The Deadly Rampages of April

Q&A with Princeton sociologist Katherine S. Newman

When the phone rings in April for Princeton sociologist Katherine S. Newman, the voice on the other end is often calling for a comment to commemorate the Columbine shootings, which took place on April 20, 1999. Although Newman specializes in social inequality and the urban poor -- and has often worked with the SSRC on these topics -- she has become a media regular because of her groundbreaking 2004 work, Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, written in collaboration with four doctoral students she worked with during her Harvard years. The book argued that small, isolated,  rural communities can become the  locus of extreme violence because of the high value they place on social capital.  Rather than the act of a loner, Newman suggests, rampage school shootings tend to be the work of “failed joiners,” who try repeatedly to work their way into cliques that reject them, rendering their daily social experience one of friction and disappointment.

This April, though, the calls come a few days earlier than usual -- in the form of a deluge -- as the news broke of a shooting spree taking place on the Virginia Tech campus. Everyone wanted to know how this terrible tragedy compared to the Columbine massacre, whether the theories in Rampage held up for Virginia Tech, and above all, what could have been done - if anything - to prevent such a catastrophe.

In this interview with the SSRC's communications office, Newman reflects on the Virginia Tech and similar tragedies from a social scientist's perspective, and tells us how she, an expert on poverty and mobility, developed a sideline as a specialist in this extreme form of school violence.

When did you first heard about the murders on the Virginia Tech campus, did you suspect it might be a rampage by a student, even before that was confirmed?

I first heard about 20 minutes after it happened because the news media began calling almost instantly. Since there is very little research available on the subject of school shootings, the press generally calls to find out how the theories developed in Rampage can account for the most recent tragedy. I had no doubt that it was a rampage shooting, even though these events are actually extremely rare on college campuses.

It seems that the perpetrator, Cho Seung-hui, was purposely referencing Columbine with his actions. Is imitation a major factor in explaining events like this?

Imitation doesn't always matter, but it did in this instance and it has been important in explaining a number of cases that coalesce around the anniversary of the Columbia tragedy. Some shooters see a challenge in surpassing the devastation of Columbine. It's a sick desire to gain notoriety, but the search for fame -- in sharp contrast to the invisibility or awkwardness of the real life of a shooter -- is a critical motivation.

But how well does the Virginia Tech tragedy actually compare to that of Columbine?

I see two main similarities. One is the powerful desire of the shooters to change the way people around them define their character after having had a long history of social failure, magnified by mental illness. In both of these cases, the shooters perceived themselves as losers who would leave this world having transformed their images in ways that would be indelible. The other is the availability of a cultural script that prescribes horrendous violence as the way to demonstrate masculinity and control.

But there are important differences. The shooter in Virginia was 8 years older than Kliebold and Harris and that much farther down the road toward extreme mental illness. He acted alone rather than as part of a duo, thick with a sense of conspiracy. The most important -- and truly frightening -- difference is that Cho was on everyone's radar screen. Faculty and students made many attempts to get him help. The Columbine shooters were known to some people, who did go to the police, but they were less vividly on everyone's minds as odd or threatening.

I call that tragic because much of the time, recognizing a dangerous character is an important part of prevention. Yet in Virginia quite a few people were scared or worried about Cho and tried to bring the mental health system in to help him and protect themselves, yet their efforts failed.

Is there something about this phenomenon that makes it peculiarly American -- not only the easy availability of automatic weapons but also the cultural obsession with violence? To put it another way, had Cho's parents stayed in South Korea, might he have avoided adopting a "cultural script" that focused so much on guns?

Cho was clearly disturbed from his earliest years and might well have acted out in some fashion if the family had stayed in Korea. The cultural script that defines a random shooting as an act worth emulating is not uniquely American, but it appears to happen here with greater frequency. Prior to Cho, though, the worst example available of this kind was in Erfurt, Germany. Canada has had a spate of terrible shootings as well.

Is the media still promulgating the popular misconceptions that you noted in your Rampage book?

The media tends to jump to the conclusion that shooters are loners because it is too frightening for them (and us) to think that someone who has been circulating in the social system can become so unhinged. Cho was more of a loner than most shooters, so perhaps this is a justifiable portrait in his case. But most shooters are not loners at all; they fail at the task of gaining social acceptance and admiration from their peers, but they don't stop trying. Sadly, the first signs of success they see in their long struggle for acceptance comes when they pique attention by talking about shooting people. Once that strategy begins to work, they have backed themselves into a corner and feel compelled to act, lest they be defined as weak or bluffing.

Media portraits also often speak of these tragedies as spontaneous eruptions of rage, but they never are and weren't in this instance either. Rampage shootings are planned, often over a long period of time. And the shooters virtually always release hints, signals, and signs that they are planning something terrible because their real aim is to attract attention and shift their public image. You can't do that with a spontaneous eruption.

Many different kinds of experts were trotted out in the mass media -- everyone from anthropologists to sociologists to evolutionary biologists -- in an effort to account for why the Virginia Tech massacre happened and how it might be prevented in future. In your view, which are the key social scientific studies that have bearing on this kind of tragedy?

It is important to gather perspectives from people in criminology who have studied mass murder, people who study abnormal psychology, scholars of the media, and students of adolescent development. I will put in a plug for sociology, though, because I think it offers a perspective that is critical and often missing because the overriding impulse is to dive into the psyche of the individual. The individual experience is important, of course, but for me the study of information circulation in organizations was critical for explaining why despite so much evidence of what was coming, so little action was taken to stop it. Studies of communities and the ways they deal with deviance are also important. The kind of work that Kai Erickson has done so brilliantly on the impact of catastrophe -- showing the difficulty small towns have in coping with potential ruptures in their social networks, to the point of burying any evidence of trouble brewing -- helps us to understand both the failure to detect a plot on the way and equally sad and contentious aftermath of incidents of this kind. These are questions that we sociologists bring to the table, and for my money, they are essential. [Editor's note: Erickson brought his work on catastrophe to bear on the SSRC's Katrina project, in which Newman also participated.]

What inspired you to study school violence in the first place? Did it spring out of your other academic interests?

For me, this excursion into tragedy and violence was an accident. In 1999 Congress extended the Missing, Runaway and Exploited Children's Protection Act, which mandated a qualitative, community study of rampage shootings in schools. The task was given to the Department of Education, which subsequently turned to the National Academy of Sciences. A number of ethnographers like myself were brought in. I became so fascinated by the fieldwork that I wanted to do a book on it. I was fortunate to have four gifted Ph.D. students to work with in developing new theoretical tools for understanding what happened.

One of the most wonderful aspects of my job is that I can develop interests that have very little to do with my main line -- poverty studies or studies of mobility, in the US and increasingly overseas -- and run with it. The key for me always is the centrality of public scholarship. I am most engaged by projects that will provide a sociological window on problems that matter to our country and its citizens.

As more and more of these tragedies pile up, what effect do they have on our collective consciousness? Do we become inured to school violence, or more motivated to do something?

I don't think we become inured, but I do think we become less certain of the character of the society we live in and the nature of our personal safety. The immediate policy reaction is often counter-productive: a crackdown, a zero-tolerance approach. This kind of approach should apply to weapons but not to speech. We have learned that it is important to encourage kids to come forward when they hear threats, and we are working toward providing trustworthy adults for them to confide in. But this costs money, and other priorities leap into line when years go by without such an incident. Complacency is a problem.

What further kinds of studies would you like to see to support the work already accomplished in this area?

I am sure that other scholars will decide to pursue questions focusing on the importance of the media, on the politics of gun control, and with respect to Cho's case, on the delicate balance between privacy and the capacity of institutions to protect themselves from people who have been declared a danger. I can imagine people returning to questions on the social production of marginality and the difficulties of young men in navigating the shoals of masculinity. For me and my coauthors, Rampage was such an exhaustive study that I'm not sure we have a lot more to contribute. But there is a need for others to pick up and move forward as long as these tragedies continue to multiply.

Conducted, condensed, and edited by SSRC communications director Mary-Lea Cox.


Katherine Newman is a Princeton sociologist who specializes in urban inequality and school violence. She frequently collaborates with the SSRC—most recently, on its Global Studies of Discrimination project, which compares various countries’ methods of measuring discrimination as well as their attempts to craft policies for mitigating its effects.

Published on: Sunday, April 22, 2007