What We Talk About When We Talk About Violence

The term “violence” originates from the Latin language where we can find a differentiation between positive and negative violence which is preserved in the English language: potestas – power and violentia – violence.
The phenomenon of violence appears in many different ways in every society all over the world and is mostly defined as “intentional physically aggressive behavior against another person” and respectively as “the use of physical force to apply a state to others contrary to their wishes”, as well as a way of manipulation. This common definition illustrates violence as (aggressively) physical influencing of another human being – which is very far from reality.
For the classification of different forms of violence I will therefore follow the definition of the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung who was also the founder of the discipline of Peace and Conflict Research, which divides violence into three main groups: direct, structural and cultural violence.

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Violence and peace diagram, based on Galtung
A) Direct violence

Direct violence is visible, it occurs physically or verbally, and the victim and the offender can be clearly pointed out. Direct violence is highly interdependent with structural and cultural violence: cultural and structural violence causes direct violence which on the other hand reinforces the former ones.

B) Structural violence
Along with the direct use of violence between persons or groups, structural violence should also be mentioned as a prevalent form of violence.

The concept of structural violence refers to institutionalized forms of discrimination and exclusion and therefore it reflects unequal levels of power. Structural violence “is not carried out by individuals but is hidden to a greater or lesser extent in structures” – it is “built in the social system and expresses itself in the unequal distribution of power and, as a result, unequal opportunities”. It occurs when “some groups, classes, genders, nationalities, etc., are assumed to have, and in fact do have, more access to goods, resources, and opportunities than other groups, classes, genders, nationalities, etc., and this unequal advantage is built into the very social, political and economic systems that govern societies, states and the world”. Therefore structural violence includes all forms of exclusion or inequality in distribution of income, education opportunities, participation in social/cultural life, medical care etc.

C) Cultural Violence

Cultural Violence includes all “aspects of culture that can be used to justify or legitimate the use of direct or structural Violence“. It is the sum of attitudes and beliefs we have been taught since early childhood, as well as beliefs that surround us in today’s everyday life about the necessity of violence. This form of violence does not include killing or affect people’s lives directly, but it justifies structural or direct violence. An example if this type of violence is the right-wing ideology of inequality.

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The dependence of direct, structural and cultural violence


All of these three classifications can be expressed in verbal and/or physical forms.

Verbal violence is any use of language that causes harm. Considering the fact that it is the most common form of violence – and often causes more long-term results than domestic violence – it is a huge problem that it is not taken as seriously as other types of violence.

Physical violence is any use of physical force that causes harm and mostly it is visible who is victim and who is offender.
1) Wars and armed conflicts

The first thing that comes to most people’s minds is probably physical violence in the form of war or armed conflicts – maybe because it’s the most extreme form of physical violence or maybe because we can witness these forms of violence every day in the news: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan, Mexico and Sudan are the six countries where a war was going on in 2010. Besides these, there were 357 other conflicts in the world – 22 severe and 28 highly-violent crises with the use of massive violence during the conflicts.
In 2011 the revolutionary movements in the Middle East will have a huge impact on the statistics of global violence – all countries involved in the Arab spring unrest dropped significantly in the rankings of global peace index 2011.
Besides current wars and armed conflicts we should mention the long-term after-effects as well: homecoming-soldiers who can’t manage the experience of war, mined areas, economic spillover effects etc.

State-based armed conflicts, 1946 – 2008

2) Ethnicity and Religion
In many countries people are exposed to violence because they belong to a specific religious or ethnic group or minority. When it comes to violence ethnicity or religion are either subject or object of violent behavior – violence can emanate from a religious or ethnic group or an ethnic or religious group is exposed to violent behavior of another group. Examples of this are the Kurdish minority in Turkey and the Christian minority in Egypt.

3) Youth violence
Young people can be victims, offenders or witnesses of violence in their childhood and youth, and violent behavior can start early and continue into young adulthood. Youth violence can appear in verbal (bullying) as well as in physical form (slapping, hitting, robbery, assault). For example: In the United States youth violence is the second leading cause of death in the age group of 10 to 24 year old people. On the personal level, youth violence can cause mental problems after being involved in violent actions, violent-related injuries to the point of death. On a public level it can affect the health of communities since it can increase health care costs, decrease property values or disrupt social services.

4) Gender and racial violence
Violence against people because of their gender has a long history in human societies and there is no continent that is free from gender or racial violence today.
The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”. Besides the forms of gender violence most people think about first – direct violence in intimate relationships, in families etc – there is also a huge amount of structural violence: patriarchal values in the society, unequal distribution of income or health care, better or worse possibilities of public child care etc.
Racial violence can be described as the outcome of “a doctrine of hatred of people based on the belief that certain people are superior to others” – also known as racism which includes not only colour but also nationality and ethnicity.

5) Cyber bullying
Aside from verbal violence in “real places” – in the neighborhood, at home, at people’s work places, families, in school or church – a common example in recent years is cyber bullying where people use verbal violence in the terms of using technology. Cyber bullying is maybe popular because it is the most anonymous form of verbal violence – it is hard to lead back to the person who wrote the bullying as well as it is undetected in terms of a lack of parental or authoritative supervision.
Violence has many faces and appears in many different ways. As we could see it is not always possible to attribute the different forms of violence to the defined categories, but it is clear that we face violence more or less every day, even when we are not always directly affected. The fact makes it even more important to think about this topic and to find solutions – even when they are small and if we change “just” our own behavior or our closer environment. Some forms of violence are too big to face them alone and most of the violence we face is structural or cultural which means that the bigger picture has to change – the way we arrange our societies and the way the economic structure – which causes most inequalities in today’s  modern world – is working.
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2., Oxford English Dictionary Retrieved January 8, 2009
3. Müller, Ragnar: Violence typology by Johan Galtung, Online source:
5. Galtung, Johan: Kulturelle Gewalt, in: Der Bürger im Staat no. 43, 2/1993, p. 106
6. Conflict Barometer 2010, Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, University of Heidelberg, 2010
7. 2011 Fact sheet, Institute for economics and peace, online source:
8. Understanding Youth Violence, Ed.: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010, online source:
9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), 2010, online source:
11. McCrum, Mukami: Racial Violence, online source:

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