On criticism of “Violence: A micro-sociological theory by Randall Collins”


Randall Collins in “Violence” makes the tragic mistake of relying heavily on S.L.A. Marshall and the many scholars of Marshall. The interviewing technique of S.L.A. Marshall and the evidence he collected was not without criticism or challenge.   The soldiers themselves were not always enamored or happy to be quizzed after a military action and chastened to participate.   European theater soldiers were fairly hostile to the rear echelon investigatory nature that the oral history methods represented (Spiller, 1988, p.   67).  Though this effect seems to have less widely been reported for Pacific theater soldiers there is an area of interest in how truthful and interested the soldiers actually were during the interview process.

This leads to primary criticism of the concept of who fires where and when within the combat environment.   Collins attempts to link the concept to fear and violence within his book. Unfortunately the evidence and reasoning behind the ratios of fire are misleading. The fact remains that it never took into account the terrain, tactics, equipment and fitness of the soldiers in the fight and was based on a horrible exaggeration of observation to analysis (Jordan, 2002, pp.  145-146).  

By not taking into account the other elements in the environment including the political ramifications the judgments and arguments are likely given more credence than is warranted.   Since the effectiveness and or lack thereof cannot be attributed to training simply there must be other elements of conflict and combat that have created a changing paradigm and that factor is likely equipment and organizational structure (Jordan, 2002, p.  256).  

This would seem to negate the argument of Marshall and Collins.   Training is important and is one of the central tenets to the solidarity argument for soldiers to respond on the battle field.   There is also the simple issue that most combat is decentralized and also much more observed than previously allowed.   Cameras are everywhere in the battlefield and footage of engagements is easily available to the scholar on YouTube.



In evaluating the book “Violence: A micro-sociological theory” by Randall Collins the reviewer is made aware of substantial literature revolving around S.L.A. Marshall a journalist soldier who was instrumental in writing several books about battle fatigue and examining the resultant chaos of combat. Coining the term SLAM effect Randall Collins hinges much of his evidence around the reported large volume of literature and work of S.L.A. Marshall and scholars following the Marshall genre.

The sociologist and historian must keep abreast of the literature and when delving into the depths of a topic new and emerging information becomes important to the credibility of the work. There is a substantial literature building up around the SLAM effect and the body of work that is found in query of this information. Yet what could be considered contradictory evidence is remarkably absent from “Violence”. There is a rising level of evidence that S.L.A. Marshall may have not been as interested factual representation of data as reporting interesting anecdotes somewhat related to the data. Though the contradictory nature is well established and even stated by proponents of S.L.A Marshall there are none found in “Violence”.

The central argument to “Violence” is that people are not wired for perpetrating violence and naturally abhor violence in many forms. There is a natural limiting factor on how people perpetrate violence on other people. People may be drawn to observing it while it occurs but within Collins book “Violence” is regimented, drilled, watered-down, or formalized into forms where it has little actual impact. Violence according to Collins is over laden with fear and people just do not do it well. Collins in coining the SLAM effect attempts to use the literature of Marshall and other scholars to support his hypothesis.

This criticism will revolve around chapter two of Collins’ work and will only use resources for refutation and criticism that can be found with the bibliography dates of 1947 to 2005 as found in Collins’ book. There are many things that happen during the production of book and holding someone accountable for work after the book went to press would be an unfair consideration. Subject to scrutiny within the chapter will the conclusions about military action and resultant violence related to the SLAM effect. This criticism does not suggest that all of the work done by Collins or Marshall is suspect, but that in this particular situation the use without balance of other views is a poison pill.


Glancing into the military profession

The argument that military professions are ignored or relatively abandoned by the academic world would be pejorative if not absolutely true. There is though, a large amount of reasoned discourse that suggests that military matters and conflict are not examined with the rigor that scholarly work would require. It may be bitter medicine to the political environment of academia but scholarship should reflect the necessities of conflict. In this critique of military writing in general the desire is to make the work of “Violence” by Randall Collins stronger for the review that it receives. Thus, we discuss the primary point that much of the material by Collins and the authors that he cites situate around the founding work of S.L.A. Marshall and are considered as the basis of Collins argument.

S.L.A. Marshall was very proud of the open ended group interviews he conducted and pushed for this to become the standard debriefing technique for the Army during after action reports (Chambers, 2003, p. 113). This created several issues as it was reported that Marshall took minimal and cryptic notes during the interviews and this was born out after Marshall’s death and supported by a total lack of corroborating evidence (Chambers, 2003, p. 119). The style and tenor of Marshall’s writing suggests that he was writing as a journalist more than a historian or scientist. There was no suggestion that Marshall ever intended his work to be acquired by the academic realm as proof or evidence of facts. The dramatic assertions thus are part of Marshall’s style leading to the likelihood that the reported percentages were guesses (Chambers, 2003, p. 120).

The lack of evidence is not evidence of or against the fact that Marshall gathered information. In fact, Marshall’s writing on the events for which interviews may not be impugned, but to base scholarly work on the work of others not subjected to rigorous review is to take a risk. The methods, techniques, and gathered information were never subjected to a substantive review. In the case of S.L.A. Marshall the method as well as the data may be suspect.

The method of gathering data from soldiers after combat, though rejected by S.L.A. Marshall, likely started with Siborne in the early 18th century and was adapted by Du Picq fifty or so years after that. Regardless of Marshall’s equivocations on the topic (he was very hostile to the concepts of Du Picq) the methodology utilized predates Marshall by at least two wars (Spiller, 1988, p. 66).

Though Marshall was a historian, he had little regard for the work that predated, his efforts. Other historians have put the field interview method clearly on Du Picq and though fewer some identify Siborne as the progenitors of the concept. Unfortunately there are others that see it as beginning with Marshall, including S.L.A. Marshall himself.

In the critique of Collins we can observe that regardless of evidence or proof to the assertions of firing ratios, S.L.A. Marshall was at the least a talented observer of people interacting and of soldiers specifically (Jordan, 2002, p. 142). Marshall, as a journalist, was able to obtain oral histories and stories from the soldiers that expanded the knowledge of how soldiers felt about combat and reacted to the stresses of combat. This effort was of great value to understanding the soldiers perspective on the battle field. Unfortunately for many of the reasons discussed by Collins in “Violence”, and wealth of literature supports this, first person accounts in high stress situations are rarely accurate. Marshall himself was subjected to the combat environment never mind the subjects he was interviewing.

The interviewing technique was not without criticism or challenge. The soldiers themselves were not always enamored or happy to be quizzed after a military action and chastened to participate. European theater soldiers were fairly hostile to the rear echelon investigatory nature that the oral history methods represented (Spiller, 1988, p. 67). Though this effect seems to have been less widely been reported for Pacific theater soldiers there is an area of interest in how truthful and interested the soldiers actually were during the interview process. How accurate were the representations of the conflict by the soldier, how accurate were the recordings by the interviewer, what were the outside factors that might have biased both including inter-personal strife? In this case the diagnosis by Collins may not be treating the correct illness.

As noted the challenges to S.L.A. Marshall were largely associated with people who looked at the data and notebooks after his death (and were seeking evidence), and the experts that Collins identifies in his book who are good at violence or scholars of those who are expert at violence (soldiers). There is a schism between those who support Marshall’s original findings, and those who reject them, that is not indicative of scholar or soldier. Indeed there appear to be supporters and detractors regardless of military or academic affiliation (Jordan, 2002, p. 141). Since Marshall cannot respond to his critics any critique should be based on only factual information as available and that is difficult when looking at the dearth of evidence and surfeit of Marshall publications.

Marshall himself was a harsh critic of his work while being fairly dogmatic on its acceptance promoting his conclusions to the Army and denigrating any detractors relying on volume it seems rather than volume. Collins would identify that tactic in “Violence” as academic violence I believe. S.L.A. Marshall did not want his work to be known as scientific or historic. He (Marshall) did not have any aptitude in dealing with the academia and only fleeting difference to intellectual discourse which was to say something more forcefully rather than to provide evidence (Spiller, 1988, p. 63). In other words, Marshall did not want to be a scholar or have his work considered as such and was hostile to use of his work as such.


Theoretical Basis

Marshall’s work has been placed into a framework that has gained traction within the scholarly community looking at the efficiency of soldiers in combat. Two theories solidarity and tradition make up the basis of much research into the social and constructive effectiveness of soldiers (Segal & Segal, 1983, p. 156). The work on unit cohesion and creating environments to nurture soldier effectiveness were an important part of the post Vietnam training regimen (Segal & Segal, 1983, p. 157). The military as a consumer of scholarly opinion is quite interested in learning more about creating better and more prepared soldiers. The problem is that the diagnosis is often bounded by cultural bias and political rhetoric leaving a prescription that does not treat the malady.

Winslow (1998) discusses the theories in depth. The solidarity theory has the most traction within military circles as the repeated regimen and nearing instantaneous response effect of such training make it easy to create curriculum and engineer the desired response. The mechanical solidarity theory was considered part of the reason that the German Wermacht fought so heavily regardless of the enemy action against them. This would suggest that Marshall was not in error and support the theories in “Ratio of Fire” (Winslow, 1998, p. 350).

The implications of social and group dynamics suggest research and strategies of the group are more important than the individual. Unfortunately Marshall attempted to take a individual action and apply it to a larger group. Following in the footsteps of Marhall, Collins then does the same with his micro theory, and this injects a new basis of theory. The ideas of group dynamics gain traction when there is a framework already in place for the military culture to use. The regimental traditions create constructive strategies that the soldiers can draw upon through the mental frameworks, history, and unique cultural experience (Winslow, 1998, p. 354). Thus, under this construct the social and group are much more important than the training and the individual.

Scholars looking at how “Ratios of Fire” as a document was used. are critical of the fact, that it was mostly the word of one man but became the law of the land. The academe is loath to allow such a statement to stand as science or evidence. In this case the medicine is an unlabeled pill bottle we are told is good for us and we need not ask questions or argue. Spiller (1988, p. 64) quoting B.H. Liddel Hart referred to “Ratios of Fire”, being accepted as Army doctrine and put to increasing use.  As it was used for right or wrong it became part of that social and traditional indoctrination and stretched across the span of the differing views. Regardless of how well it actually described either reality or situation the bitter pill was swallowed by the Army.

Knowing that there was criticism and angst over values and ratios, S.L.A. Marshall looked at the issue again during the Korean conflict. During the Korean conflict Marshall reported to the secretary of the Army that the ratio of fire had increased to 55 percent, and nobody seemed to disagree with that assessment at the time. There also appears to be no evidence that any data was collected to support the assertion, but regardless scholars have gone on to faithfully report this as fact (Spiller, 1988, p. 64). Yet almost nothing had changed in the type of recruit, tactics, or training except for the general drift that occurs in any organization.

This work is the primary basis for an entire thread of scientific research and body of knowledge. As a foundation of the literature “Ratios of Fire” and the scholarship that followed it, a writer would be well served to be aware of the criticism, and support it had received. Collins says, “The most extensive evidence on fear and its effects has been gathered on the performance of soldiers in combat.. S.L.A. Marshal…” (Collins, 2008, p. 43). Though analysis of the counter evidence to Collins argument is mute. Unfortunately this is like diagnosing every malady as the flue no matter how many bones are broken on the patient. In this situation Marshall might have identified a malady, but been totally unprepared, to deal with the whole of the patient. The goals of Marshall were admirable as Marshall had little to gain and much to lose if his ideas were challenged by the military. Marshall in “Ratios of Fire” was trying to address the tactical issues of putting men into the combat situation and the issues regarding the most effective use out of those men in the combat environment (Spiller, 1988, p. 63). That is a worthy goal, much like the arguments and goals by Collins in “Violence”.  We definitely do not want to throw out the whole of western medicine because of one quack doctor. And in the case of Marshall he may not be so wrong as he is right for the wrong reasons.

In building a scholarly tradition looking at the effectiveness of soldiers in combat, the laboratory is a hostile terrain. Literally. The activity of combat is not conducive to the gathering of data in a scholarly manner and when going ashore at Makin island in the Pacific Marshall was as confused as others as the battle occurred (Spiller, 1988, p. 65). It might be concluded that Mashall was not being honest about Makin however, it might be a better summation to say that his methods using oral history were expedient for the time if less than reliable for evidence that was to be used for Army doctrine. We might consider what Marshall did as historical triage that was good for the situation, but not how we would define an entire discipline. The challenges of gathering information is that empirical analysis is nearly impossible as the values and variables are subject to so many chaotic elements including veracity of the data collectors.

Looking at the issues of data analysis, it becomes fairly obvious that data and control for gathering statistical information is problematic. The test subjects and survey respondents may not survive there time in the test group and control groups do not exist. The analysis factors themselves become an issue. For Collins one of the problems with attempting to generalize information about the population of American soldiers to the rest of society is that American military forces have never been homogenous and are not a representative sample of general population (Kohn, 1981, p. 556). This being the case the idea of taking information about men in combat and using it as a generalization for society could introduce significant problems. The inexactness or likelihood of introduction of speculative assumptions is further hampered by the foundation on S.L.A. Marshall.

Reliance on the work occurs and leads to assumptions. Collins says, “In Marshall’s picture, a small portion of troops, on both sides, are doing all the fighting… Even they are not necessarily effective; most of their weapons miss. What are the others doing? In varying degrees, they are incapacitated by the combat situation.” (Collins, 2008, p. 46). Using a variety of tools and scholarship Collins backs this assertion up with an impressive literature review.  It is doubly an issue that reliance on Marhall is a placebo that looks good but does nothing. Unfortunately it leaves more questions than answers on the table. The ideas of terrain, tactics, training, equipment, and engagement with the enemy are totally lacking from the equation.

The equipment and training of soldiers are important for understanding the expectation and professionalism of the soldier. How do we want our soldiers to react and what are the operative rules of engagement? Some of the scholarship around combat has supported training and weapons as the primary avenues of collective change across the milieu of combat. There are interpretation issues in looking at training or weapons as the primary cause associated with the two-fold increase in reported soldiers firing in combat between World War II and the Korean War. Unfortunately for the Marshall argument training had not radically changed and most of the tactics and equipment were the same or not substantially changed (Jordan, 2002, p. 137) in the period between World War II and Korea. Something may have changed but that change has not been appropriately identified in a definitive manner to explain the percentage changes according to Marshall.

The methods used by Marshall did not consider as primary the tactics and training of the troops except as ancillary or known information about the subjects due to standardization. Unless it was captured in the interview process, how would information be otherwise available? Collins reports that S.L.A. Marshall used the principle method of bringing all of the troops together and using a focus group like strategy to question them without regard to rank, probing with questions until a focused picture was delivered (Collins, 2008, p. 48). Though perhaps egalitarian in nature this method may have left most of the contrary evidence on the battlefield and in an unstructured interview not been identified even if of interest. The most ardent supporter of Marshall will likely report that a lot of evidence can be found on the battlefield where those who didn’t survive can be found.

Looking at the current situation

There is a thread that most agree upon including Collins. The training and equipment have changed the battlefield. Through the literature it is apparent that humans have become more adept at violence and using technology to create holocaust like events. Collins considers that current armies are not the same as previous generations and looks at the changes in training, recruitment (no more draftees) and uses this to further postulate that the SLAM effect created the substantive change and should have resulted in the capabilities of the soldiers (Collins, 2008, p. 51) being assessed. Change has occurred and Collins appears to be trying to identify that if change has resulted in a human more willing to kill. Is the question more willing to kill or is it better stated more able to kill? Perhaps in this case all along the soldier was willing but the equipment and training did not adequately support the act or allow for it.

The static representation of an event has issues as to validity. Any parent knows that capturing the image of a rambunctious child at a birthday party is difficult. The results as recorded to film can range from the amusing to the generally hilarious. Using photographs as a method of recording something about the soldiers’ perceptions, is used to show the accuracy of the prediction of the SLAM effect. Crouching, pensive, or otherwise displaying characteristics coded as fear, photographs are used to support the thesis of the SLAM effect (Collins, 2008, p. 53). This ties in to the literature of soldiers though may not be grounded on the reality of the scenario. When we are looking for a diagnosis that will represent a path to the solution of the problem with Collins there may be bias to not supporting troop violence.

What may be seen as a pensive soldier could simply be the poker face of the recorded person. What is seen as cowering may be the training of a police officer to take cover from hostile fire. There is a thread of expectation in the discussion that suggests that police officers should rush into harm and tower over the situation. Gathering steam and likely exposing bias, Collins discusses the activities as police officers with blaring sirens, loud squawk boxes, fast driving, and gestures designating a crime scene as self centered and similar to the elite firers, or those who fire accurately (Collins, 2008, pp. 65-66). This ignores the primary response of police is to gather evidence and protect the scene of a crime. What would be the political ramifications of a police force that drove the speed limit and took all precautions in response to even one citizen who had called for help?

This leads to the primary criticism of the concept of who fires where and when within the combat environment. Unfortunately, the evidence and reasoning behind the ratios of fire related by Marshall are horribly misleading. The fact remains that Marshall never took into account the terrain, tactics, equipment and fitness of the soldiers in the fight and was based on a horrible exaggeration of observation to analysis (Jordan, 2002, pp. 145-146). By not taking into account the other elements in the environment, including the political ramifications, the judgments and arguments are likely given more credence than is warranted. A louder diagnosis is not a better diagnosis.  Since the effectiveness and or lack thereof can not be attributed to training simply there must be other elements of conflict and combat that have created a changing paradigm and a likely factor is equipment and organizational structure (Jordan, 2002, p. 256). This would seem to negate the argument of Marshall and Collins. Training is important and is one of the central tenets to the solidarity argument for soldiers to respond on the battle field. There is also the simple issue that most combat is decentralized and also much more observed than previously allowed. Cameras are everywhere in the battlefield and footage of engagements is easily available to the scholar on YouTube.

That does not mean that Collins gets it all wrong. Soldiers who had been described as not firing in combat where also described as closely working together as teams. This situation which might seem to a minor dichotomy, may be a symptom of the simplistic rarely scholarly look at soldiers that has not been able to adequately describe the myriad issues of the situation (Kohn, 1981, p. 561).

There is substantial evidence to support Collins assertions about atrocities and much value in his information about forward panic. There are more likely characteristics besides fear that may affect soldiers under stress. The concept of forward panic as described by Collins is a good candidate for some responses of soldiers in combat. Consideration of training, but even more important the relationships and common social support mechanisms found in the squad (fire team), platoon, and company and the relationships between comrades are examples (Shirom, 1976, p. 421). These factors likely embolden or support the soldier as well as created social barriers to misbehavior.



Looking at the different possible avenues to explain whether soldiers fire or do not fire in combat there are obvious to the casual observer several possible reasons for the behavior. Anyone relying on the writing of S.L.A. Marshall to support a tacit argument should be fully aware that there is also contrary literature. There is likely no definitive answer with the absence of primary data of the proof that the statistics are  not  necessarily contradictory to the S.L.A. Marshall argument.

Within the discussion as regarded by Collins in chapter two of “Violence” the reliance on Marshall and scholars who use him as a primary source weakens the content of the book. More importantly the absolute lack of balance by including at least the commentary of contrary scholarship denigrates the scholarly aptitude of the article.



Chambers, J. W. I. (2003). S.L.A. Marshall’s Men against fire: New evidence regarding fire ratios. Parameters(Autumn), 113-121.

Collins, R. (2008). Violence: A micro-sociological theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jordan, K. C. (2002). Right for the wrong reasons: S.L.A. Marshall and the ratio of fire in Korea. The journal of military history, 66(1), 135-162.

Kohn, R. H. (1981). The social history of the American soldier: A review of the prospectus for research. The American historical review, 86(3), 553-567.

Segal, D. R., & Segal, M. W. (1983). Change in military organization. Annual review of sociology, 9, 151-170.

Shirom, A. (1976). On some correlates of combat performance. Administrative science quarterly, 21(3), 419-432.

Spiller, R. J. (1988). S.L.A. Marshall and the ratio of fire. Royal United Services Institute Journal, 133(4), 63-71.

Winslow, D. (1998). Misplaced loyalties: The role of military culture in the breakdown of discipline in peace operations. The Canadian review of sociology and anthropology, 35(3), 345-367.

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