How Useful Is the Concept of Structural Violence in Analyzing and Understanding International Conflict Assessment

  • Length: 12 pages
  • Sources: 15
  • Subject: Sociology
  • Type: Assessment
  • Paper: #49897815

Excerpt from Assessment :

Structural Violence Framework in International Conflict

Structural Violence

A Structural Violence Framework for Understanding & Analyzing International Conflict

Introduction to Structural Violence

Structural violence is differentiated from direct violence both in terms of etiology and nature. Direct violence is a result of events or the actions of individuals that kill or harm people. Structural violence, on the other hand, is a phenomenon made manifest through social inequalities (Christie, 1997). The organizational structures of political and economic systems cause and sustain the sort of hierarchical relations that enable dramatic differences between and across sectors of societies. Within these hierarchies, the people at the top have privilege, wealth, and power, while those at the bottom of the hierarchy are dominated, oppressed, and exploited (Christie, 1997). People are harmed and killed as a result of structural violence but, unlike direct violence, it occurs more slowly. The harm or death of oppressed people may come about because "some people are deprived of food, shelter, healthcare, and other resources" (Christie, 1997). Because structural violence is embedded in a society's way of being, over the long-term, groups of people may not be able to meet their basic needs to the degree that normal development and growth is impacted.

In order for structural violence to become established in a society or geographic region, or under the particular conditions of war, people must necessarily rationalize and tolerate structural violence. One aspect of the tolerance for structural violence is militarization. While military action is idealistically utilized to protect those with the fewest physical or material resources -- children, women, and indigenous populations -- militarization often establishes conditions that result in the most harm coming to these vulnerable people (Christie, 1997).

Philosophical Grounding of Structured Violence Theory

This paper will argue that a structural framework substantively contributes to an analysis and understanding of international conflict. That the topic of structural violence has bearing on international conflict, per se, is crystallized in the work of Rittenberger (1973). Rittenberger argues that the construct of violence as held by international organizations, such as the United Nations, does not include the notion of structural violence, but rather is focused on direct violence. The problem, according to Rittenberger, is that international organization is "an adaptive outgrowth of the modern state system" (1973), characterized by the same skewed perceptions and the careful lens of the parent agent. It is not enough to examine violence with the macro context of the nation or the micro context of the culture, if the macro and micro contexts are viewed through the filters of the modern nation states. It would seem that Einstein's caution is born out, that "We can't solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them" (Brainy Quote, 2011). A structural framework approach assumes -- and is informed by -- systems thinking in which violence is examined within the macro and micro contexts in which it occurs -- but that approach alone is insufficient. What makes a structural framework different, and what gives it capacity, is the thorough consideration of cultural influences and structural configurations that condition conflict. In this manner, as this paper will argue, a structural framework promotes separation from the confining paradigms of various disciplines and institutions, and moves it into the realm of critical theory.

Theories are grounded in their disciplines. The same holds true for theories supporting a structural violence framework which is intended to foster an understanding of international conflict. The structural violence framework is oriented toward critical theory, with "the goal of identifying and overcoming all the circumstances that limit human freedom" (Bohman, 2010) and that lead to violent conflict. Just as in classic critical theory, structural violence theories "could be furthered only through interdisciplinary research that includes psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as institutional forms of domination" (Bohman, 2010). When considering theories of structural violence and conflict, and also the corollary theories of peace research, it is important to examine how the theoretical frameworks address both ontology and epistemology.

Patomaki argues that the ultimate task of these theories is the "transformation from politics to violence and vice versa" (2001, p. 1). In other words, if heterodoxical, or dissident, discourse is to occur, then theories must address the body of research and the praxis on which the research is based. Patomaki (2001) proposes a theoretical framework based on realist ontology with its inclusive open systems and open history base, and epistemological relativism. Realist ontology, here, is taken to mean that universals are real and that they exist independently of anything upon which they may be predicated, or that instantiate them. Epistemological relativism informs theories about structural violence, cultural violence, and peace, in that, it underscore the subjectivity of our thinking about the nature of the "thing" (Patomaki, 2001). That is, our thinking about the being or epistemology of violence which occurs as a result of the way society structures itself or the way in which members of society perceive the "rightness" of the structure, culture, and praxis.

Theories of Structural Violence

A number of structural violence theoretical frameworks exist (Rogers & Ramsbotham, 1999), and the field is dominated by several, which will be briefly outlined in this section, and referred to in subsequent sections.

The most fundamental issue when discussing conventional views of violence is that they are incomplete in as much as the viewpoints attempt to explain the phenomenon of violence in terms of its particulars (Rogers & Ramsbotham, 1999). Like the blind men exploring the elephant in the room, these authors may seize on a particular element of violence and attempt to explain the corpus by discussing the part. As Barak (2003) points out, these one-dimensional explanations focus on the behavioral and interpersonal expressions of violence and fail to include the institutional or structural expressions of violence. Barak argues that a complete theory of violence must incorporate a "reciprocal integration of interpersonal, institutional, and structural violence" (2003, paragraph 1).

Most commonly held viewpoints of violence within particular disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and criminology, are based on a dualistic, non-critical structure. Barak (2003) provides an analytical framework that examines these discipline-grounded theories on the basis of four main factors: The etiology of violence is believed to internal or external, and either normative or aberrant, depending on the constructs held with regard to the relationship between violence and perceived human nature.

A new tier of theories about violence has emerged that goes well beyond the uni-dimensional and interpersonal theories, to more complex frameworks. According to Barak (2003), these second tier theories tend to cluster in three categories: Integrative, developmental, and life-course frameworks. Integrative theories of violence emphasize the dynamics between the internal and external influences of violence and non-violence, and the interplay of these influences with the constraints and motivations related to violence and non-violence. The life-course and developmental theories of violence focus on the behavioral trajectories of individuals during their life-spans. Barak is explicit in his description of the inclusiveness and interactive aspects of these second tier theories, saying that,

The application of these pathways to violence and/or nonviolence recognize the accumulative natures of these behaviors, the reciprocal consequences of abusive and non-abusive behavior and the integral relationships between events, situations, and conditions in the course of one's personal and social experiences. (Barak, 2003, paragraph 1)

Commonly held behaviorally-based theories about violence explain incidences of violence as problems of self-control or social control. The difficulty with these common theories, explains Barak, is that they tend to reduce the analysis of violence to explicative variable, even though the theories may discuss the influence of other variables. In his research, Barak set out a typology of theories of violence (2003). He identifies 12 current theories, eight of which offer a uni-dimensional structural framework. The 12 theories Barak identifies in his typology are: "Exchange theory, sub-cultural theory, resource theory, patriarchal theory, ecological theory, social learning theory, evolutionary theory, socio-biological theory, pathological conflict theory, psychopathological theory, general systems theory, and inequality theory" (Barak, 2003). The four theories that include multiple factors within their conceptual frameworks are: Pathological conflict (internally motivated and internally constrained variables); ecological theory (externally motivated and externally constrained variables); inequality theory (internally motivated and externally motivated variables); and general systems theory (externally constrained variables, and internally motivated and externally motivated variables) (Barak, 2003).

Seminal Research in Structural Violence

The previous section provides an overview and a typology of the many theories of structural violence. To fill out some small portion of the larger typology, and to give color to some of the theories, this section will briefly discuss select sources of seminal research in the field of structural violence.

In the 1960s, Johan Galtung posited the construct of violence as a phenomenon generated by the existence of social barriers that deny needs satisfaction in certain sectors of society. Galtung's conceptual framework illustrates the relationship between the structure of society and the inequalities experienced by its citizens. Gilman's seminal definition of structural violence reads, "physical and psychological harm that results from exploitive and…

Cite This Assessment:

"How Useful Is The Concept Of Structural Violence In Analyzing And Understanding International Conflict" (2011, May 24) Retrieved January 18, 2017, from

"How Useful Is The Concept Of Structural Violence In Analyzing And Understanding International Conflict" 24 May 2011. Web.18 January. 2017. <>

"How Useful Is The Concept Of Structural Violence In Analyzing And Understanding International Conflict", 24 May 2011, Accessed.18 January. 2017,