On not getting beaten up (much)

The other day, P Z Myers turned his critical gaze upon Professor Randall Collins for some libertarian nonsense he’d written about the education system. This reminded me of some thoughts I had when I saw Professor Collins lecture at Cardiff – here’s a video. I’d read his book and I was interested by his theory of micro-interactions, and his position that most violence fizzles out at a micro-interactional level. It was when it seems like he was presenting his positions not an addition to existing ideas around violence, but more in terms of a complete theory of all violence ever, that I started to get uneasy. He ended by presenting us with strategies to avoid violence, as if we were only clued up on the techniques of interaction then we could negotiate our way out of tricky situations.

Basically his advice is:

  • Don’t turn your back, run away or fall;
  • Maintain eye-contact;
  • Match, but don’t escalate the level of confrontation – being neither a victim nor an aggressor, but simply maintaining an equilibrium with your opponent.

The Newport Rising (1839): The last large-scale armed rebellion against authority in mainland Britain

Newport on a rare sunny day

I’m from Newport. In 2000, the ‘Port took the dubious honour of being the most violent town in the UK since when it gained city status and effectively started playing in the big leagues. It’s still pretty chaotic. (Newport is now Britain’s second city for pound shops so now we have another source for civic pride.) Most of this visible violence is fist-fights after closing time. One tactic they used to use when I was a kid was staggering kick-out time, so that the Goths weren’t leaving their club at the same time as the Casuals were leaving theirs, for instance (for any youngsters reading, Goths and Casuals is what we had before Emos and Chavs and mobile phones and satellite TV).

So I think that like a lot of Newportians trying to have a good time within a tense environment, I became attuned to the rhythms of violence through experience. Which means that these tips the Professor gave us made sense to me. After the event, I recollected a couple of ways I diffused potential violence using tactics which do show the workings of his techniques:

  1. I went to the corner shop to buy fags and found a drunk guy beating on the shopkeeper. I put my hand on the drunk guy’s shoulder, turned him to face me, adopted a concerned expression and said ‘You look awful tired, love, I reckons you want to gerron home and get your ‘ead down.’ He turned around and left, meek as a lamb.
  2. I came back from a walk in the park and must not have closed my door properly, because I found a twitchy and agitated man in the flat when I got back. I said, quite calmly, ‘I’ll get you a glass of water, but then you’re going to have to leave because I have stuff to get on with.’ He drank the water, thanked me, and left.
  3. A girl was trying to start on me with the classic ‘What are you looking at?’ line. I said, ‘Actually, I was wondering if you went to Crossy Comp with my brother? I think you was in his class.’ And off her confused expression I carried on blethering cheerfully, ‘No? Then do you have a cousin who went to Crossy, coz I swear, this girl was the living spit of you…’. She wandered off.

There’s some really interesting things going on in these violence-diffusion techniques, which tend to be neither aggressive nor submissive, but work more through using distraction and reframing maneuvers:

  1. I was deliberately trying to play up my identity a working-class Welsh mother, to get a kind of gentle, maternal, authority over the situation and create a point of contact with the drunk guy.
  2. The home intruder was nervous and didn’t really know what to do with himself so I provided him with a get-out for the situation by creating a spurious framing for the reason why he was in my space, which he accepted to avoid a proper conflict.
  3. I manufactured a point of contact with the scrappy girl and made her question how anonymous she’d be if she started something; I reminded her of her childhood which may have decreased her self-presentation of dominance; I hinted that my brother may have been nearby as backup and I offered her a different kind of conversation rather than the expected responses to the ‘What are you looking at?’ gambit (i.e., ‘Nothing, just having a quiet drink’ + lowered gaze = submission; ‘I’m looking at you, bitch!’ + held gaze = game on.). I provided a third-way solution, based in a non-violent equilibrium.

I’m not just putting these here to suggest that I’m unnaturally quick-witted and cool-headed, because I think that most of the ‘Port’s night-time crowd would have a non-academic but practical understanding of how violence is escalated and diffused, gained through repeated experience. Interacting is what humans do, and if we repeatedly experience violent interactions then we develop understandings of its mechanisms even without the benefits of stop-motion footage and close data analysis.

Violence, said Collins, has nothing to do with poverty, and nothing to do with prejudice. He would reject the opinions of Newportian Stephen Moss who relates the street violence of Newport to the closure of Llanwern steelworks (where my mother worked) and the dissolution of working-class solidarities, to which we might add in the similar backgrounds of the streams of Valley Boys from the former coalfield towns who pour onto Newport’s streets on the weekend.


Plastic glasses only in the ‘Port at the weekend

If Newport is a violent place, and poverty is not the cause, we must conclude that somehow, Newportians have just lost their social skills at some point, devolving into a blundering, angry herd who clumsily tread on toes, spill pints and black eyes, repeatedly experiencing and perpetrating violence without developing any of the micro-interactional techniques to finagle their way out of nasty situations. I don’t think this can be true: contrary to certain beliefs about the working class, we are not, in the main, looking for a good dust-up to round off the night. In fact I think we are, probably, most of us, skilled operators in these kinds of violence-diffusion tactics. But they don’t always work.

For one thing, our identities are far more part of this than Collins owns. I couldn’t have diffused situation 1, I think, if I hadn’t been middle-aged and female and generally mumsy; or situation 3, if I hadn’t had a local accent and knowledge. Of the times I have actually experienced street violence, at least half were due to some Scot mistaking me for English, or because I was dressed in office clothes in an area where this is unusual. So this violence related to my identity, as (actually, not) English, and as (actually, not) middle class respectively and interaction was pretty minimal. To take the nastiest:

Me (as cinema usherette, in Glasgow, approaching customers chatting and drinking after the film has finished, in otherwise empty screen): ‘Hey guys, gonna have to ask you to get going, the show’s over and I need to clean up for the next lot.’

Him: ENGLISH BITCH (grabs my throat and throttles me. I get dizzy and fall forward, scraping my hip somehow. He leaves, laughing.)

Not a lot else I could have done there: it’s hard to micro-interact when all you can do is gurgle. (This might come down to media influences because they’d just seen Braveheart.)

It is very glib to rule out the joblessness (25%), underemployment, alcoholism, child poverty and all the various other social problems in a struggling post-industrial town. Collins is not just doing micro-sociology here: he’s ignoring anything that doesn’t fit into a neat and compact little window of interaction, as if we come into conflict as Subject A and Subject B, rather than enculturated beings with identities and concerns and problems and trauma and histories. Collins, it seems, is a libertarian, and libertarians promote ‘the moral principle of self-ownership’, where if you are poor and insecure and under-educated and have no prospects, then that is down to your own personal failings, not systemic injustices. Small wonder then his conceptualisation of violence is so very narrow and individualised, where gendered, racial and class injustices are erased by a microscopic approach which assumes nothing outside the microscope’s lens is relevant: that violence is conceived as coming from micro-sociological interactions because of a stunted view of what society is.


  1. Steve Meredith says:

    I reckon it takes a proper Newport girl to write a post like this!

    Collins makes some tidy points, but, as you rightly point out, he is a ‘libertarian’, it’s your life (yeah right), and you make of it what you will. I suppose it’s easy for a well-educated bloke who earns his living in nice places to think like that. I think his mistake is trying to develop a theory of all violence, it’s like trying to develop a theory of all medicine – it just won’t work.

    I found the list at the end of his presentation to be a bit weird; as you basically say, anyone who has to deal with shit like this on a daily basis is well versed in avoiding getting their head broken – in fact, its finding out what avoidance techniques and preventative measures they actually use that would be more instructive and enlightening than the recommendations of a middle-aged sociologist come martial arts expert. He’ll be giving lessons in ‘the inner city black code of the street’ next (I couldn’t believe he got away with that one; point 5 on p.464). I’ve been in one or two scrapes in my time and all I think about is getting out of it ASAP!

    Collins argues that if poverty were eliminated violence would still exist – well, I can’t argue there, symbolic violence (a concept which he rejects) would still exist – tearing down the ‘Muriel’ for example, war, hidden domestic violence, and it hurts me to say it – some police violence, but I’d bet my house that my mam (bless her soul) could have walked down the shops without feeling the fear she did because of the ‘hoodies’ hanging around.

    Good post Jo.

    • Joanne says:

      And a great comment too – thanks for reading! If Collins had been more modest about his claims then I think we’d all be fine with it. It’s just that too much time poring through the microscope has made him shortsighted. (Or the microscope is his tool of choice because he is shortsighted.)

      And you’re right and he’s right, that ending poverty is not going to end violence forever, but I don’t think its unreasonable to want to look for a reason why post-industrial towns with high unemployment can get rough (or why the Southern states of the USA are more violent than the Northern, and so on), not just because the people are poor and being poor sucks, but because people (especially young men) aren’t building the same kind of relationships with each other that they used to forge in the workplace. Joblessness fragments the community: increasing isolation, depression, mental illness, suicide and addiction. I was pondering this last night, and it was scary to think how many of the boys who went to my school are dead now, for one of the above reasons.


      LOL at ‘inner city black code of the street’, but I personally think he gave himself away when he described Turkey as a ‘third world country’. Turkey has a higher GDP than Australia.