The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Friday, July 4, 2014


The term “illegal alien” is a contentious one today, when the words we choose are weapons in political argument. But in comparing the situation in America with ancient Rome, most of the euphemistic, pro-immigrant terms are anachronistic. “Undocumented immigrant” doesn’t fit because ancient people did not carry documents; and most of the people on Roman territory clamoring for citizenship did not immigrate to get there. Phrases like “non-citizen resident” are too bland to capture the anger the issue aroused, then and now. Romans fought over the status of the legally defined aliens in their midst for more than fifty years.

The historical comparison gives us a time perspective we lack: we know what happened down that road. The illegal aliens won; in less than 100 years, ethnic and geographical origins ceased to make any difference in Roman society.

The Fight Over Roman Citizenship

Ancient Rome was a self-governing republic.  Citizens had the right to vote, and the duty to serve in the army. Since they won every war for about 300 years, territory under Roman control expanded, first to all of Italy, then to surrounding regions. The pattern was not unlike the small thirteen colonies that became the United States of America; Romans too sent out colonies to settle on conquered territory, including the Wild West of its time, the tribal frontier of  Spain and France. The Roman state became rich in public land-- farmland, mines, forests, etc-- which it could dispose of to its citizens either as property grants or as leases. This meant that Roman citizens did not have to pay taxes, unlike the conquered peoples. Roman citizenship was a valuable possession.

Rome began as one of many small Italian city-states, and it expanded by making treaties with others. Since independent states might ally themselves with an enemy, Roman alliances tended to have strong elements of threat-- they were forced allies, similar to US policy of interfering in the internal government of weaker states during the Cold War. Rome’s allies were required to send troops in time of war (which was most of the time) and to pay for military expenses. Thus being a Roman ally had considerable disadvantages; they were “friends of Rome” but definitely not citizens. Among other things, they were not allowed to marry Roman citizens, since that would provide a legal path to citizenship (again, some similarities to American laws). Hence there was considerable pressure from the allies, especially those attached to the Roman armies, to be treated like Roman soldiers who shared in the spoils of war.

Roman conservatives resisted widening the franchise. Their center of strength was the Senate, the upper body of the Roman legislature, which appointed most of the officials and generals. Senators were from the long-standing patrician families; but new members of the Senate could be appointed, and so there was some upward mobility-- from former plebian families that had become wealthy and distinguished, and even ex-slaves and former allies who had risen in importance. Conservatives, however, looked down on the newcomers, as merely vulgar rich (although the old families were rich too), and above all lacking in the heroic virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice that made up their historic (and somewhat mythological) self-image.

The True Roman Self-Image of their Heroic Past: Oath of the Horatii

The Real American Self-Image of their Heroic Past: Washington Crossing the Delaware

 Over time, the aliens squeezed through the cracks. The Roman army kept getting larger, as its conquests grew. War casualties, especially in the long fight against Carthage (264-146 BC), its most powerful rival, created a need to raise more soldiers from the allies, and more of them were rewarded by becoming integrated in the Roman legions. Roman soldiers were serving longer and farther away from home, and the small farmer-citizens who were the basis of the militia lost their land; hence they migrated to the city of Rome itself, where they joined in the popular assembly, exercising their voting rights, and more importantly, made a riotous crowd that pressured the decisions of the Senate. What to do with impoverished citizens became a standing problem. One solution was to plant colonies, rewarding ex-soldiers with land from conquered peoples. At first these were in Italy itself, where citizens lived in enclaves next to locally self-governing communities of non-citizen allies-- a condition that made the legal distinction into a form of ethnic segregation. Roman colonists could vote and seek favors from the Senate, but only if they traveled to Rome to exercise their right-- since voting was done only in the public assembly.

Rome’s city population also swelled by an influx of non-citizens-- favor-seekers, merchants, professionals, entertainers. Many such occupational specialists were slaves or ex-slaves. Somewhat surprisingly, being a slave in an important Roman family was a path to upward mobility, since slaves did most of the household and administrative work (being a slave in agriculture or mining was a different story) and many of them were eventually freed as an incentive for loyal service. Since old Roman conservatives looked down on business, ex-slaves became part of the growing capitalist class. Most important of all was a class of capitalists who leased the state's public land, since they had the capital to achieve economies of scale in working large plantations, mines, timber, and importing the food supply to feed the population of Rome. It was a minimalist state in most respects. Rome owned vast properties but had few public officials, and they were appointed to very short terms. Hence most public enterprises were leased out; capitalists undertook to collect taxes, advancing cash for state needs and squeezing what they could out of subject peoples. The New Testament gives us a glimpse of these Roman citizens out in the provinces: Jesus offended local ethnic loyalties by converting tax collectors; and Paul himself was a Roman citizen.  Since the most important state organization was the army, the biggest state-related business was supplying it with weapons, armor, food, ships, and harbors.  Rome thus developed its “military-industrial complex”, similar to the US since late 20th century in outsourcing as much as possible to private contractors.

The illegal alien problem came to a head after 146 BC, when Rome emerged as the hegemon, the dominant state in Mediterranean world. Partisan factions developed in the Roman elite itself; conservative defenders of the old Republic, but also a “democratic” party in favor of redistributing public land, handouts to the poor, and widening the franchise. These were not merely idealists; they had a strong practical concern, that the basis of the old Roman army-- self-sufficient small farmers-- was disappearing and needed to be revived. This the reformers never did achieve; but army reform and franchise reform tended to go in tandem. Leading liberals often came from the ranks of the most successful generals, like Marius and Caesar.  The first famous reformers were the Gracchus brothers, who ran for the highest office under proposals to extend the Roman franchise to at least some of the nearby Italian allies.  Tiberius Gracchus was killed by a crowd of angry senators in 132 BC, as was his brother Gaius ten years later.

The younger Gracchus did succeed in passing a law instituting the dole:  the state undertook to import grain to sell to citizens of the capital below market prices. Handouts by the liberal state became permanent, no conservatives being strong enough to brave the crowds’ demand for the staple of food. Rome created the early welfare state, in effect a massive food stamp program. Poor citizens were never supported to the level of the prosperous classes but their numbers as a political force kept them going for centuries on the public dole. Supplying “bread and circuses” became the path to popularity by subsequent Roman politicians. The elite undertook to keep the people entertained by sports and other spectacles, in stadiums and colosseums that Americans imitate today.

Although franchise reform was defeated, one political crisis after another kept opening loopholes for more resident aliens to become citizens. Around 100 BC, Marius reformed the army; eliminating the old militia in which all land-owning citizens were called each year, and putting in its place a standing army recruited from the impoverished proletariat. Soldiers were now long-term volunteers, supported by regular pay, and rewarded by allotment of lands when their 16-year tour was up. Such armies were much more expensive, and generals had to be capitalists in their own right to raise an army, and aggressive conquerors of new territory in order to pay for it. Marius’ nephew, Julius Caesar, would become the great master of this path to success-- a liberal reformer who made an alliance between some of the richest capitalists and the urban poor.

In the meantime, full-scale war broke out over the question of the franchise. In 91 BC, another liberal reformer, Livius Drusus, ran on a program to give the Roman franchise to all Italians. He was murdered before the vote, giving rise to the Social War that went on from 91-88 BC.  It was so called because the Latin word socii  meant allies-- the war of the long-suffering second-class non-citizens. This time the aliens had strong support, in the liberal faction of the Roman elite, and their new-style popular generals. The Social War dragged on for three years, fought in communities all over Italy. It ended in a compromise, since foreign provinces were taking the opportunity to revolt; peace terms offered Roman citizenship to all those who laid down their arms. Another bloody civil war went on down to 83 BC between the conservative general Sulla and the liberal Marius; the democrats were defeated but in the aftermath the franchise was conceded throughout Italy.  Both sides had come to depend too much upon non-citizen communities for soldiers and support; and so many Romans from high ranking families were killed and expropriated in partisan purges that it brought considerable opportunities for upward mobility.

With Julius Caesar, the pattern was repeated on a larger scale, this time outside of Italy. Caesar recruited large numbers of Gauls, Spaniards and others into his legions; and during his conquests he bargained with friendly tribes by offering some form of citizenship. By the time of his assassination in 44 BC, Caesar was planning to erase the distinction between Italy and the foreign provinces. When peace was reestablished in the reign of Augustus Caesar in 27 BC, all this came to pass. Henceforward, Senators were appointed from all over the Empire, irrespective of origin. The highest offices were open to any citizen, without distinction of ethnicity or geography (of course there were other criteria, such as being rich, and above all a supporter of the ruling faction); emperors themselves came from all parts of Italy and the distant provinces.

It was a surprising example of successful ethnic assimilation.  After about 60 BC, most of the famous authors and politicians had been born outside of Rome: Cicero, Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Livy, and Ovid all came from remote parts of Italy. During the following centuries of the Roman Empire, virtually none of the famous names were born at Rome, and they came not only from Italy but from the provinces. At least in the wealthy and educated classes-- the only people that we hear about in the histories-- ethnic distinctions had disappeared. Latin became the universal language throughout the western provinces; all traces of local cultural identities disappeared. In the eastern part of the Empire, where the provinces had  been under Greek-speaking rulers, Greek continued to be spoken but Latin was used in official matters. With the end of a few areas of die-hard resistance, one hears no more of ethnic nationalist movements. The upper classes and the upwardly mobile, at any rate, lived their lives as Romans.

And They All Lived Happily Ever After?

Well, not exactly. The rich kept on getting richer, the poor more displaced from anything except seeking handouts. Generals became politicians and vice versa. Although the ethnic citizenship issue was settled, the struggles turned into civil wars over personal power, until domestic peace was finally established by a hereditary monarchy.

I am not suggesting that America’s future will resemble Rome in every respect. The political struggle between liberal democrats and conservative republicans has been much the same in the history of both countries. But there are a lot of structural differences: America is much less centered on the military as its main engine of the economy, and we are full of entrepreneurial capitalism of a kind that hardly existed in ancient times. True, there is a tendency for us to emulate-- no doubt unconsciously-- the Roman practice of franchising out all sorts of government functions, including military logistics, to capitalist big business, thereby making the upper classes even more a recipient of the government dole than the poor.  But this does not drive the economy to anywhere near the extent it did in Rome. And since our government and military are much more bureaucratically organized than in Rome, there is little basis for a struggle between generals bringing about the downfall of the Republic.

My point here is what the illegal alien struggle in Rome tells us about ourselves. Roman conservatives fought against extending citizenship even more violently than their American counterparts. But they still lost. True, the conservatives had the law on their side; and they were right when they accused reformers and ethnic aliens of breaking the law. But the laws were made in their own interest by the conservatives, and their unwillingness to reform made the struggle turn outside legal channels.

The country which is the world center, where wealth and power is concentrated, is inevitably a magnet for those who are poorer and less privileged. Sometimes the magnet does it own expanding, just as the Roman alliances and conquests brought more territory under Roman control, and attracting even more people to Rome. The USA expanded in much the same way, from colonial times, through the Indian Wars, to the Spanish-American War (when we got Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines). Today’s struggle to secure the Mexican border is the same struggle that started in the 1830s, only then it was ethnic Anglo-Americans who settled on Texas land that the Mexican revolution had inherited from the Spanish empire. All the borders that we are militarizing now against illegal aliens-- from Texas and the Southwest to California-- were part of the peace treaty that ended the Mexican-American war in 1846, including the Rocky Mountains states on up to Oregon. It was the biggest land conquest in our history; but the geography is the same and people are still moving across it.

A wealthy and powerful country attracts outsiders not only for economic reasons, but because of its prestige. Its lifestyle becomes dominant in the world, setting the standards others imitate, and especially when its citizens have the most rights. Its magnetic attraction for outsiders operates whether peacefully or in the aftermath of its conquests. It has been the same with the other great colonial empires, England and France, both of whose homelands became flooded with immigrants from their former colonies.

Bottom line: as long as the USA is rich and dominant, immigrants will keep on coming, by legal means or illegal.

And the historical lesson is there is nothing that can be done to stop it. Nothing humane, at any rate; doggedly conservative states that stake their identity upon ethnic purity become the nastiest of regimes; when they succeed, it is only through the moral outrages of ethnic cleansing and genocide. America is unlikely to go that route, above all because we have already gone through so much ethnic assimilation in the past so that universalism has become one of our celebrated values.

The Roman comparison shows a silver lining. Despite their violent struggles over citizenship, the aftermath was surprising rapid in putting the issue behind them. Within a generation after full citizenship was granted, ethnic divisions were no longer important for Romans. If we can get to the same resolution, the time-table of our future should be about the same.


Ancient sources, especially Polybius; Appian.
Especially good is the synthesis in Michael Mann, 1986, The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 1, chap. 9 
P.A. Brunt, 1971. Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic.
Keith Hopkins, 1981. Conquerors and Slaves. 
C. Nicolet, 1980. The World of the Citizen in Republican Rome.
Michael Rostovtzeff, 1929. A History of the Ancient World.
Paul Harvey, “Birthplaces of Latin Authors,” The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature.

Sunday, June 1, 2014


The tank man photo is the most famous image of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement in Beijing. Indeed it is considered one of the most famous photos of the 20th century.   It has become a symbol of human resistance, a lone individual stopping a whole column of tanks. 

What the photo claims to symbolize, however, is only very partially true.  It is not a photo of Tiananmen Square, but of a boulevard nearby.  It was not taken during the crackdown on demonstrators, which took place on June 3 and the following night, but on the quiet morning of June 5, after Tiananmen Square had been cleared and government control had been reestablished in Beijing. And it was not a successful protest. The tanks stopped briefly; two men came into the street and took the protestor away.

The photo was taken by an American newsman,   from a hotel balcony 800 meters distant--about half a mile. It was shot through a telephoto lens, like so many news photos of recent decades. This is one of the marvels of modern technology, and a hidden one: how seldom do we stop to think of how the photographer got so close, so near the action where history is made? Compare the equally famous, infinitely shocking photo from South Vietnam 1972 of children running from napalm—where did we think the photographer was standing? 

Telephoto lenses allow us to intrude closely into events that the participants would probably like to keep hidden. It is one of the sharpest differences between our images of the world before about 1960 and the present. The Vietnam War was the first war in history where we could see what it actually looked like. Before then, we had to be content with what officials allowed for patriotic publication, plus (as of World War II) candid shots of soldiers, generally far behind the front lines. And not just for violence in war, but violence in all its peacetime forms, telephoto lenses have brought us first-hand records of how violence really looks. And other forms of conflict, too—the expressions on faces and bodies that give us clues to how conflict plays out, and enable us to cut through the rhetoric and the mythology that have obscured it since humans first began to tell lies about violence.

I would go so far as to say that the telephoto lens, even more than the advent of television, has changed our access to reality. Even more than the camcorder which in 1991 first showed the police beating Rodney King; even more than the ubiquitous mobile phone cameras that now flood the Internet-connected world with images. The reason I make this exorbitant claim is that all the other devices depend on being up close; the telephoto lens zooms in from a great distance. It can go where it is too dangerous or too private for other devices to go. Unlike TV, it gives us photos that are not posed, since no one knows there is a camera to pose for. And it can give photos of great detail—the emotional expressions on faces, the exact postures of bodies, that are so important for a micro-sociologist’s explanation.  The purpose of my writing, however, is not to pick a fight as to which visual technology is best; they all work together to make our times the golden age of visual sociology. 

Having extolled telephoto images, I want to raise a caveat about their limits. Taken out of context, they carry the danger of modern myth-making. To see what is distorted and what can be salvaged, let us examine the tank man photo in greater depth.

The Surrounding Context of the Tank Man Photo

The Beijing democracy demonstrations began on April 17, 1989, and went on for 50 days until they were crushed. The tank man photo was taken on day 51. Here I will summarize only the very last days. (More detail on the entire sequence is given in my post, Tipping Point Revolutions and State Breakdown Revolutions: Why Revolutions Succeed or Fail, The Sociological Eye, June 2013.)

Over the 50 days, the size of the crowds at Tiananmen Square rose and fell. After most of the initial enthusiasm had fallen off, on day 28 (May 13), the remaining few hundred militants launched a hunger strike, which recaptured public attention, and brought hundreds of thousands of supporters to Tiananmen. On day 34 (May 19), the Communist elite purged its dissidents and declared martial law, and began to bring troops into Beijing.

The next four days were a showdown in the streets; crowds of residents blocked the army convoys; soldiers rode in open trucks, unarmed-- the regime still trying to use as little force as possible, and also distrustful of giving out ammunition-- and often were overwhelmed by residents. Crowds used a mixture of persuasion and food offerings, and sometimes force, stoning and beating isolated soldiers. On May 24 (day 39), the regime pulled back the troops to bases outside the city. The most reliable army units were moved to the front, some tasked with watching for defections among less reliable units. In another week strong forces had been assembled in the center of Beijing. 

Momentum was swinging back the other way. Student protestors in the Square increasingly divided between moderates and militants; by the time the order to clear the Square was given for June 3 (day 49), the number occupying was down to 4000. There was one last surge of violence-- not in Tiananmen Square itself, although the name became so famous that most outsiders think there was a massacre there-- but in the neighborhoods as residents attempted to block the army's movement once again. Crowds fought using stones and gasoline bombs, burning army vehicles and, by some reports, the soldiers inside. In this emotional atmosphere, as both sides spread stories of the other’s atrocities,  something on the order of 50 soldiers and police were killed, and 400-800 civilians (estimates varying widely). Some soldiers took revenge for prior attacks by firing at fleeing opponents and beating those they caught. In Tiananmen Square, the early morning of June 4, the dwindling militants were allowed to march out through the encircling troops.

The Tank Man Photo and What It Shows

The Tank Man photo was taken the following morning. The revolutionary crowds had been beaten. Massive arrests were being made, especially of workers, whom the government regarded as far more dangerous than students. Hundreds of thousands of security agents were beginning to spread across the country, picking off suspects one by one, ultimately arresting tens of thousands in the following months. The tipping point had passed, and the regime had clearly won.

What then was the point of the tank man protest?  By his white shirt and dark trousers, we can surmise that he was a government bureaucrat, a class of people whose sympathies were strongly on the side of the protestors. But it is also a category of persons, numerous in all demonstrations, who offer support but do not take part in the actual confrontations with authority.  In virtually all photos of demonstrations and riots everywhere in the world, a small portion of crowd is at the front doing the violence, while most stand at a distance and watch. Very likely tank man had seen or heard about the previous days’ violence, and came forward in the quiet atmosphere to do something to demonstrate his own commitment.

As we can see in the photo, the streets are virtually empty. He has no visible supporters, although a small audience gathered on the sidewalk to watch from a distance. On the other hand, the tank troops too are anonymous, hidden inside their armored stations. The tanks are moving slowly, making a show of force, not an actual military operation.  – One can know this, because the tanks are in column, a parade-like movement; deployed into combat they would go into line. I would surmise that the soldiers are calm; their action has been over for 24 hours or more.

Thus it is a symbolic confrontation: the lone man, respectably dressed in the garb of the urban apparatchik, stepping in front of the column of slow-moving tanks. In that atmosphere, there is little danger of being run over. The lead tank swerved to avoid him, but he kept in its path until it stopped. Very likely the troops had returned to the orders that prevailed during days 34-38, when unarmed troops were sent to assemble in the city as quietly as possible, and had given no resistance when crowds forced them back. On the whole, the regime had used a mixture of appeasing the crowds, waiting for them to dwindle away, and sporadic application of military force. On day 51, they were back into the mode of calm normality. The government machinery was operating again; bureaucratically organized investigations and individual arrests were the regime’s weapon now. The rebellious crowd has its best chance when it is assembled in huge numbers, in an atmosphere of emotional support that flows outward, dangerously lapping at the solidarity of the government apparatus. Now the crowd has dispersed; and it is in this configuration that bureaucratic authority can exercise its unrelenting and comparatively unemotional control.

And that is what happens. Tank man steps in front of the tank column; the lead driver stops; the tank drivers behind him stop because the tank in front stops. Two men in dark suits come and take tank man away.  The column grinds slowly on.

When Does Local Resistance Succeed?

It would have been an unknown incident except for the newsmen in the hotel with the telephoto lenses. Pictures of violence on the previous days were just making their way into Western newspaper and television, so little attention was paid to the exact sequence when things happened. A famous photo showed bicycles crushed in a street where fighting had taken place—and in the absence of photos of actual bodies, these were taken as emblems of how the revolution had been crushed. It was easy to conjure up a scenario of tanks rolling over a crowd of demonstrators. And then, in the midst of this—the heroic image of the man who stopped the tank column. All was not lost: the human individual still prevails.

We are living in the realm of symbolism here, not in the realm of history. Never mind that no one stopped the tanks, or more likely the trucks that rolled over the bicycles and carried troops into the streets where fighting had taken place 36 hours earlier.  It carries a nice message, although only through the more careful retrospect of micro-sociology do we actually see what it is:  the violent confrontations between crowds and army on June 3 and the early hours of June 4—confrontations in which violence was used on both sides—did not stop the army. But at the right moment, approached with the tools of non-violence, the army was stopped. 

Micro-sociology, above all, attempts to be realistic.  Violence cannot be stopped everywhere. Sometimes force rolls on and crushes everything in its path. But—sometimes violence is stopped. It happens locally, and by persons acting in local conditions.  This is something to build on. What are those conditions?

Comparisons:  Pockets of Successful Non-violent Peace-making in Riots

Turn now to the work of Dr. Anne Nassauer, of the Free University, Berlin. Using videos posted on-line from mobile phone cameras, plus GPS maps of streets, charting time-lines from police radio traffic, in short with the whole array of tools now available, she reconstructs protest demonstrations in Germany and the US.  With this cutting-edge media high-tech, she is able to reconstruct the micro-history of protests and to pin-point just when and where a demonstration will turn violent.  On the whole, I should mention, Nassauer finds that most demos stay peaceful, and their peacefulness can prevail even when militant protestors announce in advance that they will use force; or indeed, when police announce a tough crack-down-on-everything policy.  That is to say, whether a protest turns violent or not depends on local and emergent conditions; violence-threatening events can end up peaceful, and peaceful demos can turn violent.

I will not try to summarize here Nassauer’s findings of the several pathways that lead to violence. Let us concentrate on a single point:  if violence has already broken out, nevertheless all is not lost. It is not too late to stop the violence—not everywhere, but locally, at the place where human individuals use the right techniques.  What are those techniques?

When the police surge forward and the crowd starts running and ducking, people are likely to be beaten.  Photos often show clusters of police or soldiers, attacking anyone in their path—swinging clubs at women, old people, news reporters, anyone. 

Minsk demonstration 2006

Katmandu 2006

This is an emotional rush by the police, that I have called Forward Panic.  It is like the crowd contagion of running away, except in this case forces that have been pent up by confrontational tension, run forward into the vacuum left by a sudden weakness on the other side. It is an adrenaline surge that has been kept in suspense, suddenly released into action. That is why the police go out of control, swinging at anything in their path. It is important to see that this is a reciprocal emotion—the crowd running away is the counterpart of the police running forward, the display of emotional weakness feeding the surge of dominance of the attackers. In Nassauer’s data, she often finds that when one cop at the front swings at a target—it may be a person who has stumbled and fallen to the ground—the cops just behind will also swing at the same target. One policeman’s attack leads others to repeat the attack.

But—and here is the good news—Nassauer also finds that these attacks can be stopped locally.  When an individual stands still, directly facing the police, and calls out in a strong, clear voice:  “We are peaceful. What about you?” – or words to that effect, the attack almost always stops. 

This does not mean that the riot as a whole can be stopped in this way.  There can be hundreds or thousands of persons spread out over a considerable space. Violence in a riot is not like one huge rugby scrum, not like huge battle-lines of ancient phalanxes, but a series of little clusters of violence here and there.

Each one of these clusters may be checked, could be rendered no longer violent, by the right local action.

To repeat: the details are important. The peace-making person must stand still, no longer moving. When almost everyone’s back is turned, he or she stands in direct eye contact with the on-coming forces. And one’s voice must be clear and steady, neither threatening nor fearful.

Especially important is not to scream.  Someone in the crowd, in the fear or rage of being attacked, can cry out the identical words:  “WE ARE PEACEFUL!! WHAT ABOUT YOU!!” but in this case it will not work.  The police perceive and feel the crowd as being out of control. To scream at the police does not correct this impression, but reinforces it. Screaming is an expression of being out of control; and that is precisely the problem with the interactional situation. Tension and fear pervades everything, and the violence is coming out of the situation of one-sided emotional dominance by the police. The victim who screams does nothing to change the emotional field. It is the strong, calm tone that changes it, back towards local equilibrium, where the violence stops.

A similar technique can work when it is not a confrontation of police (or soldiers) versus a protesting crowd, but a violent attack by one crowd upon another. David Sorge, in research at University of Pennsylvania (2014), shows that in an incident of communal violence in India, the technique was used that stopped violence in a specific location.  The individual under attack was a peace-maker, a citizen who had stood up in a town meeting the day before, to urge the Hindu populace not to pay attention to rumours and not to attack the local Muslims.  As often happens in the early phases of communal violence, the peace-maker became targeted as a traitor. A crowd gathered in front of his house and pelted it with stones, the usual preliminary to an attack. But the peace-maker came out of the front of his house carrying a chair. Before anyone could attack him—there is usually a time-lag of shouting before someone starts the personal assault—he stood up on the chair and started to make a speech in a loud voice. The crowd quieted down and eventually dispersed.

Notice the details. He stood up above the crowd, where he could be seen. He met them face to face. For the members of a violent crowd, usually the target is someone anonymous up there behind all the surging bodies; for the few in the front with clearer visibility, someone cringing, showing weakness and fear, usually cowering, hiding their face, or knocked to the ground where all we can see is their side and back. Standing up in a prominent position, in this instance the peace-maker remained a human individual. He spoke in a loud, strong voice, not in anger, but resolutely.  He spoke to them as individuals, and took apart the collective emotion of the crowd, where each relies on the others to carry out acts of violence that ordinarily would outrage our moral sensibilities.

Again, we must recognize, it was a local solution only.  The riot as a whole was not stopped. The crowd moved elsewhere, where emotional dominance was easier to establish. Nevertheless, this is a hopeful sign. The whole pattern of a riot consists in all its local parts; and the more of these parts that can be stopped, the less damage it does.
Practical Advice in Violent Crowd Situations

--Don't turn your back.

--In a situation of violent threat, don't hide your face.

--Don't run away in panic.

--Above all, don't fall down.

That is to say: your eyes and your face are your strongest weapon of defense.

--Keep up a clear confrontation with a potential attacker. But don't raise the level of tension; don't scream; don't make further threats; just keep it steady as you can.

--Don't get isolated as a single individual surrounded by a cluster of about half a dozen attackers. This is the configuration in photos where persons are badly beaten. Try to stay with at least a small cluster of your own side, but not in the panicky flight mode.

I should add that this advice is for non-violent participants. It is unclear that they will work if you are throwing rocks, fire-bombs, or engaging in other kinds of violence.

This advice is drawn from research on the micro-sociology of riots. Does it work in other kinds of threatening situations, both more organized or macro-structured violence such as massacres and war, and in more individualized confrontations like street fights?

Our field of research has much more to do in examining all these types. But so far, the results are optimistic. The desk clerk in the Atlanta school on August 20, 2013 [] who calmed down an armed man threatening a rampage shooting shows that even the most dangerous situations may be defused. Research colleagues have told me they have walked safely through a violent riot in Tehran, by keeping in mind what emotional tone they were projecting in their body language, playing neither attacker nor victim.  Stefan Klusemann's research (2010, 2012), on the tipping-points to genocidal ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and in Rwanda, shows that even in the midst of a mass-murder campaign, there are micro-situational stumbling blocks, and threatened victims sometimes escape by a timely show of emotional resoluteness.

Lowering the Tension: Putting the Situation Back in Emotional Equilibrium

When the confrontation is one-on-one, the prospects are especially optimistic that violence can be avoided.  We are accumulating a significant amount of data on such situations, and two patterns stand out.

First:  The audience has an important effect.  Public fights rarely get very far without audience support.  Most angry arguments stay at the level of bluster and insult, unless the audience shows that it wants them to fight. The audience that cheers and urges them on will almost always get a prolonged fight. A neutral or uneasy audience, standing at a distance, usually results in a brief fight without much damage. And when an audience (or part of it) tries to intervene, it is almost always successful in stopping a fight. This pattern is shown in my comparison of fight incidents with different audience reactions (Collins 2008); in British research using CCTV videos of fights in pubs (Levine et al. 2011); and studies of what network relationships result in successful third-party interventions (Phillips and Cooney 2005).

There are limits to this pattern. It applies to arguments and fights in public, but not to domestic violence, which often takes place without much of an audience. (But there is ongoing research here, too, investigating the effects of indoor audiences that may be present.)  Since domestic violence is a considerable portion of small-scale violence, that is a serious limitation on our optimistic news. On the other hand, the following point applies both to domestic and public violence:

Second:  Small-scale conflict and violence peters out when the emotional field is in equilibrium.  That means:  when both sides are showing the same amount of emotional energy, the same degree of bodily agitation, the same emotional intensity.  This equilibrating effect can take place at any level of intensity, as long as both sides are evenly matched.  Research on mobile phone videos of street fights (Jackson-Jacobs) shows that even in the case of fights that have already started (and where the audience is distant and neutral) tend to wind down after both sides have thrown a few blows. On the whole, evenly matched fights do not do very much damage; the high level of adrenaline arousal makes fighters sloppy and incompetent, and Jackson-Jacobs’s videos show the fighters who have thrown a few wild punches tend to let their swings carry themselves out of range, where the fight devolves into threats, and eventually into mutual disengagement.  After all, in an honor fight, it is showing one’s willingness to fight that counts, not the result.

Let me conclude with a favorite photograph.  It was taken in Jerusalem during the height of the second Intifada, and it shows an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian political leader locked in angry conflict.

Jerusalem stalemate 2000

The news story tells there was no violence at this flash point of sacred territories that day. The angry confrontation wound down and ended. How?

The photo shows the two men exactly mirroring each other. Reading the facial expression of emotions using Ekman’s methods, we see them displaying anger, and in an identical manner: both have the hard, staring eyes, the clenched eyebrows with the vertical line between them, the square, shouting mouth. As is characteristic of angry talk, both are vocalizing at the same time, not listening to what the other has to say. Their faces, like their bodies, are tensed like muscles about to strike. But they do not strike.

They are in equilibrium at a high level of intensity.  From similar incidents observed over a few moments of time, we can surmise that they eventually become tired of the situation. No one else in the crowd is taking up their level of intensity; they are doing all the audience’s work for it. It is boring to say the same thing over and over again, getting no intelligible response. They will deescalate, going down the scale of emotional intensity simultaneously, keeping in equilibrium step by step.

They will become bored. And in situations of conflict, boredom is the pathway to peace.

The Tank and the Human Face

Micro-sociology delivers some good news. Some kinds of violence we are able to mitigate. This is on the micro-level, face-to-face with a potential attacker.

Another level is harder to handle, or at least it will take another approach. This is violence at the level of the organization or bureaucracy. 

If we take the column of tanks as a symbol of the hundreds of military vehicles and thousands of soldiers in Beijing, we are seeing the public face of an organizational network stretching far off into the distance. Orders to advance are given somewhere else, by a face we never see, a voice we never hear. Techniques of human face-to-face confrontation will not work here.


This is not to claim that the distant strategists are purely rational and coolly calculating. Their decisions are made in an atmosphere of emotions pervading the network of organized power, in counterpoint to the waves of emotions among the crowds who come into the streets over a period of weeks. It may be a long-distance chess game, but one played in shifting moods of anger or fear, confidence or deflation, righteousness and revenge-- and occasionally magnanimity.  The macro-level pattern is one of counter-escalation and de-escalation, and it has its time-dynamics that spread over weeks and months (Collins 2012).

There may be grounds for optimism about what sorts of processes can head off violence on the macro level too, although in some phases there is a kind of steam-roller momentum that is extremely dangerous once it gets rolling. We are learning about these kinds of time-dynamics, hopefully adding more tactics to the toolbox for peace.

In the meantime, as individuals in threatening situations, we can do our bit.

Appendix: How to regain calm when your heart is pounding

It's all very well to say, turn and face your attacker, call out in a firm strong voice, don't run and don't panic. But how do you manage to do this if your adrenaline is pumping and your heart is going 160 beats per minute?

There is a technique that will bring your heartbeat down, and with it, the panicky effects of adrenaline and the inability to control your voice. A useful version is described by Dave Grossman, a psychologist formerly with the US Army:

Repeat the following sequence of breathing:
-- breathe in slowly, counting 4 seconds (one-alligator, two alligator, three-alligator, four-alligator)
-- hold your breath for 4 seconds (counting...)
-- breathe out slowly, counting 4 seconds
-- hold your breath out (lungs empty), counting 4 seconds

do it again:
-- breathe in slowly, 4 seconds
-- etc.
as many times as you need until your get your breathing and heart rate under control.

Remember the details. This is not the simple cliché, take a deep breath. It is the rhythm you are after, the timing of how long each breath and holding period is. Your goal is to change your body rhythm. And after you accomplish that, to change the rhythm of the person confronting you.


Randall Collins. 2008. Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory.
Randall Collins. 2012. “C-Escalation and D-escalation: A Theory of the Time-Dynamics of Conflict.” American Sociological Review  77: 1-20.
Paul Ekman,  1985. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage.
Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen,  1975. Unmasking the Face.  
Dave Grossman. 2004.  On Combat. The psychology and physiology of deadly combat in war and peace.
Curtis Jackson-Jacobs. 2011. "Social Organization in Violence." Research in progress, UCLA.
Stefan Klusemann. 2010. “Micro-situational antecedents of violent atrocity.”  Sociological Forum 25:272-295.
Stefan Klusemann. 2012. "Massacres as process:  A micro-sociological theory of internal patterns of mass atrocities." European Journal of Criminology 9: 438-480.
Mark Levine, Paul J. Taylor, and Rachel Best. 2011.Third Parties, Violence, and Conflict Resolution” Psychological Science 22 (3) 406–412.
Anne Nassauer.  2013.  Violence in demonstrations.  PhD dissertation, Berlin Graduate School of Social Sciences.
Scott Phillips and Mark Cooney. 2005.  "Aiding Peace, Abetting Violence: Third Parties and the Management of Conflict." American Sociological Review 70: 334-354.