240 Pages
156 x 235 mm
Pub date
Sep 2019
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Winner of the 2020 Charles Horton Cooley Book Award, Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction

  • Develops the counterintuitive argument that situational dynamics, not motivations, strategies, and cultural factors, are key to surprising outcomes
  • Combines data in a novel way, using video and documentary sources to reconstruct, in unprecedented detail, what happens during protests
  • Provides real-life practical advice how to avoid violence in protest marches and other situations
  • Claims that violence is rare, humans face an inhibition to violence, and violence only breaks out if specific situational patterns occur

In our everyday lives, we rely on routines that make tasks and interactions easier and provide a sense of order—routines of greeting each other, getting to work, organizing the things we do on the job, at the gym, or during family dinners. Yet, we have all experienced situations where routines fail and people behave contrary to expectations.
In Situational Breakdowns, Anne Nassauer demonstrates that when routines break down, surprising outcomes often emerge. Focusing on detailed accounts of peaceful and violent protests from the 1960s until 2010, violent uprisings such as Ferguson 2014, and armed store robberies caught on CCTV, Nassauer argues that by systematically looking at the way situations unfold, clear patterns can be identified for how and why routine interactions break down. Employing over 1,000 visual recordings, documentary sources, interviews with participants, and participant observation with police, she shows which factors can draw us into violent situations and discusses how and why we make uncommon individual and collective decisions. Drawing on insights from sociology, psychology, primatology, international relations, and neuroscience, Nassauer compares situational dynamics with human motivations to demonstrate that our interactions, interpretations, and emotions greatly influence the outcome of situations.
A novel interpretation of surprising social outcomes, Situational Breakdowns reveals that, despite the course of events overriding motivations, people can avoid being caught up in violence, if they know what to look for.



Introduction: Situational Collapses and Eruptions
1. Protest Groups and Physical Violence
2. The (Lack of) Power of the Violent Few
3. The Police's Fault?
4. Losing Control
5. Expecting the Worst
6. Uncertainty
7. In the Tunnel of Violence
8. How to Keep Protests Peaceful
9. Situational Breakdowns beyond Protest Violence

A. Studying Situational Dynamics in the 21st Century
B. Methodological Notes on Studying Protest Violence
C. Methodological Notes on Studying Uprisings
D. Methodological Notes on Studying Robberies

About the author: 

Anne Nassauer is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on violence and deviant action, collective behavior, and the use of video data for scientific inquiry. Her work lies at the intersection of sociology, social psychology, and criminology, with the ultimate goal of better understanding human action and interaction.

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