Violentization: An Experiential Theory of Violence- Past, Present, and Future Directions


The theory of violentization is one of the most overlooked theories in criminology. The formation of violentization as a theory stems from Athens’ disagreement with the criminological theories of the time that separate biological and social environmental interactions and the surging use of quantitative methods of analysis. Following the work of George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer, Athens’ mentor, symbolic interactionism is the perception utilized for the theory of violentization. The basic premise is that symbolic interactionism is atheoretical, allowing the subjects of investigation to have their own voice about their experiences that is based on the meaning that those experiences have on the individual, which are formed through social interaction and interpretation (Blumer, 1973; Athens, 1977). By framing the research for violentization around symbolic interactionism, Athens was able to develop a theory that is based on human experiences (Athens, 1977; Athens, 1989) that can be applied to different forms of violent behaviors in a multitude of situations (Athens, 2005; Winton, 2008; Winton, 2011; Glasner, 2012).

The development of Violentization

The theory was developed during a time when rational choice models were becoming highly prominent in criminological literature. Scholars in the field began using quantitative analysis to develop and reiterate work on crime, criminal behavior, and the criminal justice system (Akers, 1990). Akers (1990) posits, however, that such empirical works have not added any new theoretical value to criminological theories. He suggests that the rational choice models are premised on basic economic models and that viewing criminology through social learning theories would be more beneficial to the field.

Social learning theory was developed in reaction to the psychological theories of criminal behavior. Moving past the idea that personality drives criminality, Bandura states that the internal motivators speculated by the psychological theories cannot explain the variation of behaviors from different individuals in a variety of situations (1971). Thus, direct experiences shape the way an individual will respond to a particular situation through modeling, or vicarious observation (Bandura, 1971). Two main concepts that Bandura outlines in social learning theory are: self-efficacy and the individual who is being observed. The former directly affects whether a person believes that they have the capacity to carry out the action that they have observed. The latter impacts the degree to which the person will model the behavior. Bandura states that an individual will be more likely to model the behavior of someone who displays status and power (1971). Athens departs from social learning by adding an additional element to learning through observation and modeling: experiencing.

Taking the lessons learned from his predecessors, Athens sought to develop a theory that integrated the components of symbolic interactionism, differential association, and social learning through Blumer’s method of naturalistic inquiry. The method utilizes the experiences of the participants through an alternative methodology of exploration, inspection, and confirmation, thus resulting in a rich qualitative body of research (Athens, 2010). Athens’s initial research was conducted in 1974 during an ethnographic research project on violent crime (Athens, 1974; Athens, 2010). The initial research on violent criminals began with three ideas that Athens had from firsthand knowledge of violence:

  1. Violent criminals form interpretations of the situations in which they commit violent crimes
  2. These individuals form images or pictures of themselves in their minds
  3. Their self-images must be somehow related to the violent interpretations that they form of the situations they are in (Athens, 1974; Athens, 2010).

Athens’ naturalistic inquiry of the symbolic interactionism of violent criminals was heavily criticized by scholars in the greater field of social sciences (Glasner, 2012). The research continued, however, and eventually developed into the theory of violentization.

Violentization: A Theory

.           The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals is the culmination of Athens’ earlier research. The goal of the research was to approach the question of why some individuals become violent criminals and others do not. Athens states that previous criminological theories have an irreconcilable duality. The theories are either social environmental or bio-physiological. In reaction to the singular theoretical outlook, Athens states that, “any theory which rests upon the absurd assumption that the causes of human conduct can somehow be arbitrarily divided into bio-physiological and social environmental factors transmogrifies reality and is false on its face.” (Athens, 1989, page 14) The lack of a comprehensive theory of criminal behavior led Athens to develop his own theory of violence that incorporates aspects from a person’s social environment and their biological makeup. He suggests, instead, that a more holistic approach to studying dangerous violent criminals must transpire to avoid separating the individual’s biological structure from their environment (Athens, 1989). Thus, Athens concludes that the only way to truly develop a theory on the creation of dangerous violent criminals is through studying violent individual’s significant social experiences (1989).

Following Herbert Blumer’s symbolic interactionism argument, Athens states that “when social experiences are reduced to numbers, the appearance of precision is almost always gained, but at the unacceptable expense of sacrificing the very heart of the meaning of the social experiences studied (Athens, 1989, page 19). Therefore, instead of using a quantitative approach to studying violent criminals, Athens conducted private, in-depth interviews that lasted between seven and nine hours and spanned across two to three sessions. The important aspect of the interviews is that the participants shared the experiences that they felt were the most significant, not the ones that Athens thought were significant (1989). Letting the participant decide what is significant is crucial to understanding how one shapes their self-image based on symbolic interactionism.

By using extensive interviews with violent individuals, Athens constructed four stages that dangerous violent criminals must undergo in order to successfully complete the process of violentization. These stages include: brutalization, belligerency, violent performances, and virulency. The violent individual does not have to complete the process of violentization following the exact order, but all stages must be completed in order for the person to be labeled as a dangerous violent criminal (Athens, 1989).


The brutalization stage consists of three components: violent subjugation, personal horrification, and violent coaching. Each component consists of the individual undergoing cruel or violent treatment by someone in their primary group, like a parent. During the violent subjugation phase of brutalization, the individual is subjected to force by a primary figure for the purpose of having the victim submit to their authority. The authority figure uses force as a means to gain compliance and respect from the individual.

Violent subjugation can be accomplished through coercion, which often escalates into force, and retaliation, which is relentless force. Through coercion the subject is thus forced into submission, which causes the individual great feelings of humiliation and shame. Thus, the feeling of revenge is incited in the individual. If the authority figure uses retaliative measures, the subject is violently punished for past disobedience, indiscretions, and disrespect. The difference between coercive and retaliatory subjugations is the amount of violence laid upon the subject. Retaliatory acts of subjugation do not end when the subject submits to the authority figure, but continue on for an excessive amount of time, increasing the level of permanent submissiveness from the subject.

The second phase of brutalization is personal horrification. During this phase, the subject witnesses another person undergoing coercive or retaliatory subjugation. The important aspect of the personal horrification phase is the relationship of the subject and the victim. The subject and victim belong to the same primary group. By undergoing violent subjugation and witnessing another member of the primary group undergoing the same violent treatment, the subject and victim gain a sense of closeness, unity, and “we-ness.” Following personal horrification, the subject becomes angry at himself for allowing such violence to take place without trying to prevent it.

The final phase of brutalization is violent coaching. In this phase, the subject either consciously or unconsciously adopts an authority figure from the primary group who teaches them how to respond in various violent situations. The authority figure must possess violent credibility to successfully coach the subject. The individual is taught that evading violent situations is not an option anymore. The subject is taught to exhibit self-reliance and act dominantly. The three phases of brutalization can cause physical as well as psychological damage that the individual must learn to cope with.


After experiencing the phases of brutalization, the individual is left in a state of confusion and begins to question himself and the motives of those around him. The individual does not understand how he could let such violence be carried out against himself and those close to him. Consequently, the individual decides that the only solution is to begin acting violently against those who provoke him. Not only does this affirm his self-worth, but strengthens the resolve that violence is the proper response to individuals who try to humiliate or shame him in the future.

Violent Performances

            Upon reaching stage three, the individual is firmly grounded in the idea that violence is the proper response to slights and provocation. The individual, however, must weigh the cost and benefit of a violent response for each situation because the subject realizes that he is putting himself in harm’s way as well. If the provocation by an instigator is maximum or moderate then the subject would undoubtedly respond in a violent manner. Since the provocation is on the high end, a violent response in this situation would not make the individual a dangerous violent person. In order to move to the final stage of the violentization process, the individual must attempt and succeed at multiple violent performances. Success in violent acts increases the individual’s confidence and self-image while at the same time reinforcing violent actions.


            Though perceiving the violent actions in a successful way during the violent performance stage is important, the individual needs positive reinforcement from his primary group members in order to make the violent performance significant and enduring. The primary group members will now see the individual as violent, psychotic, and dangerous. A violent reputation is thus formed that spreads out further than the individual’s primary group. Other people will recognize the individual based on the violent acts committed, which gives the individual the air of local celebrity. The individual internalizes the new primary and secondary group perceptions of him as dangerous and violent. At this point, the individual does not need to be provoked to display violence. He will respond violently and aggressively in most situations.

Policy Implications

Athens concludes the theory of violentization with policy implications for dangerous violent criminals since the theory does not cover desistance from violent crime. He suggests that since one must complete all stages of the process in order to become dangerous violent criminals, it is imperative that the process be stopped in its infancy. Athens states that, “the most effective means of preventing new violent criminals may be to stop the experience of brutalization from being passed from one generation to the next” (Athens, 1989, page 91). Athens posits that special education programs may be the best form of stopping the cycle of violentization. The education program would be developed for the primary authority figures who subject individuals to violent subjugation. These people have the greatest influence over the process of violentization and view their violent actions as a right given their position in the group. Those who do enter the belligerency stage must not be given the opportunity to complete it. For those who reach the second stage, effective psychological counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy should be utilized. A psychological form of intervention, however, would only be effective if the individual is no longer being brutalized. Thus, the main focus still remains on the authority figures who subject primary group members to forms of brutalization. Individuals who reach the final stage of violentization, virulency, have a slim chance for reform unless more research is conducted on desistance from violent crime. Accordingly, most individuals who complete the violentization process will be incapacitated indefinitely.

Assessment of Violentization

            When violentization first appeared as a theory is was not received very well by the mainstream theoretical scholars in the field. Some individuals have critiqued the theory on the generalizability, the small sample size, and nature of the research. More recently, violentization has emerged as a theory that should be given greater consideration due to its phenomenological nature and application to micro and macro aspects of violence.

A major critique of violentization comes from scholars who base their work on biological factors. Studies have shown that offenders with low arousal levels, lower anxiety, and lower heart rate only reach what is considered a normal physiological state during acts of aggression (Raine, 2007). The argument follows that individuals will engage in sensation seeking behaviors in order to feel a normal level of stimulation and raise physiological functioning (Raine et al., 2007). Thus, biological theories would seem to supersede the impact of experiences on aggression and violence.

The other suggested issue with Athens’ theory of violentization is the methodology utilized to conduct the research. Scholars state that framing the argument and theory in terms of the “self” as the central factor limits the overall interpretation of the findings (Glasner, 2012). Additionally, the use of solely social experiences to construct the theory is problematic for many individuals in the social sciences, stating that only focusing on experience negates the factors of bio-physiology and other nonsocial elements (2012). Additional methodological limitations that scholars have suggested is that Athens used a non-random sample in his selection of participants, the total sample was small, and there was a lack of verification of the subject’s violent accounts (Glasner, 2012). These critiques, however, lack merit for the sole reason that Athens intentionally constructed his theory and research to avoid the quantitative trappings that these researchers are suggesting. The interpretive, experiential approach that Athens used is so far outside the usual box that quantitative researchers fit in that they are unable to see the forest for the trees.

Not all scholars have been as critical of the theory of violentization and many see merit in developing the theory further and applying it to different types of violence. Richard Rhodes (1999) has taken the theory of violentization and has attempted to find cases that fit the model instead of trying to falsify it. Rhodes has also written extensively on Athens’ own life and development. Rhodes states that Athens has a close personal history with violence, thus enabling him to successfully create a theory of violence and violent experiences (1999).

Likewise, O’Donnell (2003) states that Athens’ work is significant to the field of criminology for several reasons:

  • The theory allows individuals to speak for themselves about their experiences
  • The theory focuses on both the emotions and cognitions of the violent individual
  • The theory uses symbolic interactionism enabling the individual to see the situations as the violent person sees them
  • Athens is bold and risky in claiming the universality of violentization
  • The theory and research causes reactions, visceral and cerebral

O’Donnell (2003) does state that the theory does not represent every type of serious violent action. He states that there are other ways in which individuals become violent, like in the case of Nazi Germany, Milgram’s obedience experiment, and Zimbardo’s prison experiment, warfare, and radical ideologies. Finding examples that do not fit the mold of violentization limit the universality of the theory. He states that violentization can explain some but not all violence because violence is part of human nature. O’Donnell (2003) is a proponent of Athens and the theory of violentization not because of the universality of the theory, but because it opens doors to other possible explanations and methods of violence and research on violent offenders. Ultimately, O’Donnell supports the work and theory that Athens has brought to light. He states that:

Despite its shortcomings, Lonnie Athens’s work remains of value. It may stimulate a         deeper and wide debate about the academic relevance of a social problem that is         sometimes written off as intractable. By personalizing violence it focuses attention on the     need to understand what violent acts mean to those who perpetrate them (2003).


Further Development of Violentization

After the theory of violentization was created and published in The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, Athens continued to develop the theory. In later research, Athens discusses the role of the community, the different types of violent encounters one can engage in, slight changes to two of the stages of violentization, and the addition of a fifth stage. By developing and evolving the theory of violentization further, Athens states that the theory finally encompasses all three necessary components: the violentization process, violent encounters, and communal organizations.

Athens describes an alternative view to the self as the focal point of an experience. Instead, he states that what could be impacting one’s view is the “us” factor or “phantom community” (Athens, 1994). Utilizing the Meadian view of “I,” or the inner drive to act in a situation, and the “me” perspective, where the collective perspective of others shape the platform upon which the “I” is viewed, Athens constructs the idea of the phantom community. In this view, the individual performs the expectations of others by “taking on the attitudes of others,” through which individuals “exercise conscious control over their conduct” (Athens, 1994). Drawing from Sutherland’s earlier work, Athens incorporates the concept that the community can differ based on how it is organized for or against violence (Sutherland, 1936; Athens, 1994; Athens, 2010). Therefore, individuals take on violent attitudes or engage in violent conduct if the community at large is violent in nature.

The addition of the second component of the final violentization theory consists of the type of violent encounter that one can engage in. Examining the perpetrator-victim relationship during violent crimes, Athens (2005) states that crimes committed during violent encounters include five different stages: role claiming, role rejection, role sparring, role enforcement, and role determination. The degree to which a violent encounter encompasses the five different stages determines what type of encounter it will be, an engagement, a skirmish, or a tiff. Only violence dominance encounters that successfully go through all five stages are considered engagements. Skirmishes are therefore incomplete violent encounters and tiffs are incomplete skirmishes. The theory of violentization thus evolved to encompass individual violent acts but more specifically social acts (Athens, 2005; Athens, 2010).

Athens’ assertion is that conflict stems from disputes over dominance (Athens, 2003; Athens, 2010). From the dominance viewpoint, Athens redefined the theory in terms of super-ordination and subordination. In light of the re-conception, the second stage of violentization changed from belligerency to defiance, and the third stage transformed from violent performances to dominance engagements. The concept of community was also restructured with the domination aspect to include the organizational level of the community. Conclusively, communities could now be distinguished from each other by the “nature and degree of their institutionalization of dominance engagements, the socialization that their members receive to wage them, and the kind of people that most often win and lose them” (Athens, 2003; Athens, 2010, page 626).

The new fifth stage of the violentization process moves past virulency and to extreme virulency. Athens adds the final stage to account for behaviors of extreme violence, such as torture and mutilation. The fifth stage can be applied on the micro and macro level, with the former explaining the behavior of serial killers, while the latter is able to explain community level violence like genocide. With the inclusion of the aforementioned new components to the theory of violentization, Athens created an integrative and experiential theory of how individuals and societies become and remain dangerous and violent.

The Application of Violentization to Genocide

By developing the theory of violentization with a dominance perspective that includes community level perceptions, scholars have been able to apply the theory to larger contexts like genocide, an area that is neglected by other criminological theories. Mark Winton applies the fully developed theory of violentization to explain how genocides were created and enacted in Bosnia and Rwanda, the former spanning over years while the latter genocide lasted only months (Winton, 2008; Winton & Unlu, 2008; Winton, 2011).


The Rwandan and Bosnian genocides were planned years in advance by their respective governments and leaders. The victims of each genocide witnessed, learned, and experienced violence through small community level massacres, threats of victimization, and threats of violence (Winton, 2011). In Rwanda, the Hutu groups were the perpetrators of the genocide. The Hutu constantly reminded the Tutsi about previous attempts to eliminate them in the past. Additionally, the Hutu formed a youth branch, the “Interahamwe,” that were taught the core values of the Hutu and how to successfully attack the Tutsi (Winton, 2008). In the Bosnian genocides, the perpetrators relied on centuries old rivalries between the Serbs and the Turks to motivate individuals to the cause. The violence was promoted by a high ranking political figure who called for Serbian unity and victory at all costs (Winton & Unlu, 2008). The genocides display all components of the brutalization process, including: a strong authority figure, coercive violence, retaliative violence, submission, personal horrification, and violent coaching.


In both genocides, violence was encouraged to avoid victimization. The Bosnian genocide perpetrators specifically recruited individuals with a history of violence, such as individuals with a military history or offenders in prison (Winton, 2011). The goal of violent recruiting was to increase the level of violence in the “phantom community,” encouraging a violent self-image in new perpetrators and the community at large. In the Rwandan “phantom community,” all members were enthusiastically encouraged to support the violent behavior, even clergy members from local churches. Violence was thus promoted as a means to stop the violence of the perpetrators (Winton, 2008).  In Bosnia, propaganda was highly utilized to increase a sense of Serbian nationalism. Citizens were led to believe that non-Serbs and Muslims were plotting a genocide against the Serbs and that they needed to be ready to defend themselves (Winton & Unlu, 2008). In both cases, regular citizens were taught and promoted to use violence in order to properly defend themselves from an outside threat.

Violent Dominant Engagements

Upon reaching the third stage, the citizens have internalized the violence propagated to them from the “phantom community.” Forms of media are used to sensitize citizens and encourage violence through depictions of threats (Winton, 2011). In both genocides, civilians were encouraged to carry out violent actions by political figures. The violent acts in Rwanda consisted of killing and looting victims, which was taught to both children and adults by soldiers; while in Bosnia, civilians, alongside the military, carried out extreme acts of physical violence, sexual violence, and looting (Winton, 2008; Winton & Unlu, 2008). Following violentization, citizens now engage in justified violence which is promoted by the phantom community.


In the fourth stage of the violentization process, the genocidal phantom community is now entrenched into citizens and the community on a micro and macro level. Both individual and community now views itself as violent and dangerous, thus prompting others to join the cause and community. Those engaged in the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides were encouraged by the community through parties, killing victims to a cheering crowd, and humiliating and dehumanizing victims to a group or audience (Winton, 2008; Winton & Unlu, 2008).

Extreme Virulency

The final stage of Athens’ complete violentization model was developed to be able to incorporate severe violence at the group level. In genocide, the behavior is exhibited through extreme sexual violence, severe psychological harm, humiliation, torture, and mass murder. Extreme group violence was used as a method of bonding the perpetrators and increasing group cohesion and resiliency (Winton, 2011).

Each stage of the violentization process is present in the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides. Citizens witnessed and experienced violence, were taught to combat violence with violent actions, began engaging in dominant violent actions, and thus formed a violent individual and community identity where the atrocities of torture, mutilation, and mass murder were deemed acceptable and carried out. The theory of violentization can therefore be used as an explanatory tool for micro and macro violent processes.


Violentization and Terrorism: Future Directions

            Initially, violentization was used to explain individual violent behavior, specifically the actions of dangerous violent criminals. Through the evolution and further development of the theory, violentization is now able to explain extreme group dynamics and behaviors at the community level as well. Thus, it is posited that the theory of violentization can explain terrorism and terroristic behaviors. Using scholarly research and open source data, the following is a preliminary attempt to explain terrorism using the theory of violentization. Each of the violentization stages is outlined with the terrorism research. The terrorist organization ISIS will be used as a case study to illustrate the applicability.

To start, terrorism is difficult to define and there is no agreed upon definition of what terrorism entails. For current purposes, terrorism is defined as the indiscriminate use of violence on a target with the primary objective being fear from a population that is beyond the immediate target. In terrorism, the attacks are indiscriminate with the sole purpose to kill large numbers of people. The terrorist is indifferent to who the victims are (Hoffman, 2006). Terrorism is used for political motivations that is centered on power (2006). Terrorists rely heavily on advanced communications, persuasion, leadership capabilities, and group dynamics, which are all components of violentization. Many scholars have attempted to explain the multiplicity of terrorism through psychological perspectives including narcissism, psychopathy, anger, and aggression theories; however, there remains a lack of theoretical explanation (Horgan, 2005; Lemieux, 2010).  Therefore, the theory of violentization seems appropriate to be applied to terrorism on a micro and macro level.

In the brutalization stage, individuals and groups undergo violent subjugation, personal horrification, and violent coaching. For ISIS, the process of brutalization began in the early 2000s during the US counterinsurgency in Iraq. During this time, Iraq was in a state of turmoil after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The United States entered Iraq unprepared with a lack of coordinated procedures. For the Iraqi people, the United States went from being perceived as liberators of a repressive regime to another western occupier, which brought about negative past feelings of British colonization in the previous century (Hoffman, 2006). During the U.S. invasion, countless amounts of people were arrested and incarcerated in newly formed U.S. military prisons, many of which were civilians. Many of the captured individuals had extremist backgrounds or had radical connections to groups like al Qaida.

Prisoners in two U.S. facilities, Abu Ghraib and to a lesser extent Camp Bucca, experienced extreme levels of victimization, humiliation, torture, and dehumanization. One such incidence of extreme violence, subjugation, and personal horrification entailed:

“breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold   water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening    male detainees with rape… sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light.. and using       military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees” (Hersh, 2004).

In the above case, the detainees were coerced, battered, and tortured. Most of the abuses were committed against groups of individuals, reflecting substantial personal horrification. These individuals were subjected to severe forms of humiliation and shame (Mastroianni, 2013). Additionally, because civilians were placed in the same detention centers and in close proximity with radical individuals, they received high levels of training and formed close networks that they maintained post release (Zambelis, 2008). One ISIS commander, Abu Ahmed, reflected on his experience in Camp Bucca and how it shaped the beginning of his rise in ISIS.

“We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else. It would     have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we are not only safe but we are only a few hundred   metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.”

Upon release from prison, with new extreme and radical views, many of these individuals joined the terrorist affiliate al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) (The Revived Caliphate).

In the second stage of brutalization, defiance, individuals use violence to stop violent actions from being carried out against them. With new ideologies and beliefs, many civilians, and the old al-Qaida commanders, reconnected outside of the prisons. Due to the training and techniques learned in prison, the group was able to start plotting violent actions against the Iraqi government and the United States. Violence was promoted by radical members of AQI and al-Qaida.  During this period, AQI lost its leader and was replaced by the current emir al-Baghdadi who sought to take violent action against the Iraqi government so that Sunni Arabs could be repositioned back into leadership positions (Molloy, 2014). After al-Baghdadi took over, AQI branched off of al-Qaida and became ISIS. The Revised Caliphate describes ISIS taking violent action to break prisoners out of Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq so that they would not have to experience the torture that many Sunni men had in the early years of the insurgency. ISIS summarizes the effects of the prison break operation by stating:

“This prison break reversed all the successes of the US offensive (in 2007), and reversed the effects of the Sahwa (Awakening councils) [‘Sunni’s who fought against the Islamic State of Iraq.”

A total of roughly 2,000 prisoners were liberated during the prison breaks, 200 of which were high ranking al Qaida in Iraq members who were imprisoned during the American occupation. Following violentization, the terrorist organization successfully used violent actions, increasing the confidence of the organization, and recruiting violent members at the same time.

In the third stage, violent dominant engagements, the new terrorist group members have internalized the violent propaganda of the violent phantom community. Radical magazines, such as Inspire, were created and used to prepare, train, and further radicalize individuals. The magazines consisted of attack strategies, possible targets, and even cooking recipes to get women sensitized and supporting the violent group actions. The emir al-Baghdadi, in The Revised Caliphate, used the grievances and humiliation that the United States brought upon the group as a call to action that increased group cohesion. New terrorist members were now able to justify violent actions against indiscriminate targets to advance their cause.

In the virulency and extreme virulency stages, the violence is now the culture of the terrorist phantom community on a micro and macro level. Individual terrorist members and the organization as a whole both view itself as violent and dangerous. By promoting the grievances of the phantom community, the terrorist organization prompts others to join the cause and organization. ISIS has used increasing measures of violence against a variety of targets, including US journalists, Christians, Iraqis, Shia Muslims, and bombing various locations in Europe.

Extreme virulency is the cornerstone to the ISIS propaganda and media usage, with examples including filmed beheadings, burning a caged man alive, having children shoot captured individuals in the head, drownings, and strapping suicide vests to individuals. Each of these cases is videotaped and released to various media outlets to incite fear in potential targets, while recruiting other individuals to the group at the same time. The constant media attention has given the terrorist group a sense of infamy. The extreme violent actions are used as a method of bonding the terrorists in the group as well as influencing outside individuals to take violent actions into their own hands in a sign of unity and resiliency.

It is questionable whether ISIS would have developed so cohesively had the United States not invaded Iraq, detained numerous innocent civilians with radical terrorist members and had the tortures and humiliations that transpired in the US military prisons not occurred. In the wake of these unforeseeable events that follow the theory of violentization, ISIS has developed into an extremely violent and volatile terrorist organization that engages in extreme acts of torture, mutilation, and murder. The theory of violentization can therefore be preliminarily applied to terrorism more broadly, as many terrorist organizations undergo the same process that leads to group cohesion and extreme acts of violence.


The theory of violentization was developed as a need to fill the theoretical void of basing theory on the experiences that violent individuals and communities undergo in certain situations. By using the experiences of the subjects, the actors are able to speak for themselves and direct the theory in the process. Athens saw the far-reaching potential that such a theory could hold for individuals and communities that engage in extreme forms of violence during a time when quantitative and statistical methodologies were dominant. Though the theory of violentization was not well received by many scholars in the field at the time of its creation, it has been utilized in different contexts in more recent years. No theory is ever complete and the theory of violentization is no exception. By altering and adding components as research continued, Athens was able to develop a theory of violence that encompasses both individuals and groups on a micro and macro level.

The theory thus assumes that under certain conditions, anyone is able to become dangerous and violent. To combat extreme violence, the behaviors need to be countered during the first stage of the violentization process, brutalization. Subjects who under brutalization have a greater chance of rehabilitation than individuals who have reached the fourth or fifth stages of varied virulency. Future research should focus on how individuals can desist from violent behavior. Once brutalization is complete, however, one could hypothesize that it would be more difficult to rehabilitate groups of individuals who have started down the violentization process. The levels of group cohesion, unity, and bonds that forms between individuals who are subjected to extreme violence makes countering the perception of “we-ness” much more difficult than reaching out to an individual who has begun the process. The theory of violentization should be continuously examined by new scholars who apply the theory to different contexts, and eventually to how the process can be stopped and reversed.



















Al-Baghdadi, Abu Bakr. The Revived Caliphate. 2014

Akers, Ronald L. “Rational Choice, Deterrence, And Social Learning Theory In Criminology: The Path Not Taken”. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1990).

Athens, L. “Naturalistic Inquiry in Theory and Practice”. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 39.1 (2010): 87-125.

Athens, L. “Violent Encounters: Violent Engagements, Skirmishes, and Tiffs”. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 34.6 (2005): 631-678.

Athens, Lonnie H. “Violent Crime: A Symbolic Interactionist Study “. Symbolic Interaction 1.1 (1977): 56-70.

Athens, Lonnie H. The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. London: Routledge, 1989.

Athens, Lonnie H. Violent Criminal Acts and Actors: A Symbolic Interactionist Study. 1980.

Athens, Lonnie. “The Self and the Violent Criminal Act”. Urban Life and Culture 3 (1974).

Athens, Lonnie. “The Self as Soliloquy”. Sociological Quarterly 35.3 (1994): 521-532.

Athens, Lonnie. “Violentization: A Relatively Singular Theory of Violent Crime”. Deviant Behavior36.8 (2015): 625-639.

Bandura, Albert. “Social Learning Theory”. Stanford University (1971).

Blumer, Herbert. “A Note on Symbolic Interactionism”. American Sociological Review 38.6 (1973): 797.

Hersh, Seymour. ‘Torture at Abu Ghraib- The New Yorker’. The New Yorker.2004.

Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Horgan, John. The Psychology of Terrorism. London: Routledge, 2005.

Lemieux, Anthony. “Psychological Factors, Individual Factors, and Triggers”. Protecting the Homeland (2010).

Maistroianni, George, “Looking Back: Understanding Abu Ghraib”. A War Examined: Allies and Ethics, 2013.

McCauley, Clark R and Sophia Moskalenko. Friction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Miczek, K. A., Raine, A.  “Neurobiology of Escalated Aggression and Violence”. Journal of Neuroscience27.44 (2007): 11803-11806.

Molloy, Tim. “An ISIS Jailbreak at Abu Ghraib: Hell is Coming”- The Rise of ISIS- Frontline. 2015.

O’Donnell, I. “A New Paradigm for Understanding Violence? Testing the Limits of Lonnie Athens’s Theory”. British Journal of Criminology 43.4 (2003): 750-771.

Raine, A, P Brennan, and S Mednick. “Violence and Biology”. Science 265.5176 (1994): 1159-1159.

Rhodes, Richard. Why They Kill. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Sutherland, Edwin. Principles of Criminology. 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1939.

Twersky Glasner, Aviva. “Lonnie Athens Revisited: The Social Construction Of Violence”. Aggression and Violent Behavior 18.2 (2013): 281-285.

Winton, M. A. “Violentization Theory and Genocide”. Homicide Studies 15.4 (2011): 363-381.

Winton, Mark A. and Ali Unlu. “Micro–Macro Dimensions of the Bosnian Genocides: The Circumplex Model And Violentization Theory”. Aggression and Violent Behavior 13.1 (2008): 45-59.

Winton, Mark. “Dimensions of Genocide: The Circumplex Model Meets Violentization Theory”. The Qualitative Report 13.4 (2008)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.