Violence Definition Research Paper

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Though violence has been characterized as the use of force by and against one or more social subjects with the intention to inflict bodily harm, the study of violent processes over the past three decades has broadened the concept by underscoring its varying forms, which emerge from the struggle for power between modern states, elites and subalterns, and recently formed communities. Interstate war, discourse and the coercive apparatuses of the state, epis-temic violence, ethnic conflict, collective recovery, and terrorism represent intellectual signposts in the scholarship on violence, although they emerge from different trajectories of inquiry that do not belong to a single genealogical tradition or discipline.

War, The State, and Coercion

Violence is identified as an effect of competitive war-making in early modern Europe, which produced a bureaucratic apparatus that could secure the material and human resources required for managing warfare. Such bureaucratic apparatuses would form the institutional skeleton of modern national states from the seventeenth century onward (Tilly 1990). The link between war, the state, and violence is reflected in Max Weber’s remark that a striking feature of the modern state is, ideally, its “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” and, therefore, its ability to sanction the use of force (Gerth and Mills 1946, p. 78). However, this is not to say that modern states only seek to stem forms of unsanctioned violence, especially those that appear to threaten its authority. Michel Foucault’s inquiries (1963, 1966, 1975) reveal that modern welfare states also strive to redefine, regulate, and channel the use of force in order to achieve social order. This insight marked a watershed in the study of violence and shifted the focus of research on the phenomenon from interstate war to the subtle manners in which coercion and the “measured” use of force are deployed by state agencies in order to shape the social identities of individuals.

Foucault’s studies of institutions of criminal punishment and rehabilitation, schools and hospitals, and the spaces of economic production underscore the discourses that organize these institutions, in order to socially produce docile subjects whose utility would, ostensibly, advance societal welfare and maintain order. Competing legal, penal, medical, and academic disciplines converge to define, discursively, what forms of violence are criminal, why they are socially immoral or harmful, and how their perpetrators should be punished or rehabilitated. Far from remaining ideological platitudes that are applicable only to those labeled as “criminals” or “insane,” these social meanings of deviance are authoritative because they are articulated as categories of objective knowledge, and they become a metric by which to measure—and curb— our own deviant and violent tendencies. Foucault not only demonstrates how social control is achieved from above, he also reveals the political utility of microdimensions of violence, which enable the reproduction of a predictable social order by conditioning individuals to coerce themselves through conformity to institutionally sanctioned categories of “normal behavior.”

Ironically, the very institutional apparatuses and discourses that seek to discipline subjects can also be the source from which to innovate new strategies for resisting violent and coercive regimes. Studies of collective violence associated with popular revolution in western Europe, for example, reveal that tactics employed by protesters borrowed heavily from the police forces’ own methods of employing violence to suppress collective protest. Similarly, these investigations also point to the manner in which episodes of collective violence directed against monarchical power were morally legitimated by perpetrators through the appropriation and redeployment of political concepts like popular sovereignty. Anthropologists, historians, and sociologists attentive to the discursive dimensions of collective movements enrich the meaning of the concept of violence by tracing the manner in which knowledge, as a means of exercising social power, can animate and constrain collective forms of resistance that employ the use of force.

Epistemic Violence

Inquiries into the creation of social order under European colonization identify epistemic forms of violence that radically essentialized social identities and dismantled previously existing social solidarities. This body of literature marks a departure from a previous form of anthropological study that accepted the “traditional culture” of non-Western societies as an essentially differentiating feature and one that necessitated methods of exhaustive description as a form of analysis. Anthropologists and historians interrogating the cultural objects of “tradition” demonstrate that in the name of crafting effective procedures of political rule, colonial administrators set about to objectify “native traditions.” Such a project involved the production of systematized bodies of objectified knowledge that documented the “cultures and traditions” of colonial subjects; rather than learning about their dynamism, the European project reduced their complexity and then enabled their ossification (Cohn, 1987, 1996; Dirks, 1987, 2001; Chatterjee, 1986, 1993). Working with Orientalist assumptions about “the traditional East,” these bodies of knowledge taxonomically classified categories and practices of social identity in new and singular relationships with Western notions of religion, ethnicity, or clan. Importantly, the concept of violence in this domain of research is considered a historical process that involved supplanting the previously existing “fuzzy” character of social identity, which was shaped by numerous sources of competitive influence, with rigid conceptions of identity (Kaviraj 1992, p. 20).

Having epistemologically fixed such “traditions” as the primary source of native identity, colonial rulers applied these taxonomies to form key state undertakings spanning law and policing, education, urban planning, the fine arts, and census-taking operations. State projects aimed to stabilize the colonial state’s task of maintaining social order, creating the conditions for profitable and taxable economic production, while representing—ostensibly—only a latent imposition on the social and cultural practices of colonial subjects. In fact, these brutal processes of colonial rule would engender more violent social transformations and political conflicts.

Communal and Ethnic Conflict

Institutionalizing such rigid conceptions of identity in the state’s operations created the conditions for political forms of violence by sharpening—and rendering incommensurable—the perceived cultural differences between novel “traditional” communities that consequently began to form. This was especially palpable in the context of emerging native leaders who were able to cultivate new supportive constituencies, in terms of their imagined traditional commonalities, and call for the state to arbitrate when conflicts with rival communities arose. As historians of colonial Asia and Africa demonstrate, despite the state’s quest to maintain social order, communal and “tribal” conflict became a bloody and conspicuously recurring phenomena in this era.

The emergence of competing traditional communities became a mobilizational resource—and source of tension—when native elites began to organize collective resistance to colonialism. Such communities were rallied behind the call for national sovereignty through movements of cultural nationalism. For native elites, political independence was a corresponding entitlement of these traditional communities who now aspired to the status of nationhood. Of course, such cultural forms of nationalism were riddled with tensions, often manifesting in violent internal conflict. Though statehood was eventually achieved for most colonies, the process was often characterized by territorial partition, bitter campaigns of violence, and the unprecedented displacement of people (as in the case of India and Pakistan). In other instances, the hollowness of constitutional arrangements based on “multiculturalism” was exposed when domestic politics spiraled into intense ethnic violence or agonistic competition over political and economic resources. Such violence emerges historically out of—and through—the commission of epistemic forms of violence.

Collective Injury and Terrorism

The study of violence associated with contemporary episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide has revealed much about the dynamics of collective recovery. Scholars in this subfield have shown how testimonies relating to experiences with violence are often shaped by an implicit requirement that frayed ethnic or national solidarities be restored. Testimonials are burdened with the tasks of reestablishing familial-communal honor, identifying perpetrators, and securing state resources for communal rehabilitation. Strikingly, the analysis of collective memory and recovery points to the difficulty of articulating pain as an experience and how the depth of it is necessarily reduced when it is articulated as a collective and social form of suffering (Das 1997).

The theme of collective injury is also salient to discussions of more recent forms of violence associated with terrorist groups, particularly those movements that seem to be morally organized by a religious ethos. Scholars have shown that the moral justifications employed by such movements draw upon earlier forms of cultural nationalism that challenged foreign occupation and imperialism, as well as “heretical” regimes and moral “waywardness.” Many current-day militant movements draw their moral authority from religious reform movements from the colonial era that placed an emphasis on the correct observance of religious rituals. The Taliban, for example, trace their genealogy to the Deoband movement in late-colonial-era India, which initiated and institutionalized the madrassa-based study of Islamic law and the upholding of Muslim ritual practices (dress, morality, and regular prayer) as a means to achieve a virtuous way of life.

Tellingly, the focus of such religious reform movements was transformed during the Cold War period when “insurgents” were recruited, trained, and armed by alliances of Western states and their clients to fight “communism.” Militant and globally dispersed movements that turn noncombatants into targets of political violence are the products of proxy wars that were waged between the superpowers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In summary, the study of culture and ideology has transformed the meanings of violence by shifting away from an emphasis on interstate war and physical harm to an exploration of the more insidious ways in which highly regulated forms of violence and coercion—presented as socially productive methods of reform and development—are sanctioned by the state in order to govern the actions of individuals. Examinations of the formation of discourses, as loci in which social power is exercised through claims to disciplinary knowledge and truth, reveal how epistemic forms of violence reduce the complexity of social identity and, in the colonial sphere, artificially classify non-Western societies as premodern. Ironically, the history of nationalist and political movements from the end of European colonial rule through the Cold War and afterward is marked by forms of communal and ethnic conflict that reinforce the social and political salience of tradition. Terrorism—and the predominantly Orientalist public debate surrounding it—is a contemporary example of the ways in which religion and politics can come to be mutually dependent and, moreover, of how many of the most dynamic cultural and logistical strategies that organize violence rest outside the domain of the state.


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