Academic journal article Theory in Action

Violence as a Cultural Process

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Violence as a Cultural Process

Article excerpt


Violence is a complex form of human action embroiled not only in systems of justification but dependent also on habitus, schema development, motivations, and answerabilities. Nonetheless, sociological efforts to understand human action have either explicitly excluded violence from their analysis (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006) or have dealt with violence only peripherally (Campbell, 1998; Kenny, 2007; Swidler, 1986; Vaisey, 2009). Those approaches that directly address violence tend to view it as structural or systematic rather than as a cultural process. The approach proposed here infuses existing notions of cultural violence, motivation, justification and answerability with feminist theories of intersectionality and assemblages to form an analytical lens which addresses the weaknesses of the independent theories. Additionally, it examines the environment and other factors that result in the choice of violence, the framing and explanations of violence provided after the fact, and the accountability (or lack thereof) that makes up a system of answerability. Most importantly this approach for analyzing violence focuses on the phenomenon of violence as a process rather than as a singular moment.

This introduction of the cultural process approach will begin with an overview of the relevant strengths and weaknesses of existing conceptualizations of culture, action, and violence as they apply to the development of a fuller understanding of violence. This overview is followed by a discussion of the three core stages of the cultural process approach: unconscious, conscious, and accountability. Finally, the remainder of the article considers the cultural process of violence in the context of three distinct phenomena: male perpetration of sexual violence against women, the involvement of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in the Holocaust in Poland, and the ongoing drone war in Pakistan.

These phenomena were chosen because they vary on two axes. First, existing data allows for the highlighting of different aspects of the cultural process for each phenomenon. The discussion of male perpetration of sexual violence will focus on the unconscious stage and the reflexivity of the accountability stage, discussion of Reserve Police Battalion 101 will be centered on the conscious stage, and discussion of the drone war in Pakistan will specifically address answerability and accountability. Second, they present forms of violence in which the actors have varying degrees of distance from their own actions. It is important to note that this is not a full analysis of these cases, but rather an illustration of the efficacy of the cultural process approach.

Furthermore, note that this approach to violence is not an attempt to define violence, but rather an attempt to provide a framework for analysis. Rather than taking on the thorny and challenging issue of defining violence, this approach presents researchers with new questions and a new way to structure explorations of specific cases of violence. Veena Das argues that "the conundrum of how to square collective and individual responsibility for social violence is not readily resolvable in most cases and often returns us to the cul-de-sac of agency/structure debates in social theory" (2000:16). This approach attempts to place agency and structure together, to be understood as cogs in the same process that carry a variable amount of weight from case to case but, always, in the end, both cogs must move for the process to move forward.


Violence is not only difficult to define, but definitions of violence actually play a role in how violence is analyzed. This analysis will utilize conceptualizations of violence developed by John Keane, Johan Galtung and Catia Confortini. To Galtung, violence is "avoidable insults to basic human needs, and more generally to life, lowering the real level of needs satisfaction below what is potentially possible" (1990:292). …

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