The core meaning of violence is the deliberate infliction of bodily violation or harm on one individual human being by another. The forms of violence include hitting, wounding, rape, torture, and, of course, killing. Thus violence is distinguished from non-physical forms of social power, such as coercion or force, ideology, or social control. Violence is the most extreme expression of power, containing the ultimate potential of total power, the physical destruction of one social actor by another. Violence may be a spontaneous expression of power relations, or a planned, instrumental maximization of power.
Because of endemic inequalities of power, violence is a general potentiality in social relations, even if in many types of relationship this remains latent for long periods. Thus, although issues of violence may arise in all social arenas, in practice sociology has been concerned with them in a limited number of cases. The sociology of the family has examined the prevalence of gendered domestic violence, particularly but not only by men against women. Otherwise violence has been seen mainly as an expression of collective social conflict. Studies of industrial relations have considered violence as a result of class conflict; those of race relations and ethnicity have discussed racial violence; political sociology has considered the role of violence in social and political transformation, especially in revolution. The sociology of social movements has examined the role of violence in protest actions, although some have seen movements as by definition non-violent (non-violence as a principle has been extensively discussed in peace studies). Many of the forms of violence in these contexts are relatively spontaneous, for example in strikes or ethnic riots.
Sociologists such as Norbert Elias have emphasized that, through the civilizing process, many potentials for violence are constrained by social norms. Karl Marx argued that in capitalism the “dull compulsion” of the wage relationship had replaced the direct violence of earlier modes of production. Yet he stressed the violent nature of the “primitive accumulation” process that had given rise to this new mode, and saw a continuing potential for class relations to rupture capitalist structures, through revolutionary movements that would trigger violent resistance from ruling classes. However, in developed capitalism, Ralph Dahrendorf argued, there has been an institutionalization of conflict, so that class conflict is not generally expressed in violent forms and does not lead to general social change.
Indeed, many have argued that there is extensive pacification in modern industrial societies. This has been specially connected to the modern state, which Max Weber defined by its “monopoly of legitimate violence.” Although others have qualified this idea, it remains seminal. Michel Foucault argued that modernity leads to comprehensive “surveillance,” although he saw in this the potential for war and genocide as states directed their expanded capacity to organize society towards destruction. In The Nation-State and Violence (1985), Anthony Giddens argued that more extensive surveillance leads to the reduction of levels of violence in society. Through the control of the nation-state, violence was “extruded” from national societies and increasingly expressed only in international relations between states, in the form of war.
Thus social violence has become concentrated in special forms of social conflict, which Weber distinguished as “bloody conflict.” War, genocide, armed insurrection, and counter-revolution are organized violence, in which killing and other physical harm are used instrumentally to destroy an enemy's power (in war and revolution, typically that of another armed enemy; in genocide, of a civilian social group). Recognizing the centrality of such organized forms, Michael Mann, in The Sources of Social Power (1986), argued that violence belongs to a special type of social power, military power, which is to be distinguished from the political power of the state. Moreover, his Dark Side of Democracy (2005) showed that organized political violence such as “ethnic cleansing” and genocide is often practiced by parties, militias, and other armed groups, supported by wider social constituencies, as well as by states. Thus, despite the control of violence in modern societies, the escalation of political conflict may, under certain circumstances, produce large-scale, organized violence.
Others have been skeptical of the reduction of violence because they have defined violence in a broader way. Johann Galtung, in “Violence, Peace and Peace Research” (1969, Journal of Peace Research), introduced the concept of “structural violence,” to refer to any constraint on human potential due to economic and political structures. Unequal access to resources, to political power, to education, to health care, or to legal standing are forms of structural violence. It is often pointed out that more people die as a result of poverty, derived from global economic and social inequalities, than die as a result of wars and genocides. In a similar way, some scholars talk of the “violence of representation,” in which ideological social categories violate the self-ascribed identities of individuals and social groups.
However, from a conceptual point of view, these broader usages of violence raise difficulties. Are exploitation and ideological control violent by definition, or only when they produce physically harmful results? Is mental harm no different from physical harm? Is harm that results from the unintended consequences of actions, for example in the uncoordinated operations of markets, no different from harm that is intentionally produced? Sociologists concerned with the forms of deliberate physical harm have tended to maintain the strict meaning of “violence,” and to use other concepts such as inequality to describe what is called “structural violence.”
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