Why We Fight

In the NY Sun, Graeme Wood review Randall Collins’ Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory:

Sociologist and amateur martial artist Randall Collins starts his wonderful, rambling book, “Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory” (Princeton University Press, 584 pages, $45), by pointing out that violence baffles us, and that it rarely resembles our imaginations, or what we see in films. Between individuals, combat often looks goofy and undignified, more slappy flailing than solid punches. For group violence, the saloon brawls in Westerns have taught us to expect bystanders to join in and smash chairs over each other’s backs; but in real life, bar patrons tend to back off from the melee, staring inertly.

If Mr. Collins is right — and let us hope he is — this reluctance to fight is natural, common, and underestimated. Humans abhor violence, he tells us, and they require acute overdoses of fear and tension to overcome that abhorrence and get physically mean. Violence simply does not happen as readily as we suppose, he says, and because it is so exceptional, many of our guesses about its origins and nature have missed their marks.

Previous approaches tried to identify “violent individuals,” and to discover whether a blend of, say, poverty and desperation and broken home life made them violent. Mr. Collins argues that this broad sociological approach won’t explain anything, because the most important factor — the overwhelmingly most important factor — that determines whether one resorts to violence is not one’s past but one’s present.