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Threaded Discussion: Criminology

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Latest update: September 2, 1999
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Rational-Choice Theory and Violence

Thread initiated by Stan Salas, September 25, 1999


Stan: "At p. 25 Pollock says: "Another reason women may be less violent is simply that it is not rational to be violent..." Violence is not rational. Once rational thinking is gone there is either fight or flight. Is she saying that women are more rational than men? Or that women in violent situations voluntarily become victims because know it is irrational to fight with someone stronger?"

Jeanne: "Frankly, Stan, I'm not sure what she means. My interpretation of her statements on p.25 would be that by rational in this instance she probably means "common sensical." If the other guy is bigger than you and stronger than you then it doesn't make sense to aggress openly against him. This is what Pollock calls "unrewarding since they are unlikely to win." But I don't think that means "voluntarily" becoming a victim. I think that means that the woman may have to try to think her way through to a different approach to power in this situation. And example is the picture of the Southern Belle as having the real power in the South by manipulating the male, not vanquishing him.

Theoretically, this comes from rational-choice theory which suggests that we choose the alternative that will come closest to getting us what we want, given the situation and our choices. (Cf. fn. 7 on p. 41: "Felson, (1996) proposes such a rational choice theory in a study of size and physical strength and how these may affect choices for violence.") In criminology, rational-choice theory is associated with "situational-crime-prevention" (Adler, at p. 177, col.2.) Certainly the position that Pollock seems to be taking in this case would seem to indicate that women are taking the situation into account. See new lecture notes on Rational-Choice Theory and Crime Prevention.

If the women choose relative non-violence because they are smaller, that would not immediately lead to the conclusion that women are more rational than men, because the men would not have a rational reason for the non-violent choice under those same circumstances.

But not all of us, as you have pointed out, Stan, agree that choices in this area are rational. Many choices result from the emotional concomitants in the social setting. For one theoretical source here consider Edward T. Hall and his discussion in The Silent Language on the level of affect that accompanies the informal, formal, and technical levels of discourse. Since the situation in which violence occurs is most often informal, the highest level of affect will be present, suggesting that rational choice is less likely to intervene than it might at the technical level.

Another theoretical approach would be the biological one you suggested, fight or flight. Again, this would suggest that rational thinking doesn't count for much in these instances. Biological theories of crime are amply discussed in Adler et al., but not from the perspective you raise. The more typical treatment is to look for biological disorders or genetic factors that might lead one to commit violence. The perspective you suggest, that fear is at the root of much violence, is briefly discussed in Adler on p. 113.