In June, 2017, APA Books published a special, 25th Anniversary Edition of Violent Men: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Violence, by Hans Toch. This book first grew out of pioneering studies Toch undertook with police offers, corrections officers and prisoners in the late 1960s. Later editions arrived in 1992 and now 2017. Each iteration of the book has coincided with eras in which acts of public violence were a matter of widespread concern and debate, from the urban riots in the ‘60s, to the Rodney King beating and aftermath in the early 1990s, to the recurrent shootings, captured and disseminated today thanks to cellphone videos, of unarmed black men and women by police. Over the years, Toch’s work has helped illuminate and explain how these and similar violent encounters develop—what perpetrators and victims are thinking, why they are thinking it, and what can be done to stop the violence from occurring.
The impact of Toch’s original book cannot be overstated. It essentially invented criminology as a field of study, and endures today as the ultimate demonstration of how applied psychology can help improve people’s lives.
In his Foreword to this new edition, Series Editor Shadd Maruna explains:
The genius of the work obviously begins with its innovative methodology. In Violent Men, Toch pioneers a methodology that has now become known as “peer interviewing” but at the time of publication surely contradicted every known rule of research and common sense—with prisoners interviewing prisoners, parolees interviewing parolees, and policing veterans interviewing police officers. All of these groups were also involved in the analysis of the qualitative data as it emerged as well. (xiii)
In his Foreword to the 1992 edition—reprinted in the new 25th Anniversary Edition—Bertram Karon writes that Toch’s idea sprang from the recognition that
…both “scientific” investigators and violent individuals understand things, but not the same things, and have biased perceptions, but not the same biases. Furthermore, he knew that people talk openly to people like themselves, but that they do not talk openly to people whom they perceive as likely to look down on them. (xvi)
Toch’s method was useful in ways that went far beyond devising and conducting successful experiments. The book’s practical value is so widespread that it has been used and recommended not just by psychologists, but also social workers, parole and probation officers, juvenile workers, and ward staffs across the world. Perhaps most importantly, according to Karon:
[Toch’s] technique of including violent individuals in the collaborative study of their own and others’ violence turned out to be a potent technique not only of gathering information and insight but also of enabling violent individuals to understand and master their [own] violence. (xvi)
The implications are profound. As Maruna says, Toch’s work enables
…even the most disquieting acts of violence become intelligible, even understandable. The book achieves, then, what all great social psychology should strive to do: allow the reader to walk in the shoes of the other and experience the world from their vantage point. With a title like Violent Men, one might expect (even hope for?) a salacious journey into the deranged mind and cold heart of the “other.” Toch’s readers instead leave the book with just the opposite experience, finding they might have learned more about themselves in the book than about mythological superpredators. (xiii)
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Toch, H. (2017). Violent Men: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Violence, 25th Anniversary Edition. Washington, DC: APA Books.