First, the NRC panel on violence recognized that one could search for the causes of violence along two quite different dimensions. One dimension involves what could be considered the “structural level of analysis”—that is, one could try to find the explanation for violence either in the aggregate structures of society or in the characteristics of individuals. Furthermore, in looking at the aggregate structures of society, one could look at characteristics of very large aggregates of people and places in society, which presumably do not change very much or very fast, or at characteristics of smaller aggregates, which presumably have wider variation across society and change more quickly. In looking at the characteristics of individuals, one could look at characteristics at either the psychological level or the biological level.1
The other dimension involves the way that the potentials for violence that are contained within social structures and individual characteristics are transformed from a latent potential to the actual production of a violent event. In this dimension, the dynamics of time, of situations, of chance combinations of factors that lead toward violent acts are introduced into the understanding of violence. The report explains the importance of addressing these more dynamic, situational processes (National Research Council, 1993:298–299, emphases added):
A violent event requires the conjunction of a person with some (high or low) predisposing potential for violent behavior, a situation with elements that create some risk of violent events, and usually a triggering event. Development of an individual’s potential for violence may have begun before birth: perhaps with conception involving an alcoholic father, or through abnormal prenatal neural development. It may have begun during early childhood in a violent household, or though school failure, or through frequent exposure to violence in the neighborhood or from the media.
A hazardous situation for violence could involve a dispute, perhaps aggravated by a miscommunication in a bar because of loud background noise, which was misinterpreted as an insult because of intoxication and escalated because participants were afraid of losing face in bystanders’ eyes. The surrounding community could be gang turf, the site of illegal drug or gun markets, or a neighborhood where large numbers of unsupervised teenagers reside. It may be the scene of recent aggravating events such as police brutality, or of frequent brawls between members of different ethnic groups. The neighborhood may be experiencing social disruption as stable families move to the suburbs, as businesses close, and as public services decline.
The significance of bringing the dynamic, situational factors into view in the explanation of violence has at least two important implications for our work. First, it increases the importance of thickly descriptive narra