Making Sense of January 6th: What We Know About Why Mobs Emerge

Editor Note: Over the coming weeks, The College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University will work to provide experiential and academic faculty perspectives on the causes and consequences of the events surrounding January 6, 2021. This means that some posts will offer academic analyses of the events, other posts will mix the unique occupational experiences of faculty with academic perspectives. We hope that readers will engage authors in a productive, civil dialogue on the issues discussed in the post. Appropriate comments (e.g., those that do not include name-calling and vulgarity) will be posted and forwarded to the author for a response.

On January 6,2021, I watched with millions of other Americans as Trump supporters stormed and vandalized the Capitol. As I navigated between social media and cable news, I heard reporters on the ground repeatedly comment about seemingly different factions of the mob. They observed that while some of the MAGA mob roamed the halls, snapping selfies of themselves with statues holding Trump flags and sitting in the chairs of high-ranking elected officials, others seemed intent on escalating the violence. Some mob members swept the building with bats and zip ties, calling out for the “traitors” Vice President Mike Pence and House Leader Nancy Peolsi. Outside others erected a gallows near the Capitol Reflecting Pool.   

How are we to make sense of the extreme behavior we witnessed on January 6th?

Social scientists, particularly those who study collective behavior and social movements, have a lot of insight into why individuals might participate in extremist movements and engage in collective behavior. In this post, I will discuss frustration as one potential explanatory variable for the violence we witnessed.

Frustration is a cognitive and emotional state that can make extreme ideas more attractive. Social scientists have identified at least three sources of frustration that help explain participation in extremist movements and violence. All three seem to be relevant today.

Absolute Deprivation

Social scientists writing after the Great Depression argued that frustration was a result of absolute deprivation, such as a sharp economic decline that affects quality of life. Because individuals cannot always act collectively against the source of frustration (such as the abstract factors leading to economic decline and the inability of the individual to purchase necessities), it is redirected toward safe and available objects. For example, John Dollard, Neal Miller, Leonard Doob, O.H. Mowrer and Robert Sears (1939) found a correlation between economics, the increased level of frustration among poor Southern whites and the number of lynchings. They found that the more Southern whites suffered economically during the Great Depression, the more frustrated they became. Since they could not take out this frustration on the economy, they took it out on African Americans. Whites were not punished for their crimes, which signaled to them that this was a ‘safe’ way to express their frustration. Consequently, the incidence of lynchings in the South skyrocketed during this period.

It is easy to imagine frustration as a potential source of violence in 2021 as many Americans struggle financially during the pandemic. According to the Congressional Research Service, “the unemployment rate peaked at an unprecedented level, not seen since data collection started in 1948, in April 2020 at 14.8% before declining to a still elevated level in December (6.7%).” Not to mention, a much more recent study conducted by my colleagues Neal Caren, Sarah Gaby and Catherine Herrold (2017) finds that there is a relationship between economic decline and large-scale, anti-government demonstrations and riots.

Relative Deprivation

More recently, social scientists writing in the 1960s and 1970s argued that frustration also arises from relative deprivation. Relative deprivation refers to the sense of deprivation and frustration that arises among populations that seem to be doing relatively well economically and socially. The sense of deprivation is the result of a gap between what a group has and what they want. When this gap becomes intolerable or is seen as unjust, individuals are more inclined to participate in collective – and sometimes violent – action. This sense of deprivation can also emerge when the prestige or status of a position is broadly challenged. Individuals who benefit from the privileges associated with a challenged status are more likely to be attracted to extremist movements and leaders that offer demonological interpretations of and quick solutions to the “evil forces” disrupting daily life.

Over the last several years, there has certainly been challenges to white privilege generally and white masculinity specifically. Campaigns associated with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and #MeToo movement directly challenge the unseen, and often unconscious, advantages afforded to white people and white men. And, there is plenty of evidence that some white Americans are reluctant to accept these challenges. According to the FBI’s annual Hate Crime Statistics report, released in November 2020, the number of reported hate crimes across America rose by 3% in 2019 – to 7,314, the highest number recorded since 2008. Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported in 2017 that dozens of groups mobilizing around white supremacy emerged after – and in direct response to – Donald Trump’s election.

Weakened Social Ties

Social scientists have long pointed to social isolation as a source of frustration and a potential cause of participation in collective behavior. In 2000, social scientist Robert Putnam focused attention on community more generally and famously argued that the ties that bind us together have significantly diminished. The consequences, he argued, were potentially severe because communal ties involve trust – and mutual trust makes everything from business transactions to democratic processes easier to conduct. Trust reminds us that we are connected to one another and have shared interests.

Arguably, there are a number of related factors that have helped erode the ties that bind us as Americans over the last 20 years. Social media, and their ability to track individuals into insular, ideological communities certainly have helped isolate Americans from one another and, particularly, from those with whom they may not agree. These ideological bubbles also have fueled political polarization across the political spectrum. More relevant to the recent violence, social media made spreading disinformation about the 2020 presidential election results, and made sharing information about potentially violent actions on January 6th, easy to do.

In many ways, the violence that occurred at the Capitol was shocking and unprecedented. But, like most social phenomena, the violence can be understood through social science research. As our leaders look to move the country forward, I hope they will talk and listen to social scientists.

Deana Rohlinger | Sociology

Dr. Deana A. Rohlinger is a professor of Sociology and the co-director of research for the Institute of Politics. Her current research explores political polarization and extremism. Learn more about her work at http://www.deanarohlinger.com.

The feature image was taken by TapTheForwardAssist and is available on WikiCommons.

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