Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Collective violence

Research on violence is not a discipline but a field or – if a closer look is taken – even a number of fields because the definitions of violence, the research theories, methods, and explanations considerably differ.

The encyclopaedia will focus on collective violence. This includes violent events, actions, relationships ascribed to groups. People hurt and are hurt because they belong to a group or are perceived as belonging to a group. These attributions and self-attributions are not the only reasons for the performance or experience of violence, and they need not be relevant to all participating agents but they make it possible to conceptualize them as justifiable and justified actions. The assault was carried out and just because the addressees belonged to another group that may or even must be fought. Further differentiation can be made.

Group membership

Definitions that focus on group membership as such contain a basic theoretical premise that can be found in varying forms in all theories of collective violence: It is necessary for pogroms, massacres, wars, and genocides – to mention but a few forms of this type of violence – to distinguish between in- and outgroups. This is true, but it can explain very little because the psychological and social formation of difference is a fundamental human skill and activity. Marilynn Brewer investigated the circumstances under which this principally useful differentiation becomes a psychological premise for violence (2001, pp.17–41). Richard Jenkins found that ethnicity as a fluid and social entity, generated by practices is not solely responsible for motivating actions and does not predetermine the direction (e. g. pro vs. contra) an action takes. An extensive political and economic contextualization on a local level and beyond is needed (1997).

Three levels

Accordingly, approaches address the phenomenon at different levels. Traditionally, macro-, meso- and microlevel are distinguished. The former refers to large groups such as states. In this context, security dilemmas, ideologies, concepts of territories, etc. come into view. The middle section – meso – discusses, for example, social milieus contributing to processes of radicalization. At the micro-level, research concerns itself with the acting agents. Those levels are not addressed in most practice-theoretical approaches as explained here.

Perpetrator research & sociology of violence

Depending on the chosen vantage points, it comprises all participants engaged in the process of destruction regardless of whether they participate intentionally or not; or is limited to those who execute violence – the so-called perpetrators. Concerning these, a special field of research has developed, perpetrator research. This term dominates approaches of the historical and social sciences. Usually, case descriptions or case studies are linked up with a limited number of classic sociopsychological experiments. Apart from these, especially in Germany, the sociology of violence has evolved since the 1990s that focuses on the explanatory reconstruction of relevant events and actions. Both – to some degree also related approaches – can be set off against research focusing on causes for violence.

Psychology of evil

A third vein of research predominantly located in the Anglo countries can be made out that might, according to the titles used, be called Psychology of Evil. It shares some features with German perpetrator research but is not as closely related to historical sciences. These studies often connect a whole range of quite different psychological and socio-psychological approaches explaining individual action. A few of them develop original approaches. There are more very fertile and very diverse approaches to collective violence. These include works of organizational sociology such as those challenging the whole rhetoric of ethnicity, nation, and (collective) identity and that consequently dispute fundamental research terms.

Even though they are as yet far from mainstream, for some years now socio-theoretical concepts whose central topics are action, social order and social change (Joas and Knöbl, 2004, p.37) have been adopted by research on violence. For example, figurational analysis and concepts of habitus are operationalized (for an overview, Gudehus 2018). Violence is discussed in the context of the emergence of social orders (Beck and Schlichte, 2014). Textbooks refer to such approaches (Alvarez and Bachman, 2014) and there are elemental works on the impacts such theories might have on genocide studies (Friedrich, 2012).

Distinct theories of action deserve even more attention. The literature on collective violence includes, for example, elaborations of concepts of habitus (Bakonyi and Bliesemann de Guevara, 2012). Actually, also terms borrowed from the toolbox of practice theory and partially related to theories of habitus are employed (Reichardt, 2004; Buggeln, 2009; Springmann 2019). Especially practice theoretical approaches allow even more radical perspectives on actions in the context of collective violence. This holds particularly true if methods of control and the coercion of opponents and prisoners such as terror, torture, or camps are investigated, the knowledge (know-how) of which has been handed down for millennia. Attention is then paid to forms of appropriation of these practices and their actualization in the course of time. Considered from this viewpoint, questions on the intentionality of damaging action or of human evil (Psychology of Evil) itself fade into the background.

Practices of violence

The vein of research introduced here takes exactly this at its point of departure. In a nutshell: Violence is neither to be understood as a function of specific historical constellations nor as a result of individual deformation nor as a consequence of social dynamics. Instead, the comparison of cultures along the dimensions of time and space concerned with the generation, existence, appropriation, and perhaps the opting out from – or of – practices is of interest.


Alvarez, A., Bachman, R., 2014. Violence. The Enduring Problem, 2nd ed. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC: Sage.

Bakonyi, J., Bliesemann de Guevara, B. eds., 2012. A Micro-sociology of Violence: Deciphering Patterns and Dynamics of Collective Violence. London: Routledge.

Beck, T.K, Schlichte, K., 2014. Theorien der Gewalt. Hamburg: Junius.

Brewer, M.B., 2001. Ingroup Identification and Intergroup Conflict: When Does Ingroup Love Become Outgroup Hate? In: R.D. Ashmore, L. Jussim, D. Wilder, eds. Social Identity, Intergroup Conflict, and Conflict Reduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.17–41.

Buggeln, M., 2009. Arbeit & Gewalt: das Aussenlagersystem des KZ Neuengamme. Göttingen: Wallstein.

Friedrich, S., 2012. Soziologie des Genozids: Grenzen und Möglichkeiten einer Forschungsperspektive, Schriftenreihe Genozid und Gedächtnis. München: Fink

Gudehus, C., 2018. Violence as Action. In: S. Buckley-Zistel, T. Williams, eds. Perpetrators and Perpetration of Mass Violence. Dynamics, Motivations and Concepts. Routledge, Abingdon, pp. 36–57.

Jenkins, R., 1997. Rethinking Ethnicity: Arguments and Explorations. London; Thousand Oaks, California: Sage.

Joas, H., Knöbl, W. ed., 2004. Social Theory: Twenty Introductory Lectures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Reichardt, S., 2004. Praxeologie und Faschismus. Gewalt und Gemeinschaft als Elemente eines praxeologischen Faschismusbegriffs. In K.H. Hörning, J. Reuter, eds. Doing Culture – Neue Positionen Zum Verhältnis von Kultur Und Sozialer Praxis. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, pp.129–53.

Springmann, V., 2019. Gunst und Gewalt. Sport in nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern. Berlin: Metropol.