Sociology Violence
Juergen Mackert, Eddie Hartmann
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0137


Violence is a ubiquitous and quotidian social phenomenon. At the same time it is both a highly problematic and a disputed term and concept in sociological reasoning. Considering its status it must be conceded that it has not been conceived as one of the discipline’s basic terms nor has sociology succeeded in agreeing upon what exactly violence means. The reasons for sociology’s skepticism originates from modern democratic society’s view of itself as being widely nonviolent as well as modern human beings’ self-conception of being violence-averse. Undoubtedly, this specific self-conception that expresses an evolutionist hope of modern society to overcome violence as a decisive feature of everyday life has impeded efforts in sociology to seriously take violence into account since the inception of the discipline. However, given inherent conflicts of interests and values in any kind of human association as well as humans’ anthropological ability to exert violence under specific social conditions, this prevalent self-image of modernity is rather misleading. Just as every other form of human association in history, modern society is characterized by violence. We can observe violence in any kind of social relation, from intimate relationships in romantic attachments or families to relations both within and between social groups, clans, or gangs and in class struggles or ethnic conflicts up to geopolitical relations. The enormous plurality of violence phenomena makes for confusion. From pushing or hitting single persons, to hooliganism, guerrilla war, or terrorism, genocide and other mass atrocities—a seemingly never-ending list of forms of violence can be cited. Even democracy is not exempt from this list, although it is commonly supposed that violence has been reduced enormously within democratic societies as a consequence of a widely accomplished monopolization of the means of violence. Notwithstanding this vagueness and these inconsistencies, in recent years a wide and fruitful debate on violence has emerged that clearly reveals that sociology will not comprehend today’s social world without both understanding and explaining the emergence, processes, and dynamics of the many kinds of violence that characterize social relations from face-to-face interactions to geopolitics.


A number of handbooks offer interesting insights into defining aspects of the social phenomenon of violence. Heitmeyer and Hagan 2003 presents the by now standard reference to both general theoretical approaches and empirical research that cover almost all areas of violence as a social and sociological phenomenon. In recent years a number of handbooks complement the sociological perspective in highly interesting ways that also pave the way for an interdisciplinary view of violence. Héritier 1996 and Héritier 1999 are two volumes that offer a distinct multidisciplinary approach to violence that ranges from philosophy to the social and natural sciences. Given that violence has become a topic that is discussed not just as a genuine social phenomenon, Flannery, et al. 2007 lays stress on biological, personal, and interpersonal explanations of violent behavior, while Shackleford and Weekes-Shackleford 2012 contributes to the debate from a determinedly evolutionary perspective in analyzing processes and mechanisms of the generation of violence. In addition to these more theory-driven handbooks, more theme-centered contributions include Juergensmeyer, et al. 2013, which concentrates on the constitutive link between religion and violence as a specialized area of recent research. Brown and Walklate 2012 offers both an essential outline of the social problem of sexual violence and different perspectives on its theoretical analysis.

  • Brown, Jennifer M., and Sandra L. Walklate, eds. 2012. Handbook on sexual violence. New York: Routledge.

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    Important contribution that not only sets the scene of the problem of sexual violence in detail, but also offers different perspectives on theoretically coming to terms with it as well as how to respond to sexually aggressive behavior.

  • Flannery, Daniel J., Alexander T. Vazsonyi, and Irwin D. Waldman, eds. 2007. The Cambridge handbook of violent behavior and aggression. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511816840Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    Highly interesting handbook that explores particularly the genetical and bio-social foundations of aggressive and violent behavior, among other topics.

  • Heitmeyer, Wilhelm, and John Hagan, eds. 2003. International handbook of violence research. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-306-48039-3Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    A highly recommendable handbook that offers both encompassing articles about the many facets of the social phenomenon of violence and further information for each subject discussed. English translation of Internationales Handbuch der Gewaltforschung (Wiesbaden, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2002).

  • Héritier, Françoise, ed. 1996. De la violence I. Paris: Odile Jacob.

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    The first volume edited by Françoise Héritier, who directed the social anthropology laboratory at the Collège de France, is concerned with philosophical, religious, and phenomenological aspects of violence.

  • Héritier, Françoise, ed. 1999. De la violence II. Paris: Odile Jacob.

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    The second volume includes contributions from authors in anthropology, biology, literature, psychoanalysis and political science, providing further multidisciplinary perspectives on violence.

  • Juergensmeyer, Mark, Margot Kitts, and Michael Jerryson, eds. 2013. The Oxford handbook of religion and violence. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The volume offers not only general and analytical approaches to the analysis of the nexus between religion and violence, but also a wide debate on the highly interesting link between these social dimensions.

  • Shackleford, Todd, and Viviana A. Weekes-Shackleford, eds. 2012. The Oxford handbook of evolutionary perspectives on violence, homicide, and war. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199738403.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The articles contribute to an evolutionary perspective on violence. Highly interesting volume for an interdisciplinary debate on evolutionary explanations of violence.

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