To discover the group dynamics of antagonistic and violent situations, we pursue various research projects about specific groups: night-life security stafffree fight groups and hooligans, (delinquent) youthpolice teamsrioters and vigilante mob violence. These projects inquire how these various groups react to antagonistic situations. More specifically, we ask how tension/fear and emotional dominance are experienced by group members during antagonistic situations, and how these experiences are related to the possible outcomes of these situations. Second, we inquire how mutual alignment and a sense of moral community are enacted preceding and during antagonistic situations and how they relate to the possible outcomes of these situations. Finally, we study how group members give meaning to antagonism and violence and how these meanings relate to (masculine) identities and the moral community of the group. 

These projects aim to further our understanding of how antagonistic situations and violence are experienced by persons present at scenes of violence in public space. Although earlier ethnographic studies have focused on people’s experience of fear in violent confrontations, it remains unclear how tension/fear develops during antagonistic situations, and how it may be transformed into feelings of emotional dominance under the influence of group dynamics. Similarly, while previous work on groups and violence has underlined the importance of solidarity and collective identity, our projects aim to break new scientific ground by examining how these are enacted in actual situations and how solidarity and collective identity – in the form of mutual alignment and moral community – affect the outcome of antagonistic situations. Through their focus on group behaviour, these projects also promise to further our understanding of how group members attach meanings to violence and how these relate to masculine identity. Finally, whereas most ethnographic studies have intensively observed single groups, the comparative approach of these projects allows us to examine how solidarity and collective identity influence the outcome of different antagonistic situations.

Apart from studying specific groups, we also study sequences of bodily cues in violent interactions based on video data. Here we ask how and to what extent expressions of tension/fear, emotional dominance and the enactment of mutual alignment are related to the severity of violence and the opportunities for de-escalation. In this project we aim to answer these questions by examining – down to the minutest detail – the bodily movements that make up violent interactions. In this way, we aim to advance our current understanding of the relationship between solidarity and violence by revealing precisely how group behaviour – in the form of mutual alignment – affects emotional and bodily processes in violent interactions. This will entail the close-up qualitative and quantitative video analysis of sequences of bodily cues in incidents of public violence.

Raheel Dhattiwala, David van der Duin and Don Weenink

Video fragments allow for intensive, close-up analyses of what actually happens in violent incidents because the image can be paused, and repeated again in slower or faster paces. In this project, we ask how bodily behaviour of group members, including bystanders, is related to the escalation and de-escalation of antagonistic situations. We use video footage of violent and near-violent situations in public spaces, found on the internet. The coding scheme we developed aims to capture how participants build up the tension and how they try to dampen it in these situations. For instance, we code participants’ aggressing behaviour (threats or attempts to invade the body space of the opponent), the ways they move around, and how they try to de-escalate. On the basis of our coding, we are going to analyse whether it makes a difference if group members are aligned (engaging in the same behaviours) and whether that matters for being successful in launching or fending off an attack. Furthermore, we will analyse whether incidents in which a lot of aggressing occurs end more violently. Also, we are going to relate the occurrence and the duration of bodily behaviours to (unequal) group sizes: does de-escalation appear more often when more bystanders are present, and does it matter to which group these bystanders belong?

Raheel Dhattiwala and Don Weenink

Riots are purposeful acts of collective violence.  Purposeful because people participate in the violence with clear motives that often emerge from civil disobedience. For scholars studying riots and the motivations that trigger an episode of violence, it is often equally important to understand the processes and patterns leading up the continuation or discontinuation of a riot. It is through the study of both such macro and micro mechanisms that one can distinguish between insurgencies or civil disobedience against the state and violence wherein political leaders act in complicity with rioters against minority groups (think of the anti-Black violence in the American South after 1877 and the anti-minority pogroms in independent India).

What these explanations also reveal is that riots are rarely spontaneous. Le Bon’s view of crowds being “automatons” with “low levels of brain activity” has long been rejected for explanations that acknowledge the cognition of actors participating in riots. Their cognition and interactions, which are critically based on social, emotional, and spatial situational factors, eventually direct us towards understanding the processes of violence. Because riots are peculiar for their dynamic progression, an analysis of the sequences and repetitions of behaviors as the riot activity evolves becomes crucial.

Some questions that we propose to explore using a range of data sources, including newspapers, videos, and judicial files: By analyzing sequences of behaviors, can we gain insight into the emotional complexities of crowd behavior and, in turn, the progression of a riot?  In what ways would spatial configurations affect decision-making processes of actors in the face of varying risk structures?

Floris Mosselman

Violent behavior of young adults is often linked to socio-economic factors or ethnic background. However, these analyses cannot explain why so many youngsters with the same characteristics do not show violent behavior. The aim of this research project is to gain insight into how violence works in groups of delinquent young adults and to uncover what enables or disables violent behavior of these young men and women.

To find answers to these questions I will study the relationship between violence and young adults from three perspectives. First, I will map how they emotionally experience antagonistic situations. Are there feelings of tension, fear, anger, excitement or emotional dominance during these situations, and if so, how does this influence their actions and those of others. Second, I will focus on mutual alignment of the group, before and during a violent incident. By looking at spatial positioning and synchronizing bodily behaviors of the actors and their opponents this research will explore how mutual alignment possibly influences violent situations. Third, I will study how they maintain and strengthen their sense of moral community, what role masculine identity, place, group dynamics and shared memories of previous violent situations play in this process, and how this sense of moral community influences future violent interactions. Ethnographic methods and interviews enable the study of these aspects, and contrary to former ethnographic research on violent young adults in The Netherlands I will study groups from different cities, sexes and ethnic backgrounds. By looking for particularities and similarities between these groups I will shed light on the workings of violence in young adults.


Laura Keesman

Police officers have a heightened risk of exposure to aggressive and violent behaviour. In order for the police to do their job they need to be ‘in control’. How do police officers manage to gain control collectively, and how do they work together in tense or threatening interactions?

I am interested in how police officers cope with antagonistic situations. For instance how do they ensure ‘control’ in a situation, what happens when they fail to do so, in other words: when violence escalates. How do police officers work together as a team, and more specifically: how do they use their body when doing so, and what types of (non) verbal communication do they use? How do police officers intervene in early stages of tense interactions, and how do they successfully de-escalate? On the other hand, when do they fail to do so? Finally, how do police officers cope with anxiety, tension or other negative emotions, and what are the meanings they give to violence? This research is about police officers' experiences, explicitly from their point of view.

In order to understand the intricate dynamics of tense situations police officers are dealing with, I will be observing different police teams during their daily shifts. I will be interviewing the members of the observed teams and try to come to an understanding of their experiences by reconstructing how they experienced antagonistic situations. Finally, I will watch video's with police officers collectively to discuss details of their actions, communication, and cooperation. By combining an ethnographic method with interviews I seek to comprehend the emotional processes and situational group dynamics of violent situations, and specifically how police officers deal with these in violent interactions.


flag yellow lowThis project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 683133


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