critical review of two journal articles looking at urban violence and collective conflict
The following is a critical review of two journal articles looking at urban violence and collective conflict. One article is by L Berkowitz (1968), the other is by Reicher (1996)
2. Article 1: Berkowitz Review
2.1 Description of Article
The article is about theories about urban violence, particularly the ‘frustration-aggression hypothesis’ (Dollard et al 1939), and later critiques of this theory by Lorenz and others. Berkowitz accepts the hypothesis, but in a modified form. The original formulation was criticised by Lorenz, who suggested that rather than being a reaction to an external stimulus, aggression is primarily a response to an internal force, and that discharging this aggression can reduce the likelihood of aggressive acts (Berkowitz 1968). Berkowitz critiques Lorenz suggesting that the conclusions Lorenz drew in terms of avoiding conflict were not valid, as acting out aggressive impulses in fact does not reduce the tendency to act this way. Berkowitz draws upon work by other researchers into animal and human psychology to suggest an alternative view: frustration is not an emotionally neutral event, anticipation, as well as deprivation, must be included in any model of aggressive behaviour. In other words, rising human expectations of possessions and the frustration of these expectations are a more adequate explanation of urban violence. He by no means rejects Lorenz entirely, both accepting the notion of the innate determination of aggression, and embracing Lorenz’s concept of the ‘releasing stimulus’ (Lorenz 1966) to explain why animals attack only particular targets. Berkowitz also concludes that as well as being caused by perceived lack of material benefits, aggression and violence are due to “aggressive stimuli” (Berkowitz 1968, p. 16).
Berkowitz spends the bulk of the paper in a critical overview of theories of frustration and aggression, moving sequentially from Dollard’s initial theory through Lorenz’s socio-biological approach to his own critique and reworking of this. Rather than a primary study, looking at new data, this paper summarises and critiques existing academic work, and finally turns to the practical use of theories of urban violence to analyse contemporary violence in the USA.
2.2. Critique of Article
Berkowitz carries out an analysis of existing theories, and uses these to develop his own. It is therefore inappropriate to look at questions of study design, statistical validity and similar issues which pertain to primary studies. However, he does make reference to studies conducted by his own research facility (“several experiments carried out in our Wisconsin laboratory” (Berkowitz 1968, p. 16), although gives no details of these. It is therefore possible that these studies, upon which he bases his idea that external stimuli work to elicit aggression primarily in people already predisposed to aggression, are methodologically flawed. In terms of his analysis of Dollard and Lorenz, Berkowitz makes some sound points, reworking the original frustration-aggression hypothesis using some, but not all concepts gleaned from Lorenz, to offer a new version of the model which allows both external and internal forces to play a role. However, it might be asked how comprehensive an overview of this area is given. For example, he does not mention theories of Behaviourism, although such ideas seem to be present in the discussion, particularly the analysis of stimulus and response. Similarly, psychoanalysis might have insights into the nature of aggression which are not included here. His discussion of his theory in terms of real-world incidents is useful. In particular, his model suggests that one explanation of recent riots is unlikely, and a multi-causal explanation is more feasible.
Berkowitz elegantly teases out strands from existing theories on the relationship between frustration and aggression, and uses these, together with a critique of some aspects of these theories, to develop his own perspective on the cause of urban violence. He suggests that events recent at the time of writing can be explained by these theories. The model he proposes seems genuinely new, and able to offer real-world insights, but he perhaps ignores other ideas from psychology which might throw light on the nature of frustration and aggression.
3. Article 2: Reicher Review
3.1 Description of Article
By contrast, Reicher offers a case study analysis of a 1988 demonstration and violent conflict between students and police, using this analysis to develop a hypothesis about collective conflict. His model integrates social identity theory with ideas about the construction of social categories through interactions between groups and group members. An introduction looks at previous attempts to understand the nature of crowd behaviour, and discusses the idea of emergent norm theory (Turner and Killian 1987) and self-categorisation theory (Turner 1982; Turner et al 1987) as ways of explaining this behaviour. The case study is detailed, and describes a protest by the National Union of Students in 1988 against plans for student loans. Various sources inform the case study, which is based on the experiences of participants, and which uses the triangulation method to uncover consensus about events (Denzin 1970). The case study is followed by an analysis of what the events meant, in terms of Reicher’s theory about conflict.
Reicher offers a well-researched literature review, assessing previous accounts of crowd behaviour, and the extent to which the classic accounts are inadequate, as they lack a social dimension to the explanation of behaviour. He also points out a tension between psychological and sociological accounts of crowd behaviour, and the need to include analysis of the collective viewpoint in accounts. However, while the literature review includes many sources, and offers a broad background to the study, there is little attempt to engage in depth with any previous works aside from emergent norm theory. The emphasis is rather upon summary of previous approaches, which raises the question whether these other models have useful insights which have been ignored.
In terms of methodology, Reicher offers a case study based on interviews from various sources. The approach is qualitative, rather than quantitative, that is, concerned with the experiences of participants, rather than collecting statistically significant data (Babbie 2010). As such, it is harder to draw conclusions which can be generalised from the data, and it is more likely that Reicher’s interpretation may be biased. In addition, by his own admission, the data was mainly gathered from protestors, rather than from the police, which means that the evidence is weighted in favour of the protesters viewpoint. Most of the student respondents were also drawn from one university, which further raises the question of bias, although Reicher himself acknowledges this.
A positive point is that Reicher additionally gives the political background leading up to the events described in the case study, as well as theoretical context and description of events. One possible negative is that the description of the events in the case study are very extensive, with an hour-by-hour account of events. This might be said to be too descriptive, using space which could better have been taken up by analysis, however it could be said against this that the detail is necessary for Reicher to make his subsequent analysis. Another negative is that the press coverage is explained very briefly, and lacks evidence to back up the statement that “the dominant account employs classic agitator theory” (Reicher 1996, p. 121).
The analysis devote much space to quotations from participants: while these add colour and insight, they might have been better placed in an appendix, to allow the overall theoretical picture to emerge. The section on theoretical implications is impressive: earlier ideas about social identity and crowd behaviour are re-introduced, and evidence from the case study is used to support hypotheses about crowd behaviour. However, there is a question regarding the extent to which the hypotheses are supported by the evidence collected. For example, Reicher suggests that the perceptions of the police supports the notion that “authorities tend to consider large crowds… to constitute a potential threat to public order” (Reicher 1996, p. 130), but has already acknowledged that he had little access to police thought processes. Despite this, the suggestions about crowd dynamics and conflict are extremely thought provoking.
Reicher starts his analysis of crowd behaviour with a case study, introduced by a literature review. Ideas from the review are used to inform events described in the case study, in order to develop hypotheses about crowd behaviour. While he provides an interesting model of crowd behaviour in terms of social identity and self-categorisation, the extent to which his conclusions are supported by the evidence is questionable.
Babbie, E R (2010) The Practice of Social Research (12th edn), Cengage Learning, USA.
Berkowitz, L (1968) ‘The Study of Urban Violence: Some Implications of Laboratory Studies of Frustration and Aggression’, American Behavioral Scientist, 11:4.
Denzin, N. (1970) The research act, Aldine, Chicago
Dollard, J, Doob, L W, Miller, N E, Mowrer, O H and Sears, R R (1939) Frustration and Aggression, Yale University Press, New Haven, USA
Lorenz, K (1966) On Aggression, Harcourt, Brace and World, USA.
Reicher, S D (1996) ’The Battle of Westminster‘: developing the social identity model of crowd behaviour in order to explain the initiation and development of collective conflict’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 115-134.
Turner, J C (1982) ‘Towards a cognitive definition of the social group’, In H. Tajfel (Ed.), Social identity and intergroup relations, Maison des Sciences de 1’Homme / Cambridge University Press, Paris / Cambridge.
Turner, J, Hogg, M, Oakes, P Reicher, S and Wetherell, M (1987) Rediscovering the social group, Blackwell, Oxford.
Turner, R and Killian, L (1987) Collective behaviour (3rd ed), Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, USA