work on family violence brought to light one of America's hidden problems, spoke about his commitment to the principle that we should have zero tolerance for family violence of any kind. Even spanking, he argued, reflects an acceptance of violent solutions to societal problems that perpetuates itself from generation to generation. Around the same time (April 1991), I attended a conference on aggression and violence sponsored by the Department of Sociology at SUNY Albany. Both of these events inspired the development of a course on social violence that I now teach at Bucknell University. The collection of readings in this book derives from the materials in the course. In this work, I include excerpts from Behind Closed Doors, the ground-breaking work on family violence by Murray Straus, Richard Genes, and Suzanne Steinmetz. I also include the published version of one of the SUNY Albany conference papers on sexual coercion by Richard Felson, one of the principal organizers of the conference.

Donald Black's work on the social structure of right and wrong, the moral and legal regulation of social conduct, has been an additional source of inspiration for the design of my course on violence (see Black 1998). The core of the materials in this course focuses on the normative aspect of social violence, including behavior usually understood to be predatory in nature. But no course on the sociology of violence would be complete without paying attention to the social construction of the emotions that underlie violent conduct. Carol Tavris' work on the social construction of anger, the "misunderstood emotion," forces us to think about anger in ways that are counterintuitive to those raised in the individualistic, psychologically-oriented popular culture of late twentieth century America. According to Tavris, anger serves a judicial function, regulating everyday conduct in a variety of social situations.

This book is intended for upper-level undergraduate courses in sociology, criminology, and legal studies. The course on violence that I teach at Bucknell is part of the legal studies curriculum in the sociology program. No examination of contemporary American society can be complete without understanding the central role of the legal system in both contributing to, and regulating, social violence at all levels. It is from anthropologist Henry Lundsgaarde's description of "Homicide as Custom and Crime" in Houston, Texas that we learn how important legal norms are to our understanding of the production of violence in society. Statutes that provide legal justifications for homicides committed in a variety of social situations both reflect and support cultural traditions that legitimate the use of deadly force.

The chapters in the book are organized into six parts, each emphasizing an important theme in the emerging literature on the sociology of violence. The first half of the book explores the social contexts that give rise to anger and violence in general. We begin in Part I with three articles on the social construction of anger. In Part II, we explore the role that social inequality, based on class, race, and gender, plays in contributing to increased levels of violence. Part III examines the role that cultural values play in justifying violence in a variety of situations and locations in American society. In this section, we also see how legal norms, by expressing some of the core values of the wider society, may contribute to, rather than deter, violence in America.

The second half of the book includes chapters on specific topics of substantive concern in the literature. Part IV focuses on family violence, first by exploring the extent and nature of the problem, including child abuse and domestic violence. We then explore the issues involved in the legal regulation of family violence, examining the history of the criminalization of family violence, the issue of self-defense when battered women kill their partners, and the impact of mandatory arrest policies in domestic violence cases. And, finally, we examine the role of vigilante justice in the Old South in response to a "wife-killing."

Part V explores the extent and nature of sexual coercion in American society This part is divided into two sections, the first dealing with sexual assault and the second with sexual harassment. The first chapter asks: Why do men rape? The next three chapters explore the social situations in which most rapes occur, by men whom women know as acquaintances, dates, and spouses. The last chapter in the section on sexual assault summarizes the research on the impact of rape law reform on rape prosecutions in the United States. In the second section, we begin with an article on the social origins of sexual harassment, then continue with a description of the history of the legal regulation of sexual harassment in the United States. The final chapter presents a review of the current literature on sexual harassment research and the most recent legal developments concerning sexual harassment in the workplace.

The last part of the reader focuses on an array of different types of criminal violence that are usually considered to be predatory in nature, including serial murder, armed robbery, organized crime (the "hit man"), and domestic terrorism. These selections were chosen to include in this section because they demonstrate the underlying normative character of violence, even in the most overtly predatory cases. And, finally, we examine the role of the prison system as a major factor in the production of violence in the wider society.

The book includes a mixture of articles, some of which were originally written to be accessible to general audiences, and some published in peer-reviewed academic journals. All the selections were chosen for their accessibility to the advanced undergraduate reader. One or two articles may be less accessible to the average reader, not because they are difficult to read, but because they represent major paradigm shifts in the way we think about crime and violence. Nevertheless, they are included here because of the importance of their contribution to the emerging literature in the sociology of violence. Such is the case with Donald Black's article, "Crime as Social Control." Black clearly shows that much of what is called criminal violence in contemporary America is governed by cultural norms that legitimize violence as "moralistic" acts in defense of traditional values.

The goal of this book is to enhance our understanding of the social causes of violence and, in doing so, make it possible to reduce the level of violence in families, in gender relations, and in a wide variety of social contexts in which violence appears to be an all-too-frequent occurrence. This becomes conceivable with changes in social structural factors, such as economic, racial, and gender inequality, associated with greater levels of social violence. Inequality produces the sense of injustice that yields righteous anger and the cultural values that legitimize violence in resistance to, or defense of, the existing social order. In such a world, there would be less reliance on direct interpersonal violence. There would also be less need for law, as organized state violence, to regulate social conduct.

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