What We Teach about When We Teach about Violence
Susan Cunningham
Associate Director, Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies;
Lecturer in Sociology, Holy Cross College
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Psychiatrist James Gilligan's work, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, provides an excellent antidote to these problematic tendencies to categorize, pathologize, and focus exclusively on the individual level. Gilligan identifies the multifaceted components of violence (biological, psychological, and social), but, like Turpin and Kurtz, he recognizes that the now dominant biopsychological explanations ignore structural or macro-level dimensions. Like Mills, Gilligan stresses the importance of appreciating the intersection of biography and history: "Any one family's violence can only be understood fully when it is seen as part of the macrocosm, the culture and history of violence, in which it occurs" (1996:15).

In this groundbreaking work, Gilligan offers a multidisciplinary approach within the context of his own finely tuned sociological imagination:

Any approach to a theory of violence needs to begin with a look at the structural violence in this country. Focusing merely on those relatively few men who commit what we define as murder could distract us from examining and learning from those structural causes of violent death that are far more significant from a numerical or public health, or human, standpoint (1996: 191-192).

Gilligan observes that structural violence differs from behavioral violence in three major respects. In addition to its virtual invisibility, structural violence functions more or less independently of individual behaviors; further, its problematic effects operate continuously, not just sporadically.

Gilligan's structural focus is apparent in his theory of shaming. Excessive shame, he suggests, destroys self-esteem, which, in turn, engenders a collapse of the self. Gilligan perceives such "soul murder" as a major underlying cause of violence. Shame, whether rooted in physical or in psychological abuse, "can destroy a human personality in ways that are likely to lead to violent behavior in later life" (1996: 49). Although the consequences of soul murder play out at the individual level, its roots run deep in societal institutions—in particular, the social class system as well as definitions of gender roles, especially masculinity. Perhaps the gender role association is more straightforward, given the aggression component in male gender definitions.

The role of the class system is less obvious. Gilligan uses Gandhi's words to describe its effects: "The deadliest form of violence is poverty" (1996: 191). The poorer access of the lower classes to resources in American society is well documented: Rubin's research (1976) on working-class families connects position in the occupational structure with "husband-esteem" problems and their consequences for the family. The lower-level positions of working-class men deal a devastating blow to their self-esteem, and to their families. Not only are lower classes vulnerable to failure in the major institutions, but society uses a "culture of meritocracy" thesis to explain this failure as a function of the individual's fewer talents and lack of motivation, thereby instilling shame. Research has shown that lower-class deficits lie not only in the material realm, but also in the areas of cognitive skills and language. Socialization of lower-class groups provides them with more limited cognitive capacity to deal with the frustrations arising from the lack of resources (Kohn & Schooler, 1983; Bernstein, 1971). In short, members of the lower classes receive a double whammy: they have access to fewer material resources and are equipped with fewer skills to cope with such a condition; hence, their special vulnerability to shaming.

Conceptualizing Structural-Level Violence | A major challenge for contemporary violence studies is to untangle these structural roots of violence and develop a sociological imagination for perceiving violence in structures as well as in individual behavior. Incorporating structural aspects of violence will substantially stretch the definition of violence to a point where meaningful analysis can be conducted. Because American cultural discourse does not encourage structural awareness, it is important to define the concept. Citing the work of Galtung (1975), Turpin and Kurtz propose that structural violence occurs when people are harmed because of inequitable social arrangements rather than overt physical violence. Alternatively, in the words of Epp and Watkinson, structural or "systemic violence is any institutionalized practice or procedure that adversely impacts on disadvantaged individuals or groups" (1997: xiv).

Because violence covers an enormously complex and multi-level condition, one must gather some organizing principles when developing definitions. Derber's work on Wilding in America may be helpful. He generates a typology of "wilding," defined as "self-oriented behavior that hurts others and damages the social fabric" (1996: 9). His notion juxtaposes individual and structural levels and establishes a format for conceptualizing structural violence. Following Berkowitz (1993), Derber first distinguishes expressive from instrumental violence. The former refers to actions done "for the sheer satisfaction of indulging one's own destructive impulses" (1996: 6), while the latter is represented by behaviors motivated by "money, career advancement, or calculable personal gain" (1996: 7). American cultural discourse is biased toward the expressive; structural forms tend to be more instrumental.

Additionally, Derber organizes wilding behaviors into political, economic, and social categories, each of which may be expressive or instrumental. Use of this typology, or one like it, can activate one's sociological imagination regarding the underlying structures. In the realm of economic violence, labor riots, such as the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886 or the Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania in 1892, are readily construed as examples of offensive violence. Without substantial evidence, "conspirator" workers in the Haymarket Affair were prosecuted, sentenced, and, in some instances, hanged in response to their alleged behaviors. In contrast with these more expressive forms, the numerous contemporary examples of structural violence rooted in the economy are more instrumental and, hence, not perceived, let alone interpreted, as such. Whether one considers health hazards in the workplace (Reiman, 1998), the downsizing of white-collar corporate employees (Newman, 1988), or wage scales that prevent full-time workers from earning wages above the poverty level (Ellwood, 1988), using Derber's typology, each of these exemplifies economic, instrumental violence. Regardless of typology, these are forms of structural violence.

One of the most severe consequences of ignoring structural dimensions of violence is the implementation of short-sighted and ineffectual responses to violent incidents. No matter how energetically social policy-makers address school violence, if the society's structural dynamics continue to produce violence, anti-violence policies and programs are bound to fail. As Elliott Currie has stated, "We have the level of criminal violence we do because we have arranged our social and economic life in certain ways rather than others" (1985: 19).

Unless structural violence is incorporated into American cultural perceptions and definitions of violence, this point will be overlooked and violence will continue to flourish.

The Role of Claims-Makers | Who decides which behaviors are violent? Sociological explanations of social problems utilize the notion of claims-making, a process in which "the activities of individuals or groups [make] assertions of grievances or claims with respect to some putative condition" (Spector and Kitsuse, 1977: 75). Depending upon the particulars of a problem, anyone may make claims: politicians, corporate entities, scientists, and even ordinary citizens. The crucial issue is whose definition achieves dominance.

The claims-making model helps define a social construction of violence. Reiman (1998) asks why the death of an individual killed in street violence is perceived as criminal, while the death of 26 mine workers due to negligence of a profit-seeking employer is not. He contends that the employer responsible for unsafe conditions in the mine is just as guilty of violence as the street criminals, despite his lack of intention to harm, and argues further that the employer's perceived innocence of any crime reflects a bias against the lower classes—even though an elite-level crime can cause greater physical harm. He concludes, pointedly, that the cultural bias against structural perceptions of criminal violence is rooted in the desire of the upper class to distance itself from wrongdoing.

Reiman's work recognizes the overlooked structural dimensions of violence, but, more important, it reveals the potential for fluidity of definition. As seen in many forms of behavior from cigarette-smoking to sexual mores, acceptability changes over time. The claims-making concept indicates that groups compete for input, involving, as any competition does, differentials of power.

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