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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 466-468 ( 18 October )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/ramirez.html

Book Review

Cross-Cultural Approaches to Research on Aggression and Reconciliation
Edited by J. Martin Ramirez and Deborah S. Richardson
New York: Nova Science, 2001. ISBN: 1590330323

Reviewed by Nigel Hunt, Senior Lecturer, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, Burton Street, Nottingham, NG1 4BU, United Kingdom.

The study of aggression has a long and turbulent history within psychology. The study of reconciliation has only taken place more recently. Most cases of aggression within a community (human or animal) end with reconciliation. It is essential to normalise relations as quickly as possible. This applies to both smaller communities (e.g. children in a school) and larger communities (e.g. nations).

This book arose out of the 15th International Colloquium on Brain and Aggression held near Madrid in 2000. Academics from 14 countries took part, mainly from Europe and the USA, along with participants from South Africa, Russia and the Middle East. The Preface states that the UNESCO-adopted Seville Statement on Violence (1986) refuted the notion that human aggression, violence and war are inevitable. The Colloquium took the worthy view that we should not be “willing to accept violence because of mistaken notions that it is unavoidable” (p xii). While this is an excellent ideal, it fails to recognise the propensities of man, as evidenced by a wide range of studies from psychology and biology. The book also expounds a cross-cultural perspective, but is largely limited to aggression and reconciliation in Europe, North America, and the Middle East; and so has some limitations regarding the types of human society studied.

The book has four sections: theoretical issues, cross-national issues, conflict and reconciliation, and conclusions. The theoretical issues section contains three chapters, Richardson & Latané examine how dynamic social impact theory can predict regional variation in and the development of social representations of aggression. Landau focuses on violent crime, social stress and solidarity in Israel, looking at the role of education. If aggression can be controlled by social means then education has an important role. The third chapter in this section is by Kemp and looks at definitions of international aggression, and how cross-cultural research can learn from these.

The second section, cross-national comparisons, contains five empirical chapters. Unfortunately, four of these chapters used large-scale surveys with university students. Students were asked to complete self-report questionnaires on a range of subjects. The findings should be viewed with caution, given the limitations of this kind of research. Students are not likely to be representative of any general population in terms of age, intelligence and socio-economic class. They are likely to be better-educated and of a higher social class than many of the people who cause aggression-related problems in society. There are also dangers with self-report studies regarding the honesty of responses. We do not know how closely a reported belief is to a genuine belief, nor whether there are cross-cultural differences in reporting style.

The first chapter in the section, by Ramirez et al, reviews research on the moral approval of aggressive acts by urban students. The chapter is a cross-national study in four continents, using students in Poland, Spain, Japan, the USA, Iran and South Africa. The researchers conclude (perhaps obviously) that more severe forms of aggressive act are seen as less acceptable. Richardson and Huguet explore beliefs about and experience with aggression in the USA and France, finding that US students reported more experience with and more organised beliefs about aggression. Ramirez et al explored anger proneness in Japanese and Spanish students. Few differences were found between the groups. Theron et al compared direct and indirect aggression in South African and Spanish women. Spanish students reported higher overall levels of aggression. Bjorkqvist et al, in the only study not using self-report measures with university students, examined aggression, victimisation and sociometric status in four countries. The sample consisted of young people from 8-15 years. Some sex differences were found.

The next section, conflict and reconciliation, begins with a chapter by Fry, who examines the ways people deal with conflict. This chapter is soundly cross-cultural, in that it explores research from a wide range of cultures. Fry proposes that physical aggression may be receiving too much emphasis as a means by which people deal with conflict. We also have a considerable ability to prevent, avoid, and limit the scope of physical aggression. The evidence he presents supports this notion, particularly in relation to societies that have low levels of internal aggression. Ember & Ember explore four myths about pre-industrial war, and link this to possible lessons for peace from worldwide cross-cultural research. Butovskaya explores reconciliation after conflict in relation to an ethological analysis of post-conflict interactions in Kalmyk children. She claims that children are capable of coping with conflicts and making peace with their opponents. She observed 6-7 year old children and found sex differences. She claims that levels of reconciliation among this group were higher than among Russian or American children, and claims that peacemaking tendencies may be influenced by social learning. In the final chapter of the section, Pagani examines the cross-cultural significance of empathy as an instrument to prevent aggression.

The concluding section contains two chapters, both making a useful contribution to the study of aggression and reconciliation. Painter explores social representations and aggression. This chapter criticises the methodological approach used widely in earlier chapters, that of the questionnaire! Painter claims that the use of questionnaires is essentially reductionist and imposes (usually Western) cultural ideas on other people. The alternative is to see culture as emerging from interactions among people. This is placed in the context of Moscovici’s social representations theory. Archer’s chapter explores method and theory in cross-cultural studies of aggression. This chapter also recognises various problems and issues relating to methods and cross-cultural comparisons. Archer proposes an integration of explanations of cross-cultural diversity in terms of adaptive contingent responses and cultural beliefs.

Any book which brings together the work of a symposium is going to represent a wide range of, often contradictory, views. This book is no exception. There are serious methodological and theoretical problems relating to cross-cultural research, and relating to aggression in general. Theoretical chapters and review chapters are generally the best, presenting a clear exposition of current thinking in the subject. The empirical chapters are generally weaker, mainly because there are serious methodological problems with using university students in this type of research, as discussed earlier. Perhaps the most damning evidence is in the chapter by Painter, which argues that the use of questionnaires imposes culture on others and inevitably predetermines responses. The final problem is that some of the reported research, rather than having clear a priori research questions and specific hypotheses, the focus is sometimes on minor significant results situated among a pool of non-significant findings. This approach is not theoretical and hence not appropriate.

In conclusion, this book is a worthwhile contribution to the area. As a collection of symposium presentations it does a good job. Some interesting theoretical ideas are explored. It is important to examine human behaviour cross-culturally, as this is the only way we are going to be able to distinguish between universal behaviours and culturally-specific behaviours. The book does not close the debate on the degree to which aggression is a universal component of human life, though the authors do try and take a cultural perspective. There are still common findings across cultures, such as sex differences and the fact that all the studies reported finding levels of aggression or aggressive belief. There is no doubt concerning the genetic component of aggression; what is worthy of exploration is the ways in which we can use the understanding of other cultures to reduce the impact this genetic predisposition has on our lives.

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© Nigel Hunt.


Hunt, N. (2002). Review of Cross-Cultural Approaches to Research on Aggression and Reconciliation edited by J. Martin Ramirez and Deborah S. Richardson. Human Nature Review. 2: 466-468.

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