A Social Theory of Violence Looks Beyond the Shooter

(Seung Hui Cho, Left, In This Photo Illustration Taken From A 2002 Westfield High School Yearbook. Original Photo By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)
By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, April 23, 2007

Like most people in Virginia, Donald Black was horrified by Seung Hui Cho's shooting rampage last week that left 33 people dead, including the shooter.

Unlike most people, Black thinks he knows why it happened -- and why so many others are stumped.

Black is a sociologist at the University of Virginia and the pioneer of a new way of thinking about human behavior. Black's approach, which he calls pure sociology, eliminates from discussion any mention of psychology. Black believes that the attempts being made to understand Cho's actions from a psychological perspective all suffer from a serious flaw.

The problem with theories that blame Cho's homicidal rage on depression or psychosis or any number of other mental conditions, Black argues, is that these theories do not explain why many other people with those conditions -- in fact, the vast majority of people with those conditions -- have never done and will never do what Cho did. What use, Black asks, are theories that cannot explain the behavior of the vast majority of people whom they purport to describe?

A better way to think about violence, Black argues, is to closely examine the relationships between individuals and groups. Minute details of those relationships, Black argues, determine not only what an individual does but also how society and law enforcement will conceive of the event and respond to it.

What Black is saying is that Cho's upbringing and mental condition are red herrings. The social situations individuals find themselves in are what matter, which is why two individuals with the same mental makeup do different things when they are in different situations. Black's work has focused on violence in general, so he does not have a specific formula for what produces a rampage such as Cho's, but he believes his work offers a way to think about what happened that is superior to psychological theories.

Black's controversial ideas have made him a lightning rod for criticism from both the political right and the left. His ideas threaten conservative beliefs about the role of personal responsibility, and liberal notions of humanism -- Black believes, in fact, that human behavior is best understood when humans are left out of the equation.

To see what Black means, think about violent crime. We automatically see murderers as immoral and place them in polar opposition to law enforcement officials. But the violence of people such as Cho, Black argues, is really part of the same family of behavior as the law.

"To most people, this will sound strange," he said. "Most violence is a way that people handle grievances. Violence is a species of social life in the same genus as law."

To the mind of a Blackian sociologist, the reason we see gang violence and police gunplay as different is that we are focused on the different motives of criminals and police, on their psychological states.

Critics have accused Black of preaching amorality; he argues that classifying behavior accurately does not justify it, just as understanding cancer does not mean you are willing to put up with it.

Blackian sociologists believe that human behavior should be classified the way natural scientists classify plants and animals: based not on appearance or intuitive judgment, but on underlying characteristics that are measurable. That approach, they say, offers real insight into behavior.

For example, Black argues that the social distance between individuals predicts how violence enters a conflict. The greater the social distance, the greater the violence -- which is why Black argues that one way to reduce bloodshed in gang violence is to show gang members the things they have in common with opposing gangs.

Another Black theory is that the hierarchical relationships between perpetrators and victims predict how the law gets involved -- which not only explains why poor people who kill rich folk are likely to face harsher penalties than rich people who kill poor folk, but why rich people who kill one another are far more likely to face harsher punishment than poor people who kill one another.

If both homicidal violence and the law are seen as ways of resolving conflict, this also explains why homicide, which was once common in all echelons of society -- aristocrats regularly fought deadly duels -- has become rare today among people who are better off, says Mark Cooney, a Blackian sociologist at the University of Georgia.

Whereas psychologically based theories of behavior might seek to explain different rates of homicidal violence among groups as the result of innate differences (a conservative approach) or socioeconomic differences (a liberal approach), placing violence and the law in the same family suggests that the reason wealthy people are less likely to resort to violence nowadays is because the law mediates their conflicts. Poor people either do not have access to the law or see it as a source of harassment -- which is why they are more likely to fall back on violence as a form of "self-help."

What this means, Cooney says, is that increasing the availability of mediators, and the mediating power of the law, in poor communities would reduce violence.

Black says that studying the relationships between victims, perpetrators and bystanders can explain psychologically inexplicable behavior: Why do people such as Cho kill strangers who have nothing to do with their problems? The vectors of social geometry, Black says, propel individuals to do what they do. "There are particular social configurations that produce various kinds of behavior," Black said. "It is the configuration that generates the violence. It is not peculiar to the individual. There is not something in the individual's mind that brings the event into existence."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company