Violence Isn’t An Easy Subject – We Need to Approach It and Teach It With Nuance and Context

By Anna J. Osterholtz, Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, Mississippi State University

I was asked recently at a dinner party, “What is violence?” I honestly had no soundbite-worthy response except to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” I went on to explain that what I think of as violent is not what someone in 8th Century Colorado might think is violent or what someone living in modern-day Syria might think is violent. This illustrates a common problem of studying violence. Violence is intrinsic, but it is also difficult to define and sometimes difficult to identify. Merriam-Webster defines violence as “the use of physical force as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy” with secondary definitions of “injury as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation” and “intense, turbulent, or furious ad often destructive action or force.” The primary definition calls for physical force of one person on another person or thing, it is an action. Within our own society, it is easy to identify examples of violent acts, but a holistic definition encompassing everything that violence is and does in all times and all places is difficult for us, particularly in anthropology where we are trained to be relativistic. What we consider violence will vary based on our cultural perspective, as well as our experience with violence on intersectional levels (e.g., class, race, and gender-based violence). In line with Whitehead (2004, 2007) I argue that violence serves social functions related to the construction and negotiation of cultural identities. As a larger process, it is de-structive and con-structive, de-generative and re-generative. Our understanding of violence is both culturally and historically constructed, rife with meaning. Violent acts give meaning and support to social structure, creating and reinforcing social relationships and allowing for changes in social status. It is important to teach this nuance and relativism to our students. Understanding cultural differences with respect to violence will allow for a better and richer understanding of lived experience, even if that lived experience isn’t our own. It might just facilitate communication between groups.

Oversimplified Popularized Notions of Violence

Numerous researchers in other disciplines have examined the social role of violence, but they are lacking the relativist approach that we bring. The drive to understand how violence works within particular societies is important. This desire to understand how violence is used to create social capitol and status allows for the integration of violence into a larger understanding of lived experience both in the present and in the past. A recent study published in Nature, Watts and colleagues (2016) examined the evolution of human sacrifice (a practice most would agree is violent) They tested the idea that human sacrifice was used by the elites as a form of social control over those governed (the social control hypothesis) using Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of 93 Austronesian cultures. They state that they were able to account for common cultural ancestry, patterns of co-evolution and “infer the direction of causality based on the order that traits evolve in” (Watts et al. 2016, 228). Their statistical analysis confirmed that human sacrifice co-evolved with social stratification. While this may occur, a statistical analysis that simply measures the degree of social stratification using what amounts to a band/tribe/state unilineal model of complexity and hierarchy is somewhat simplistic to our understanding of cultural processes. The analysis lacks anthropological nuance, lacks an understanding of culture change and the impact of colonialism (and its inherent violence). The approach is scientific, though, and therefore seems to provide a finite and distinct answer. It gives a posterior probability for cultural evolution, but lacks the understanding of those cultures. All 93 of these developed along different lines with different pressures (both environmental and social), and had different culturally specific methods of dealing with those pressures–some of which may have been violent. They were likely violent in different ways from each other as well, something that does not show itself in this statistical analysis.

Steven Pinker (2012) has had great success in his book on violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has Declined. He presents what may best be described as franken-data to argue that violence as an action has decreased with time since our early ancestors. Amongst other problems, his approach is a-historical and non-contextualized, and his idea of violence centers primarily on war. He examines the overall deaths in combat as a percentage of the overall population as a way to argue that we have become less violent over time. In doing this, he neglects the deaths of non-combatants and secondary causes of war such as famine, displacement and disease (all of which still kill many individuals). But he also presents information as simple to understand. He gives graphs that seem to show a steady decline in violence through time. He makes it seem that violence is a universal concept that can easily be understood.

Yeah, But… One Man’s Freedom Fighter is Another Man’s Terrorist 

The anthropological study of violence is important for its nuance and its relativism. First and foremost, we don’t seek to find easy or universal answers. There will always be things that we cannot know or cannot ask. There will not be a posterior probability that allows us to understand the complete lived experience of every individual within a given society. We don’t seek to find a universal understanding for all violence in all places. Increasingly, there is an understanding and a push toward a nuanced approach that examines the overall role that violence plays within a specific and particular society (e.g., Whitehead 2007, Martin, Harrod, and Pérez 2012, Martin 2016). How do we begin to understand ISIL’s publicized executions and narco-terrorism on the US-Mexico border? Decrying the violence of the actions and saying that we cannot possibly understand them doesn’t explain their presence nor does it address the underlying purpose they serve within their own societies or to the larger world. It does, however, create distance between ourselves and those perpetrators of violence. Understanding the emic value of violence and the role it plays in society allows for a better understanding of the social goals and aims of that violence and might allow for an appropriate response or mitigation of that violence. We need to seek to understand other cultures’ systems, not simply use their displays of what we consider violence as a way to define ourselves as better or more understanding. Essentially, we use social constructs of violence to other social movements or cultural groups. To us, acts such as public execution are violent, and they might be intrinsically violent to them as well. But the violence serves a real function, it has a real importance to the construction of social standing and social relationships that is important for us to understand. Unless we begin to look for those underlying social roles of violence, we cannot begin to mitigate the impacts of those acts of violence.

Teaching Nuance in a Violent World

As instructors, we owe our students a more nuanced approach to the study of violence. Saying that an act is just violent and that we as Americans could never condone such a thing creates a distance between us as peaceful people and others as violent and less deserving of understanding. If we don’t see the cultural importance of violent acts, how do we begin to talk to others that perform those violent acts? And how do we begin to understand the cultural systems of violence? It must begin with nuanced instruction in the classroom. It is the ethical choice for us as instructors to approach violence with a nuanced, historical understanding that the concept of violence is one that we should seek to understand with an insider’s perspective.


Martin, Debra L. 2016. “Hard Times in Dry Lands: Making Meaning of Violence in the Ancient Southwest.”  Journal of Anthropological Research 72 (1):1-23.

Martin, Debra L., Ryan P. Harrod, and Ventura R. Pérez. 2012. “Introduction: Bioarchaeology and the study of violence.” In The Bioarchaeology of Violence, edited by Debra L. Martin, Ryan P. Harrod and Ventura R. Pérez, 1-10. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2012. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

Watts, Joseph, Oliver Sheehan, Quentin Atkinson, Joseph Bulbulia, and Russell D.  Gray. 2016. “Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies.”  Nature 532 (14 April 2016):228-231.

Whitehead, Neil L. 2004. “On the Poetics of Violence.” In Violence, edited by Neil L. Whitehead, 55-78. Santa Fe: SAR Press.

Whitehead, Neil L. 2007. “Violence & the Cultural Order.”  Daedalus 136 (1):40-50. doi: 10.2307/20028088.