What is Violence?

“Violence is a human universal,” (Abbink, 2000, xi) because we are yet to come across a society where violence is entirely non-existent. Despite violence’s pervasiveness, it remains one of the most difficult phenomenon to explain – what is violence and what it does are central and challenging, but necessary questions to ask. Violence is hard to define as what is taken to be ‘violence’ shifts due to historical and cultural factors. However, this approach needs to be very careful, so as not to use ‘culture’ as being explanatory of, or justifying violence. This fluidity of violence means that it is a particularly potent element of society, because if we cannot pin it down and recognise what violence is in essence, how can we avoid it or limit the impact that violence has on communities or individuals. Despite the difficulty in providing one singular workable definition for violence, this does not mean that we cannot or do not attempt to understand anything about violence. We can use the various typologies of violence; structural, everyday, symbolic, normative, and political as theoretical tools to examine what role violence plays. In addition we can use the dichotomy of the private and the public sphere to explain why or why not action against violence is or is not taken. Gender cuts through these classifications and this essay will unpack the typologies of violence, paying particular focus on structural and everyday violence to show how they relate to and impact on violence against women, because arguably they play a very significant role in the violence displayed to women and result in the omnipresence of violence that results in the trivialisation of violence against women.

Violence presents us with a paradox. Anthropologists such as Abbink claim that violence is a human universal in that violence, in varying forms, exists in all of the human societies that we know of. It is perplexing then, that the vast majority of what the media reports presents violence as something “exceptional, external, and threatening us from without” (Ray, 2011, p3), this essentially means violence is considered separate from our societies. So the paradox is that violence is not from “without”, or not according to structural violence; rather “it is embedded in the social fabric” (ibid). Aijmers argues that “violence has several natures and whatever ontological grounding we may opt for in the human sciences, we will find violence as an important ingredient of society” (Aijmer, 2000, p1), and understanding one of these natures, in this case, ‘structural violence’ helps us to get a handle on violence, and when we have this knowledge we can see how this form of violence impacts upon men and women.

Farmer identifies that structural violence is invoked in work that seeks to “understand modern life” (Farmer, 2004, p307) indicating how crucial awareness of structural violence is as it underpins the modern world. Although recognising its importance, there is still dispute on the exact definition – it causes “epistemological jitters” (ibid) and Farmer suggests that we are often reluctant to present a clear-cut definition of structural violence and presumably this is due to the initial insidious nature of violence. However, Farmer equates his definition of structural violence with Galtung’s definition and this essay will also be taking cues from Galtung in regards to a workable characterisation of structural violence. (Galtung, 1969)

Very basically, structural violence is violence caused by social structures that prevent individuals meeting their basic needs. For Galtung this involves classism, racism, sexism, and other forms oppression. Structural violence does not show a physical face, but is the intentional avoidance of providing fundamental human needs; in this sense we can see why it gets so closely linked to social injustices, for example if the government was wilfully not working for economic equality this is structural violence. Structural violence and direct physical violence are said to be very closely related, it is possible to argue that physical violence is the manifestation of the former, or at least structural violence allows physical violence to flourish. To illustrate, physical violence can be the product of economic inequality in the sense that an individual may attack someone and take their money – and all of these events stem from structural violence.

Therefore we can very basically assert structural violence is violence caused by the systems that we have in place. As Shrader identifies the structural level involves, macro-level political, economic, and social policies which also involve opinions, religious or cultural “that permeate society” (Moser and Shrader, 1999, p7) and govern the way individuals and groups live their lives. Farmer argues that it is violence “exerted systematically”, and “indirectly” by those people who are a part of a social order (Farmer, 2004, p307), the individuals perpetuate the structures by acting within them and accepting them.

Galtung proposes that a way to understand violence is by looking at our definition of peace. In doing this we see that “peace” is an absence of violence (Galtung, 1969, p167). Although, I do not consider that this is a sufficient enough definition of what peace is. Take for example domestic violence; it may be the case that at one given moment there is no physical attack, but the fact that there was one in the past means there can never be real peace, because the fear that there could be another is there. In this sense I agree with Stanko’s claim that “women are continually on guard to the possibility of men’s violence” (Stanko, 1985, p1), where as men do not seem to have to negotiate with this fear, at least within their own home, on a daily basis. That being said, I think Galtung would accept that it is not appropriate to consider a home that has been the site of domestic violence as peaceful, as arguably domestic violence is one of the ramifications of structural violence in the first place, an idea that will be explored later.

Galtung uses the notions of actuality and potentiality to explain what he takes to be the definition of violence. What is meant by ‘actuality’ is the empirical circumstances that an individual finds themselves in and ‘potentiality’ is what those circumstances could be if the government acted in a certain way (Galtung, 1969, p168). In doing so, one recognises that his definition of violence is as board as his definition of peace, we cannot limit violence to “somatic incapacitation” (ibid) what is violence goes beyond observed bodily harm and this is crucial to what is meant by structural violence. Galtung’s definition is “violence is that which increases the distance between the actual and the potential” and the result of this is that: “when the potential is higher than the actual this is by definition avoidable and when it is avoidable, then violence is present” (ibid). To illustrate if I were to die of Small Pox today, an avoidable scenario, this is structural violence, however if had Small Pox before 1798, and died as a result, this is not a product of structural violence, because Edward Jenner had not discovered the vaccine yet. One worry that could perhaps come about from this is a relativist notion of violence, because one and the same act could be violent or not depending on where the act took place – we are left to question if there are any moral absolutes when it comes to violence. It seems that the value of a human life goes up or down depending on materialist circumstances. In response, I would propose that it does not seem that Galtung is presenting a normative moral theory of how to respond to cases of structural violence, rather he is explaining what a violent act is, in order to prompt a resurgence in the rejection of these violent structures.

Galtung’s ideas about structural violence relate to question of typologies and their impact upon women. Galtung reveals how structural violence requires that the levels of actuality and potentiality can be monopolised by the state or a large group; this can mean there is a manipulation of the levels of potentially and actuality. (ibid p167). For example a possible consequence could be that you live a life where you have less opportunities because of your gender, and that this is acceptable, because the institutions can make it appear that everyone is living according to their potential. This feeds back into Farmer’s article, because he wanted to demonstrate how structural violence operates in order to put a stop to ‘victim-blaming’ theories of why people are in the positions they are in. This is a particularly interesting notion, and also opens up a moral debate; there is no doubt an element of hypocrisy within a society that operates via violent structures. As Farmer identifies we have a “moral economy” (Farmer, 2004, p307) in the sense that blame or praise is reliably attributed to individuals and their own actions, but rather praise or blame should be given to the frame work that orders these individuals – it is this thought which is at the root of the arguments that explain how structural violence allows us to label society as being plagued by “sinful” structures, yet grants us the ability to say that these same structures are “ostensibly ‘nobody’s fault’” (Farmer, 2004, p307). This contradiction is made possible, on Farmer’s account, due to our historical memory, or rather lack of it. We seemingly accept these structures as inevitable because we have forgotten – or more accurately erased the memory – that we put them there in the first place. This is also a key idea when thinking about everyday violence, are we to blame the individual actor, or is it more astute to blame the structures in place.

Schepers-Hughes pronounces structural violence is “invisible because it is part of the routine grounds of everyday life” (Schepers-Hughes, 2004, p4). This makes it a particularly potent vehicle for violence as it renders most acts of violence “not deviant” (ibid) the acts blend in to society and operate within “conventional social, economic, and political norms” (ibid). This exemplifies a common understanding of hierarchies of violence – a man hitting his wife or partner is so common that it is hardly violence at all. This line of thought generates discussion of symbolic violence. Associated with Bourdieu, (Bourdieu, 2004) symbolic violence involves the victims of violence accepting a hierarchy that puts women in a subordinated position, and Bourdieu says that this is clearly seen with gendered oppression. On Bourdieu’s understanding, there is an acceptance that men are above women and this acceptance is so firmly entrenched that we have a “discourse shared by the dominated and the dominant” (Schepers-Hughes, 2004, pp.22-23). This accepted hierarchy is reinforced by Žižek and what he refers to as systemic violence it operates via “subtle forms of coercion that sustain relations of domination and exploitation” (Žižek, 2008, p8) the consequence of this is that if a man is abusive to his partner, he has not done ‘bad’, in terms of a moral evil, because domestic violence is a part of the structure of society, it is legitimised by the “invisible background of this systematic violence” (ibid).

One of the expressions of structural violence is everyday violence; it is the physical manifestation of the larger structures that we have in place and demonstrates clearly how these typographies relate to and impact upon violence against women. Stewart supports the claim that structural violence results in everyday violence when she argues that women’s oppression is the “direct outcome” of the political and economic circumstances which are bolstered “by a cultural ideology of female inferiority and […] parallel male superiority” (Stewart, 2000, pp2-4), this set up is always there in any instance of violence against women, even if it is not immediately apparent, if you take the time to “wade through” (ibid) the different types of justification offered for that violence, eventually you will recognise that the violence is allowed due to structures. An extreme example of this is connected to Schepers-Hughes use of the term everyday violence; she deploys it to signpost the indifference to outrageous suffering, where by horrific events are normalised and accepted as inevitable. We can see this in her report on child mortality in Brazil as she argues there is a “bureaucratic indifference toward child mortality” (Schepers-Hughes, 2004, p277) it is accepted as “‘nothing’ […] ‘just another little angle gone to heaven’” (Schepers-Hughes, 2004, p275). I take this to be the severe end of what is meant by everyday violence.

This is also an example of the problems that arise with ranking violence, placing this notion of everyday violence above what someone may consider more ‘mundane’ levels of ‘everyday’ violence because if we take the indifference of child mortality to be ‘everyday’ violence, what does that make the routine violence that women are exposed to. These difficulties arise because a hierarchy of violence requires treating some acts of violence as more significant than other forms of violence. Often this means that the open, extensive, and cases of extraordinary violence, are treated as more pressing over the routine everyday forms. As a result of this, it is often the case that the violence that what women suffer in the private sphere is not recognized. However, works that look at what is meant by everyday violence, attempt to change this view. Attempts to redress this hierarchy of violence, and gaining an understanding everyday violence’s effect women, can be achieved by accepting Stanko’s definition that everyday violence is violence which is done to us by our familiars (Stanko, 1995). This violence is an inescapable consequence of structural violence. As Schepers-Hughes argues, “Structural violence – the violence of poverty, hunger, social exclusion and humiliation – inevitably translates into intimate and domestic violence” (Schepers-Hughes, 2004, p1), and following on from Stanko’s notion of everyday violence as something done to us by who we know, we can see how structural violence begets everyday violence.

What factors is Schepers-Hughes basing her claim that structural violence generates domestic violence? Perhaps we can find the answer in the reasons presented for why women stay in their relationships. Mooney’s survey of women shows that 27% women who are in an abusive relationship, consider economic dependence as a reason to stay (Mooney, 2000, p178). The unequal economic situation between men and women is clearly an example of structural violence, as financial inequality quite noticeably prevents individuals from fulfilling their potential. The 27% shows how financial inequality allows for domestic violence to continue. Thus this is a clear demonstration of how structural leads to everyday violence that results in violence against women in a very specific way. Stanko adds support to this by bringing in a discussion of the public and private spheres; she asks is there an assumption that private violence is normal, and it is only public violence that is the real threat. Again this reflects the idea of a hierarchy of violence, and also the fact that domestic violence occurs within ‘private’ further relegates the violence against women to something much less urgent than violence that harms the wider society.

In support of this idea Stanko highlights that there is awareness of the “commonness of serious violence within intimate and friendship relationships” (Stanko, 1995, p67) and yet very few of these incidents come to the attention of the police and insinuates that this is due to the idea that there is something sacrosanct about the private sphere. Why is this the case, why is the private sphere the site of a significant amount of violence: to answer this question, perhaps we can draw upon Girard’s view that in order to survive in the public sphere people have to find a way to constrain their urges to be violent (Girard, 1977), perhaps then the prevalence of violence with in the private sphere can in part be attributed to the negation of this, in the home, the outside world is not there to constrain their actions. Cooney argues a point similar to this, identifying a trend towards “privatisation of violence” which is essentially the phenomena that whilst there has been a decline of public violence over the past 1,000 years, largely due to restraint around public aggression, at the same time there was an increase in intimate-familial violence: “modern societies has brought with it an increase in the proportion of violent conflict between intimates”(Cooney, 2003, p1386). Thus violence against women in terms of domestic abuse is trivialised as something within the home that does not need to be addressed publicly because it is not public. The fact that there is even a special language attached to issues of domestic violence – use of the term “domestic” even, suggests that it is a separate event, it no longer belongs to our standard understanding of violence. Therefore it is something that needs to be categorised in a certain way, not just treated as violence. Perhaps we can trace this back historically, to when men had the legal rights to restrain their wives, it is a personal right which is made normal by the constant subordination of women by men in the structures that govern our lives.

As Stewart reasons, “there is nothing extraordinary about the emotional and physical assaults on women” rather they are “ordinary”, “mundane” and “everyday” events (Stewart, 2002, p1). This explicates how structural violence generates the everyday violence that results in women being constantly exposed to both physical and mental attacks. These attacks occur to such an extent that it is no longer an anomaly, and even being exposed to “physical and/or sexual terrorism from men” (Stanko, 1985, p9) is part of what it is to be a woman. This is an illustration again of how hierarchies of violence reduce the violence that women suffer to a trivial thing, because a consequence of everyday violence in women’s lives necessitates basing their lives “around strategies to avoid men’s threatening, intimidating, coercive or violent behaviour” (Stanko, 1985, p2). This hugely impacts how violence towards women is viewed, because if a woman fails to find the right strategy then they can be blamed for men’s behaviour. If we equate violence to “biological predisposition” and just “boys being boys” (Stanko, 1985, p9) then this also trivialises the violence they deal with, because women are taught this, and so should know to avoid it. The consequence is that when a woman is a victim, it is because they were being provocative (ibid p10), or should have known better because violence is ‘avoidable’ if you act in a certain way. For example by not hitchhiking or walking back home alone at night, so if women do not follow these strategies, they are prone to be blamed for their encounters with violence (Stanko, 1995, pp109-110). I consider this to be a trivialisation of the violence that women are exposed to, as it seems to render violence as an unfortunate but ultimately avoidable event, such as being burgled if you leave your front door open, rather than recognising it as the example of the everyday violence that it is.

A real world example of issues that are affected by a hierarchy of violence is domestic violence. This type of violence is seen as lower down on the scale because it occurs in private and is supported by the economic frameworks of society. This is supported by statistics that reveal that the most typical reaction from women in regards to men’s violence is silence, (Stanko, 1985, pp4-5) and also how the police respond to reports of domestic violence: “they [the police] treated it like a joke” (Mooney, 2000, p177). It is plain to see that if the victims think that the police treat their situation as joke that this invokes notions of triviality. It also however relates to another paradox of violence, for of all the calls that the police get Ray informs us that one in 20 of them concern domestic violence – so something that the police deal with very regularly is seen as something trivial, rather than problem that it really is. Potentially this is because domestic violence is not in the public sphere, and does not get newspaper headlines. As Stanko remarks, it is our “fear of strangers [that] persists (Stanko, 1995, p1) due to the fact that it has a domination of the media coverage, where as we should be recognizing that “[…] the family is one of the most violent of social institutions” (Scheper-Huges, 2004, p3). This idea that domestic violence is low down in the hierarchy of violence is supported by Ray’s claim that the focus that the criminal justice system is on “street crime and public violence” (Ray, 2011, p104) and this results in it overshadowing private violence.

Further to this, Ray claims that domestic violence is viewed only as serious the injuries (ibid p105). This goes back to the limits of identifying violence with the physical effects. With domestic violence we can really see the limits of violence as physical force alone. That being said, domestic violence is now more accepted as a serious problem and efforts are made to ensure that it is not equated to just physical abuse, evidence of this is the television adverts from the Home Office, which use actors from Hollyoaks to emphasise that not all abuse is physical (Ukhomeoffice, 2013). In further support of this, attempts to push domestic violence up the hierarchy can be seen via legislation against it, these laws “represent a significant shift in public policy” (Ray, 2011, p107)

That being said there is still more attention on the physical harm, in the sense that domestic violence is only as serious as the injuries. For this reason I consider it a fair assumption that the hierarchy of violence is largely ranked by physical force and the somatic harm caused. As a result any violence that women are exposed to that does not fit this paradigm can be seen to be trivial. We can also go beyond domestic violence to provide examples of this, for example, ‘rape culture’, which is essentially an environment that allows for discussion of rape as if it were a joke or at least not a serious issue. This can be viewed in conjunction with verbal abuse that women deal with from men on the street – these cases although not physical violence surely do come under the definitions of violence explored in this essay; but because they do not so obviously fit within a vulgar definition of violence they are very low down in the hierarchy of violence and thus are seen as trivial.

“Violence is in the eye of the beholder” (Schepers-Hughes, 2004, p2), also presents theoretical problems for the notion of the hierarchy of violence and the trivialisation of violence towards women. Schepers-Hughes uses the phrase to show how those who say if an act is legitimate or illegitimate always decide what is violence. We can see this dichotomy in action in cases like 9/11, for many it was illegitimate, and so this is why it was violence. We can also use this relativism in regards to a hierarchy of violence: a perpetrator may think that hitting their partner is legitimate, and so it is not an act of violence. Resulting in leaving the victim with nowhere to go, because what they experienced as violence is not violence by society’s standards. Which is why it is imperative that social policies and adverts are present in order to show how domestic violence, and for that matter, any violence is not seen legitimate.

Although I have made the case that domestic violence is a key way in which the typologies of structural and everyday violence impact upon violence against women, there is the thought that there are other causes. Assuming that the patriarchal structures is the lone cause for domestic violence can result in missing out some of the other explanations. (Fagan, 1995, p38), Dutton and Corvo, argue that “violence is not committed because of ‘sex role beliefs’” (Dutton and Corvo, 2006, p458), rather violence is the product of complex causal processes. They are claiming that if children were exposed to violence they are more likely to become violent adults, and it is this experience that plays a significant role in the causes of domestic violence. It may be the case that this increases the chances of violence – but this argument seems to have many flaws, for their argument to really work, then all abused children would have to go on to be abusers, but this is empirically not the case. Secondly, the argument results in a regression, where is the final explanation of violence? Is it not better to acknowledge that the ‘sex role beliefs’ are part of structural violence and this is the genesis of domestic violence?

By way of a conclusion, we can ask if Abbink is correct, are human societies inherently violent, could we create a society devoid of violence. This essay has sought to demonstrate the link between structural and everyday violence and how the physical violence is produced, and facilitated by the structures we have in place. My question, then is, if we were to remove our structures would we remove not only violence against women but also violence all together? The counter evidence is pretty overwhelming, perhaps Abbink is correct. However I am reluctant to accept this conclusion and hold that we have a moral obligation and ability to reverse the effects of structural violence and everyday violence. This is perhaps the line of thought that Schepers-Hughes would argue, for she acknowledges “violence is present (as a capability) in each of us, as is its opposite – the rejection of violence” (Schepers-Hughes, 2004, p2), otherwise we are left with an unappealing thought as a result: if it is our human nature to be violent, is it even possible to curtail the harm caused by structural violence?


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Aijmer, G., 2000, Introduction, in Aijmer, G., and Abbink, J., (eds), 2000, Meanings of Violence: A Cross Cultural Perspective, Oxford: Berg pp.1-23

Bourdieu, P., 2004 ‘Gender and Symbolic Violence’ in: Bourgois P. and Scheper-Hughes N. (Eds.) Violence in war and peace, an anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing pp.339-343

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Dutton, D. G., and Corvo, K., 2006, Transforming a flawed policy: a call to revive psychology and science in domestic violence research and practice, Aggression and Violent Behaviour: 11 pp.457–483

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Mooney, J., 2000, Gender, Violence and the social order, London: Macmillan Press Ltd.

Ray, L., 2011, Violence and Society, London: SAGE Publications Ltd

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Schepers-Hughes, N., 2004, Two feet Under and a Cardboard Coffin: The Social Production of indifference to Child Death in: Bourgois, P., and Schepers-Hughes, N. (Eds). Violence in War and Peace, an anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 275-280

Stanko, E. A., 1985, Intimate Intrusions, Women’s experience of male violence, London: Unwin Hyman

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Ukhomeoffice. 4th December 2013.Hollyoaks actors star in new This is Abuse television

advert. [Online]. [Accessed 10th January 2014]. Available from:


Žižek, S., 2008, Violence, six sideways reflections, London: Profile Books

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