Public Violence in Urban Quarters: A Comparative Investigation of Ethnically Different Social Milieus

Few would dispute that the city as "integration machine" is presently undergoing a tough test, or that the "social city" is facing enormous and growing regulatory problems. It is plainly becoming more difficult to keep the relationship of urban integration and disintegration, which has always been a fragile one, in a viable balance without major internal or external disruption. Various pointers suggest that, while it is not necessarily immediate physical violence that increasingly impacts on public space, approval of violence or willingness to use violence are already present in the structures of social coexistence. Troubled integration processes and/or disintegration experiences and community segregation both within the residential area and from the rest of the city represent the primary context on which the east-west comparative study documented here builds. It starts from the hypothesis that these forms of violence - which are often regarded as a clear indication of combinations of individual disintegration and community segregation - can by typified on the basis of the ethnic structuring of the study areas. The goal of the research was to identify the specific structure of ethnic difference through a comparison of (a) mono-ethnic, (b) bi-ethnic and (c) multi-ethnic residential environments, investigating whether and to what extent these particular socio-cultural and ethnic constellations can influence, encourage, or prevent the manifestation of individual and group violence. A combination of qualitative and quantitative instruments was applied to elicit data concerning the sphere of small-scale everyday violence. Approximately 20 qualitative interviews per quarter were conducted with longstanding residents and lay and professional experts to explore the situation and prepare a quantitative population survey (N=300 residents per quarter), whose findings were deepened through further interviews and group discussions. The research was accompanied by an analysis of press reports of the previous five years.
With respect to individual willingness to use violence, the analyses confirm numerous studies pointing to the close link with male gender, adolescence, and low levels of education. A comparison of the three quarters found a distinctly higher incidence of the articulated willingness to use violence in the eastern German area than in the two western German residential areas. Ultimately, however, and contrary to our expectations, we found that the ethnic formation as a contextual feature of an urban neighborhood is at most only weakly correlated with individual willingness to act violently, and that such willingness is determined more strongly by aspects of individual integration and by expectations of future life opportunities. Especially in the two western German quarters, a pessimistic prognosis of personal economic prospects proved to be a strong determining factor for the fundamental willingness to use violence; in the eastern German context, willingness to use violence is promoted especially by perceived deficits in social integration. Subjectively perceived political integration and participation potentials turn out - albeit to different extents - to be relevant influencing variables in all three urban quarters. In the western German bi-ethnic and multi-ethnic areas and in the (mono-ethnic) eastern German area, individual loss of orientation (anomie) turned out to be the variable with the greatest explanatory power. The analysis was also able to show that the individual willingness to use violence is a rule not determined by personal experience of victimization, but that does not disprove the broader assumption that violence can also be used as a means of self-assertion. Moreover, violence can, as the analysis shows, also be encouraged by the perception of deviant behavior by others. Beyond that, willingness to use violence is also significantly affected by personal value orientations: promoted by hedonistic/materialistic orientations (as per the typology of values developed by Klages) and lessened by idealistic ones. This finding is essentially confirmed if we apply a differently constructed typology of values (hierarchical self-interest): egotistical individualism and "Machiavellian" self-assertion increase the willingness to use violence, whereas competitive thinking divorced from that alone does not produce any such identifiable effect.
1 January 2003 - 31 December 2005
External partners
Institute of Sociology at Martin-Luther-Universität, Halle/Wittenberg
Third-party funding
Head of project
Professor Wilhelm Heitmeyer, PhD
Prof. Dr. Helmut Thome
Sonja Kock
Julia Marth
Andreas Schroth
Denis van de Wetering
Participating institutions
Faculty of Educational Science
Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence
Sponsored by
German Research Foundation