The Focus of a Social Interactionist Perspective

One of the main areas of interest for Tedeschi and Felson in the past has been aggression and violent actions - Tedeschi examined these subjects through the field of psychology while Felson has primarily examined them from a sociological approach.  Each of these two disciplines, while studying primarily identical phenomenon, use different concepts to explain aggression.  For the most part, this has been the trend in academic research for quite some time.  To a certain point, much can be gained from such an approach, however eventually Tedeschi and Felson realize that this has its limitations.  Thus, they have proposed a theory of coercive actions which includes aggressive behaviors but does not focus solely upon these types of actions.

In this section of the discussion, several key elements for understanding why Tedeschi and Felson shifted the analysis from aggression toward coercive actions in their proposed theory will be presented.  A presentation of the traditional definitions of aggression, including one of the key components of those conceptions of aggression (e.g., intention) will be discussed.  Once a solid understanding of these definitions and any inherent limitations has been accomplished, much more elaboration on the reasoning behind Tedeschi and Felson’s focus on coercive actions will be presented.

The Traditional Definitions of Aggression

A person’s definition for aggression is wholly dependent upon his or her environment, educational background, and many other situational factors.  If a group of people were separately asked to each provide a definition for the term, there would more than likely be several different responses; quite possibly one of the responses received would be from a dictionary.  The Merriam Webster Dictionary (1997) defines the term in three ways:

1:  an unprovoked attack;
2:  the practice of making attacks; and
3:  hostile, injurious, or destructive behavior or outlook especially when caused by frustration

The term used by the dictionary, or the layman, is not acceptable to academics who study aggression and violent actions.  In order to ensure the same phenomenon was studied and replicated in different research efforts, there would have to eventually be something better than the nominal definition used by everyday people.

The desire for an operational definition for the term aggression led the field of psychology, and many of its most well-renowned minds, to begin working on this task. The first stages in the development of a theory or definition for aggression began with a frustration-aggression theory posited by Sigmund Freud; this occurred before he developed the concept of Thantos for his psychoanalytic theory (Tedeschi and Felson, 1994).  Other major contributions to the creation of the definition of aggression were the book Frustration and Aggression (Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939), and important research and publications by Baron and Richardson (1994), Berkowitz (1989, 1993), Buss (1961), Geen (1990), Tedeschi (1983), and Tedeschi and Felson (1994).  Each of these publications have presented important new information, or support for a particular definition of aggression, thus representing the various stages in the development of the two types of definitions typically used when conducting research - the attributional and the behavioristic.   Although there have been other well-renowned scholars (e.g., Bandura, Milgram) other than the researchers named above, who have provided significant findings regarding one of these definitions or the other, many will not be mentioned due to the brevity of the discussion required for understanding Tedeschi and Felson’s reasoning behind using coercive actions instead of aggression.

The Attributional Definition

One of the first, more popular definitions of aggression, was posited in the book Frustration and Aggression which stated that it was any "behavior whose goal-response is the inflicting of injury on some object or person" (Dollard et al., 1939: 3).  This definition eventually became known as the attributional definition of aggression, which was later restated in simpler terms by Berkowitz (1962) to be any behavior whose intent is to harm.  As you will soon see, the component of intention makes this definition a much more solid one than the behavioristic definition posited by Buss (1961), which shall be discussed next.

The Behavioristic Definition

A. H. Buss is one of the foremost names in aggression research.  One of his many accomplishments has been the development of a definition for the concept of aggression, which eventually became known as the behavioristic definition.  He states that aggression should be defined as any "response that delivers noxious stimuli to another organism" (Buss, 1961: 1).  Examples of actions that would fit such a definition would be biting, punching, shooting, or stabbing, to name a few.  Primarily, the advantage of Buss’ definition is that it allows a researcher to simply ignore any internal or cognitive states existing or occurring within the organism being studied; allowing the researcher to focus instead upon the actual responses of an organism.

Some of the main drawbacks to this definition have been realized and pointed out by authors such as Geen (1990) and Tedeschi and Felson (1994).   According to the former, "(a)ggressive behavior is not as simple or unambiguous as a purely behavior definition would indicate.  Other elements must be added. . ." (Geen, 1990: 2).  The latter two authors have asked more specific questions, such as "whether the behavioristic definition includes behaviors that are not aggressive and, hence, is too broad or whether it excludes relevant responses and, therefore, is too narrow" (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994: 161).  Yet this is just a small sample of the number of questions asked or statements made concerning the definition posited by Buss (1961).  The main problem these scholars had with that definition was it lacked the component of intention, which is discussed below.

The Concept of Intention

As Geen (1990) had pointed out, something else was required for the behavioristic definition, and he understood what that required component was - intent of the organism.  If the behavioristic definition is relied upon strictly as stated by Buss (1961), two problems are encountered.  First, certain behaviors which are not aggressive (e.g., accidental harm) are considered to be such.   Second, actions which are aggressive but fail for some reason (e.g., sniper who is unsuccessful in hitting target due to a glare from the sun) are not considered to be aggressive.  Another drawback to this definition would be "occasions when a person may intend to harm someone by not doing something" (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994: 162).  For all of these examples, the intent of the person in question is basically ignored by the behavioristic definition of aggression.

Most researchers favor the attributional definition over its counterpart because it solves the problems of accidents, intent, and unintended actions that were previously outlined as problems of the behavioristic definition.   One way in which this is accomplished is the additional distinction made between instrumental and reactive (or angry) aggression (Baron & Richardson, 1994; Geen, 1990; Tedeschi & Felson, 1994).  The former is the use of an aggressive act to obtain other goals, such as compliance, rather than simply for the purposes of harming. The latter is defined as more innate, used for attacking aversive stimuli with the intention of inflicting harm. Laboratory studies in the past have used blasts of noise to represent the aversive stimuli, however any unpleasant experience can lead to this form of aggression.

The problem still remains for defining the concept of intention.  On the surface, discussing the meaning of intent doesn’t really seem productive, for after all it is rather straightforward: either you mean to do something or you don’t!  In a variety of past research projects, attempts have been made to define the concept.  However, these definitions did not satisfy Tedeschi and Felson, so they came up with their own definition.  They define an intentional action as "an act performed with the expectation that it will produce a proximate outcome of value to the actor" (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994: 164).  This definition can best be understood by examining Chart 1 and considering the following example just below.

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Note:  This chart can was taken from Violence, Aggression, & Coercive Actions (p. 164)

If a boy threatens (the act) his younger brother for the remote control and younger brother replies by giving him the remote (proximate outcome), then he can watch whatever baseball game he wishes (terminal outcome).  The proximate outcome is valued by the actor, in this case the boy, because of its known or perceived causal relationship to the terminal outcome.  If this is still confusing, simply examine it from Schutz’s (1967) distinction between intent and motive.  The chain of events described by Schutz can also fit into the chart, which Tedeschi and Felson (1994) have shown.

Reasons for the Shift from Aggression to Coercive Actions

There are numerous reasons explaining why Tedeschi and Felson decided to create a theory of coercive actions rather than remain with the domain typically studied, namely aggression.  In the book Violence, Aggression, and Coercive Actions (1994), they list several reasons why they attempted to go beyond the limitations of aggression research when positing the social interactionist perspective.   For one, the terms and concepts associated with coercion clearly point to social explanations for harmful actions rather than searching inside a person for more traditionally studied explanations (e.g., innate drives, hormones, or any other internal sources of behavior).  This focuses on the social context, emphasizing that these behaviors involve social influence.  Second, although both the attributional definition of aggression and the coercive actions definition both place emphasis on the role of intention, only the latter clearly defines what the term means.   As the previous chart illustrated, a theory of coercive actions provides a definition of intent and it incorporates it into its causal process model.  The third reason for using coercive actions rather than aggression is related to the second.   According to the authors, it "expands the range of phenomena to be explained to include contingent threats" (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994: 172).

One of the most important reasons for shifting toward and examination of coercive actions rather than aggression is the bridge that it gaps in the segregated literature on aggression existing within different disciplines of study.   For example, "threats and punishments play an important role in the literature on deterrence, social control, grievances, coercive power, social conflicts, bargaining, and retributive justice" (Tedeschi & Felson, 1994: 172-3), yet they have continued to remain segregated.  A better demonstration of what this means will be provided momentarily in the next section.  Before it is however, the final reason the authors feel that coercion will better serve their purposes than aggression should be listed.  The reason they provide is that is simply insinuates less than the conception of aggression, which is often viewed in a negative way.

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