Group violence: why does all hell sometimes break loose and other times not?

Sociologist Don Weenink has been awarded the ERC Consolidator Grant for research into how group behaviour influences the escalation, and de-escalation, of volatile situations.

4 April 2016

Studies looking into the use of violence, as a group or otherwise, often draw a direct connection with the background characteristics of the perpetrators. According to Dr Don Weenink, sociologist at the University of Amsterdam, the focus should lie more on the situation itself and the group dynamics. He received an ERC Consolidator Grant for his research into this new theory.

Weenink became interested in the phenomenon of violence, including group violence, through his previous research into differences in the severity of sentencing between young people from ethnic as opposed to native-Dutch backgrounds. For that research, Weenink ploughed through innumerable criminal files, which he was surprised to find contained a 'wealth' of information. 'The files contain a vast amount of information detailing what exactly happened, who said what, and details about the victims, perpetrators and suspects. The material was simply begging to be researched further. So as I started exploring the dynamics of violent situations more closely, I hit upon the idea of studying the causes of group violence for my research.

Bungling brawlers

Weenink admits that during his research work he sometimes finds himself shocked by footage or files, certainly when they concern extreme violence. 'But in other cases the images are not that awful, and sometimes they are even hilarious - bungling brawlers, or a lot of tough hollering and carrying-on which in the end does not result in any violence at all.'

Volatile situations

The sociologist knows that the majority of confrontations therefore do not end in violence, extreme or otherwise. 'Most people do not cross the line to violence very easily. The dominant theory holds that certain background characteristics can result in people resorting more readily to violence. Take, for example, economic deprivation, the feeling of being marginalised, a chronic sense of humiliation or alcohol use. Although those characteristics do play a role in group violence, they do not explain why certain volatile situations between groups (e.g. hooligans versus the police, groups of young people, neo-Nazis versus antifascists) escalate into, sometimes brutal, violence, while other confrontations fizzle out. That's why I believe the situation and the group dynamics play an important role.

Group members incite each other

According to Weenink, when groups face off against each other, all kinds of processes start taking place: members of the group try to exaggerate the dominance of their physical presence or try (possibly unconsciously) to make themselves appear smaller. They shout at each other, seek direct contact with members of the other side and, especially, members of the group tend to 'incite each other', something which is also referred to as 'alignment'. 'An atmosphere is created which clearly communicates that the other group is inferior and deserves to be taught a lesson. And then there are bystanders who incite, cheer on or try to calm down those involved in the confrontation. Group members can also curb each other's emotions. I want to research the situations in which group behaviour escalates and de-escalates violence. Who does what when, and why does all hell sometimes break loose and other times not? And does it matter if you are dealing with more or less random groups or better organised groups?'
For his research, the sociologist uses various sources and data, such as video images, interviews and judicial files, focusing on police teams, criminal youths, football hooligans and bouncers.

Practical implications

Though Weenink primarily seeks to contribute to fundamental research into group violence with his own research, there are of course also practical implications. ‘Because the research yields more insight into the reasons why certain situations escalate, police teams can use it to diffuse serious confrontations by regulating group processes differently, for example.’

Published by  Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences