The Social Science Encyclopedia

Authors: Kuper & Kuper
Summary: The entry presents several understandings of violence, considers its origins, and notes the importance of its social context. The most common understanding of violence is that associated with individually motivated action. A great deal of violence, however, is committed by individuals on behalf of others. Violence may also be committed by institutions (for instance, the use of deadly force by police), or may arise from war or civil insurgency.
The entry presents many possible origins of or explanations for violence. Law and popular culture focus on the behavior of particular, criminally defined offenders. Biological explanations suggest that violence is rooted in hormonal imbalances, low intelligence, or brain injury. Psychological explanations stress low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and depression. Sociological explanations point to such causal factors as economic deprivation, gang involvement, dominant social groups, and the use of violence in the informal economy. Such sociological explanations may describe the context within which violence occurs, but they fail to predict which individuals within those environments will commit violence, and which won't.
The entry concludes by observing that understandings of violence, including the social and political context within which violence arises, are subjective rather than objective. They are socially constructed--contested and contestable.