Aggression and Violence
By Susan Opotow
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Opotow, Susan. "Aggression and Violence." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000, pp.403-427.
Opotow defines aggression as "any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment."(p. 404) Aggression has many forms and purposes. Direct violence is overt and is committed by, and directed at, particular individuals. It can be contrasted to structural violence, which occurs when basic resources are distributed unfairly, depriving some of decent lives. Violence occurs at every level, from individual through family, community, nation, and world.
Theorists differ over whether aggression is based in biology or in cause by environment. Sociobiologists argue that aggression is a basic part of our biological makeup, and is elicited or repressed by various circumstances. Deviance studies have found violence associated with various physiological conditions. They have also found that aggression produces physiological changes. However, most violence is committed by physiologically (and otherwise mentally) normal individuals.
Some people are predisposed to aggression, and groups or organizations may have a culture of violence. Such malevolent dispositions are a popular explanation for violent behavior, however Opotow argues that this is an oversimplification. "Psychologically, it is easier to see violent individuals or groups as the sole causal agents than to see the larger context, which is characterized by prevailing and anticipated economic conditions; political institutions; available and scarce resources; conflict resolution practices; and the degree to which a society is open or closed to new groups, traditions, and ideas."(p. 409)
Motivational theory sees blocked needs as the cause of aggression, drawing on Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Psychologists have explored the connection between goal frustration and aggression. They found that, while frustration can lead to aggression, it can also lead to more constructive behaviors, and that many cases of aggression do not involve frustration. Similarly, there is no necessary connection between anger and aggression. Research also shows that "stimuli in the immediate environment, such as guns, knives, or axes...are also powerful cues that can spark violent behavior."(p. 410)
Gender studies have found it difficult to determine whether men are more violent than women. Men are more likely to engage in active, direct violence, while women's violence is more typically indirect, verbal, or self-directed.
Behavioralists view aggression as a learned response. The legal system displays such an approach when it relies on punishment (negative reinforcement) to deter violence. However, punishment is only effective under very specific conditions; it must be swift, certain and severe. Social learning theorists see aggressions as leaned from personal experience and from role models. They emphasize environmental sources such as violent families and media portrayals of violence. Nonviolent behaviors will also be learned if they are effectively modeled. Social cognition approaches view aggression as the result of flawed or inadequate behavioral decision-making, and categorized aggression into two types. Reactive aggression occurs in response to perceived provocation. Reactively violent people may be overly sensitive to provocation or misinterpret situational cues. Proactive aggression occurs when violence is the preferred response to social challenge. Proactively violent people may lack knowledge of, or competency with, alternative responses, or may simply have an inappropriately positive evaluation of aggression (e.g. as showing strength). Cultural and social context plays a significant role in determining what kinds and degrees of aggression are acceptable or even admirable.
Moral norms can act as a powerful constraint on violence. At the same time, felt injustice can be a powerful incentive toward, and justification for, violence. Norms violations are least likely to spark destructive , escalating conflicts if the violation was unintentional and transient, and if there are norms in place for redressing the wrong. People's judgements of behavior will vary depending on which domain they associate the behavior with: moral, conventional, or personal. For example, corporal punishment could be judged as morally wrong, socially acceptable, or a matter of personal preference. Many types of violence are rationalized as being conventional or personal, rather than moral, matters.
Norms constraining violence can be disengaged by a variety of factors. They may be weakened by habituation and desensitization to violent acts. Opotow observes that "everyday structural violence flourishes when people preserve their self-esteem and sense of moral worthiness by keeping themselves uninformed and by avoiding questions that would reveal answers they do not want to know, such as the advantages that race confers on white people at the expense of people of color, or the advantages that gender confers on men at the expense of women."(p. 416) Norms constraining violence do not protect those who are excluded from the moral community, or the scope of justice. Those outside the moral community are seen as "expendable, undeserving, and eligible targets of exploitation, aggression, and violence."(p. 417)
Effective conflict resolution has four stages: diagnosis, implementation planning, implementation, and evaluation. Diagnosis requires identifying victims of violence, identifying their motives and background, and understanding how violence spreads from level to level. Since the causes of violence are multiple, complex, and interconnected, strategies for countering violence must be comprehensive, coordinated multiparty approaches. The usual dispute resolution approaches may be inappropriate in cases of violent or coercive conflict. Community anti-violence programs typically focus on conflict management skills, on youth or families, or on psychoeducational approaches.
Three general principles should guide intervention into violent situations. First, control your own violence. Second , recognize and avoid behaviors that provoke other people's aggression. Third, when aggression does occur, acknowledge it and act to manage or deescalate the conflict. Intervention should be subject to ongoing evaluation. Perform ongoing reality checks. Look for unintended consequences of the intervention and for conflict residues. In addition to intervention skills, recognizing and addressing aggression takes significant moral courage; even caring professionals tend to avoid acknowledging cases of violence.
In conclusion, Opotow calls for development of a culture of peace, which can "address the root causes of many kinds of aggression by emphasizing rights, law, and social justice. Cultures of peace work to implement their values and ideals for human rights, tolerance, democracy, free flow of information, sustainable development, peace education and gender equality."(p. 424)