Aggression is a type of behavior that is done, by an individual or a group, with the intention of harming other people. Aggressive behavior is divided into several different types.
The first classification of aggression is reactive (also called affective) and proactive (also called instrumental) aggression. Reactive aggression is done in an impulsive way and with anger, while proactive aggression is done in a deliberate and calmer way. The first type of aggression is often preceded by provocation, while the second type is used in order to achieve a practical goal.
The second classification is physical and social aggression. While Physical aggression leads to physical injuries or damage, social aggression (sometimes also called relational or indirect aggression) is aimed toward a person’s social and emotional well-being. Gossip, manipulation, and social exclusion are some examples of social aggression.
Psychological Research on Aggression
Canadian Psychologist Albert Bandura developed the social-learning theory of aggression in the book Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis (1973). This theory states that a child learns by observing how other people behave and it influences a child's psychological development. Factors that contribute to the maladaptive social learning processes pertaining to aggression are: parental poor disciplinary measures, indifference and lack of monitoring of a child's behavior, the permissiveness of a child's aggressive behavior, and the use of physical and other forms of aggressive punishment.
Cognitive psychology developed an information-processing theory of aggressive personality development. This theory starts from the premise that people, from infancy, learn how to perceive, interpret, judge, and respond to events in the social and physical environment. Those observations and interactions can be with real people or with imagined ones (from books or media). Through this process, every person develops knowledge structures and over time those knowledge structures become more interconnected, complex, permanent, and impervious to change. Knowledge structures related to aggression become hardened at the age of eight or nine. With time children develop hostile biases in perception, attribution, and expectations. They also learn how to ignore or bypass normal empathic reactions that serve as inhibitors of aggression. If knowledge structure associated with aggression becomes strengthened by a high frequency of aggressive encounters, and if it is often imagined and used, then those structures can easily become automatized.
Reactive aggression is most often caused by one or more stressors. Stressors are internal or external situations, events, or thoughts that cause emotional reaction of frustration. Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, and Sears, in their book Frustration and Aggression (1939) presented the frustration-aggression hypothesis that states that: (1) every single act of aggression is the result of previous frustration; (2) every event that causes frustration will lead to aggression. Sometimes when individuals cannot act to alleviate or eliminate stressors they can direct their aggression toward objects or individuals that weren’t part of the frustrating event, and this is labeled as displaced aggression. In some cases, victims of displaced aggression are members of discriminated groups in society as they are not able to effectively repel that aggression. In those cases, the cognitive mechanism of dehumanization of the victim is often deployed.
German-American psychologist and sociologist Erich Fromm set himself the task of making a connection between the theoretical approaches of Marx and Freud, and he called his approach "analytical social psychology", by which he wants to explore how different socio-economic structures affect the selection and adaptation of human instincts to behave in line with the needs of the system. It is the difference between how different societies adapt the human psyche to different socio-economic structures that creates a situation in which that same type of behavior, which is considered "sick" in one society, is considered "healthy" and desirable in another society.
The emergence of capitalism is associated with the spread of Protestant ideas. Protestantism requires individuals to be committed to their work, fulfill their duties, and have strict control over their sexual urges. A person who develops under the influence of such imperatives has, in Freud's terminology, an „anal character“, which is reflected in the desire for aggression and destruction. A society shaped by such ideas has a "patricentric" structure and a patriarchal-authoritarian cultural pattern. In contrast, socialist ideology seeks to develop a "matricentric" structure, characterized by values of happiness, abundance, and solidarity. Fromm connects Marxist socialism with the „oral character“. Fromm believed that people are not doomed to forever submit to the demands of a society that strives to suppress undesirable individual urges. Due to the inability to satisfy instincts, instead of transmitting dissatisfaction to other areas (sublimation process), people can change objective social conditions to create a society that will be better harmonized with innate human instincts.
In the book The Art of Loving (1956), Fromm states that human aspirations for solidarity, rationality, and spiritual development are biologically innate needs. Such a "love of life" (biophilia) in a healthy society could overcome opposing "necrophilous" aspirations. In the book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973) Fromm analyzes, in detail, the different theoretical approaches to human aggression. He criticizes behaviorism and ethology (sociobiology), as approaches that view aggression in the wrong way. Although aggression is innate in people, cruelty is not, since it is a product of society. He distinguishes between "benign" and "malignant" aggression. Benign aggression is instinctive and adaptive because it serves to defend against danger. Malignant aggression tends to injure or destroy an opponent. Malignant aggression is shaped by the "necrophilous" character of society.
However, some primitive societies have a biophilic character. There exist matrifocal and matrilocal organization in these societies and they are characterized by non-violence, egalitarianism, and sexual freedoms. Fromm believes that the best qualities should be taken from both matricentric societies (love and equality) and patricentric societies (rationality and creativity), and such a synthesis would create the best social character. The peace and environmental movements that grew stronger in the West in the 1960s and 1970s gave Fromm hope that the transformation of these societies into biophilic ones was possible.
German-American psychologist and sociologist Theodor Adorno led a team of scientists who conducted extensive empirical research among American citizens, which had an authoritarian personality as its subject. This research was presented in the book Authoritarian Personality (1950). The theoretical part of the research used Freud's theory of personality development, to connect the way of raising children, which includes physical punishment and instability of parental attention and love, with the development of an authoritarian personality structure. This type of upbringing produces children's aggression towards their parents, but this aggression is sublimated in adulthood and is directed at social groups that are perceived as weak or inferior, while at the same time the person submits to authoritarian leaders, who unconsciously represent the parent figure. The consequence of this personality development is a weak ego, conformism to conventional social values, intolerance of ambivalence, cynicism, and a tendency towards superstition. To empirically measure the expression of this personality structure in individuals, the authors developed the so-called F scale (F is abbreviated from fascism because the premise was that this type of personality is prone to accept fascist values). Research has found that this type of personality is prevalent in all social groups and classes.
Sociological Research on Aggression
In the book Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (1977), sociologist Paul Willis presents results from his fieldwork study that was conducted in Birmingham. The study focused on how cultural values shape pupils' attitudes toward education and work. He spent a long time with a group of white boys from working-class families. He came to the conclusion that they understood very well the system of authority that exists in the school, but that they actively fought against it, and one of the ways of fighting was constant conflicts with teachers. They saw school as a hostile system that they could manipulate. The hostile attitude they had towards the authoritarian system at school, with constant attempts to provoke and manipulate, they kept latter on because they had the same attitude towards work. They were happy to have a paid job, but did not expect to get any pleasure or sense of accomplishment from the work, nor did they have the desire to pursue a career. Remaining in the class of parents, for these children, was a product of cultural reproduction because the subcultural pattern, which was accepted during childhood, continued to operate when entering the labor market. In this group of boys, Willis also found extremely macho behavior - expressing aggressive masculinity by using sexist language about girls, establishing a very clearly defined framework of acceptable behavior for boys, and harassment and physical aggression concerning homosexuals.
French philosopher, Georges Bataille studied the transgression of social taboos and norms in the conditions of rationalized social control of late capitalism. Those who break the rules feel fear but are also full of fascination at the same time, and the enthusiasm and fear they feel during that act stem from aggression and eroticism.
American feminist theorist Kate Millett states that early socialization, which encourages the intensification of innate biological differences between the sexes (men should be strong and aggressive, and women passive), is one of the factors that contribute to the emergence and maintenance of patriarchy.
Anthropological Research on Aggression
In the book Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) American anthropologist Margaret Mead presents the results of her field study on the island of American Samoa. This book highlights topics of adolescence, gender, child development, sexuality, and especially the sexual behavior of adolescent girls. Her research looked at the influence of cultural conditions on adolescent life and the psychosexual development of Samoan girls. Both sexes were involved in child rearing, both boys and girls were taught different skills, while physical punishment was given for bad behavior. Girls were encouraged to learn practical skills like weaving, in order to find good husbands. Boys were encouraged to learn fishing and to display both bravery and aggressive behavior, as well as being humble. In next Mead's book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) she studied people and their culture in three societies in New Guinea - the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli. In Arapesh society all members (of both sex) had feminine traits – sensitivity, nurture, and harmony; while masculine traits like aggression and violence were discouraged for all members. Arapesch mothers and their children had a prolonged relationship and men helped with childrearing duties. Mundugumor society had more masculine traits and all members were encouraged to display them, while pregnancies were associated with strong taboos. Tchambuli society exhibits duality of gender roles, but they were reversed to traditional gender roles in the US – men were nominally in charge of each collective, but were passive, gentle, and submissive, while women were truly in charge, breadwinners, aggressive and violent. Mead's research showed that different cultures, through different types of socialization, created different modal personality types that displayed behavior related to aggression that was in concordance with specific culturally proscribed rules.
Belgian-American sociologist and anthropologist Pierre van den Berghe, in the article „Bringing Beasts Back In: Toward a Biosocial Theory of Aggression”, in American Sociological Review (1974), presents a theory of human aggression. He explains human aggression in terms of resource competition. Resource competition is the result of pressure that the human population exerts on material resources and from a sociocultural increase in demands for material and psychical resources. Aggression that is generated by resource competition is mediated via territoriality and hierarchy, which both simultaneously regulate and induce aggression. The species of Homo sapiens is positioned high on the scale of territoriality, hierarchy, and aggression among other primates. All of these forms of behavior are innate and are biologically predisposed. Neolithic and other agricultural revolutions have even more elevated those biological predispositions and made them more important.
Books and articles:
Adorno. The Authoritarian Personality (1950);
Arendt. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963);
- On Violence (1970);
Bandura, A. Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis (1973);
Berkowitz, L. 1993 Aggression: Its Causes, Consequences, and Control.
Fromm. The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973);
Van de Berghe. „Bringing Beasts Back In: Toward a Biosocial Theory of Aggression”, in American Sociological Review (1974);
Willis. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (1977).