Scientifically Dissecting Violence

Canela-Cacho, MacCoun Are Part of an International, Interdisciplinary Consortium to Develop Theories on Violence

by Fernando Quintero

Two Berkeley faculty members are among the participants of a new national consortium that aims to study the causes and consequences of violence in America.

José Canela-Cacho and Robert MacCoun, both assistant professors of public policy, will join 37 other researchers from 24 institutions throughout the country, Canada and four European countries to research one of the nation's most pressing issues.

The National Consortium for Violence Research, based at Carnegie Mellon University, was established in January, thanks to a $12.1 million National Science Foundation award.

"Until now, there has been no effective mechanism for cooperation among researchers in diverse fields of science to systematically examine the subject (of violence) which has prompted so much scientific and public concern," said Cora Marrett, National Science Foundation's assistant director for social, behavioral and economic sciences.

The consortium, whose $12.1 million includes funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Institute of Justice, will include a team of researchers from a wide variety of disciplines including criminology, economics, geography, political science, psychology, public policy, sociology, statistics, biology and public health.

Canela-Cacho and MacCoun said the interdisciplinary consortium will not only provide new data on violence, but it will also integrate substantial but fragmented studies, theory and research methods into a useful body of knowledge.

"We hope to look at violence from a scientific perspective and build strong theories. Our goal is to develop an integrative science of violence," said Canela-Cacho, a native of Michoacán, Mexico, whose specialty is analyzing crime data using mathematical models.

MacCoun, who before coming to Berkeley in 1993 worked as a researcher on the ground-breaking RAND Corp. study that recommended lifting the military's ban on gays and lesbians, brings his expertise in surveys and studying the psychological questions underlying public policy.

His interests include analysis of social situations that lead to violence, particularly the impact of drug dealing on communities.

"Right now, we know remarkably little about the dynamics of community violence," MacCoun said. "Does putting a drug dealer behind bars create a situation for violence because it opens up the potential for turf wars? We don't know the answers to these kinds of questions."

Alfred Blumstein, professor of urban systems and operations research at Carnegie Mellon and director of the consortium, said scientists will look at the development of violence in individuals and try to discover how and why violent patterns develop in some individuals and not in others. Related issues will include drug abuse and drug markets, guns, gangs and socialization processes in families and communities.

Researchers will conduct basic research on violence on three levels: Individual development--why people become violent and why they stop their violent behavior; situational dynamics--how and why some conflict situations escalate into actual violence, while others do not; and community dynamics--how and why some communities, particularly public housing projects, produce high levels of violence.

The consortium will also allocate funds for a research and training program designed to educate the next generation of research scholars through a variety of educational programs, including a postdoctoral program and predoctoral programs focusing on issues of violence, a minority undergraduate program and a researcher recruiting program for collaborators who are minority faculty members from institutions with large minority populations.


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