Structural Violence

Structural Violence is a central concept in peace theory.

Analyzing Structural Violence has proven challenging for scholars and practitioners. Theoretical understandings of violence have progressed slowly over time while violence has increased exponentially. The relationship between oppressive structures and the struggle of marginalized groups to balance global power relations are under-theorized (Parsons, 2007). The theory of Structural Violence has struggled to rectify this deficit by allowing for a more nuanced analysis of violence through examination of the indirect causes of avoidable harms. Structural Violence has largely been described in vague terms in the existing literature.

Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung first proposed the theory of Structural Violence (Barash & Webel, 2009). Galtung is considered the contemporary founder of peace and conflict studies and has contributed greatly to initiating and articulating discourses of peace and violence. Galtung constructed a typology of violence with three categories: personal, cultural and structural (1990). Galtung defines violence as the avoidable disparity between the potential ability to fulfill basic needs and their actual fulfillment.

“We know that social structures kill and maim as surely as the bullet and the knife” ~ Hoivik, 1977 . p. 59 

Köhler and Alcock found in 1976 that Structural Violence occurs when poverty and unjust socio-political and economic institutions, systems and structures harm, or kill people. Galtung (1969) explains that Structural Violence is indirect, avoidable violence built into structures where there is unequal power and consequently unequal life chances. Structural Violence is an oppressive framework that operates through powerful associations, organizations and institutions that guarantees privilege amongst its leaders, prioritization of their political agenda, and an enforcement of their methods and ideologies.

Power imbalances indirectly result in injury towards others through exclusion and exploitation.

The loss of life resulting from inequality is a consequence of Structural Violence. Originally, scholars reduced the phenomena of Structural Violence by measuring it through comparisons of national average life expectancy rates. Alcock and Köhler (1979) and Hoivik (1977) measured Structural Violence based on the premise that a country with a high life expectancy rate, like Sweden, is subjected to less Structural Violence than a country with a low life expectancy rate, like Mali.

Experts created the Human Suffering Index in 1991 to analyze human welfare measures such as life expectancy and political freedom (Farmer, 1996). The index categorized 27 of 141 countries as experiencing Extreme Human Suffering. The Human Suffering Index is a more advanced method of quantifying the symptoms of Structural Violence compared to the rudimentary approach of conflating life expectancy with Structural Violence.

Suffering is problematic to quantify.

The quality of each person’s experience is unique and subjective. Farmer points out that the experience of suffering is not effectively conveyed by statistics or graphs and that not all suffering is equal. Thus, it is necessary to immerse research in human experiences to understand Structural Violence rather than depend on graphs and models.

Parsons (2007) accuses Galtung of oversimplifying Structural Violence by applying it as an ‘umbrella concept’. He writes that Structural Violence is often used as an umbrella concept for other types of injustice such as oppression, marginalization, inequality, exploitation, domination, and repression. However, an overly broad definition of Structural Violence ignores significant opportunities and possibilities for conflict transformation.

Essentially, Parsons (2007) critiques Galtung’s explanation of Structural Violence because it is too general.Parsons asserts that Galtung’s explanations of peace and violence lack normative clarity and sufficient analysis and thus cannot adequately explain violent power relations. Additionally, Galtung’s application of Structural Violence as an umbrella concept does not always translate in the international context. Instead, Parson’s asserts that a multi-faceted analysis and approach to understanding and reducing Structural Violence will serve to legitimate the concept of Structural Violence in the international sphere.

Galtung (1969) negates the need to trace Structural Violence back to its source because that would not be ‘meaningful’. While Galtung (p. 170) calls for a precise definition of the term ‘peace’ in his influential article, Violence, Peace and Peace Research he writes about Structural Violence that, “…if people are starving when this is objectively avoidable, then violence is committed, regardless of whether there is clear subject-action-object relations… as in the way world economic arrangements are organized today.” The lack of clear subject-action-object relations when elaborating at theory of Structural Violence is problematic.

Starvation is the most extreme form of malnutrition. Dutta et al. (2004) found that nearly half of the Garhwali populations in the mid and high Himalayan hills suffer from malnutrition. I found that Galtung’s direct correlation between starvation and Structural Violence is problematic because many factors converge to create the conditions for suffering and marginalization. Starvation can be a form of direct violence, cultural violence or nonviolent resistance. For example starvation can be a form of capitol punishment, anorexia or hunger strikes respectively. In the case of the Garhwal issues such as severe agro-climatic variations, the big dam projects, and climate change need to be included in an exploration of extreme malnutrition.

In order to transform our understanding of Structural Violence it is necessary to render a complex and dynamic picture of the conflict. However, clarifying the action-subject-object relation when correlating malnutrition and Structural Violence need not be a strenuous undertaking. Sen (2005) provides a simple, yet illuminating example in writing about a lethal confusion of food politics. He points out the shocking fact that although India suffers from worse hunger and malnutrition than sub-Saharan Africa the government keeps the largest unused food stock in the world.

Sen (2009) calls for clear articulation and reasoned scrutiny when describing a case of injustice.

“The identification of redressable injustice is not only what animates us to think about justice and injustice, it’s also central … to the theory of justice (p. VII) … The impossibility of remaining silent on a subject is an observation that can be made about many cases of injustice that move us to rage in a way that is hard for our language to capture. And yet any analysis of injustice would also demand clear articulation and reasoned scrutiny (p. 1)”

Following Sen, in order to situate Structural Violence as a case of injustice it is necessary to articulate, scrutinize and clarify a subject-action-object relation.

Alcock and Köhler wrote in 1979 that,

“Eventually, we should be able to formulate a comprehensive, empirically validated theory of Structural Violence which would explain variations and changes in the magnitudes of Structural Violence. Such a theory is a long way off, however (p. 255).”

Thirty years later Dr. Paul Farmer founder of Partners in Health (1996, p. 274) reflects on Structural Violence and asks the question,

“Can we devise an analytic model, one with explanatory and predictive power, for understanding suffering in a global context?”

Farmer calls for fine-grained, systemic analyses of power and privilege that is geographically broad and historically deep in discussions of Structural Violence and suffering.

Investigating the social ‘axes’ within the larger social matrix is essential to deducing what Farmer calls a ‘political economy of brutality’ (1996, p. 282). He explains most importantly that (p. 283):

“As the twentieth century draws to a close, the world’s poor are the chief victims of Structural Violence – a violence which has thus far defied the analysis of many seeking to understand the nature and distribution of extreme suffering. Why might this be so? One answer is that the poor are not only more likely to suffer, they are also more likely to have their suffering silenced.”

To break this silence it is necessary to amplify the voices of those suffering from poverty and marginalization. Furthermore, it is necessary to hold the forces that create suffering accountable by charting the larger social matrix in which experiences of suffering are embedded.

Creating a system of accountability requires tracing experiences of suffering back to specific sources in a global context.

The basis of many social movements hinges on tracing Structural Violence back to a source and holding those sources accountable through creative, innovative methods. It is not that Structural Violence exists when things are not clear, but rather where there is complexity of social forces. The complexity of social forces must be rendered comprehensible for constructive Conflict Resolution to mitigate Structural Violence. It is the role of Conflict Resolution Practitioners and Scholars to better understand the subject-action-object relations to create the space necessary for constructive dialogue.

Elaborating a theory of Structural Violence demands that we design a system of accountability by mounting evidence rather than accepting the illusive character of suffering. The example of the Life Patent and Intellectual Property Rights Regimes over Plant Genetic Resources illuminates an example of the complex forces that converge to generate Structural Violence.

~ Carrie Stiles


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