“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.