tive case studies as an important way of understanding the causes of violence. Only case studies can pick up the detail and the narrative flow of events that convert a mere potential for violence into the real thing. The structural factors can identify parts of society in which violence may be more or less likely to occur, and in doing so, highlight high-risk situations and individuals. But they cannot necessarily show everything that went into the creation of a particular event, or the variety of things that could have been done to prevent that particular event (as well as some others more or less like it) from occurring.
Second, it raises the important question of whether there is any reason to prefer interventions that focus on the more or less stable characteristics of social aggregates or the more or less stable characteristics of individuals, over interventions that focus on interrupting small, somewhat idiosyncratic microprocesses and the things that sustain them as they carry a potential for violence into the real thing.
Of course, the benefits of preventing something from occurring rather than reacting to it after the fact are obvious. And there is benefit to eliminating the potential of something bad from occurring as opposed to remaining constantly vigilant, and then scurrying around to try to stop it once it appears. But an important question is whether one kind of intervention should be preferred over another from the outset.
The NRC panel on violence provides some guidance on this matter: “A major problem in understanding violence is to describe the probability distributions of predisposing factors, situational elements, and triggering events at the biological, psychosocial, microsocial, and macrosocial levels. The problem in controlling violence is to choose among possible interventions” (p. 299).
The report goes on to say: “We do not assume that any single level is more fundamental than the others in explaining a particular type of violence. Rather, … violent events and community violence levels arise out of interactions across the levels, and these interactive processes differ from one type of violence to another” (p. 296). Finally, the panel observes (p. 300):
In most violent events, contributing situational elements are most visible in the microsocial encounter that precedes the event. These elements include the dynamics of communications among participants, such as disputes, threats and counterthreats, exchanges of insults, robbery and resistance, and the urgings of bystanders. Both the nature and interpretation of these exchanges may be conditioned by preexisting social relationships among participants: an intimate relationship, a power or status hierarchy … or a culturally defined relationship…. Because situational elements from all levels contribute to the outcome, the possibility exists that even without full causal understanding, altering one link in a chain of events might have prevented a violent event or prevented an assault from becoming a homicide.