Inequality and the Angry Society

“I didn’t eat this morning. I’m wearing my niece’s clothes. I just was violated by my mom’s boyfriend. I go to school and here comes someone that bumps into me and don’t say excuse me. You hit zero to rage within thirty seconds. And you act out.”

These are the words of Ameena Matthews, spoken in the gripping documentary “The Interrupters.” Matthews was formerly a gang member in Chicago’s roughest neighborhoods and is currently a street level antiviolence crusader. Her work through the CeaseFire initiative operates on the simple premise that violence is contagious. If we can identify the point sources of transmission, we can contain community violence before it erupts. In the documentary, we see Matthews in explosive moments – diving into gang altercations and moments in the aftermath of shootings – but it is impossible to miss the smaller daily indignities that make young people despair and turn to violence. How close are we to understanding the roots of anger?

Anger is a concept that defies simplistic or reductive social scientific theorizing.

Personality psychologists can identify the “angry personality,” based on how reactive people are to potentially stressful or threatening cues in the environment. Individuals that are easily angered in childhood are more likely to display maladaptive and violent behaviors in adolescence and adulthood. A particular form of angry behavior has its own diagnostic category in modern psychiatry: “Intermittent Explosive Disorder.” The 2001-2003 National Comorbidity Study set out to measure the prevalence of IED in the general population, and found that 7.3 percent of adults met the criteria for the disorder over their lifetime. The poor and less educated fared somewhat worse than those with moderate income and education, and those in the highest group were much less likely to meet the criteria for IED. For example, 5 percent of adults with more than a college degree met the criteria, compared to 9.4 percent of high school dropouts.

These clinical constructs indicate that there is some real phenomenon that requires further study, but to dig deeper we need to understand everyday anger. Sociologists and ethnographers also look at anger, but through the lens of urban culture, race, and poverty. My hunch is that research on this topic treats anger as a manifestation of social stresses, but the way in which anger is expressed – through violence, through community action, or through dialogue – depends on the social “scripts” that people have available through their cultural group. Is a violent personality considered an asset or a weakness in a culture? Are displays of anger approved or shunned? I would be interested if readers have suggestions of articles on this topic.

My final thought is that it would be helpful to see the study of anger examined through the lens of inequality and stratification. In one direction, we know that having an angry personality – like being prone to lash out at coworkers – makes a person a liability on the job and reduces the likelihood that somebody will find success in the workforce. Stereotypes about race and anger are also powerful and pervasive, and can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Black youth in the United States are particularly prone to the stereotype of being angry, and the media sensationalizes this idea through imagery. We know less about how inequality itself might cause anger. The working idea is that relative depravation raises stress, and reduces health. We know less about the pathway that runs through aggression and explosive outbursts. I would love to hear from readers with thoughts on these ideas.


5 responses to “Inequality and the Angry Society”

  1. Sen has a nice 2008 essay on the connections between poverty and violence, which is not exactly the same as anger, but he touches on many of the same issues that you raise here. As ever, when discussing the psychosocial-stress pathway to poor health (a major cause of which as Wilkinson as showed is in fact violence), I’m mindful of the need to avoid decontextualization, to look at the causes of the causes of the causes, to quote Anne-Emmanuelle Birn.

    You get to this in your final paragraph, but I personally think it should be centered. It may certainly be true that there are individual personality types that are more or less prone to anger, but when we are talking about the social phenomenon of violence, I think it is imperative to avoid the dominant methodological individualism that searches for the causes of such social phenomena in individual bodies (and especially in individual brains — a subject we’ve engaged on before on this blog, if memory serves). I actually have a brief response essay I can send your way that touches on the latter point in context of using neuroimaging as evidence of culpability and/or sentencing in criminal cases (but no heavy lifting in the essay — mostly getting in and getting out).

    The stronger way to proceed — and I mean stronger both in descriptive and normative senses here — is to think about social patterns of violence and the way in which they are structured by power relationships, and what I’ve come to call the usual suspects (strata — race, class, gender, place, etc.) Sen cautions that drawing a crude and universal link between material deprivation and violence is inadvisable given the evidence that some places which have very high levels of material deprivation have relatively low levels of violence, but he also notes that denying a robust connection between the two is perhaps equally inadvisable.

    Anyway, just some thoughts, for whatever they are worth.

  2. Hey Daniel,

    Very thought provoking comment. So, as usual, I think maybe we can split the difference.

    There is probably something different about the brains of people with the symptoms of IED — and it is probably rooted in their genetics and their childhood, but we can’t disentangle how much of each leads them to be angrier people. The underlying social context, particularly what stresses people out or makes them erupt in anger or violence, is critical.

    I wrote the post mainly to raise some questions that are interesting to me, so I don’t have any strong views here. But I am struck by a few things (to oversimplify):
    1. People seem to be angry often in the United States
    2. Violence is decreasing in the United States
    3. Economic inequality is increasing
    4. Is anger increasing, while violence is decreasing?
    5. More children with emotional problems (especially externalizers) are being given labels: ODD, CD, ADHD, ASD, BPD, and when they become adults IED. These children often — but not always — are more impaired than their peers. Is there a real psychopathological outbreak here, or just a lot of hype?

    These are the pieces of the puzzle I’m trying to sift through, but I can’t say just yet how it all fits together.


    • Hey Brendan,

      Thanks for the generous response. I don’t really disagree with anything you’ve written. I think the combination of #2 and #3 is interesting, and speaks to Sen’s point (that there is no linear relationship between inequality and violence). But I wonder how well that holds up over time. That is, in societies which feature persistent and expanding inequalities, over time are those inequalities correlated with increases in violence? (I know Wilkinson says yes, but I’m not sure how robust the evidence is). In my native country of South Africa, for example, no serious observer remotely doubts that the staggering wealth and racial inequalities have a very great deal to do with the horrifying rates of violence in the society.

      #5 seems to me to be a bit different from #1-#4, in large part because we cannot discuss this issue intelligently outside of the profound effects of commercialization, medicalization, and the enormous influence of the pharmaceutical industry, both within the U.S. and across the globe. I would not characterize these diagnoses as hype — that does a disservice to the careful planning, marketing, and efforts put into disease-mongering and the medicalization of human suffering. So I would tend to think we might want to draw a box around #5 and assess it a bit differently than #1-#4.

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