I heard a couple of really interesting stories recently about how violence works. Specifically on what causes a tense situation to turn violent, and what is necessary to stop a violent act before it happens.
The first story was a podcast of the BBC Radio 4 show called Thinking Allowed. It featured a fascinating interview with Randall Collins, an academic who wrote a book called Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory. From the podcast, here is the host explaining the gist of the professor's theory:
"It's the word micro that explains his interest. He concentrates not on the personal, biological, family, social; but rather on the precise details of the situation in which violence occurs; he looks for the the contours of the precise situation which shape the emotions and acts of the individuals that step inside them; for example when he looks at an incident of violence, he'll be concentrating on patterns of surge or counter surge in the crowd, of the precise chain of events that precedes the attack upon a fallen policeman; the number of people actually involved in the violence and the number of non participants."
In other words, context really really matters when it comes to violent acts in a social setting.
Then there was a This American Life story on a guy who works as a violence interrupter for a group called CeaseFire. A group that is (perhaps unintentionally) leveraging the micro theory above to great effect.
Part of a classic planning contribution is to concentrate on things like the personal and the social; the factors that enable us to understand a person more deeply than, say, how many times a year they buy deodorant. They provide an understanding of people as more than simply eyeballs (I really do cringe every time I hear a marketer refer to people with that word). But what if, like understanding violence, all bets are off once a person enters the actual marketplace?
I guess the point is that it's important to have the background depth on people to relate with them, but ultimately such understanding has great potential to be meaningless wallpaper because context matters so much.
I'm not suggesting the world needs more in-store Paco Underhill type shopping research because I really don't think that would make things better. But I do think we can always do with more reminders that we're just not in the driver's seat.