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When Is Violence Acceptable?

New research argues the answer depends in part on the color of your collar.

Do you support the use of violence as a way to solve problems? Your knee-jerk answer to that question may be an indignant "No," but, in fact, almost everyone feels physical coercion is a necessary tool to solve some problems under certain circumstances.

But what problems, and which circumstances? The answer to that question depends in large part on your education.

new study reports highly educated people tend to condemn domestic violence, but support the state-sponsored variety, including aggressive policing and war. The less-educated tend to hold the exact opposite view.

"American education socializes people to establishment culture, identity, and interests," writes Indiana University sociologist Landon Schnabel. "[These] differentiate between unacceptable interpersonal violence and ostensibly acceptable state-sanctioned violence."

In the journal PS: Political Science and Politics, Schnabel analyzes data from large, nationally representative surveys of Americans' values and beliefs: the World Values Survey (from which he used only the responses of American residents) and the General Social Survey. Data for both was collected between 2010 and 2014.

In the World Values Survey, attitudes toward interpersonal violence were measured by asking participants whether a man beating his wife, parents beating their children, or "violence against other people" was ever justifiable. Participants responded to each using a 10-point scale, from "never justifiable" to "always justifiable." State-sanctioned violence was measured by their response to the assertion "Under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice."

In the General Social Survey, Schnabel focused on answers to two questions: Whether they felt "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking," and "Are there any situations in which you would approve of a policeman striking an adult male citizen?" He then compared answers with the highest educational degree earned by each participant.

Results from the first survey revealed that "Americans with more education are less likely to think intimate-partner violence, violence against children, and violence against other people can be justifiable," Schnabel reports. "However, education is positively associated with the belief that war is sometimes necessary."

The same pattern was found in the second survey. "Americans with more education were less likely to say that parents hitting children is justifiable, but more likely to say that police hitting citizens is justifiable," he writes.

In both surveys, "women tended to be against both interpersonal and state-sanctioned violence," he adds. "Therefore, it tended to be highly educated white men who espoused the establishment value of state-sanctioned violence."

"We might assume that American support for police brutality is most pronounced among certain uneducated groups," Schnabel adds. "However, in fact, belief in the justifiability of police violence extends to, and appears to be especially strong among, those with higher levels of education."

"It appears to be those higher-class people most insulated from the risk of experiencing police violence—or having to go to war themselves—who were most likely to say that state-sanctioned violence might be necessary."

So conservatives fearful their college kids are getting indoctrinated by liberal values can relax. "Although social scientists typically think of education as challenging authority and debunking inequality-legitimizing myths such as racism and sexism," Schnabel concludes, "it can also legitimize stratification and some forms of authority."

Schnabel found one exception to this trend: "Whereas more education appears to consistently socialize people into establishment values up through a bachelor's degree, graduate education tends to function somewhat differently," he writes. "Some types of graduate education may promote anti-establishment values."

So if you're looking for recruits for your anti-war or anti-police-brutality crusade, an annual gathering of Ph.D.s might be a good place to start.