views updated May 23 2018


The public health approach to the study and prevention of interpersonal violence was given formal recognition in 1984 when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop stated: "Violence is every bit as much a public health issue for me and my successors in this century as smallpox, tuberculosis, and syphilis were for my predecessors in the last century." As the injury and death toll from violent behavior have become increasingly evident, multidisciplinary scholarship in the study of violence has emerged and expanded at an unprecedented pace.

The most widely accepted definition of violencesometimes termed "intentional interpersonal injury"is: "behavior by persons against persons that intentionally threatens, attempts, or actually inflicts physical harm" (Reiss and Roth, 1993). The closely related terms "aggression" and "antisocial behavior" are generally applied to lesser forms of violence and include, but are not limited to, behaviors that are intended to inflict psychological harm as well as physical harm.

The public health approach to the study and prevention of violence entails a four-step process:(1) data collection of violence-related problems, assets, and resources; (2) assessment of the possible causes of violence through risk-factor identification; (3) the establishment and evaluation of violence prevention strategies; and (4) the dissemination and implementation of effective strategies. Public health, then, is inherently a research-driven and prevention-oriented science. This approach complements and overlaps with the narrower focus of criminology, which is primarily concerned with forms of violence that constitute crimes and with policies and practices that deter and punish perpetrators.


Epidemiological data on violence are derived from three primary sources: (1) hospital, emergency medical service, and medical examiner records;(2) police reports and arrest records (and other agency records, such as child protective services for reports of child abuse); and (3) self-report surveys and interviews. In addition, specialized studies that address the particular dynamics and contexts of violence have proven to be important to the understanding and prevention of violence.

The most complete and accurate violencerelated datasets are those on homicide victims. In the United States, the overall homicide victimization rate has fluctuated during the twentieth century from fewer than two homicides per 100,000 in 1900 to a high of nearly eleven homicides per 100,000 in 1980. In 1998, 17,893 individuals were murdered in the United States, which translates into an average daily death toll of forty-nine people. The worldwide 1998 homicide rate was 12.5 per 100,000, significantly higher than the U.S. homicide rate of 6.2 per 100,000. Nevertheless, data from the 1980s reveal that among the forty-one most developed countries, the United States has the third highest homicide rate.

Because violence is not evenly distributed throughout the population, these overall homicide rates provide only a partial picture of homicide's toll. Most notably, homicide victimization in the United States is most prevalent among youth. In 1998, homicide was the second leading cause of death among fifteen-to twenty-four-year-olds. Racial disparities in homicide rates are also disturbingly high. During the second half of the twentieth century, African Americans were murdered at five to eleven times the rate of their white counterparts. Gender differences are equally as dramatic, with males murdered at approximately ten times the rate of females. Finally, the risk of homicide is higher in urban than nonurban areas as well as within neighborhoods characterized by concentrated poverty. Neighborhood social disorganization also increases the probability of violence victimization as well as perpetration.

In comparative studies conducted in the 1990s, the homicide victimization rates in the United States, particularly among children and adolescents, were shown to be several times higher than those in any other industrialized country. In fact, the homicide rate for children under sixteen years old in the United States was five times higher than the corresponding homicide rate for the next twenty-five richest countries combined. The reasons for these elevated homicide rates in the United States are not fully understood; however, probable causes include easier access to firearms, more common and severe patterns of income disparities, and higher levels of racial and ethnic diversity in conjunction with racist and xenophobic attitudes and behaviors.

The question of mechanism, or the means by which people are murdered or injured, is another critical piece of information with respect to our understanding and prevention of violence. The examination of mechanism was particularly helpful in understanding the tremendous increase in homicide victimization rates of adolescents in the United States from 1987 to 1993, and the subsequent downturn through 1998. When the data are disaggregated by mechanism, a clear picture emerges: These trends over time can be accounted for by changes in the number and proportion of youth murdered with a firearm (see Figure 1). The changes in gun use during this period are generally attributed to three major factors: the crack epidemicwhich had the effect of destabilizing local drug trafficking markets, rendering them more volatile and violentand the subsequent petering out of this epidemic; changes in economic opportunity; and changes in policing policy for gun violations.

Most assaultive behavior, however, does not result in death. In 1997 more than 1.75 million people in the United States were treated for assaultive injuries in emergency departments, and more than 10 million individuals aged twelve and over reported that they had been victims of violent crimes. These and other data reveal that young people, African Americans, and males are disproportionately victimized by nonlethal forms of violence, though these disparities are less pronounced than for homicide victimization.


The number and characteristics of individuals who commit murder cannot be precisely determined because of limitations in law-enforcement reporting systems and because identifying information about perpetrators are only available for cases in which an arrest is made or the perpetrator is otherwise identified. Still, some reasonably sound information about adolescents who murder is available: About nine in ten are male, more than half are African American, approximately half act alone, most kill individuals who are close in age and of the same ethnic background, and most use a firearm. The peak or modal age among homicide perpetrators occurs in the late teens and early twenties.

Since the rampage shooting at Columbine High School in the spring of 1999, much concern about violence at schools has been aired, and fears that such events could happen anywhere have emerged. Contrary to these perceptions, however, the number and rate of youth-initiated school violenceboth lethal and nonlethalgenerally decreased, or at worst remained relatively stable, during the 1990s. Like the homicide victimization rates, the overall juvenile homicide perpetration rate, as well as the aggregate juvenile offending rate for serious forms of violence, rose precipitously in the late 1980s, peaked during the early to mid-1990s, and then decreased through the beginning of the twenty-first century. School-based homicides constitute only 1 percent or fewer of all homicides committed by young people, and schools remain one of the safest environments for children and adolescents.

Equally important to estimating the scope of violence perpetration among youth are efforts to identify risk factorsthe characteristics that when present increase the probability that a young person will subsequently engage in violent acts. There are five important aspects of risk factors. First, risk factors tend to be additivethe more risk factors that are present, the more elevated the risk of violence. A single risk factor generally has low predictive power. Even among those children and adolescents with multiple risk factors, few will become violent. Second, risk factors occur, and need to be addressed, at multiple levels, including individual, family, peer group, school, and neighborhood or community levels. Third, different risk factors pertain to different points in the lifespan, with family-level factors playing a greater role for younger children, and peer group and neighborhood factors playing a greater role for older children. Fourth, some risk factors are specific to certain types of violent behavior (e.g., risk factors for sexual violence may be quite different than those for robbery). And fifth, the severity of riskfactor exposure is likely to increase or decrease risk proportionately (e.g., extreme and chronic child abuse is likely to have a more profound effect than lesser forms of child maltreatment).

Several literature reviews have been undertaken on risk factors that increase the probability that children and young teens will subsequently engage in violent behavior. These reviews have sorted out risk factors into two categories: risk factors during the childhood years and risk factors

Figure 1

during the early adolescent years. Risk factors during infancy, and even perinatally, have also been identified, (e.g., child abuse and neglect). This entire body of research, however, is relatively new and far from exhaustive. Therefore, some factors that may in reality increase subsequent risk for violence perpetration may not have been identified in the extant literature because they have been inadequately researched or because of their complexitythe potency of a risk factor may be significantly affected by specific contextualized circumstances (e.g., bystander support), neighborhood norms, and personal history. Similarly, one factor may only become a risk factor, or may become a more potent risk factor, when it occurs in tandem with another factor.

During childhood, the two most powerful predictors of subsequent violence perpetration are substance use and delinquency. Additional, less potent risk factors include aggressive behavior; family violence; inconsistent, overly lax, and harsh disciplinary practices; association with antisocial peers; and poor attitudes toward schooling. Media violence has been shown to increase aggression in the short term, but such exposure has not been linked directly to violent adolescent behavior. Conversely, attempts to reduce violence through media advocacy (e.g., the "Squash It" campaign) have not been shown to reduce rates of violence significantly.

During the early adolescent years, three major and interrelated risk factors have been identified: weak associational ties with nondelinquent peers; strong associational ties with antisocial and delinquent peers; and gang membership. Gang membership, in particular, appears to fulfill important psychological needs with regard to peer acceptance and belonging, as well as the need for enhanced social status, particularly for unpopular youth and for those youth who feel socially powerless. Because gangs serve these fundamental needs, efforts to dissuade young people from joining youth gangs is a more efficient strategy than trying to entice them out of the gang after they have joined, particularly since gangs typically promise to provide valued incentives such as money, power and status, excitement, and, for males, promises of sexual "favors." On the other hand, to ignore current gang members, or rely exclusively on punitive law enforcement efforts, is an inefficient and ineffective violence reduction strategy. Community-based outreach efforts in association with community policing operations are required. Such efforts need to address the psychological, interpersonal, and economic needs of gang members; they should be based upon multiple sources of information about local gang activity; and they should include collaborative efforts involving the police, schools, social service agencies, former gang members, and grassroots organizations.

Additional risk factors during the early adolescent years include antisocial behavior, attending a school in which gangs are prevalent, having been a victim of a violent crime, and residing in a high-crime neighborhood and/or in neighborhoods that have high levels of social disorganization.

While quantitative risk factor analyses are important, qualitative studies based on in-depth interviews, focus groups, and intensive field studies of particular groups of youth provide insights into the dynamics underlying risk-factor analyses and point to additional factors, or combinations of factors, that may be fruitful to study. These studies are important given the generally weak overall predictive power yielded from risk-factor analyses. Examples of such studies include James Garbarino's 1999 study of children and adolescents who have committed violent crimes, Elijah Anderson's 1999 study of the impact of street and cultural norms in an impoverished African-American section of Philadelphia, John Devine's extensive 1996 field studies of school violence in New York City, and Felix Padilla's in-depth 1992 study of the dynamics and culture of a Latino gang in Chicago. These richly textured studies, and others like them, capture the complex and tragic nature of acts of violence. They also provide insights about the psychological logic and developmental history of those who commit violent acts, reminding us that even the most vicious forms of violence can ultimately be understood, though not justified, as uniquely human responses to a volatile mix of difficult circumstances and experiences combined with specific personality and character dynamics.


Four major interrelated approaches to the prevention of violence have been articulated: (1) the inculcation or enhancement of protective factors (factors that reduce the probability of violence perpetration among individuals exposed to known risk factors) and/or a corresponding reduction in the number or severity of risk factors, (2) the adoption of self-contained violence prevention programs, (3) the specification of generic strategies (e.g., social skills training) derived by grouping effective and promising programs according to the approach they adopt and the specific program characteristics they utilize, and (4) the elucidation of framing principles that guide the establishment and implementation of programs.

The use of mechanical and electronic surveillance devices (e.g., metal detectors), and the establishment of laws, law enforcement policies, judicial processing, and incarcerative practices remain primarily in the domain of criminology and need to be better integrated with public health approaches. One successful example of this kind of comprehensive and integrated approach was established in Boston. This strategy involved several agencies and programs working together to reduce gun and gang-related violence. The police, probation officers, and courts addressed surveillance, interdiction, and enforcement; legislators passed tougher penalties for gun-related violence; researchers conducted analyses of gun violations; and social workers and religious leaders counseled at-risk youth in the use of nonviolent conflict resolution techniques and offered employment opportunities and program activities. Other approaches to violence prevention, such as changes in public policies,(e.g., foster care policies, school reform, and employment and housing strategies), have received only passing attention within the public health field, with the notable exception of the significant attention paid to firearm policies.

The study of protective factors has been spurred by the long-standing observation that some children who are exposed to several known risk factors do not become violent or otherwise seriously impaired. The task, then, is to identify common characteristics or circumstances that buffer these resilient children from the ill effects of exposure to known risk factors. The scientific study of protective factors, however, is in its infancy and the evidence from this small body of literature is suggestive rather than conclusive.

The most well-documented protective factor is maintaining conventional values, including the rejection of aggressive or violent behavior as an appropriate means to resolve conflict. This characteristic is associated with the peer-level protective factor of associating with peers who hold prosocial values. At the family level, a warm and supportive relationship with one's parents or guardians and engagement in familial bonding activities have been associated with reduced levels of aggression.

As children move into the more high-risk adolescent years, family factors alone do not continue to exert a powerful protective effect. The innoculative effects of protective factors appear to require developmentally appropriate exposures at each stage of development. At the school level, commitment to school has been identified as a protective factor. Finally, because neighborhood and societal change are so difficult to study in controlled studies, and also so challenging to address, protective factors at these levels have not been identified.

The development and implementation of self-contained violence prevention programs has a long-standing history. The introduction of scientific methods to assess the effectiveness of such programs, however, only commenced in the 1980s, with the number and rigor of such evaluations accelerating rapidly during the 1990s. Still, scientific evaluations are very costly and only a small proportion of programs now in use at schools and in communities have been rigorously evaluated.

The programs that have been evaluated are generally highly structured, implemented by professionals, and developed at academic institutions. While this body of research has revealed that some programs do indeed reduce rates of aggression and violence (and that some programs clearly do not work), it is inaccurate to assume that programs that have not been evaluated do not work, or conversely, that they are effective.

It is also inaccurate to conclude that programs that have been shown to be effective will work equally well in all settings and contexts. Very little is known about whether, or how, programs need to be adapted from one setting to another. Some programs may not work equally well for males and females, some may work well in urban but not rural settings, and some programs may work in one cultural context but not another. Some programs are appropriate for all children or youth within a designated age range (universal, or primary, prevention), some are appropriate for children and youth exhibiting or possessing known risk factors (selective, or secondary, prevention), and some programs are appropriate for youth who have already engaged in violence or serious delinquent behavior (indicated, or tertiary, prevention).

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, several compendia of effective, promising, and ineffective violence prevention programs were issued. These include reports by the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, the Office of Justice Programs, the National Research Council, the Violence Institute of New Jersey, M. W. Lipsey and D. B. Wilson (1998), and M. B. Greene (1998). The major strategies that have been shown to be effective, along with brief descriptions of illustrative programs, are summarized below; however, readers interested in a full explication of such strategies, along with detailed descriptions of effective and promising programs, are urged to consult sources listed in the bibliography.

The most widely adopted violence prevention strategy emphasizes social skills training to resolve conflict without resorting to aggressive or violent tactics. Social skills training programs generally utilize structured and interactive curricula (e.g., role playing) and are usually classroom based. One example of an effective social skills training programs is Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS. This program is designed for children from kindergarten through fifth grade and focuses on five specific skills: emotional literacy, self-control, social competence, positive peer relations, and interpersonal problem solving. School-based sessions are taught for approximately thirty minutes each, and the program developers recommend that these lessons should be taught three times per week.

A second overall strategy focuses on parent training and family dynamics. This approach is both educational and therapeutic and based on the theory that a caring, supportive, and stable family life will provide the initial grounding to deter children from subsequently engaging in aggressive, delinquent, or violent behavior. Most commonly, programs are designed to work with parents of young children and are focused on parental decision making, communication, monitoring and sanctioning strategies, and on educating parents about child development. Several family-based strategies have been shown to be highly effective in reducing aggressive and/or violent behavior.

Home visitation, in which therapeutic guidance is provided to parents in their residence, has gained much recognition in recent years. One of the most effective home visitation programs is the Nurse Home Visitation Program, in which a trained nurse visits the home setting during the latter stages of pregnancy through the point at which the child reaches age two. Long-term follow-up studies indicate that the adolescent children of program participants had significantly fewer arrests than control-group adolescents. In addition, two family-oriented programs for adolescents who have exhibited violent and delinquent behavior have also been shown to be effective: Functional Family Therapy and Multisystemic Therapy. Both programs provide intensive family and individual therapy, as well as guidance to parents in addressing practical and everyday problems, and both have effected significant reductions in subsequent delinquent and violent behavior.

A defining feature of a third approach to violence prevention is the central role played by young people in the program's operation and implementation. Four principles underlie such programs: (1) young people understand their own peer culture and what kinds of program components are feasible; (2) young people provide a typically untapped human resource; (3) program norms are more readily diffused through the network of involved youth; and (4) the involvement by young people in implementing such programs provides an alternative for antisocial, violent, and delinquent behavior. The most popular of this class of programs is school-based peer mediation, in which a trained student mediates a dispute between two other students with the goal of establishing a mutually agreed-upon peaceful solution. Other types of programs engage young people in community organizing or advocacy activities. While the small number of peer-operated programs that have been rigorously evaluated has not shown significant reductions in violent or delinquent behavior, the theoretical promise of these programs, the fact that many types of youth-led programs have not been evaluated, and the inherent complexity in evaluating such programs suggest that a decision to forgo or eliminate such programs is premature. Nevertheless, sound policy also suggests that programs should be discontinued if they continuously fail to demonstrate their effectiveness.

Another class of programs utilizes psycho-educational strategies to reduce the likelihood of engagement in violent behavior. The most wellknown type of program within this class of programs is mentoring. While not all mentoring programs are effective, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program model has been rigorously evaluated and shown to be an effective violence prevention strategy. Stand-alone individual counseling, however, is considered an ineffective violence prevention strategy.

Another type of program involves counseling and supportive services for youth who have been exposed to violence, either as victims or as witnessesboth of which are risk factors for subsequent perpetration. In one such program, the Child Development Community Policing Project, police officers receive training in child development and the dynamics of psychological trauma and work together with mental health clinicianswho receive training in police practices and culturein identifying and responding to children who have been exposed to violence. This program illustrates the potential value of integrating clinical and law enforcement approaches.

Finally, some programs are hybrids, either combining two or more of the approaches outlined above or not fitting neatly into any of the four approaches. One "hybrid" is Olweus's Bullying Prevention Program. This program has several key features, including skills-based classroom training, parent involvement, policy development, "hot spot" analysis, and counseling. Evaluations of this program suggest that it is effective in reducing levels of bullying and harassment. Indeed, multicomponent programs are generally viewed as preferable, particularly for high-risk youth.

Public health efforts to address gun-related violence also do not fit neatly into any of the approaches outlined above. Strategies to reduce gun violence include the promotion of laws and policies that reduce access to guns (some evidence of effectiveness); the adoption of mechanical and electronic means to make guns safer, such as trigger locks and personalized guns (the consistency and quality of such devises are variable and none has been adequately evaluated); educating children in safe gun practices (ineffective); gun buybacks (ineffective); and public information campaigns (no evaluations have been conducted).

As indicated above, an alternative way to approach violence prevention programming is by establishing a set of framing principles that inform their development. While this cannot be done without examining what is known from evaluation studies and from risk and protective factor analyses, it is too early in the evolution of such studies to simply extract these principles from the programs that have been subject to rigorous evaluation and proven to be effective or promising. Some of the principles listed below, therefore, owe more to findings in other areas of public health than they do to the violence prevention field per se. Some principles have been described in earlier parts of this article (e.g., that no single program or approach works equally in all settings and circumstances). What follows is a brief though not exhaustive list of such principles.

The first principle, known as local ownership, suggests that programs will be most successfully operated if the residents in the targeted neighborhood and the specific group of individuals for whom the program is designed to help are centrally involved in the planning, operation, and administration of the program. A second principle multidisciplinarianism, suggests that insights, methods, and approaches from multiple disciplines are needed in developing and implementing violence prevention programs. A third principle, collaboration, suggests that no single agency or group can successfully operate a program in isolation: Violence prevention programs are inherently neighborhood-based and require the engagement of multiple stakeholders.

A fourth principle suggests that a strength-based focus should be emphasizedfocusing exclusively on deficits without drawing upon the strengths and interests of the individuals the program is designed to help and the resources available in the community will reduce the probability of success. A fifth principle suggests that committed leadership is necessary for the successful planning and implementation of violence prevention programs. Similarly, staff development is also critical: An untrained, unsupported, and unsupervised staff simply will not succeed in program implementation. Staff also need to be temperamentally suited to the populations with which they work.

Program accessibility is also critically important: If a program is sited in an undesirable location (turf issues are very important for young people), is sited in a difficult-to-get-to location, or is physically unwelcoming or uninviting, then the program will simply not attract participants. Specificity is also important: Programs need to set specific and measurable objectives, otherwise they tend to flounder and evaluation is rendered unfeasible. A final principle is local fit; A program's design and objectives should be derived from a thorough and multipronged assessment of the nature and extent of the violence-related problems in the neighborhood in which the program will be implemented. Additionally, new programs need to fit well into the context of existing programs and strategies.

Perhaps it is fitting to end with a quote from Surgeon General David Satcher, taken from his preface to the Surgeon General's report on youth violence: "As a Nation, we possess knowledge and have translated that knowledge into programs that are unequivocally effective in preventing much serious youth violence."

Michael B. Greene

(see also: Abuse; Adolescent Violence; Antisocial Behavior; Crime; Domestic Violence; Gun Control; Homicide; Prevention; Reckless Driving; Safety; Street Violence; Suicide; Terrorism; War )


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views updated Jun 27 2018



The representation of violence in the cinema has been a topic nearly as contentious as sexuality for those concerned with what is proper for the content of film. Yet censorship organizations have focused less on violence than on sexual images or images suggestive of various forms of gender liberation. Cursory application of psychoanalytic theory provides at least tentative answers for this: Western civilization, heavily influenced by organized religion, has been fairly obsessed with policing the body and in controlling sexual conduct of both men and women. Freudian and post-Freudian thinking has postulated that the libido is policed in such fashion as to channel its energies to the service of commerce and state interests. Violent acts—from sports to warfare—have been theorized as a way of providing a safety valve for errant sexual energies. Violence has been viewed, if the cinema is any guide, as a reasonably acceptable form of human expression in a highly competitive civilization that sanctions warfare as a way for states to settle grievances.

There are variations to this acceptance, as becomes plainly obvious when observing how the Production Code and organizations such as the Catholic Legion of Decency regulate the violent image. The regulatory process often sanctions violent images that conform to standing political and moral values, but disallows those that challenge capitalism and notions of social normality. In general, the European cinema has taken a progressive attitude toward images of violence, showing its consequences or using it to jolt the complacent spectator, as with the graphic scenes of bloodshed in Sergei Eisenstein's masterpieces Stachka (Strike, 1925) and Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), or the shock effect of the sliced eyeball in Luis Buñuel's and Salvador Dali's Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929).


Since its inception, American cinema has been fascinated with violence. A breakthrough film in the development of narrative was Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903). Filmed in New Jersey, this proto-western suggests the appealing, deeply embedded nature of violence in the frontier experience and the American civilizing process, and the rather spontaneous way that the attendant violence appears in the earliest developments of cinema. The film's final image, of a mustachioed gunman firing a revolver directly at the camera/spectator, became iconic on several levels, not least of which was the assault on the audience effectuated by the violent image. The film's explicit idea—that one takes what one wants with the use of guns—has been said by various directors and critics to be a controlling idea of the American cinema. Martin Scorsese (b. 1942) concludes GoodFellas (1990) with an image of the actor Joe Pesci firing at the camera in a manner replicating the final shot of The Great Train Robbery.

While regional censorship as well as internal industry monitoring had some impact on the amount of violence in the early cinema, film at its inception contained startling scenes of graphic violence. D. W. Griffith's (1875–1948) Intolerance (1916) is notable not only for its baroque parallel narratives, but also for its scenes of decapitation, dismemberment, and stabbings. A conservative populist, Griffith surprises contemporary audiences with the "Jenkins Mill" sequence in Intolerance, which is a loose reconstruction of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in which the National Guard and hired goons gunned down striking coal miners opposed to the brutal labor policies of the Rockefeller family. A director of great contradictions—most obviously in his racist rendering of the Civil War, The Birth of a Nation (1915)—Griffith was among the early American filmmakers who believed that the portrayal of violence must be uncompromised to show its consequences for humanity. Other works of the early American cinema such as Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), based on the novel McTeague by Frank Norris, offered a gritty portrayal of a rapacious society, culminating in a famous grueling scene in Death Valley in which the protagonist pistol-whips his pursuer to death before expiring of heat exhaustion.

The relatively free use of violence in early American film narrative did not go unnoticed by various bodies that saw Hollywood culture as a "new Babylon," and its films as depraved renderings of human civilization. In order to fend off increasing calls for government censorship, the Hollywood industry worked out an arrangement to police all in-house productions. In 1922 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) was constituted. It was chaired by former postmaster general Will Hays (1887–1937), hence it was commonly referred to as the Hays Office. The Hays Office developed within ten years an enforcement arm with a rigid and complicated set of rules known as the Production Code Administration (PCA). The monitoring of films in production by the PCA eventually was effected by an agreement worked out between the industry and two representatives of the Catholic Church—Daniel Lord, a priest, and Martin Quigley, an ultraconservative writer and publisher. As the Catholic Church played an increasing role in the monitoring of Hollywood, the industry balked at restrictions placed on their creativity, and this conflict led to the establishment of the Studio Relations Committee, whose intent was to negotiate differences between the studios and the PCA. The PCA focused not merely on violence but especially on all forms of sexual expression outside of heterosexual marriage—which itself had to be presented within strict and rather absurd guidelines (for example, married couples had to be depicted as sleeping in separate beds). As the industry complained, the Catholic Church took renewed steps to pressure filmmakers by forming in 1934 the Catholic Legion of Decency, which put in place a rating system that could "condemn" or render "morally objectionable" films seen as indecent. The Legion had a powerful influence not only on the Catholic audience but also on general public perception of Hollywood fare. Joseph Breen (1890–1965), a Catholic known for rabidly anti-Semitic views, became head of the PCA in 1934; the office and its policies were often referred to as the "Breen Code."

Despite the increasingly rigid policing of films from within and without the industry, film directors tried to subvert the Code. Images of violence could be portrayed so long as they fit within the moral and political precepts of the PCA. Three popular films of the early 1930s, released before the Code took hold, Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), and Little Caesar (1931), popularized the gangster film, in part due to fascination with small- and big-time criminals as rebel figures during the Prohibition era and the first years of the Great Depression. These three films were in many respects test cases for later violations of the Production Code. While all three contained scenes of shootings and acts of sadistic violence, they presented themselves as public-service films aimed at addressing conscientiously (rather than glamorizing) the image of the criminal, and at debunking crime as a form of social rebellion. Public Enemy, Scarface, and Little Caesar all conclude with the demise of the "villain" (who actually is the most charismatic figure in all three films). But because this basic moral point—that crime doesn't pay—is hammered home in these films, the Code rules that were violated—including one that forbade the depiction of a gunman and the person being shot in the same frame—were violated with impunity.

Censorious intervention on the subject of violence sometimes had disastrous and counterproductive results, as is so often the case in matters of censorship. A key example is the treatment of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931). The horror film was seen as an inherently low-brow and immoral genre by church groups and other authorities, and it came under even greater scrutiny than the crime film in regard to the rendering of violence. In an important scene in Frankenstein, the monster, brilliantly played by Boris Karloff, encounters a little girl playing with flowers by a pond. The monster, who behaves like an overgrown child, joins the girl in her game of tossing flowers on the pond to watch them float, then innocently throws the child onto the pond to see if she too will float. When she drowns, the monster becomes alarmed and flees into the forest. Regional censorship boards preempted the Code and demanded that much of this sequence be removed, so instead of seeing the monster's innocence in his play, and his panic when the girl drowns, we only see the monster reaching for the child, then the film cuts to an image of the girl's father, in a state of shock, carrying his dead child through the local village, the girl's stockings around her ankles. This edit of the film remained in circulation as the standard version of Frankenstein for more forty years. The audience is led to imagine all sorts of images of child molestation and murder, and the notion of the monster as actual victim, scorned and persecuted by his creator/father, is turned upside down in service of a perverse, simpleminded morality.


World War II brought the War Information Office, a collaboration between the US government and Hollywood that produced not only newsreels that functioned as propaganda for the Allied effort, but also a variety of fiction and nonfiction films that portrayed the Axis powers as monstrous while overlooking entirely the economic origins of the war. War films such as Bataan (1943) were allowed a surprising amount of sanctioned and savage violence because they demonized the evil "Jap." Postwar films such as The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) portrayed violence as rather bloodless and painless as they lionized sacrificial violence and heroism; at the time, this was Hollywood's standard approach to the subject. The war years saw changes within other genres too, such as the crime film. Raoul Walsh's High Sierra (1941) took on the PCA by portraying the gangster as a hero of the people who sympathized with victims of the Great Depression. The gun violence of the alienated gangster in High Sierra was tolerated since he is brought down by the police at the end, although it is clear with whom the film's sympathies rest.

World War II was a transitional moment in Hollywood's portrayal of violence, as the industry and the nation began to think through the implications of the war and what instructions it offered about humanity. Crime films such as Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947) and Walsh's White Heat (1949) focused on the criminal psychopath, suggesting the influence of Freudianism on mass consciousness as well as the more general notion that social ills could not be attributed to a few "bad boys," as in previous renderings of criminal violence. Kiss of Death features a scene showing the crazed hoodlum Tommy Udo (Richard Widwark) shoving a wheelchair-bound old woman down a staircase; Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat brutally dispatches his enemies, and ends his own life in an apocalyptic gun battle that results in a Hiroshima-like explosion at an oil depot. Again, a touch of crime-doesn't-pay moralism allowed these films to be screened. Psychotic menace and catastrophic violence became emblems of an increasingly unstable society showing signs of the trauma of the Depression and the war years.

Despite the ostensible conservatism of the 1950s, portrayals of violence became more graphic, as if to complement the darkened and uncertain mood in the United States. During this period the Production Code was steadily weakened by increased public demand for more realistic cinema; at the same time, the Hollywood studio system began to decline due to court challenges to Hollywood's monopoly practices, the demise of studio bosses, and the selling off of parts of the system itself. The circumstances provided a favorable backdrop to films noir such as Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953) and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). The noir thriller, influenced by the bleak vision of German expressionist cinema, was filled with acts of sadistic savagery, such as a villain throwing boiling coffee into a young woman's face in The Big Heat, or Kiss Me Deadly's nominal hero slamming a helpless man's hand repeatedly in a desk drawer as the camera cuts to the hero's grinning face. Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) also conclude with massive explosions that recall the A-bomb, emphasizing the pervasive anxieties of the age.

The 1950s saw a reevaluation of history that became manifest in the rendering of violence. The westerns of Anthony Mann, including Winchester '73 (1950), The Man From Laramie (1955), and Man of the West (1958), contained often grueling scenes of violence that seem part of a general assessment of the conventions of the genre, in particular its function in portraying the hero's hidden psychological motives and the real underpinnings of the American expansionist process. The war film also took part in generic reevaluation, with films such as Aldrich's Attack! (1959) showing shocking violence (in one scene a man's arm is crushed by a tank) within narratives that questioned the military command structure and the reasons for war. To be sure, such films were answered, in a fashion, by flagwaving fare such as To Hell and Back (1955), a biopic about Audie Murphy (1924–1971), the most decorated soldier of World War II, who plays himself in the film. Films with such conservative agendas tended to gloss over the effects of violence rather than show its consequences, or the reasons for warfare and other violent conflicts in the first place, while also challenging PCA standards.


The 1960s brought significant change to the rendering of film violence long before the US assault on Vietnam registered in the public mind via the mass media. Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) took the horror film in a new direction with his portrayal of serial murder, in particular the film's famous shower scene wherein the ostensible heroine is stabbed to death, her blood running down the drain. Three years later, the same director's The Birds (1963), another venture into the fantastique that was a fable of the disintegration of small-town life, pushed the disintegrated PCA further with images of maddened birds pecking out people's eyes and tearing their flesh. The film included fairly unprecedented scenes of violent attacks on children. By the late 1960s, with the studio system gone, the PCA was replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which produced a ratings system that assigned a letter to films on their release to designate their appropriateness for specific audiences: G ("general") for audiences of all ages, PG ("parental guidance") for adults and adolescents, R ("restricted") for adults and young people accompanied by adults, and X for adults only. The MPAA system closely mirrored the categories of the Legion of Decency, although it also allowed greater creative freedom to the filmmaker, dropping in-house regulation and leaving the decision making to the audience.

b. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 27 September 1922

Although his contribution to the depiction of film violence in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was indeed startling and groundbreaking, Arthur Penn, like Sam Peckinpah, should be seen as something other than a filmmaker preoccupied with bloodshed. Arthur Penn is a skilled dramatist who, like other innovators in screen violence, offered moral and other lessons about the prominence of violence in American life.

Beginning in television directing productions for Philco Playhouse and Playhouse 90, Penn moved to Broadway, winning a Tony for The Miracle Worker (1959), about the lives of Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, which he also brought to the screen, earning Oscars® for actresses Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in 1962. The Miracle Worker and Alice's Restaurant (1969), Penn's tribute to the 1960s counterculture, are among his more revered works. Still, Bonnie and Clyde is no doubt the film most associated with Penn, for it was a landmark in American cinema. At first, Bonnie and Clyde was dismissed by critics, who were shocked by the film's violence, particularly its sudden and very bloody ending, wherein Clyde (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) are ambushed by lawmen as they drive through the countryside, as well as by the sudden shifts in tone from violent to comic. Their bodies are jolted repeatedly by rifle fire as Penn shoots the sequence with several cameras, the scene recorded with the combination of slow-motion and rapid editing that Peckinpah would expand on many times over in The Wild Bunch (1969).

The notoriety of Bonnie and Clyde tends to overshadow Penn's other accomplishments in the depiction of film violence. The Chase (1966) is an uncompromising portrayal of the disintegration of American life in the 1960s, symbolized by the chaos that overtakes a small-minded, greedy, bigoted small town in the Southwest. Toward the film's conclusion, a group of perfectly middle-class citizens savagely beats the town sheriff (Marlon Brando) to gain favor with a local land baron (E. G. Marshall). The film brilliantly portrays the rage simmering within Middle America, a theme also explored in Penn's crime film Night Moves (1975). Penn's first film, The Left-Handed Gun (1958), explores both the legend of Billy the Kid and the allure of the myth of banditry. A later western, The Missouri Breaks (1976), is a scathing portrayal of the American frontier as the site of a struggle of the poor against the rich and ruthless, with some jarring moments of violence perpetrated by a mercenary in the employ of powerful financial interests.


The Left-Handed Gun (1958), The Miracle Worker (1962), Mickey One (1965), The Chase (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Alice's Restaurant (1969), Little Big Man (1970), Night Moves (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976)


Carvelti, John G., ed. Focus on "Bonnie and Clyde." Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Friedman, Lester D. Bonnie and Clyde. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

——, ed. Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde." Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wood, Robin. Arthur Penn. New York: Praeger, 1970.

Christopher Sharrett

Accompanying this change were technological advances that allowed for more graphic images of violence, including "squibs," explosive charges placed inside an actor's clothes that can simulate the bloody exit of a bullet or other projectile. Although crude forms of squibs had been available for decades, their use had been proscribed by the PCA. By the late 1960s they were widely used, most shockingly (at the time) in Arthur Penn's (b. 1922) Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The film's violent ending, during which the outlaw couple is ambushed and shot repeatedly by a Texas Ranger and his posse, offended audiences of the day, but its portrayal of

violence was closely connected to its sympathy with both the populist spirit of the Depression (the time period of its narrative) and the antiauthoritarian zeitgeist of the late 1960s. The violence of Bonnie and Clyde, taking place in desiccated versions of John Ford's landscapes, was intricately entangled in the events of the 1960s, especially the Vietnam War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 21, 1963. In the film's ending—which combines rapid cutting with slow motion—a portion of Clyde's head is blown away to simulate, according to Penn in various interviews, the shocking murder of Kennedy as depicted in the infamous home movie taken by the bystander Abraham Zapruder.

The US incursion into Southeast Asia occurred as television was reaching its peak as the central medium for news and entertainment. The Vietnam War was covered regularly by nightly news programs, bringing graphic footage of real violence committed against real people into American living rooms. As the war appeared to the United States to be lost with the Tet offensive of 1968, war footage seemed omnipresent. Some newscasts contained footage of outrageous atrocities, such as images of children running from napalm attacks, which Americans, many of whom had come of age in the sleepy 1950s, could hardly comprehend seeing on the previously sanitized network television programs. Coverage of the war, as well as urban protests against the war and attacks by police on African Americans and others working for civil rights, brought about a major change in public sensibility, which was reflected in the violence of late-1960s cinema and the films of succeeding decades. At the time, scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. expressed concern about a new "pornography of violence" overtaking culture as universities began a long cycle of empirical research projects into the effects of media violence on the public, especially children.

Within two years the violence in Bonnie and Clyde was far surpassed by that in Sam Peckinpah's (1925–1984) landmark western The Wild Bunch (1969), about a gang of aging outlaws looking for a last big score on the Texas/Mexico border at the outbreak of World War I. The Wild Bunch was a meditation on scrapped American ideals that was as significant as Citizen Kane (1941). It is unfortunate that the violence of The Wild Bunch nearly obscured the film's dramatic power for many journalistic reviewers of the day, who frequently commented on Peckinpah's "blood ballets" rather than the quality of his narrative. There is no question, however, that The Wild Bunch was the bloodiest mainstream film the mass audience had seen to that date and that it was a direct response to the US intervention in Vietnam. The film opens and closes with two spectacular massacres that make full and complex use of the squib to show the explosive impact of bullets on the human body. Peckinpah's intention was to remove the frivolousness from cinematic violence in order to show the consequence of the violent act, whose depiction had been long suppressed by the Production Code.

During the years of the Vietnam War, various genres made use of the creative freedom allowed by the new rating system by using violent images to comment on the savagery of the war itself and the new culture of violence that the war had created. George Romero's (b. 1940) Night of the Living Dead (1969), the first part of a "zombie tetrology" (concluded in 2005 with Land of the Dead) that spanned five decades, was a low-budget, black-and-white horror film that portrayed modern America as a mob of mindless, flesh-consuming cannibals who are shot down by an even more mindless mob of cruel, vengeful enforcers of normality. The horror genre became a site of increasingly graphic violence in the years during and immediately after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal (1972–1974). Tobe Hooper's (b. 1943) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) created an image of a disintegrating America in which the driving forces are predation and madness. Similar ideas appeared in Wes Craven's (b. 1939) Last House on the Left (1972), which posited the notion that the suburban family is every bit as monstrous as the bad men they are taught to fear in the media. A cycle of "slasher" films, most famously represented by Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), continued the horror film's trend of replacing mythical monsters with psychopathic, vaguely motivated serial killers who prey on sexually active young people. All of these films spawned sequels and inspired other, similar series, finally taking the genre into a downward spiral as it set aside social commentary to emphasize gore. Where social commentary remained, its tone became steadily more conservative as if to jibe with the post-1960s reaction that

b. Fresno, California, 21 February 1925, d. 28 December 1984

Sam Peckinpah is widely regarded as a director who made significant innovations in the portrayal of violence in cinema in the 1960s. A volatile alcoholic, Peckinpah was the archetype of the determined film artist trying to exist within a commercial system that labeled him l'enfant terrible. He had a distinguished beginning in television, cocreating one TV western, The Rifleman (1957–1963), and creating another, The Westerner (1960). Then began Peckinpah's extraordinary but troubled career in the cinema.

Ride the High Country (1962), only his second western, is a melancholy meditation on the fading of the American West's heroes and villains, a topic that was a Peckinpah obsession. Major Dundee (1965) was Peckinpah's first attempt to bring to the screen, in the form of a gritty post-Civil War western, his hard-bitten sense of the violent world of men. The film made him a Hollywood pariah for several years. He returned with The Wild Bunch (1969), his most famous film and his bloodiest. About a gang of aging outlaws fighting a last stand on the Texas-Mexico border at the outbreak of World War I, The Wild Bunch made full use of Peckinpah's interest in a realistic portrayal of screen violence. Peckinpah photographed battle scenes with multiple cameras at various speeds; in the final edit, the film's violent scenes clearly owe a debt to Sergei Eisenstein. Yet Peckinpah's emphasis on the explosive squib to simulate a bullet's impact on the body was fairly unprecedented, as was his sense of the chaos and madness of warfare.

Peckinpah soon became known as "Bloody Sam" and Hollywood's "master of violence." Perhaps too self-conscious of the labels, Peckinpah's next major film, Straw Dogs (1971), seems a strained essay film on masculinity's inherently violent nature. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) marked his return to the western. Like The Wild Bunch and The Getaway (1972), Pat Garrett shows sympathy for the underclass as well as the criminal outsider, and, like Major Dundee, it was hurt by troubles with producers and the studio, and by Peckinpah's increasing personal problems. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is Peckinpah's gruesome, quasi-surrealist tribute to one of his influences, Luis Buñuel. Peckinpah's last major film was Cross of Iron (1977), a World War II epic about the German retreat from the siege of Stalingrad, and a compelling meditation on the male group. While his career may have been compromised by his lifestyle, Peckinpah brought to the cinema not just new techniques for the portrayal of violence but also a new sensibility, one far more conscientious than that of other directors who have tried to render violence before and after the Production Code.


Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Straw Dogs (1971), The Getaway (1972), Junior Bonner (1972), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Cross of Iron (1977), The Osterman Weekend (1983)


Prince, Stephen. Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

——, ed. Sam Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch." Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Seydor, Paul. Peckinpah: The Western Films—A Reconsideration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Simmons, Garner. Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976.

Weddle, David. "If They Move … Kill 'Em": The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah. New York: Grove Press, 1994.

Christopher Sharrett

culminated in the Reagan era (1981–1989) and the years following.

The post-Code era brought a number of epic Hollywood productions whose violence would have been unthinkable during the studio era, most notably Francis Ford Coppola's (b. 1939) films about the mafia, The Godfather (1972) and its sequel, The Godfather II (1974). Both films contain scenes depicting the machine-gunning of people at close range, garrotings, stabbings, the exploding of cars (one of which contains a young woman), and various other forms of bloodletting. Stanley Kubrick's (1928–1999) A Clockwork Orange (1971) was viewed during its time as another breakthrough in screen violence, but Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel about a dystopia overrun by youth gangs was seen by some critics as bloodless on various counts, an overly stylized and emotionally icy view of humanity that is a representative example of the director's cynicism.

The 1970s and the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate brought a phase of film violence that exploited middle-class rage over the collapse of confidence in government and other institutions. Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971), William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971), Michael Winner's Death Wish (1974), and Phil Karlson's Walking Tall (1973) endorsed to varying degrees police or civilian vigilantism again the criminal underworld, which was frequently associated with the youth counterculture. Dirty Harry and particularly The French Connection portrayed rather uncritically the police as dangerous psychopaths who too often use gun violence to restore civil society. These portrayals of police violence conveyed a level of cynicism not seen in US cinema before the 1960s.

Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1975), loosely adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864), offered to post-Vietnam society an intelligent meditation on violence in America. The film's tale of a lonely, deranged cab driver (Robert De Niro)—whose search for identity concludes with a bloody massacre in a brothel—captured much of the malaise of the 1970s as the American social fabric disintegrated in the wake of Vietnam even as new waves of reaction approached. The 1970s also saw the phenomenon of the disaster film, whose origins can be traced to some of the early silent epics and films such as San Francisco (1936). The 1970s disaster films partook of a spectacularization of large-scale destruction that seemed to speak to the nation's crisis in confidence. The Towering Inferno (1974) and Earthquake (1974) invited the audience to enjoy the destruction of middle-class life and of the nation itself, either in microcosm (the burning of an immense skyscraper in Towering Inferno) or macrocosm (the collapse of Los Angeles in Earthquake). These films featured little outright bloodletting and nothing in the way of meditations on the nature of violence in the manner of The Wild Bunch or Taxi Driver. Instead, they suggested the apocalyptic temperament then prevalent in mass culture and the film industry that would reappear by the end of the century in films such as Deep Impact (1998), Armageddon (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). The sensibility of the 1970s disaster cycle is marked by a feeling of nihilism and despair that sees no point to political or social reform, preferring instead the solace of wishful fantasies of self-annihilation. In their favor, the 1970s disaster films at least offered a few consolations about the regenerative nature of society.

The 1970s brought a delayed examination of the Vietnam War in films such as The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979); the former saw the war in terms of the wounds to the national psyche while demonizing the people of Vietnam, the latter viewed the war as a gross, horrific spectacle that signaled the end of the American process of conquest. The war has been revisited numerous times in films since, most notably in Oliver Stone's (b. 1946) Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), films whose graphic violence focused

principally on the wounds suffered by US veterans who were seduced into service by a deceitful government. But reactionary retellings of the Vietnam War accompanied the government of Ronald Reagan. The Rambo films starring Sylvester Stallone, in particular Rambo II (1985), took advantage of the "deceived veteran" theme but also tried, in effect, to rewrite the history of the war. Not coincidentally, these films and those starring former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger (b. 1947) reintroduced a cartoonish approach to violence in which blood-letting had little or no tangible consequence as they foregrounded the hypermasculinity of barechested, muscular men wielding large machine guns. Schwarzenegger helped establish a new form of painless, absurd violence in James Cameron's The Terminator (1984), which spawned two sequels (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, 2003). The Terminator films, like many similar movies, took the portrayal of violence several decades backward as they invited the audience to enjoy a spectacle of urban destruction that caused little or no real suffering for the films' characters, a trend of the latter-day disaster films.

In the reactionary turn of the millennium, the commercial cinema undertook a valorization of military violence and US involvement in various wars in films such as The Patriot (2000), We Were Soldiers (2002), Black Hawk Down (2001), and especially Saving Private Ryan (1998). Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan makes use of the graphic bloodshed effects introduced in the 1960s by Peckinpah and others while diluting or obliterating the moral lessons of Peckinpah, Penn, and others. The graphic violence of Saving Private Ryan serves a simpleminded celebration of national identity. Unlike the films of Peckinpah, Saving Private Ryan shows little ambiguity about the uses of violence; indeed, it celebrates warfare as a rite of national identity.

Yet the 1990s also saw a reevaluation of screen violence similar to that undertaken earlier by Penn, Peckinpah, and others. Actor and director Clint Eastwood (b. 1930), whose career was established by the violent Italian westerns of Sergio Leone (1929–1989) such as Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966) and by Dirty Harry (1971) and its sequels, undertook a major revision of the western in Unforgiven (1993), which tries to reassert the terrible consequences of violence within a narrative that questions the mythologizing of the western genre. Several rather philosophical interrogations of media violence appeared in the 1990s, most notably Oliver Stone's ambitious but unfocused Natural Born Killers (1994), which is distinguished by a Brechtian, presentational style. While apparently concerned with the relationship of the media image and film violence to violence in American society, the film veers into a reflection on violence within the American character that makes the film confused and overwhelming.

The postmodern style of the 1990s cinema brought several "hip" comments on film violence that seem little more than pastiche exercises, or compilations of various tropes and conventions from earlier films with little added critical focus. The most notable maker of these films is Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), whose Reservoir Dogs (1991), Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), and Kill Bill films (2003 and 2004) made him in the minds of some critics and audiences the new "master of violence." His films are alarmingly cynical and empty of any specific notion either of cinema violence or of violence in American society, and merely overwhelm the audience with hyperbolic bloodshed.

The period since the 1980s might be termed the "era of the bloodbath" in that the new freedom allowed filmmakers has made violent scenes omnipresent, and steadily more graphic, as directors try to one-up each other in their uses of onscreen violence. (Tarantino will no doubt continue to be the representative model for pseudosophisticated uses of violence that reference the films of the past without their moral or political lessons.) Filmic violence has become pointless, boring, and rather shameless, lacking the moral force and shock effect of films

such as The Wild Bunch. While there are exceptions to this rule, the overall tone of the new Hollywood violence is one of cynicism and contempt for humanity, perhaps a reflection of increasing despair as economic conditions worsen and America loses the respect of other nations in the new globalized world order.

SEE ALSO Censorship;Disaster Films;Horror Films;Vietnam War;War Films;Westerns


Alloway, Lawrence. Violent America: The Movies, 1946–1964. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1971.

Fraser, John. Violence in the Arts. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

Prince, Stephen. Classical Film Violence: Designing and Regulating Brutality in Hollywood Cinema, 1930–1968. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.

Schneider, Steven. New Hollywood Violence. Manchester, UK: University of Manchester Press, 2004.

Sharrett, Christopher, ed. Mythologies of Violence in Postmodern Media. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1999.

Slocum, J. David, ed. Violence and American Cinema. New York and London: Routledge, 2001.

Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Atheneum, 1992.

Christopher Sharrett


views updated Jun 11 2018


If America was already a violent nation by the time of the Civil War, the war itself, still the bloodiest in the country's history, did nothing to change people's habits and attitudes. In truth it served to increase America's penchant for brutality. One historian of violence in America, Richard Maxwell Brown, has written that the Civil War "had an almost incalculable effect in the following decades. The latter part of the nineteenth century was one of the most violent periods in American history" (p. 47). No less an apologist for America than Walt Whitman (1819–1892) remarked the barbarous effect of the war. He who in the 1850s had celebrated the United States for being "essentially the greatest poem" had by 1870 graphically depicted the obscenity of war. Far from alerting Americans to curtail violence, the war, in which more than 600,000 people died, actually seemed to broaden the field of brutality, not only within the nation's borders but, for the first time, overseas as well.

As it had been with the Civil War, race lay at the bottom of much of the postwar increase in violence, and by then "race" included ethnicity. Racialist attitudes toward Africans held by northern Europeans, most of whom lived in the South, accounted for much of the barbarism. One image more than any other conjured up the physical and psychological violence caused by America's anxieties of race: a burning cross, the infamous sign of terror of the Ku Klux Klan, the ruthless vigilante organization first formed in 1868. Similar anxieties existed in other parts of the country, and in the burgeoning northern cities they led to brutalities against new immigrants—Germans and Chinese as well as Irish, Italians, and Jews, where the bigotry was also anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. These prejudices were heightened by economic turmoil inasmuch as the new Americans found work as unskilled day laborers. Disputes between labor and management became deadly as the country's commercial forces grew rapaciously, aided by legal and political governance favorable to laissez-faire capitalism.


The death of President James A. Garfield was the result of bitter in-fighting within the Republican Party. During the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes (1877–1881), the party was divided into two main factions: the Stalwarts, who were violently opposed to Hayes's efforts to reconcile with the South and supported instead the strong Reconstruction measures of the Radical Republicans, and the the Half-Breeds, whose name had been coined in derision by the Stalwarts and backed Hayes's lenient treatment of the South. Garfield was affiliated with the Half-Breeds. In hotly contested voting that required 36 ballots, the party convention finally elected Garfield as the presidential nominee. As a gesture of conciliation, the delegates elected a Stalwart, Chester Arthur, as their vice-presidential nominee. Garfield and Arthur narrowly won the general election. In naming key appointments, Garfield seemed to the Stalwarts to slight their faction.

On 2 July 1881, less than four months after his inauguration, Garfield was shot at the Washington railroad station as he prepared to board a train for a summer retreat. Charles Guiteau, angered because he had not been appointed U.S. ambassador to France, raced from the shadows and fired two bullets into Garfield's arm and abdomen as he shouted, "I am a Stalwart, and Arthur is President now!" Guiteau's attack did not immediately endanger President Garfield's life. Many doctors, eventually sixteen of them, working without the aid of anesthesia removed a rib and repeatedly probed the wound in the abdomen with fingers and dirty instruments, enlarging a relatively harmless three-inch wound into one twenty inches long. In terrible pain, Garfield lingered for eighty days, wasting from 210 pounds to 130. He eventually died on 19 September. The physicians submitted bills totaling $85,000, but the Senate authorized payment of only $10,000, and many Senators referred to the doctors as quacks.

At his trial, Guiteau, who had a history of erratic and even homicidal behavior, acted like a madman while his attorney argued his innocence by reason of insanity. The trial, one of the most publicized insanity trials of the century, set precedent in the judgment of the criminally insane. In the years following, psychiatrists generally agreed that Guiteau was truly insane and that the trial had been a miscarriage of justice. Guiteau was executed in 1882. The assassination promptly ended usage of the terms "Stalwart" and "Half-Breed."

The most storied and romanticized violence in the country's history occurred on the frontier, in the Wild West, where outlaws like Billy the Kid and the James Gang were proud of their reputations as gunslinging killers. Public violence was usually a male endeavor, male against male, but when it was behind closed doors, violence was often male against female. Violence between whites and Native Americans that had lasted nearly three centuries climaxed in 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The post–Civil War years saw three of the four assassinations of U.S. presidents in the country's history: Abraham Lincoln in 1865, James Garfield in 1881, and William McKinley in 1901. As the old century drew to a close, the nation was engaged in its first international armed conflict, the Spanish-American War, ostensibly to liberate Cuba and the Philippines from Spanish domination but ultimately to gain resources and strategic locations for America's own commercial and military advantage. By the end of the period, two decades into the new century, the country, just emerging from its embroilment in World War I—the Great War, the War to End All Wars—was so torn by divisions of race and class that in some ways it was more violent than ever.


Doubtless the most egregious violence in American history was that associated with race-based chattel slavery and its aftermath. So pervasive and systematic was it that despite the Civil War, despite the passage of three "Civil War Amendments," despite Reconstruction, and despite a Civil Rights Act, de facto enslavement of Africans continued well into the twentieth century. Moreover, with the failure of Reconstruction and the increase of such states' rights efforts as black codes, a conservative U.S. Supreme Court assured that on the highest judicial levels de facto slavery continued de jure too. In the "Civil Rights Cases" (1883) the Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, calling it unconstitutional, and a decade later, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), with three of the same justices adjudicating, the Court went even further by deciding that Jim Crow "separate but equal" laws were constitutional. For many, early forms of scientific racism made such thinking legitimate. Coinciding exactly with the Court's action regarding the Civil Rights Act, race-based brutalities increased sharply. The Chicago Tribune drew attention to the outrage by immediately beginning to publish the number of reported lynchings nationwide, a practice the paper continued for more than twenty years. Thousands of African Americans were lynched in the South during the period. No white was arrested for such a crime until 1918.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) was the most powerful voice when it came to condemning "lynch law." Born a slave but college educated, she sided with W. E. B. Du Bois's Niagara movement as one of only two women to sign the call to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, and she explicitly opposed Booker T. Washington's segregationist strategies. She traveled extensively, speaking against oppressive state laws and the atrocities they permitted against blacks. In print she railed against racial violence in uncompromising newspaper attacks and in her chronicles of lynchings, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases (1892) and A Red Record (1895). Other women of color built on the base Wells-Barnett had established. Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911), in essays, speeches, and her novel Iola Leroy (1892), and the equally multifaceted Pauline E. Hopkins, in her journalistic work and her novels Contending Forces (1900) and Of One Blood (1902–1903), drew attention to the devastating psychological effects of sexual traumas perpetrated by white men against black women. Equally unique in a different way was George Washington Cable (1844–1925), a former Confederate soldier who was the first southern writer to denounce the smug self-importance of the southern elite. His early fictions, Old Creole Days (1879) and The Grandissimes (1880), and his essays on civil rights, The Silent South (1885) and The Negro Question (1890), identified the aristocracy as the fundamental cause of southern barbarism.

Reconstruction novels became a species unto themselves, with the best known coming from the pen of Albion W. Tourgée (1838–1905), a northern attorney who had been a judge in North Carolina during Reconstruction and who used that experience to write a series of novels about the aftermath of the Civil War from the standpoint of a "Radical Reconstructionist." The most incisive was A Fool's Errand (1879), where late-night barbarities figure prominently in its critique of both the South's cavalier attitude toward racial brutality and injustice and the North's diffidence in not ending the violence and not assuring that Reconstruction succeed. His literary reputation led to his becoming the lead attorney for Plessy in the Supreme Court case, his arguments finding their way into Justice John Marshall Harlan's lone dissent. Tourgée's writings about Reconstruction were an intellectual influence on W. E. B. Du Bois, while his use of fiction for social protest served as a model for Charles W. Chesnutt, the first African American writer to have a large northern white readership. Chesnutt's novel The Marrow of Tradition (1901) was based on a violent event resulting from the Plessy decision—the 1898 race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, that left many dead, both black and white.

Not all postwar writers grieved over the failure of Reconstruction to end violence and gain racial equality, of course. Some sought to keep the Old South alive, and that meant denying that there really ever was any violence. The tales of the friendly old black servant Uncle Remus of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880) were mildly nostalgic, and violence was but a humorous trope in them. Much more idealistic were the moonlight-and-magnolias fictions of writers like Thomas Nelson Page (1853–1922). His collection of short stories treating the antebellum South, In Ole Virginia (1887), included Marse Chan, a narrative by an old faithful former slave about a young man who had died for the Southern cause, placing duty and honor above personal gain. Most pernicious were the militant fictions, especially those of the prolific Klansman Thomas Dixon Jr. (1864–1946), whose Klan trilogy specialized in depicting violent, "extra-legal" justice administered against blacks in the name of preserving civilization. One of these, The Clansman (1905), became the basis for The Birth of a Nation (1915), the country's first film epic.

In a culture of permissible violence against "others," the idea of race expanded to include ethnicity. Immigrants—Jews, Slavs, Italians, and others from southern and eastern Europe as well as Chinese—poured into the large cities. Living in squalid enclaves, they were met with aggression paralleling the Ku Klux Klan's against Africans in the South. Loathing of Catholics, especially Irish and Italians, often took a violent form under the aegis of the bigoted American Protective Association. New York's famous Five Points shortly before the Civil War was the prototype of the urban immigrant slum, marked by poverty, crime, ethnic and religious strife, and violence. During the following decades, similar slums sprang up in other cities, leading to open warfare, including riots against Chinese in San Francisco (1877), Africans in Wilmington, North Carolina (1898), and others in Atlanta (1906), East St. Louis (1917), and Chicago (1919). The period of riots peaked between 1915 and 1919, when twenty-two riots occurred (Brown, pp. 40–41). In New York City by 1880 more than a million immigrants were crammed into Manhattan's Lower East Side, in ghettos with names like Jewtown and Bandit's Roost.

The destitution was captured in separate but complementary ways by the documentary photographer Jacob Riis (1849–1914), himself an immigrant twenty years earlier, and Stephen Crane (1871–1900)—Riis in his book of stunning images How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Crane in his novella featuring Irish Catholics, Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893). Abraham Cahan (1860–1951), a Russian immigrant living in the Jewish ghetto, depicted in Yekl (1896) and The Rise of David Levinsky (1917) the brutality involved in pursuing the American Dream only to discover that the dream was spiritually empty. Similar conflicts existed on the other side of the continent, where fear and hatred of Chinese led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, first passed in 1882 and repeatedly renewed for more than sixty years. In essays and short stories the first Chinese American writer, Sui Sin Far (pen name for Edith Maud Eaton, 1865–1914), countered the dominant Caucasian attitude that Eurasians were dirty and morally corrupt. Though by appearance Eaton, half-Chinese and half-British, could have passed for white, she asserted her Chinese ancestry, and her stories, collected in Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), depict Chinese as ordinary humans, though in America they were victimized by discriminatory immigration laws and regularly subjected to ethnic hostilities.

Violence between whites and Native Americans peaked in 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull led Indian warriors to defeat the flamboyant and glory-seeking George A. Custer and his troops. Contemptuous of the Indians' bravery, Custer led his men into certain defeat as thousands of Lakota (Sioux), Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors surrounded his unit on a ridge at the Little Bighorn River in Montana and killed all 210 of them. Attempts to assure that grievances were redressed invariably failed. Angered by what Chief Standing Bear related in a speech about the forcible removal of his tribe from their Nebraska land, Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885) seized upon the government's mistreatment of Native Americans for her A Century of Dishonor (1881), a copy of which she sent to every member of the U.S. Congress with an inscription: "Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations." Three years later, hoping to repeat the impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Hunt wrote Ramona (1884), depicting the violence of the Indian experience. The bloody three-century saga culminated savagely in 1890, when U.S. government soldiers massacred three hundred Sioux men, women, and children on the snowy banks of Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.


In the archetypal Judeo-Christian act of violence, brother killed brother when Cain, a tiller of the ground, rose up and slew Abel, a shepherd. In the United States, in the final year of a war recalling that Genesis fratricide, two families in the southern Appalachian Mountains began to fight obsessively—over no one knows exactly what. The feud between the Hatfields of West Virginia and the McCoys of Kentucky, sympathizing with opposite sides in the Civil War and including many not related to either family, was only the most captivating and best known among many such vendettas in southern Appalachia in the late nineteenth century. The bloodiest period of that feud was during the 1880s, but it lasted fifty years and entered the folk history of the nation through song and story as a symbol of America's habit of violence. The feud in Mark Twain's (1835–1910) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) was based on one along the Kentucky-Tennessee border that Twain had known firsthand while he was a steamboat pilot before the Civil War. In Life on the Mississippi (1883) he recollected that real feud between the Darnells and the Watsons, but in Huckleberry Finn he changed the names to Grangerford and Sheperdson.

Whether by families, gangs, or lone gunmen, lawless violence moved West with the frontier. The most famous outlaw of the Old Southwest was Billy the Kid, a cowboy in the New Mexico Territory until the so-called Lincoln County War broke out in 1878. He was deeply involved, siding with the ranchers in a dispute with businesspeople, and he became a primary combatant when he killed the county sheriff and two deputies. He escaped execution, and while he remained on the loose he killed over twenty others until, not yet twenty-two years old, he was killed in 1881 by another storied gunman, Sheriff Pat Garrett. The James Gang was equally folkloric. It was headed by Jesse James, who in 1863 as a sixteen-year-old, with his older brother Frank, had joined Quantrill's Raiders, a band of marauding Confederates that had become famous for savagery when they slaughtered nearly two hundred people in Lawrence, Kansas. After the war the James brothers joined forces with another family of outlaws headed by Cole Younger and his brothers to form the infamous gang of murderous bank and train robbers that operated throughout Kentucky, Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota, continuing Quantrill's legacy of bloodshed by employing the same hit-and-run tactics and embellishing the myth of the western outlaw that remains fixed in the popular imagination. The passing of this violent "nomadic, bachelor West," as Owen Wister (1860–1938) called it in Members of the Family (1911), was depicted by post-frontier writers like Stephen Crane ("The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," 1898), Wister (The Virginian, 1902), Zane Grey (Riders of the Purple Sage, 1912), and Willa Cather (O Pioneers!, 1913, and My Ántonia, 1918), all of whom introduce women, marriage, and home to the West. The result, though, as shown by William R. Handley, did not "civilize the savage male violence of the frontier" but rather "[brought] that violence home" (p. 5).

Yet much of the violence of the period was domestic, occurring in ways that could be hidden so as to go unrecorded. The nationwide publicity surrounding the grisly ax killings of Lizzie Borden's father and stepmother in 1892 was exceptional, all the more sensationalistic because the alleged butcher was a "nice respectable girl." Usually family violence took the form of verbal attacks and physical assaults, as suggested in Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem "Eros Turannos" (1916) about the deep privacy of abuse and codependency, but the brutality could extend to sexual violation and mutilation and even to rape and murder. Police reports might not record it, but narratives imaged the fury in some domestic relations. In two of the most well known, McTeague, in Frank Norris's (1870–1902) McTeague (1899), batters his wife, Trina, in a frenzy of fear and frustration, leaving her slowly hiccuping to death in a pool of her own blood; and Pap Finn, in Huckleberrry Finn, in fits of self-hate, brawls drunkenly with his son so that Huck stages his own murder, then runs away from home.

Secret violence could be the most savage and perverted, involving torture and ritualistic disfigurement. Perhaps not surprisingly, early rape scenarios, as Sabine Sielke has demonstrated, occurred within racial narratives—like Thomas Nelson Page's Red Rock (1898) and Thomas Dixon's The Clansman—that depict black men as being criminal by nature, irresistibly lusting after white women, and that also include literal or symbolic castration. A rape image by Dixon illustrates the bestiality he employs to promote white anxiety about the sanctity of home and family: "black claws" sink into a "soft white throat." Works by black writers retaliated against such stereotypes. Frances E. W. Harper's Iola Leroy recasts the brutalities of sexual exploitation by using inversion and mimicry, while Sutton E. Griggs's The Hindered Hand (1905) depicts in horrific detail the mutilation of a black couple engaged to be married. The image of sexual violence became so compelling that Edith Wharton (1862–1937) employed it as a trope, resorting unmistakably to the language of rape in The House of Mirth (1905) to demonstrate the brutal effect of patriarchy on female moral consciousness, all the more disarming when inflicted by a supposed friend in the privacy of home.


Surely no single writer captured the broad range of the period's violence more comprehensively than Mark Twain, a humorist by fame. From drunken child abuse, duels, and family feuds to lynchings, murders, and massacres to slavery and international war, his writings feature a catalog of distinctly Americanized variations on the age-old theme of brutality. He started early, in the novel he coauthored with Charles Dudley Warner that named the period, The Gilded Age (1873), exposing the devastation wrought by the greed and corruption of American politics and business, especially land speculation and the railroad industry. And he lasted long, in such writings as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (1889), and Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). Following the Equator (1897) showed that his awareness of abuse had widened to a global perspective. In "The United States of Lyncherdom" (1901), his bitter portrayal of American racial lawlessness is drawn indelibly in a nightmarish vision of the torture by fire of 203 black victims of vigilante justice—the actual number of reported lynchings in America during 1900 and the first part of 1901. Four years later, in King Leopold's Soliloquy (1905), Twain satirized the Belgian king's system of forced labor that killed an estimated three million Congolese. As late as 1907 Twain was still speaking out against the brutality of imperialism in interviews and public statements. By the time of his death in 1910, his withering ridicule of violence—both within America and around the world—was so well known that his writings about it brought a second distinctive renown to him, matching his earlier fame as a fictionalist and humorist. No one of his time came close to his fervent yet disheartened exposure of the beast in man.


But "the beast in man" was exactly what the new wave of writers averred. Following the lead of writers like Émile Zola in his La bête humaine (1890), they developed a theory of "naturalism" that emphasized humanity's violent and animal nature. Headed byFrank Norris and Jack London (1876–1916), they exploited the "survival of the fittest" ideas of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) and Herbert Spencer's First Principles (1862). Such novels as Norris's McTeague, The Octopus (1901), and The Pit (1903) and London's Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), and White Fang (1906) deliberately blurred the line between man and beast and, as a matter of principle, foregrounded the violent in human behavior. A classic early example is Crane's Maggie, in which gangs of young toughs atavistically fight bloody street battles emulating the brutishness they see everywhere in their environment.

Literary naturalism coincided with a growing disillusionment with capitalism that had already produced tension between labor and capital and had become another major source of violence. As the nation became more industrial and urban during the postwar years, distrust and abuse increased until matters reached a head when in 1886 workers, expected to be on the job upward of twelve hours a day for a dollar of pay, united and formed the first national labor union, the American Federation of Labor. Its president, Samuel Gompers, and other leaders were called anarchists and socialists for pressing for national standards for employment, including fair wages and an eight-hour workday, and for developing strategies of resistance, including strikes.

The strike was a deadly tactic, already made fearsome by the 1877 railroad strike in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in which dozens of workers and guards were killed or wounded. Through the last two decades of the century, as strikes increased in size and economic force, they also became more violent, most notably the ones in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892 against Carnegie Steel and in Chicago in 1894 against the Pullman Company. Doubtless the most inflammatory and infamous was the Haymarket "riot" in Chicago in May 1886 at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. As striking workers outside the factory were being addressed by an anarchist, the "scabs" who had replaced them inside came out, and a pitched battle ensued. When police were called and were assaulted with stones, they opened fire on the crowd, indiscriminately shooting men, women, and children, killing six and wounding many more. Frank Harris's The Bomb (1908), an early "proletarian novel," focused on the anarchists who were found guilty of inciting the Haymarket riot. In a highly publicized trial, eight men were punished by imprisonment or death sentence on patently weak evidence, a verdict vigorously opposed by many, including William Dean Howells (1837–1920) in the pages of the New York Tribune. In 1893 Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned the three who were still in prison. Howells's fictional treatment of the national climate that prompted the event came in 1889, in A Hazard of New Fortunes, which highlighted labor unrest and unscrupulous new wealth as the makings for social revolution.

Muckraking novelists, following Howells's lead, joined Harris in the attack. Norris's The Octopus detailed the forces of the monopolistic Southern Pacific Railroad, whose grasping tentacles engulfed settlers and drove them from their land. At the center was the Mussel Slough "tragedy," a deadly 1880 gun battle in Tulare County (now Kings County), California. The most powerful and best-known novel of the movement was The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair (1878–1968). Strongly influenced by Norris's novel and his own bitter poverty, Sinclair fashioned a furious exposé indicting the corporate exploitation that was destroying Lithuanian immigrant families in "Packingtown" (Chicago's stockyards district). President Theodore Roosevelt, after reading the novel, ordered an investigation of the meatpacking industry, leading to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and a new governmental oversight agency, the Food and Drug Administration.

In the wake of the historic Haymarket tragedy, principled and effective opposition to violence increased, concentrating on the dispute between capitalistic democracy and socialism. In the spirit of Whitman's disillusionment, literature in the decades before and after the turn of the century registered abhorrence of American brutality. The utopian novelist Edward Bellamy (1850–1898), in Looking Backward (1888), looked forward to the year 2000 to project a socialist world that had eliminated strife between management and labor. Another writer exploring these ideological intricacies was Jack London in The Iron Heel (1907), a novel delighting in "ferocious violence" that features a twenty-seventh-century man living in a socialist utopia who, despite himself, seems to favor capitalism (p. 186). Much less conflicted was Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945), who relentlessly exposes the brutality of capitalism, first in Sister Carrie (1900) and then in his Trilogy of Desire—The Financier (1912), also the most purely naturalistic of his novels; The Titan (1914); and The Stoic (published posthumously in 1947)—in which he critiques the American Dream of material success.

In Leo Tolstoy's Christian socialism or in the more radical anarchism movement, writers like these found alternatives to the excesses they believed were inherent in capitalism and its attendant militarism. In increasing numbers, philosophers and historians considered violence to be a fit subject for analysis and commentary. Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), concluding in Resist Not Evil (1902) that violence itself was the chief problem of civilization, rejected force altogether. Emma Goldman (1869–1940), in Anarchism and Other Essays (1910), called for a nonauthoritarian organization to replace the state and an end to the existing antagonism between individuals and classes. Jane Addams (1860–1935), founder of the world-famous social settlement Hull-House in Chicago in 1889, turned her attention to world peace, publishing Newer Ideals of Peace in 1907 and opposing America's entry into World War I. John Haynes Holmes (1879–1964), a prominent Unitarian minister and social activist, spoke out against the war at a Unitarian conference in 1917, offering a resolution in favor of reconciliation, peace, and social justice. The former U.S. president William Howard Taft denounced the resolution, and as president of the conference, Taft then proposed an alternate resolution favoring the war as the only way to "stamp out militarism in the world." Even in such a setting, pacifists were a small minority. Taft's resolution carried, 236–9. After the war, continuing to advocate a socialist agenda that included nonviolent conflict resolution, Holmes demonstrated in Is Violence the Way out of Our Industrial Disputes? (1920) that the decades-old war between capital and labor was as violent as had been the recent war between nations, naively dubbed the War to End All Wars.


The period was defined by wars to assure freedom, and much of the poetry of the period perpetuated old romantic notions exalting battle. Poems with a different attitude, like Stephen Crane's "Do Not Weep, Maiden, for War Is Kind" (1896), depicting war's horror, or Emma Lazarus's (1849–1887) "The New Colossus," were rare. Almost forgotten in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Statue of Liberty was given by France to the United States in 1886. To raise funds for the pedestal, works of authors like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman were sold at auction in 1883, and Lazarus, an American Jew, inscribed a poem to honor thousands of Jews fleeing to America following a wave of violent anti-Semitism in Russia in 1881. Titled "The New Colossus," her poem, recollecting the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the wonders of the ancient world, rejected the Old World glorification of warfare in favor of the New World's "mighty woman with a torch," who calls, "Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." The poem aided the fund-raising by selling for $1,500, but its text was lost and forgotten until 1903, when it was rediscovered in a used-book store. Only then was the text of the poem engraved into the pedestal, making the statue perhaps history's greatest nonviolent symbol of freedom.

See alsoHaymarket Square; Ku Klux Klan; Law Enforcement; Penitentiaries and Prisons; Reconstruction; Weaponry


Secondary Works

Brown, Richard Maxwell. "Historical Patterns of American Violence." In Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, vol. 1, edited by Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, pp. 35–64. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969.

Gottesman, Ronald, ed. Violence in America: An Encyclopedia. 3 vols. New York: Scribners, 1999.

Gurr, Ted Robert, ed. Violence in America. 2 vols. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1989.

Handley, William R. Marriage, Violence, and the Nation in the American Literary West. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hunter, Robert. Violence and the Labor Movement. 1914. New York: Arno, 1969.

Kowalewski, Michael. Deadly Musings: Violence and Verbal Form in American Fiction. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Logan, Shirley Wilson. We Are Coming: Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Lynn, Kenneth. "Violence in American Literature and Folk Lore." In Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, vol. 1, edited by Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, pp. 181–191. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969.

Oggel, Terry. "Speaking Out about Race: 'The United States of Lyncherdom' Clemens Really Wrote." Prospects 25 (2000): 115–150.

Rice, Otis K. The Hatfields and the McCoys. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1978.

Sielke, Sabine. Reading Rape: The Rhetoric of Sexual Violence in American Literature and Culture, 1790–1990. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Sundquist, Eric J. To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War. Edited by Jim Zwick. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1992.

Terry Oggel


views updated May 23 2018


VIOLENCE . Humans, as individuals and as groups, have the potential to be violent. Physical violence is disruptive and damaging to other individuals and groups because it conflicts with some of their basic rights. Individuals try to protect themselves from injury, and societies try to channel and curb violence both through symbolic action and through concrete counterviolence. Individuals and groups, on the other hand, may feel the necessity to resort to physical violence, while ritualization and symbolism may make violent acts easier to perform.

Religion is the most powerful symbolic system humans have developed. Throughout history, religion and violence have been in close contact. The detailed history of this contact still has to be written, although there is no lack of research on individual epochs and episodes, often stimulated by contemporary events. Recent examples include the surge in religiously motivated violence during the 1990s, reflected in the destruction of Yugoslavia or the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Both the actors on the ground and commentators from the outside understood these conflicts as religious confrontations, at least in part. During the same period, the rapid spread of religious fundamentalism, Christian as well as Islamic, led to further reflection on the relationship between religion and violence. The trauma of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., which were quickly interpreted as religious as well as political phenomena, provoked yet another body of studies. On the other hand, general studies of the relationship between religion and violence are rare, and they often appear to be somewhat one-sided. Religion is usually perceived either from the perspective of those institutionalized monotheist religions that dominate the contemporary world, or from a secular position. Since even general research has grown out of actual necessities in most cases, relatively little attention has been given to the place of violence within polytheistic religious systems.


Earlier philosophical reflection treated violence within the wider context of ethics or anthropology. Ethological research, in which Konrad Lorenz's investigation of aggression as a basic biological drive was the perhaps most influential theory in the mid-twentieth century (Lorenz, 1959), was a later field for the study of violence. In the early twenty-first century, however, research on societal and political violence has been carried out primarily in the area of conflict and peace studies. These disciplines evolved as a response to World War IIthe Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) being founded in 1959 and the Journal for Peace Research in 1961and gained momentum during the Vietnam War. The origin of these fields of study in actual political events accounts for their perspective. Researchers in these areas are interested in the political and social conditions under which collective violence originates as well as finding ways to counteract collective violence. They challenge Lorenz's assumption that violence is a biological given of the human condition. Most of these researchers, however, regard religion as relevant only as a social or political variable, and often overlook the consequences of the possibility that it might be an anthropological constant (Burkert, 1996).

As a heuristic approachthat is, one intended to stimulate explorationthe topic of religion and violence can be subdivided into three different questions: (1) religion can be used to legitimate and condone or even to stimulate and incite to violencethis is the most common view, and examples range from the role of priests in warfare to religious riots and wars; (2) violence, both direct and symbolic, through rituals, narrations and images, can be seen as inherent to religion; (3) religion can be a healing force after violence has been committed, as part of its function to create or restore social cohesion.


In current research, violence is understood in several different ways. In common speech, violence usually refers to physical force directed against another human being in order to inflict bodily harm or, in extreme cases, death. This narrow use of the term is easily extended to include physical violence against other living beings and material objects. Violence may be a spontaneous emotional reaction to a provocation; premeditated; or institutionalized and ritualized, as in the violence associated with warfare, torture, or punishment. In conflict research, the term tends to be used in an even wider sense. Johan Galtung, the founder of peace studies, introduced the concept of structural violence as a supplement to direct (physical) violence. Structural violence refers to the coercion inherent in societal structures that is used without the agreement of the victims and against their interests, such as the exploitation of workers in capitalistic economies or the exclusion of foreigners from a state. Its effectiveness relies on the threat and plausibility of direct violence (Galtung, 1969).

A third type of violence is cultural violence, which is structural violence of such long duration that it is embedded in and protected by cultural institutions. Religious violence, or the violence inherent in the three institutionalized monotheistic religions of the West, is the most obvious example of cultural violence (Galtung, 1990). The contrast between direct and structural violence is useful because it demonstrates that direct violence is not necessarily an aberration but a direct consequence of structural violence, and thus of social developments and institutions. This connection has consequences for those who wish to combat violence. Cultural violence, on the other hand, might appear as a simple extension of structural violence to a specific content; it might be seen as inherent in such cultural institutions as those associated with religions. The consequences for the question of religion and violence, however, have to be explored in considerably greater depth than has been done hitherto (Galtung, 19971998). As to the social conditions under which direct collective violence is likely to develop, studies converge to show that such violence is likely to occur when "political power is centralized, non-democratic, and highly dependent on one's group membership, be it race, ethnicity, religion, or some cultural division" (Rummel, 1997, p. 170). This summary suggests that religion, not only in its monotheistic variants, is one among several possible triggers for violence, but fails to explore the question as to whether there is a privileged connection between the two.

Religion in the service of violence

Every society is committed to the use of direct violence, if only to defend itself against outside and inside enemies. In developed societies, however, the state usually claims a monopoly on the use of violence. Violence inside the state is regulated by its laws and structured by its justice system, violence against other states by concepts of warfare, among which the Roman notion of the bellum iustum, or just war, had the most important transhistorical consequences. In polytheistic systems, both law and warfare are protected by such specific deities as the Greek Zeus, the guardian of justice inside society, and Athena, the goddess of properly conducted defensive wars of the city-state of Athens. Monotheist systems place both areas under the tutelage and protection of their respective gods. This divine protection finds expression in the rituals surrounding both the performance of justice and warfare. War often was constructed as a time outside of society's normal order and taking place outside civic space; rituals opened and ended this period, such as the Spartan sacrifices to Artemis Agrotera, "Wild Artemis," before a battle, or the many rituals of integration performed for returning warriors (Parker, 2000). Religion thus marks the borders of war's confined territory. This role of religion was rarely contested in the name of a nonviolent and pacifist theology, as in the Buddhist concept of ahisā. As long as early Christianity remained at the margins of the state, it was mostly a pacifist faith, following the nonviolent teachings of the New Testament (Swift, 1979). This attitude changed, however, when the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official faith. Christian leaders were then confronted with the necessity of violence related to warfare. The prosecution of war was left to the laity but was legitimated from Scripture, albeit under very clearly stated conditions (e.g., Augustine of Hippo [354430], Letter 189). Unlike Christianity, Judaism and Islam never had a tradition of nonviolence; war thus presented many fewer theological problems. Nevertheless, in these religions too war needed sanction and regulation. Islam in particular developed the concept of jihād (literally, "the exercise of faith"), the just defense of the faith (Colpe, 1994; Lewis, 2003).

Despite these restrictions on open violence, Christian and to a lesser extent Muslim history is full of religious wars, most conspicuously the crusades that also turned against Orthodox Christian Byzantium and the European wars of religion that followed the Reformation, such as the Thirty Years' War of 16181648. The development of explicitly religious wars changes the relationship between religion and violence: religion now is the very source of violence, at least in the reading of the actors themselves. It has always been easy to find political and economical motives for these religious wars, in contrast to the indigenous understanding of them. The key problem then has been to assess the extent and sincerity of the combatants' religious motivations. To some extent, the answer has always been determined by axiomatic choices.

In the past, historiography tended to emphasize "rational" political and economical motives. More recently, however, indigenous insistence on religious motives has been taken more seriously: religion has come to be seen as more than just a thin veil hiding more important motivations (Holt, 1993). This reevaluation of motives is true also for the riots that accompanied religious practice before the rise of monotheist systems. When two neighboring villages in Roman Egypt fought each other over the killing of a sacred animal (Plutarch, On Isis 72; Dio Cassius 42.34; Juvenal, Satire 15), or when the killing of a sacred cat by a Roman soldier triggered riots (Diodorus Siculus 1.83.8), later scholars often pointed to rival political and economic ambitions, tensions created by the presence of foreign armies in Egypt, or popular impressions that local traditions were threatened. But in all cases, the native discourse as well as the discourse of the Roman administrators and commentators was religious. The same was true of the riots against the early Christians that triggered such major persecutions as the one in Lyons in 177 ce. The objections against the Christians were usually couched in the language of sacrifice and perverted sexuality; economic problems entered only marginally, as when Paul threatened the prosperous business of the Ephesian silversmiths (Acts 19).

But it was not until Natalie Zemon Davis published a seminal paper in 1973 on religious riots in early modern France that historians were compelled to take religion seriously as a motive for violence. With the establishment of the secularized state, matters became more complicated. Research on religious violence in nineteenth-century France has shown that as a consequence of the French Revolution, "the boundary between religious, social and political violence was extremely porous" (Ford, 1998, p. 105). Anticlerical riots in the name of a secularized state against the Catholic Church confused the distinction between political and religious violence more than the riots against Roman occupiers that were triggered by the killing of a sacred animal. In the latter case, violence was used against foreigners who were seen to violate the norms of the indigenous religion. In the former case, violence resulted from the political desire to curb the influence of a religious institution.

Violence as intrinsic to religion

The key question in this debate is whether religion as such contains violence or whether it is only associated with it. The answers given by various scholars range from agreement to fierce denial, but the question may be too simplistic. Many religions contain rituals, stories, and representations that are directly violent. The pantheon of a polytheistic religion usually contains one or several violent divinities; these are often connected with the irrational violence of warfare, such as Ares in Greece or Erra in Mesopotamia. But these gods represent a violence kept at a distance and with which humans are uncomfortable. Civic cults of Ares are extremely rare, and gods as well as humans are said to hate him (Iliad 5.889). The myth of Erra describes his rule as only short-lived and characterized by senseless destruction that necessitates the reconstruction of Babylon (Maschinist and Sasson, 1985). These divinities define a world in which war is a bitter necessity that should be as infrequent as possible.

Other stories, however, place violence at the foundation of the present-day cosmic order. Marduk, the god of Babylon, creates the world from the body of his opponent Tiamat and human beings from the blood of her closest ally, while in Greek mythology Zeus fights the Titans and the monster Typhon before he can establish his rule (Trumpf, 1959). In one possible reading of the New Testament, the Christian God must let his son die as a victim of human violence in order to found the new messianic world order. Order can be created only through the destruction of its antecedents and its enemies. This order is also precarious because these hostile forces are still active and must be kept at bay. Thus protective violence is always necessary; for example, the Indian goddess Durgā is a powerful demon killer who protects the world "every time when demons create danger" (Devīmāhātmya 11.55).

Animal and human sacrifice

The notion of protective violence leads to the practice of animal sacrifice, a rite that is widespread in agricultural cultures. The victims are usually domesticated animals. The performers often regard the killing of animals as unproblematic because it prepares them for a common meal with the gods. Moreover, meat is a staple food in these cultures. Ritualization and mythologization explain and legitimate the public slaughter of animals, as does the ritualization of hunting and warfare. The very fact of ritualization, however, might point to the existence of a latent problem, in that the ritual and the discourse about it must give some kind of meaning to the killing. Sometimes, the indigenous discourse about animal sacrifice and its practice point to the awareness of the problem. In some Polynesian cultures, the victima pigis never killed and sometimes never eaten by its owner because it is considered "a brother of humans." The complex ritual behavior allows the owner of a pig, however, to also eat pork (Lanternari, 1976, pp. 298303).

In Indo-European sacrificial ideology, the stories talk about the killing of a human being (Lincoln, 1991, pp. 167175). Thus the problem of killing interferes with the necessity of eating to the point that animal sacrifice is altogether abolished. This abolition leads to vegetarianism, as with the Pythagoreans in Greece or the Buddhists and Jains in India. In these instances, animals are regarded as too closely related to humans to be killed. But with the exception of Buddhism, the rejection of animal sacrifice remained an option only for individuals, and could be given up again (e.g., Findley, 1987).

Human sacrifice as the ultimate form of sacrificial violence exists at least in the discourse about sacrifice, even in societies in which actual human sacrifice is unattested. Greek and Roman myths, for example, establish some violent rituals on a past history of human sacrifice that the present and less cruel rite replaced. Stories that legitimate direct violence against others (Christians, Jews, Gnostics, religious reformers, political rebels) typically accuse them of practicing child sacrifice and even cannibalism. Accusations of Satanism in the 1980s and 1990s adopted the same strategy to trigger (and, presumably, legitimate) judicial violence in private relationships (Frankfurter, 2005). In other societies (Celts, Aztecs), human sacrifice is attested with varying explanations of the practice. In some cases, the foundational violence is taken more seriously and avoided by exchanging an animal for a human victim (Lincoln, 1991, pp. 176207).

Not all modern theories of animal sacrifice pay attention to its inherent violence. The two best-known theories that address the problem, Burkert's and Girard's, were both published in 1972; their connection with the wider cultural interest in violence seems obvious. Although their theories assume different origins for animal sacrifice (hunting rituals in Burkert's case, scapegoat rituals in Girard's), they both arrive at similar conclusions regarding the function of sacrificial violencenamely that the ritualized killing of a living being channels the group's innate violence and renders it harmless. Violence is inherent in the religious act because violence as a threat is innate in humans, and religion offers a symbolized way to domesticate and defuse it. In the meantime, other scholars have challenged some of the premises of these constructions (Hamerton-Kelly, 1987), and the debate continues. The main thrust of this group of theories is that religion does not contain or breed violence, but is rather a powerful instrument to counteract it.

The problems surrounding questions of violence in the major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are more intricate and more controversial. Contemporary critics underscore the fact that the two main characteristics of monotheistic faiths, revelation and universalism, make them by their very nature potentially violent. Revelation can lead to conflicts with those who contest this revealed truth, and universalism can lead to missionary expansion (Galtung, 1997; Assmann, 2002). These consequences, however, are not inevitable; the certainty of revealed truth generates conflicts only when the claim of another truth becomes threatening to one or both parties. Early Christianity collided with the Roman religious system when its refusal of sacrifice to the emperor was seen as a threat to the divine protection of the empire (Fox, 1986, pp. 452455). The Roman Catholic Church came into conflict with such other Christian groups as the Montanists, or with pagan diviners (Fögen, 1993) whose rituals or beliefs challenged its monopoly of truth.

In all cases, the situation is more complex than a simple conflict between religious systems. Modern analysts perceive political and economical reasons for outbreaks of violence as well as a conflict of personalities; the Montanist claim of charismatic prophecy, for example, challenged the established hierarchy of the church (Trevett, 1996). But again, when indigenous actors give religious motivations for violent behavior, they should be taken at their word. The religious motivations of the Islamic terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, were intended to be taken seriously, as were the claims of Mormon fundamentalists who killed "recalcitrant" wives (Krakauer, 2003). Although Islam has a tradition of avoiding religious conflicts with non-Muslims, Islamic fundamentalism as it developed in early twentieth-century Egypt expressed its resistance to Western values in a religious key (Ali, 2002), as did Western fundamentalism with respect to the modernization of society.

Religious imagery and violence

A key role is often attributed to the religious imaginary of narrations and images. All societies possess traditional (or even sacred) stories about the violent acts of their gods, demons, heroes, or ancestors. Many of these tales value these acts positively and regard them as a necessity, as in foundation myths or stories about defense against spiritual or human enemies. Even when violence is perpetrated by others against members of one's own group, the result can be turned into a positive statement, as in the narratives of Christ's crucifixion or the deaths of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim martyrs. Another type of positive narrative of violence is found in apocalyptic visions from the Jewish-Christian Book of Enoch, which was composed in the second century bce, to the contemporary series of "Left Behind" novels that are popular among American Christian fundamentalists in the early twenty-first century. In apocalyptic visions, violence serves as a deterrent from sin or as a tool of mission and conversion. In martyrologies, the stories (whose recitation was part of the liturgy of the early Church) encouraged their audiences to withstand the violence of persecution in order to preserve the faith. Stories, however, can always be reenacted; violent stories can, under certain circumstances, generate real violence (Lüdemann, 1997; Ellens, 2004, vol. 1). The texts do not always function as directly as they did during the French wars of religion, however, when executions and mutilations reproduced the details related in apocalyptic narratives (Crouzet, 1990).

The early Christians sometimes provoked the Roman authorities in order to suffer martyrdom in a sort of passive violence. In a theologically highly contested move, contemporary Palestinian suicide bombers turned active violence against their enemies and themselves in order to become martyrs. The investigators of persons suspected of witchcraft in early modern Europe projected their own concepts of demonic behavior on their victims in order to legitimate their own punitive violence (Frankfurter, 2005). The reasons for this "dark side" of religion are complex, but a major factor appears to be the tradition of reading sacred books in order to find models for religiously (and thus ethically) correct action. This pattern of reading is central to Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious education. To deny that some of the stories taken as models encourage violence, or even to point out that the sacred books contain at least as many stories that inculcate nonviolence, compassion, and love, serves only an apologetic function. The researcher seeks to analyze why certain epochs, circumstances and charismatic personalities preferred one type of story or the other, and why certain epochs and circumstances actualized the dormant potential of the religious imaginary. It is instructive to see how one of the most violent symbolic systems, Tantrism, is serving in its Himalayan version as the most powerful spiritual guide to total ascetic calm (Huntington and Bangdel, 2003), while Bengali Tantrism served as an ideological source for political violence during the struggle for Indian independence, its goddess Kalī coming to represent Mother India as a violent rebel (Urban, 2003, pp. 73133).

Religion and the End of Violence

Religion plays a vital but relatively unexplored role in the aftermath of violence. On one level, rituals mark the end of such periods of violence as warfare. Cathartic rituals and rituals of thanksgiving reintegrate the returning warriors into the fabric of peaceful society; the ringing of church bells and modern peace celebration liturgies also preserve this religious symbolism.

On another level, religion is used to heal the wounds caused by a violent conflict. In early nineteenth-century France, Catholic missionaries kept the memory of the horrors of the reign of terror alive by staging processions that retraced the way to the guillotine of prominent victims. The declared aim of these ritual processions was to remember the violent acts and, through confession, to expiate them. According to Catholic teaching, forgiveness and expiation are possible only after penitence, and penitence presupposes memory of the sinful deed, even if this remembrance contradicted the official policy of oubli, forgetting, as practiced by the Restoration monarchy (Kroen, 1998). After the violent civil wars in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, both the official Catholic Church and the country's indigenous religions were concerned with healing; because, in an indigenous reading, the violence had unleashed the demons of the murdered, Catholic exorcists and traditional diviners and spirit mediums stepped in (Ranger, 1992, pp. 705706). The extraordinary situations that prevailed in both nineteenth-century France and twentieth-century Zimbabwe after a period of unusually high levels of violence generated new rituals within the matrix of traditional ritualism. The same dynamics are visible elsewhere; for example, Andean peasant communities readapted "new discourses and practices according to community memory about ancient practices" after the violence of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurrection (Gamarra, 2000, p. 286). It appears that most communities can deal with "ordinary" levels and forms of violence with the help of their traditional symbolic systems. On the other hand, extraordinary violence, especially the violence generated by prolonged periods of intensive or brutal civil war, demands adaptations of the symbolic language that gives meaning to violence.

See Also

Apocalypse, overview article; Martyrdom; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements and Violence; Nonviolence; Sacrifice; War and Warriors, overview article.


Ali, Tariq. The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity. London and New York, 2002.

Assmann, Jan. Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder der Preis des Monotheismus. Munich, 2003.

Bowersock, Glen Warren. Martyrdom and Rome. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans. Interpretationen altgriechischer Opferriten und Mythen. Berlin, 1972.

Crouzet, Denis. Les guerriers de Dieu: La violence au temps des troubles de religion. Seyssel, France, 1990.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. "The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France." Past & Present 59 (1973): 5191.

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Gamarra, Jeffrey. "Conflict, Post-Conflict and Religion: Andean Responses to New Religious Movements." Journal of Southern African Studies 26 (2000): 271287.

Girard, René. La Violence et le Sacré. Paris, 1972.

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Huntington, John C., and Dina Bandel. The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art. Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago, 2003.

Krakauer, Jon. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. New York, 2003.

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Fritz Graf (2005)


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The term violence is used to describe animal and human behavior that threatens to cause or causes severe harm to a target. Most animal studies emphasize variations in aggression and use the concept of extreme aggression (rather than violence) to denote the most serious and injurious behavior. In studying human behavior, violence and aggression are frequently used as synonyms, with violence marked by an extra degree of excessiveness. In some cases, the choice of the term "aggression" or "violence" is a matter or preference or convention. For example, aggression is most commonly used to describe young children's behavior while such behavior in adolescents is called youth violence. Violence tends to be the preferred term for describing classes of behavior or phenomenon (e.g., domestic violence, media violence, sports violence) without specific reference to the degree of severity involved.

Different authorities have been extremely variable in their willingness to include a range of actions under the heading of violence. Indeed, there has been much controversy about the term and just what actions should be covered. Some have offered more limited definitions based on constraints such as intentionality, legality, and nature of targets. Each limitation provides a more specific definition with associated advantages and disadvantages. For instance, many definitions of both aggression and violence specify that harm be intentional. Accidentally causing serious injury generally is not considered an act of violence in both common discourse and legal proceedings. However, specifying intentionality poses measurement challenges because violence can no longer be judged by merely observing a behavior; rather, the mental state of the person must be assessed or inferred.

Limiting the definition of violence to "illegal behaviors" that cause harm or injury is consistent with legal guidelines. Such a definition is useful from a policy and control perspective because it covers actions generally considered as violent, including forcible rape, armed robbery, aggravated assault, gang violence, and homicide. A problem with this definition is that the same behavior may be judged illegal or legitimate depending on specific cultural and historical conditions. From this perspective, a behavior would only be considered violent if there were official sanctions against it.

Some definitions of violence include only behavior that is designed to harm others (or animate beings). This focus emphasizes the antisocial and immoral nature of violence as an act against others and society. It is consistent with most contemporary criminal definitions of violence. However, it excludes the self as a target of harm and injury, which is inconsistent with public health definitions of violence that generally include harm to self. Other definitions construe the target even more broadly, extending it to include inanimate objects (e.g., destruction of property).


Violence is not one behavioral pattern but several. The multifaceted and complex nature of violence has led to a number of proposed guidelines and classification schemes for studying its component parts. Behavioral scientists have worked to develop classifications by grouping together meaningful categories of violence that share common characteristics related to etiology and function. One approach has been to classify violence according to the underlying motivation of the aggressor. A frequently used distinction is between hostile and instrumental motivation. In hostile violence, the major goal is to inflict harm or injury. In other words, hurting is an end in itself. In instrumental violence, actions may cause harm but are not motivated by the desire to cause harm per se. Rather, they are motivated by goals such as taking resources from others. In both cases, this distinction depends on the individual's intent, not on the act itself.

Although not conceptually clean, this distinction has proved useful. Certain types of violence such as armed robbery, murder-for-hire, and terrorism generally are well planned, goal-directed, instrumental actions. Offenders are acting to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. Many prominent models of criminal behavior emphasize the rational choice component of crime (e.g., Cornish and Clarke). This type of planned behavior is distinguished from more impulsive and hostile violent actions often characterized by loss of control, irrationality, and rage. Such impulsive violent behaviors are frequently labeled emotional violence and are linked with emotions such as anger and fear. Biological models of violence have identified distinct neural patterns that characterize each type of violence. For example, the "low-arousal" aggressor more likely to commit instrumental violence is underreactive and responds sluggishly to stressors. In contrast, the "high-arousal" aggressor who is more prone to hostile violence tends to be hypervigiliant and easily frustrated (Niehoff).

Another distinction between classes of violence that bears some similarity to the hostile/instrumental classification is the difference between defensive and offensive violence. This distinction has been fundamental to animal studies of aggression, with defensive and offensive aggression linked to stimulation of different areas of the brain. In humans, instrumental aggression is roughly analogous to predatory aggression although it is limited to intraspecies behavior. In other words, when humans kill animals for food it is generally not considered offensive violence in the same sense as killing a rival gang member. Similarly, emotional or hostile aggression in humans could be considered the analogue of defensive aggression in response to a threat or perceived threat. Studies of children have found differences in propensity for proactive aggression and reactive aggression, although some children score high on both types of aggression (Dodge and Coie). This work provides some empirical support for distinguishing between offensive violence that is unprovoked and defensive violence that is a reaction to another's provocation.

Clearly, different classification schemes serve different purposes. In everyday usage, violence is often divided into distinct classes based on criteria useful for description, dialogue, and public policy. Violence can be grouped into categories based on variables such as the agents of violence (e.g., gangs, youth, collective groups), the victims of violence (e.g., women, children, minority groups), the relationship between aggressor and victim (e.g., interpersonal, nonrelated), perceived causality (e.g., psychopathological, situational, learned), and type of harm (e.g., physical, psychological, sexual). These criteria are frequently combined to examine particular forms of violence, such as psychological abuse of women in intimate relationships, youth sexual violence, instrumental collective violence, and so on.

Some efforts have focused on developing classification systems that can guide prevention, intervention, and control efforts. Tolan and Guerra describe four types of youth violence: situational, relationship, predatory, and psychopathological. This is not an exclusive classification proposed to cover all types of violence, but rather provides some conceptual organization for structuring efforts to prevent or reduce violence. Each distinct type of violence is associated with different causal mechanisms and warrants a different type of intervention. For example, relationship violence is influenced more by anger and conflict than predatory acts of violence such as armed robbery of a stranger. Consequently, biochemical interventions that block anger arousal or conflict-resolution training programs that teach anger management skills may have some influence on relationship violence but much less influence on predatory violence.

The causes of violence

As historical and cross-cultural records demonstrate, our evolutionary history is laced with examples of violence. Indeed, paleontological data reveal a rather continuous stream of human violence dating back thousands of years. It is clear that violence is not restricted to early historical periods or particular cultural groups. Despite recent concerns in the United States and elsewhere over spiraling violence rates, available data suggest that there is actually less violence now than in ancient times. From an evolutionary perspective, human violence may represent a context-sensitive solution to particular problems of social living that may ebb and flow in accordance with changing conditions. In reviewing these adaptive functions, Buss and Shackelford describe seven problems for which violence may have evolved as a solution: (1) co-opting the resources of others; (2) defending against attack; (3) inflicting costs on same-sex rivals; (4) negotiating status and power hierarchies; (5) deterring rivals from future aggression; (6) deterring males from sexual infidelity; and (7) reducing resources expended on genetically unrelated children.

Against a backdrop of adaptive violence, there are still many other factors that play a role in the ontogeny of violence and help explain variations in violence across individuals and social groups. In most cases, a number of different factors converge to increase the likelihood of violent behavior. These factors can be divided into roughly three groups: (1) innate factors; (2) socialization factors; and (3) situational factors.

Innate factors. Early efforts to unveil differences between violent and nonviolent individuals began with attempts to assign precise neural locations to a range of behaviors including violence. Known as phrenology, this approach assigned high priority to the innate and presumably defective aspects of individual makeup. The idea that behaviors are linked to physical characteristics also drove some of the first criminological efforts to understand the etiology of violence. Perhaps the most well-known work is that of nineteenth-century Italian criminal anthropologist Cesare Lombroso, who popularized the notion that violent individuals possessed distinct physical features indicative of primitive or inferior development, known as atavisms.

A concern over physical features gave way to the far more powerful influence of genetics. Although there was much resistance toward biology-as-destiny approaches, more and more geneticists were taking over the reigns of biology. However, much of the early writing on the genetic underpinnings of violence failed to pinpoint the precise causal mechanisms. The lack of a genetic road map did not unravel efforts to search for the innate determinants of aggression. Support for the idea that aggression was hard-wired from birth came from a number of different encampments.

Beginning in the early part of the twentieth century, ethologists saw aggression and violence as a response to the call of internal mechanisms or instincts. This emphasis found good company in the Freudian psychoanalysts. They saw aggression as derived from an inborn tendency to destroy. Like all instincts, it builds up over time and must ultimately be discharged in either acceptable or unacceptable ways. This pressure is made worse by frustration. The idea that aggression and violence are linked to frustration had a significant impact on the field and was followed by models emphasizing the frustration-aggression connection (Dollard et al.). Although still grounded in a drive model of behavior, this work also provided evidence that violence can be learned. Still, innate drive theories persisted and were later popularized by the writings of Konrad Lorenz. According to Lorenz, aggression was not simply a response to an instinct but was itself an innate driving force, notable for both its spontaneity and centrality to species preservation.

But drive theories found themselves caught up in an empty vessel. There was little evidence to indicate that aggressive energy builds up until it is released. Further, while the notion of drive or instinct may have some descriptive utility, it offered little in the way of specifying the precise internal mechanisms that underlie violence and ran the risk of engendering a pessimistic attitude about prevention. Fortunately, scientific advances in understanding neuranatomy, brain chemistry, and genetic transmission allowed for increasingly greater precision in understanding the biology of violence, leading us farther from the notion of violence as inevitable instinct. The role of key areas of the brain in regulating emotion and behavior is now well established. Violence has also been associated with some kinds of brain damage from birth trauma, tumors, or head injury. However, rather than acting alone, the biological and social environments seem to exert reciprocal influences.

For example, threat perceptions involve neurotransmitters that partially determine an individual's sensitivity to environmental stimulisome more reactive, others less so. But environmental exposure to violence, danger, or abuse during the early years can quickly overload the brain's alarm system, creating adolescents who are hypervigilant to stress and overreact to environmental cues (Pynoos, Steinberg, and Ornitz). Hypervigilance to threats may also explain some of the inconclusive findings linking testosterone and aggression. It appears that testosterone is linked to specific types of aggression, notably the tendency to "fight back" in a more defensive or reactive fashion related to heightened threat perception rather than the tendency to start fights or engage in offensive aggression (Olweus, Mattson, and Low).

Socialization factors. Not only does the social environment serve as a trigger for biological development, it also provides a context for learning appropriate behaviors. Whatever propensity for violence is written on an individual's biological birth certificate, it is clearly molded and shaped through interactions with others. There is a sizable body of evidence showing that early socialization across multiple contexts accounts for much of the individual differences in later violent behavior.

Different mechanisms have been implicated in the learning of violence. Early theories stressed the importance of reinforcement. A young child wants a toy, but his playmate will not relinquish it. The boy pushes and grabs the toy and the playmate relents. Aggression works. If followed by reinforcement, both mild aggression and serious violence are likely to increase. Such reinforcement is not limited to tangible objects; it can include outcomes such as attention, status, and advantageous positioning in the peer status hierarchy, similar to some of the adaptive functions of aggression discussed previously.

In addition to the role of reinforcement, early formulations of social learning theory emphasized the role of observational learning (Bandura). Individuals who see others use and obtain rewards for violence, especially others whom they admire, are more likely to imitate them and behave violently under similar circumstances. As a psychological mechanism, modeling can also explain variation in violence levels across different social groups and cultures. As violence becomes more legitimate in a social group, it is more likely that members will conform to these emerging group norms. Some observers have described a "code of violence" that characterizes the behavior of many inner-city males. Status is associated with willingness to use violence, and children emulate the toughness and violence of older male role models.

Much of the concern about the links between exposure to media to violence and aggression derives from social learning theory. Research with children has clearly demonstrated a correlation with exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior. Children who watch more violent movies and television are more likely to engage in similar behaviors both as children and adults. Long-term exposure to media violence fosters later violence through several mechanisms. In addition to teaching aggressive attitudes and behaviors, it also seems to desensitize viewers to violence, making it more acceptable. People who watch a lot of televised violence also show exaggerated fears of violence, perhaps making them more hypervigilant and susceptible to reactive outbursts.

The media is but one socialization context that can promote the learning of violence. Research has shown that both parents and peers can be a powerful force in shaping children's behavior. Lack of attention to children's behavior and inconsistent parental discipline and monitoring of activities have been consistently related to the development of aggressive and violent behavior patterns. Extremely harsh and abusive parenting has also been linked to later aggression. Stated simply, "violence begets violence." Equally important is the failure of positive encouragement for prosocial and nonviolent behaviors. Many parents ignore children's efforts at solving conflicts peacefully or managing frustration. Oversights such as these may inadvertently teach children that aggressive acts alone are worthy of notice.

Peers also exert an influence from an early age, but seem to become most important during adolescence. Perhaps one of the most robust findings in the delinquency literature is that anti-social and violent peers tend to gravitate toward one another. Delinquents associate with each other and this association stimulates greater delinquency. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the actions of gangs. Not only is violent behavior accepted, it is required. Members must be "jumped in" via violent victimization; the same procedure is followed for those who want to leave the gang.

The environment also operates to influence the learning of violence. Some studies of environmental influences have focused on the effects of poverty and disadvantage. Poverty itself does not cause violence. Rather, being poor affects one's life experiences in several ways conducive to violence. Individuals living in poor neighborhoods have few resources and supports for healthy development and are more likely to experience multiple stressors. In some neighborhoods, there are few legitimate routes to financial success and social status, which may also engender feelings of relative deprivation in contrast to middle-class society. Those who have little also have little to lose. Thus, low social and economic status may contribute to heightened risk-taking behavior, an idea that finds some support in psychological studies showing that artificially lowering an individual's self-esteem gives rise to higher levels of risky or rule-breaking behavior.

In urban settings, poverty often produces situational factors, such as overcrowding, that are linked to violence. Indeed, the highest rates of violence typically are found among the urban poor (Dahlberg). Drive-by shootings and random violence have come to characterize some of the most distressed, inner-city communities. As violence increases and neighborhoods become more dangerous, the use of force may be seen as normal and even necessary for self-protection. A subculture of violence can emerge wherein violence is legitimized as an acceptable behavior within certain groups. The idea that degree of violence is related to the prevailing social norms about its acceptability can also shed light on cross-cultural differences. Countries where violence is considered non-normative such as Japan have low homicide rates; countries where violence has become almost a way of life such as El Salvador and Guatemala have homicide rates over one hundred times higher (Buvinic, Morrison, and Shifter).

These different contextual factors can serve as a training ground for violence via their influence on children's learning. However, beyond a focus on how individuals learn violent behavior through socialization, recent efforts have highlighted the importance of cognitive processes that help shape and control behaviorwhat might be called the software of the brain. Studies have shown that more aggressive and violent individuals have different ways of processing information and thinking about social situations. They tend to interpret ambiguous cues as hostile, think of fewer nonviolent options, and believe that aggression is more acceptable (Crick and Dodge). Once these cognitions crystallize during socialization, they are more resistant to change.

Situational factors. Both innate factors and socialization experiences mold an individual's propensity to violence. But this is not the whole story. It appears that situational catalysts can also lead to violence and increase the seriousness of such behavior. Almost any aversive situation can provoke violence. Frustrating situations are linked to heightened aggression, although frustration does not always produce aggression and is certainly not the only instigating mechanism. Other aversive experiences such as pain, foul odors, smoke, loud noises, crowding, and heat portend heightened aggressiveness, even when such behavior cannot reduce or eliminate the aversive stimulation (Berkowitz).

The influence of pain on violent behavior has been widely studied. Pain-instigated aggression is often cited as one of the clearest examples of aversively generated aggression. Further, the likelihood of overt aggression increases as the pain becomes greater and the ability to avoid it decreases. However, it is not necessarily the pain, per se, that causes aggression. Indeed, investigations of people suffering from intense pain have documented higher levels of anger and hostility and speculate that subsequent aggression may be due to the agitated negative affect that accompanies pain rather than the pain itself. Along these lines, any type of aversive experience that results in heightened negative affect should increase the likelihood of subsequent aggression.

Alcohol has also been shown to promote violence. In studies of alcohol and domestic violence, alcohol use typically is implicated in more than half of all incidents. Similarly, both homicide victims and perpetrators are likely to have elevated blood alcohol levels. Although a relation has been established, the precise mechanisms by which alcohol increases violence are unclear. It is likely that these effects are related to its impact on how an individual evaluates social situations and decides on an appropriate response. For example, some alcohol-violence studies suggest that ingestion of alcohol makes normal social interactions extremely difficult, heightening the likelihood of a range of inappropriate responses including violence.

Situational cues that suggest violence are also likely to increase violence by priming violencerelated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Street fights engender more violence because they cue violent responses in observers. The presence of guns can also make violence more likely to occur when they are associated with an aggressive meaning and positive outcomes. For instance, the presence of a hunting rifle will not promote hostile and violent behavior in those who disapprove of aggression toward others. It is not just the weapon but the meaning and anticipated consequences of its use that promote violence. Even the picture of a gun or weapon in a room can increase the chance of an aggressive act. This effect is of particular concern because guns make violence more deadly. For example, the rise in murders of juveniles in the United States during the late 1980s and early 1990s was entirely firearm-related. Firearms are now the leading cause of death among children and youth in many places (Snyder and Sickmund).

Even nonviolent individuals can turn violent when they are part of a violent crowd. Group violence seems to make individuals feel less personally responsible for their behavior, acting in ways they would never do alone. Violence becomes an act of the group with no one person being held responsible. In some groups, violence emerges as a necessary strategy for defense against enemiesas seen in gang warfare, terrorist organizations, and political violence. At the other end of the spectrum, isolation also breeds violence. Different mechanisms to account for the influence of isolation have been proposed. These range from psychological changes akin to delusions of grandeur to disturbances in the balance of neurochemical pathways critical to the control of emotional and stressful responses.

Prevention and control of violence

Although history attests to the ubiquitousness of violence, it is also true that individuals have available and use a wide array of inhibitory or alternate behavioral strategies. Although aggression and violence may be ever present, they are not inevitable. The longevity of a social group, society, or nation hinges, in part, on the peaceful resolution of conflicts and other social problems. Escalating or unacceptably high rates of violence can serve as a call to action to mobilize the forces of prevention and control.

Just as there is no single cause of violence, there is no single solution. Rather, different types of violence are associated with different causal processes and warrant different responses. A reasoned approach to prevention and control hinges on sorting out these multiple influences as they impact the developing individual over time and across contexts. The control of violence requires a confluence of synchronized efforts that address innate, socialization, and situational contributions to violence, for all individuals as well as for those who display more extreme problems.

New research on the biology of violence provides a credible starting point that looks at individual development as it both influences and is influenced by the environment. If this development proceeds on a course that minimizes violent behavior, it results in a nervous system that is in tune with the demands of the outside world, is able to integrate emotional and representational data, and is not hypersensitive to perceived threat. Environmental factors that compromise this development, such as exposure to lead, head trauma, and abuse provide a viable beginning for prevention. The fact that brain development occurs at a rapid pace during the first years of life suggests that these factors must be addressed at an early age. Not only should efforts focus on prevention of trauma, but healthy developmental supports are needed. Healthy Start and NurseHome Visitation programs are examples of programs that can address these issues.

To the extent that violent actions are learned, a range of prevention and control responses can interrupt this learning process. First in line are strategies to reduce the perceived or actual positive consequences of violence. These may involve changing peer group and parent norms, providing nonviolent and positive means to achieve desired goals such as status and money, and training parents and other socialization agents to reward cooperative and prosocial behaviors. Under some conditions, punishment can also reduce aggression. A child who is sent to his room after hitting his brother should be less likely to hit his brother the next day. A child who is severely spanked for hitting his brother may suppress his aggression in the days to come while also learning that violence is a good way to solve problems. Prison is unfortunately one of the best schools for violence known to society. Inmates are held in isolation, under crowded conditions, socializing only with other violent or antisocial peers, with treatment for accompanying mental health or addiction problems the exception rather than the rule. Prisons also come into play far too late in the game, when brain patterns and cognitions are well formed.

Another prevention prescription would focus on reducing the myriad of opportunities to model violent acts as a result of a continuous exposure to glorified violence in television, movies, and video games, as well as "sports" activities such as extreme fighting. Observing violence can increase individual attitudes and beliefs that such behavior is acceptable. In addition to reducing such modeling opportunities, research suggests that cognitive-behavioral interventions can also shift thinking patterns toward more reflective and less automatically aggressive thoughts.

The notion that human violence is innate or inevitable precludes effective prevention and control. In contrast, if we understand violence as an optional strategy that can be increased or decreased through a variety of mechanisms, opportunities for prevention and control abound. Individuals are biologically and socially capable of peaceful coexistencea clear and powerful antidote to violence.

Nancy G. Guerra

Lyndee Knox

See also Crime Causation: Biological Theories; Crime Causation: Psychological Theories; Crime Causation: Sociological Theories; Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures; Domestic Violence; Guns, Regulation of; Homicide: Behavioral Aspects; Mass Media and Crime; Prediction of Crime and Recidivism; Prisons: Problems and Prospects; Stalking; Terrorism; War and Violent Crime.


Bandura, A. Aggression: A Social Learning Approach. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Berkowitz, L. "On the Determinants and Regulation of Impulsive Aggression." In Aggression: Biological, Developmental, and Social Perspectives. Edited by S. Feshbach and J. Zagrodzka. New York: Plenum Press, 1997. Pages 187211.

Buss, D. M., and Shackelford, T. K. "Human Aggression in Evolutionary Psychological Perspective." Clinical Psychology Review 17 (1997): 605619.

Buvinic, M.; Morrison, A.; and Shifter, M. Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Framework for Action. Technical report. New York: Inter-American Development Bank, 1999.

Cornish, D. B., and Clarke, R. V. The Reasoning Criminal: Rational Choice Perspective on Offending. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986.

Crick, N. R., and Dodge, K. A. "A Review and Reformulation of Social Information-processing Mechanisms in Children's Social Adjustment." Psychological Bulletin 115 (1994): 74101.

Dahlberg, L. "Youth Violence in the United States: Major Trends, Risk Factors, and Prevention Approaches." American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14 (1998): 259272.

Dodge, K. A., and Coie, J. D. "Social-Information Processing Factors in Reactive and Proactive Aggression in Children's Peer Groups." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 53 (1987): 11461158.

Dollard, J.; Doob, L. W.; Miller, N. E.; Mowrer, O. H.; and Sears, R. R. Frustration and Aggression. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1939.

Lorenz, K. On Aggression. New York: MJF Books, 1963.

Niehoff, D. The Biology of Violence. New York: Free Press, 1999.

Olweus, D.; Mattson, A.; and Low, H. "Circulating Testosterone Levels and Aggression in Adolescent Males: A Causal Analysis." Psychosomatic Medicine 50 (1988): 261272.

Pynoos, R.; Steinberg, A. M.; and Ornitz, E. M. "Issues in the Developmental Neuro-Biology of Traumatic Stress." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 821 (1997): 176193.

Snyder, H., and Sickmund, M. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1999.

Tolan, P. H., and Guerra, N. G. What Works in Reducing Adolescent Violence. Boulder, Colo.: Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, 1994.


views updated May 21 2018


VIOLENCE. Violence was endemic in early modern Europe, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, and from the Urals to the British Isles. Serfs and peasants wielded knives and staffs, most gentlemen and merchants wore swords and/or pistols, and nobles and their numerous retainers were similarly armed. Even teenaged students carried knives in their schools, brawled in the streets, and operated as gangs. The weapons used were often determined by class, as were the instruments of public death. Thus while serfs and peasants were hanged, the aristocracy had the privilege of death by the sword; women were burned alive or drowned. Tempers were short in this society, and weapons were easy to hand. The propertied classes, especially, lacked self-control until the waning of the seventeenth century. They encouraged gangs of retainers or hired thugs, or they formed groups of brigands, to assault enemies in paying off grudges or pursuing local or political power.

Rates of violent activity that can be quantified from official records in western Europe suggest a large rise from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, followed by a long decline to the late eighteenth century. Rates of violent crime based on indictments and inquests rose sharply from the 1560s to the 1620s, peaking at the turn of century at ten per hundred thousand. They then declined greatly in the mid-seventeenth century, when they reached six per hundred thousand, drifted lower in 1700, when they reached three per hundred thousand, and then declined significantly in the mid-eighteenth century, when they reached two per hundred thousand. In all countries, however, rates were highest in the borderlands and lowest in central urban areas.


The sixteenth century represented the apex of a long-term acceleration in personal violence that began in the decades following the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century. Social, economic, and religious conflict nurtured violent solutions in an age where there were few institutions to control human activity. Thus personal violence rose in the midst of the decline of medieval institutions and the cobbling together of new ones that would form the early modern state. Personal violence, whether reactive, instinctive, or ritualized, became an acceptable form of human behavior.

However, a growing intolerance of brutality marked a shift in social psychology that developed in England, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, France, and Switzerland, and which later spread first throughout western Europe, and more slowly across the Mediterranean, in the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. An increasingly civilized and sophisticated view of the behavior of middle class citizens, together with a stronger sense of "the peace of God" in Catholic and Protestant churches of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, caused a movement away from violence as a means for the resolution of personal quarrels and disputes. Distressed by sensationalist literature boasting graphic representations of murder and mayhem, the aristocratic and middle classes of Europe began to reform their behavior in what Norbert Elias termed "a civilizing process." Without social support, many traditional forms of personal violence inevitably declined. At the same time, growth in the state's control of violence through policing (particularly in France and Spain) and weapons licensing had a profound effect on communities, limiting opportunities for violence. Finally, with the decay of a popular culture grounded in violence and new expectations of social comportment enforced by the state's judicial system, both group and interpersonal violence receded into the background.

However, perceptions of violence were not easily changed. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries witnessed a surge of popular literature in the form of pamphlets and ballads that told gruesome tales of horrid violent acts; these materials were republished throughout the eighteenth century. This perception was also promoted by women who wrote best-sellers on sensational and scandalous violent acts by women, which became stereotypes in the literature of the era. Moreover, while group violence at the hands of the aristocracy was in decline, the rise of the duel among aristocrats came into vogue in the course of the seventeenth century, most significantly in France, Italy, and England, in spite of the admonitions of churchmen, lawyers, judges, and moralists. And while plebeian and gentlemanly delinquency was on the decline, individual aristocratic delinquency in the form of sexual and roisterous debauchery was on the rise. Thus while interpersonal violence had declined sharply in the overall population by the mid-eighteenth century, in its growing absence the public appetite for stories of violence had increased dramatically.

Much violence, however, was spontaneous. The Paduan artist Niccolò Pizzolo was murdered in a quick-tempered argument; the Mantuan painter Andrea Mantegna hired thugs to beat up rivals who pinched his designs; the Swiss artist Urs Graf displayed bouts of brutal beatings; the sculptor-painter Michelangelo of Florence had his nose broken in a fight with a fellow sculptor; and Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in a tavern brawl, as was the actor Gabriel Spencer by the London playwright Ben Jonson. Fencing grew in popularity in the sixteenth century as the rapier became a favourite weapon of fashionable society because of its more flexible and lightweight qualities in violent confrontations. Many towns enacted legislation to ban the carrying of arms in public places, all to little avail. But most standards of behavior were flaunted, especially by youths at a time (late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries) when male adolescents and young bachelors comprised a significant proportion of the population increase.

Violence was also embedded in the extreme passions of the fifteenth century, which continued into the sixteenth. Rapes, murders, fisticuffs, and knifings followed adulteries or rejections, as recounted in the stories of Margaret of Angoulême, Queen of Navarre, in the 1530s and 1540s. These passions also influenced perceptions that violent crime was "situationally determined": they can be seen in the activities of cunning women in England, muchachos and caballeristas in Spain, strollica in Italy, znakhar in Russia, and charivari in France. They also can be found in the activities of people on the margins, such as suicides and witches, and the unrecorded inhabitants of marshes, forests, and moors.

Other examples of personal violence were clearly ritualized. These included, for continental Europe, punching a debtor until he agreed to pay, hiring assassins in family vendettas, and gathering armed bands to redress wrongs real or imagined. In German towns, initiation riots for journeyman aspirants to the Hanseatic merchant guilds included being hanged from a chimney until out of breath, thrown three times from a boat in the harbor and pushed back into the sea upon climbing in each time until the last, and being whipped bloody in the guildhall. Erasmus noted from his enlightened Rotterdam and Paris that the initiation ceremonies for schools were "fit for executioners, torturers, pimps or galley-slaves."

Youth were often regarded by authorities as primary agents of personal violence. In Swiss and Italian towns, youthful vigilantes used violence upon older citizens who committed immoral sins such as gambling and the ostentatious display of wealth. In French towns, intervillage combat games led to beatings and killings, which were regarded as part of the culture of sport. In England, there are recorded examples of youthful cricketers beating one another with their bats, and a statute from 1563 stated that a man under age twenty-four "is wild, without judgment and not of sufficient experience to govern himself." Much of this violence was conditioned by their exposure to extreme cruelty early in life. Throughout Europe, cats were stoned to death, and bulls and bears were baited and maimed, as were individuals accused of criminal offences. It was not unusual for crowds to see impaled men on stakes thrown to the ground to be eaten by dogs and crows. As Juan de Mariana of Toledo wrote in 1599, killing beasts brutally was a short step from killing men.

Finally, women throughout Europe were responsible for their own violent acts. These acts were accepted because of the perception of sex: women, ruled by their physical body rather than by rational capacity, and aggressive in their actions, possessed magical powers over men. This was seen in the role of women in murder, rape, and suicide in contemporary writing, prose fiction, and drama. Sexual violence became a defining element in male-female relations through rape, ravishment, and seduction. Older women were also active in violence, especially in Ireland, Holland, and France in riots and rebellions against communities and the state. In Germany they were as apt as men to be tortured by church or state for acts asof ill conduct. Their violence, however, was more pronounced in towns than in the countryside.


Meanwhile, institutions of the state, through war, interrogation, and the courts, became major players in dispensing acts of violence against their own and neighboring peoples. While unquantifiable, it would be safe to assume that interpersonal relations became more peaceful in the course of the early modern era, especially in the second half of the seventeenth century, but that society as a whole became more violent with the actions of city- and nation-states from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries.

The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of ubiquitous violence unleashed by new nation-states. This was violence inflicted upon civilians by employed or discharged soldiers living in their midst; institutionalized violence such as torture and execution; violence associated with extra-legal dispute resolution in the form of duels, feuds, and arbitration; interpersonal violence as assault, homicide, domestic violence, rape, and infanticide; group violence in the rituals of youth gangs, carnival, and sports; popular protest displayed in enclosure, food, and tax riots; and the organized crime of bandits and highwaymen. In the end, violence was never far from the consciousness of early modern Europeans.

War could be especially violent for civilian noncombatants. As Francesco Guicciardini wrote in 1525, "all political power is rooted in violence." In the Schmalkaldic War of 15461547, Spanish troops suspended male civilians by their genitals, then tortured them to reveal where they had hidden their money and valuables; women and girls were raped. The link between personal and public violence was well expressed by Pierre de la Primaudaye in 1577: out of quarrels and dissension come sedition, civil, and open wars, and men, under the influence of war, "become savage."

Violence was also a result of the growth of wealth in the era as it came to a few, while poverty worked its way into the many. Enclosure and the commercial cultivation of land caused rural depopulation and dearth, while swelling populations in towns and cities caused job competition and low salaries in an age of rising prices for food. Thus Leonardo da Vinci's plan for an ideal town had upper walks for the gentility to protect them from the plebs. This idea came to symbolize one of the primary aims of the new seventeenth-century state: the suppression of disorder and the monopolization of violence in the form of ritualized public punishment. It proved workable in the new monarchies of France, Netherlands, and the British Isles, moderately feasible in Italian and German areas, and only partly possible in the Iberic world, Helvetic cities, and Nordic countries.

In the end, the dawn of the modern era of violence occurred in the late eighteenth century with the disintegration of monarchial governments and the rise of secular nation-states, organized bandits and brigades, and modern warfare. These institutions precipitated a professional police, central courts, and the prison as the royal power of the early modern era gave way to the state power of modern times. Thus the growth of the modern state from the sixteenth to the early eighteenth century contributed to a shift in violence from personal to state controlled.


Europe comprises an area of diverse regions, and its geography has led to the work of the Annales School of quantitative research that has included violence as one of its subjects. In France and Italy, each region has a research leader and team. In other regions the focus has been on towns, as with the Burgundian, Flemish, Helvetic, Dutch, German, and Swiss. In the British Isles and Scandinavia, it has been a combination of both regions and towns. Most of the published research, however, has been on Italy, France, the Netherlands, Swiss and German towns, the British Isles, and Nordic countries. Results reveal that England, France, and the Netherlands were the most violent societies from the sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century.

In England, there were various high points from the alleged execution of 70,000 rogues during the reign of Henry VII to the "crime wave" of the early 1600s. While criminal gangs were being eliminated and the violence of private warfare waged by the nobility was replaced with war in the courts (litigation), petty violence seems to have continued unabated, stimulated by the social and economic dislocations of the first agricultural and industrial revolution beginning in the late sixteenth century. In criminal acts, there was also a significant change from violent acts against persons (personal crime) to acts against property (property crime). But while noble violence was diluted by resort to the courts, violence was waged incessantly among the peasantry.

In Scandinavia, violence stemmed from personal conflicts, as is visible in the famous witch trials of the 1660s and 1670s that involved mostly old women. Here, in the Nordic countries, crimes of violence, especially lethal violence, underwent a major decline during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. As in England, violence became more tied to economic disputes, both rural and urban. Much of the violence caused by "honor" disappeared as disputes came to be resolved in nonviolent ways. However, by the late seventeenth century women came to be charged with one-third of all offenses because of sexual crimes that were first prosecuted during Reformation efforts to curb extramarital sex, infanticide, and witchcraft. Violent offenders were often goldsmiths, shoemakers, peasants, and farmhands; only soldiers were overrepresented after wars.

In poor and isolated regions of France, violence was directed downward, rarely upward, in the social order. Much of the violence was that of a riposteinformal justice administered by someone provoked into violent action. Here magistrates showed little interest in investigating popular traditions of "self-help." A similar situation existed in Italy with the popular vendetta. This was demonstrated by the Zambarlini family, who turned their victims into "dogmeat." They dismembered corpses, leaving them unburied to be consumed by dogs or pigs, thereby denying their victims the rites of Christian burial and the hope of eternal salvation.

Regional variations also involved distinctions between violence in rural and urban settings. In the county of Essex, England, for example, the rate of interpersonal violence has been estimated as three times the national average. However, that may be due to the fact that Essex was the center of the Puritan movement, where local clergy were vigilant in having acts of violence reported, and where human acts previously regarded as nonviolent (such as child- and wife-beating) were now regarded as violent in nature and to be strongly condemned and eliminated. In major urban areas such as London, however, local authorities took a strong hand in highlighting major violent acts and creating institutions to reduce violence. Therefore, Londoners came to recognize the limits of terror with a new concern over violence associated with public hangings and their processions and public whippings in the streets; Londoners thus became advocates of the end of state-sponsored violence.


The historiography of violence has seen parallel developments with social history since the mid 1970s, where there are distinct typologies linked to politics and society and integrated into the wider historical context. Currently, there is an outpouring of theses, mostly on violence associated with homicide, infanticide, sexual offences, gender, dearth, and forms of punishment. Recent publications emphasize the role of the state, the deployment of central authority, and ideology. But there are few studies of violence from the view of the perpetrator, apart from London historians who have interpreted violent acts as strategies of the poor to aid their quest for survival in the eighteenth-century city.

See also Assassination ; Cities and Urban Life ; Class, Status, and Order ; Crime and Punishment ; Duel ; Passions ; Police ; Torture .


Beattie, John. Policing and Punishment in London, 1660 1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror. Oxford, 2001.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York, 1978.

Egmond, Florike. Underworlds: Organized Crime in the Netherlands, 16501800. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. 2 vols. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. 1st ed. 1978. New York, 2001.

Emsley, Clive, and Louis A. Knafla, eds. Crime History and Histories of Crime: Studies in the Historiography of Crime and Criminal Justice in Modern History. Westport, Conn., 1996.

Evans, Richard J., ed. The German Underworld: Deviants and Outcasts in German History. London, 1988.

Greenshields, Malcolm. An Economy of Violence in Early Modern France: Crime and Justice in the Hauite Avergne, 15871664. University Park, Pa., 1994.

Kiernan, V. G. The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of Aristocracy. Oxford, 1988.

Österberg, Eva, and D. Lindström. Crime and Social Control in Medieval and Early Modern Swedish Towns. Uppsala, 1988.

Ruff, Julius R. Violence in Early Modern Europe, 15001800. Cambridge, Mass., 2001.

Sharpe, James. Crime in Early Modern England, 15501750. London, 1984; rev. ed., 1998.

Stone, Lawrence. "Interpersonal Violence in English Society, 13001980." Past & Present 101 (1983): 2233.

Louis A. Knafla


views updated May 21 2018







Though violence has been characterized as the use of force by and against one or more social subjects with the intention to inflict bodily harm, the study of violent processes over the past three decades has broadened the concept by underscoring its varying forms, which emerge from the struggle for power between modern states, elites and subalterns, and recently formed communities. Interstate war, discourse and the coercive apparatuses of the state, epistemic violence, ethnic conflict, collective recovery, and terrorism represent intellectual signposts in the scholarship on violence, although they emerge from different trajectories of inquiry that do not belong to a single genealogical tradition or discipline.


Violence is identified as an effect of competitive war-making in early modern Europe, which produced a bureaucratic apparatus that could secure the material and human resources required for managing warfare. Such bureaucratic apparatuses would form the institutional skeleton of modern national states from the seventeenth century onward (Tilly 1990). The link between war, the state, and violence is reflected in Max Webers remark that a striking feature of the modern state is, ideally, its monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force and, therefore, its ability to sanction the use of force (Gerth and Mills 1946, p. 78). However, this is not to say that modern states only seek to stem forms of unsanctioned violence, especially those that appear to threaten its authority. Michel Foucaults inquiries (1963, 1966, 1975) reveal that modern welfare states also strive to redefine, regulate, and channel the use of force in order to achieve social order. This insight marked a watershed in the study of violence and shifted the focus of research on the phenomenon from interstate war to the subtle manners in which coercion and the measured use of force are deployed by state agencies in order to shape the social identities of individuals.

Foucaults studies of institutions of criminal punishment and rehabilitation, schools and hospitals, and the spaces of economic production underscore the discourses that organize these institutions, in order to socially produce docile subjects whose utility would, ostensibly, advance societal welfare and maintain order. Competing legal, penal, medical, and academic disciplines converge to define, discursively, what forms of violence are criminal, why they are socially immoral or harmful, and how their perpetrators should be punished or rehabilitated. Far from remaining ideological platitudes that are applicable only to those labeled as criminals or insane, these social meanings of deviance are authoritative because they are articulated as categories of objective knowledge, and they become a metric by which to measureand curb our own deviant and violent tendencies. Foucault not only demonstrates how social control is achieved from above, he also reveals the political utility of microdimensions of violence, which enable the reproduction of a predictable social order by conditioning individuals to coerce themselves through conformity to institutionally sanctioned categories of normal behavior.

Ironically, the very institutional apparatuses and discourses that seek to discipline subjects can also be the source from which to innovate new strategies for resisting violent and coercive regimes. Studies of collective violence associated with popular revolution in western Europe, for example, reveal that tactics employed by protesters borrowed heavily from the police forces own methods of employing violence to suppress collective protest. Similarly, these investigations also point to the manner in which episodes of collective violence directed against monarchical power were morally legitimated by perpetrators through the appropriation and redeployment of political concepts like popular sovereignty. Anthropologists, historians, and sociologists attentive to the discursive dimensions of collective movements enrich the meaning of the concept of violence by tracing the manner in which knowledge, as a means of exercising social power, can animate and constrain collective forms of resistance that employ the use of force.


Inquiries into the creation of social order under European colonization identify epistemic forms of violence that radically essentialized social identities and dismantled previously existing social solidarities. This body of literature marks a departure from a previous form of anthropological study that accepted the traditional culture of non-Western societies as an essentially differentiating feature and one that necessitated methods of exhaustive description as a form of analysis. Anthropologists and historians interrogating the cultural objects of tradition demonstrate that in the name of crafting effective procedures of political rule, colonial administrators set about to objectify native traditions. Such a project involved the production of systematized bodies of objectified knowledge that documented the cultures and traditions of colonial subjects; rather than learning about their dynamism, the European project reduced their complexity and then enabled their ossification (Cohn, 1987, 1996; Dirks, 1987, 2001; Chatterjee, 1986, 1993). Working with Orientalist assumptions about the traditional East, these bodies of knowledge taxonomically classified categories and practices of social identity in new and singular relationships with Western notions of religion, ethnicity, or clan. Importantly, the concept of violence in this domain of research is considered a historical process that involved supplanting the previously existing fuzzy character of social identity, which was shaped by numerous sources of competitive influence, with rigid conceptions of identity (Kaviraj 1992, p. 20).

Having epistemologically fixed such traditions as the primary source of native identity, colonial rulers applied these taxonomies to form key state undertakings spanning law and policing, education, urban planning, the fine arts, and census-taking operations. State projects aimed to stabilize the colonial states task of maintaining social order, creating the conditions for profitable and taxable economic production, while representingostensiblyonly a latent imposition on the social and cultural practices of colonial subjects. In fact, these brutal processes of colonial rule would engender more violent social transformations and political conflicts.


Institutionalizing such rigid conceptions of identity in the states operations created the conditions for political forms of violence by sharpeningand rendering incommensurablethe perceived cultural differences between novel traditional communities that consequently began to form. This was especially palpable in the context of emerging native leaders who were able to cultivate new supportive constituencies, in terms of their imagined traditional commonalities, and call for the state to arbitrate when conflicts with rival communities arose. As historians of colonial Asia and Africa demonstrate, despite the states quest to maintain social order, communal and tribal conflict became a bloody and conspicuously recurring phenomena in this era.

The emergence of competing traditional communities became a mobilizational resourceand source of tensionwhen native elites began to organize collective resistance to colonialism. Such communities were rallied behind the call for national sovereignty through movements of cultural nationalism. For native elites, political independence was a corresponding entitlement of these traditional communities who now aspired to the status of nationhood. Of course, such cultural forms of nationalism were riddled with tensions, often manifesting in violent internal conflict. Though statehood was eventually achieved for most colonies, the process was often characterized by territorial partition, bitter campaigns of violence, and the unprecedented displacement of people (as in the case of India and Pakistan). In other instances, the hollowness of constitutional arrangements based on multiculturalism was exposed when domestic politics spiraled into intense ethnic violence or agonistic competition over political and economic resources. Such violence emerges historically out ofand throughthe commission of epistemic forms of violence.


The study of violence associated with contemporary episodes of ethnic cleansing and genocide has revealed much about the dynamics of collective recovery. Scholars in this subfield have shown how testimonies relating to experiences with violence are often shaped by an implicit requirement that frayed ethnic or national solidarities be restored. Testimonials are burdened with the tasks of reestablishing familial-communal honor, identifying perpetrators, and securing state resources for communal rehabilitation. Strikingly, the analysis of collective memory and recovery points to the difficulty of articulating pain as an experience and how the depth of it is necessarily reduced when it is articulated as a collective and social form of suffering (Das 1997).

The theme of collective injury is also salient to discussions of more recent forms of violence associated with terrorist groups, particularly those movements that seem to be morally organized by a religious ethos. Scholars have shown that the moral justifications employed by such movements draw upon earlier forms of cultural nationalism that challenged foreign occupation and imperialism, as well as heretical regimes and moral waywardness. Many current-day militant movements draw their moral authority from religious reform movements from the colonial era that placed an emphasis on the correct observance of religious rituals. The Taliban, for example, trace their genealogy to the Deoband movement in late-colonial-era India, which initiated and institutionalized the madrassa -based study of Islamic law and the upholding of Muslim ritual practices (dress, morality, and regular prayer) as a means to achieve a virtuous way of life.

Tellingly, the focus of such religious reform movements was transformed during the Cold War period when insurgents were recruited, trained, and armed by alliances of Western states and their clients to fight communism. Militant and globally dispersed movements that turn noncombatants into targets of political violence are the products of proxy wars that were waged between the superpowers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

In summary, the study of culture and ideology has transformed the meanings of violence by shifting away from an emphasis on interstate war and physical harm to an exploration of the more insidious ways in which highly regulated forms of violence and coercionpresented as socially productive methods of reform and developmentare sanctioned by the state in order to govern the actions of individuals. Examinations of the formation of discourses, as loci in which social power is exercised through claims to disciplinary knowledge and truth, reveal how epistemic forms of violence reduce the complexity of social identity and, in the colonial sphere, artificially classify non-Western societies as premodern. Ironically, the history of nationalist and political movements from the end of European colonial rule through the Cold War and afterward is marked by forms of communal and ethnic conflict that reinforce the social and political salience of tradition. Terrorismand the predominantly Orientalist public debate surrounding itis a contemporary example of the ways in which religion and politics can come to be mutually dependent and, moreover, of how many of the most dynamic cultural and logistical strategies that organize violence rest outside the domain of the state.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Colonialism; Decolonization; Foucault, Michel; Genocide; Orientalism; Terrorism


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Chatterjee, Partha. 1993. The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Cohn, Bernard S. 1987. An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cohn, Bernard S. 1996. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Dirks, Nicholas B. 2001. Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Feldman, Allen. 1991. Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Foucault, Michel. 1971. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books. (Originally published as Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines. Paris: Gallimard, 1966.)

Foucault, Michel. 1973. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archeology of Medical Perception. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon Books. (Originally published as Naissance de la clinique: Une archéologie du regard médical. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963.)

Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books. (Originally published as Surveiller et punir. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.)

Gerth, H. H., and Mills, C. Wright, eds. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kaviraj, Sudipto. 1992. The Imaginary Institution of India. In Subaltern Studies, vol. VII. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 2001. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 2004. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. New York: Pantheon.

Metcalf, Barbara. 2004. Piety, Persuasion, and Politics: Deobands Model of Social Activism. In The Empire and the Crescent: Global Implications for a New American Century, ed. Aftab Ahmad Malik, 156147. Bristol, U.K.: Amal Press.

Pandey, Gyanendra. 1990. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Pandey, Gyanendra. 2001. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism, and History in India. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Sewell, William H., Jr. 1996. Historical Events as Transformations of Structures: Inventing Revolution at the Bastille. Theory and Society 25 (6): 841881.

Tambiah, Stanley. 1996. Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tilly, Charles. 1990. Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 9901990. Cambridge, U.K.: Blackwell.

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Arafaat A. Valiani


views updated Jun 08 2018


VIOLENCE. It goes without saying that violence played a significant role in the outbreak and over the course of the American Revolution. It was, after all, a war for American independence. The nature and meaning of that violence, however, demands interpretation. Perhaps the foremost task in the interpretation of revolutionary-era violence, whether protest or war, is to understand it from the perspective of contemporaries. With regard to war, for example, contemporaries understood that war naturally carried with it death and destruction. The killing of hundreds or thousands in the context of the battlefield excited no repugnance or outrage—fear, worry, desperation, yes, but not outrage. However, acts considered atrocities or, more simply, behavior outside accepted norms for wartime violence, did inspire outraged reaction, and the political consequences could be significant. Again, whether referring to the riots of the prewar period of imperial tension, or to the acts of competing armies, historians have confronted a similar question: what in fact was the relationship between violence and political reaction? Did it provide a "liberating" quality that fostered democratization, or did it simply inspire fear and thus a conservative reaction? Perhaps violence led to both outcomes in different circumstances, and the trick is to find the source of the difference.


At one level colonists saw violence as simply one more tool in the arsenal of political protest. As tensions in the imperial relationship rose and fell, violence as a way of communicating discontent always existed as an option. This understanding of protest violence as communicative is crucial. It reminds us that late eighteenth-century colonial protestors and rioters were hoping for a response—an alteration in existing conditions or relationships. They were not trying to destroy or fundamentally rewrite the nature of society. As a result of this overall intention, they structured their violent behavior in such a way as to convey both their intent and their sense of their own legitimacy in so acting. Communicative rioters (as opposed to the riots of the truly hopeless, which are usually much more violent) are playing to audiences: themselves, their opponents, and, crucially, the undecided.

In the eighteenth century that desire to convey legitimacy led rioters to lean on precedent. They acted violently in ways calculated to seem familiar; much of their violence, such as mock trials and mock hangings, for example, simulated penal measures. Riots were also in part public festivals, drawing on imagery and practices from more peaceful kinds of festivals. Of particular importance in Boston, for example, was the annual Pope's Day (transmuted from England's Guy Fawkes Day) festival (5 November), which provided much of the structure for political riots there during the 1760s and 1770s. Because rioters also intended to correct problems, they often focused on particular persons with whom they had a grievance. Mock trials and hangings incorporated the shaming qualities of many judicial punishments of the era, thus putting public pressure on the targeted individual. Not all scholars are comfortable with this limited characterization of eighteenth-century American rioting as communicative in nature; yet that characterization is hard to dispute for those protests most closely associated with the colony-mother country relationship.

In contrast, local riots, especially over the access to land, could be much less restrained, especially when they were less public; some were not even "riots" so much as a raid on someone else's home. Violent behavior that remained within expectations about rioting, conforming to penal and festive traditions without seeming too greatly to threaten the social order, were generally tolerated; the "audience" understood them as forms of communication. Authorities, whether local or imperial, usually reacted by at least appearing to fix the problem, while also publicly deploring the violence and officially asserting the sanctity of the state and the social hierarchy. Behavior that seemed outside the expected norms generated much more stringent reactions.

This basic understanding of protest violence can be found operating from the earliest clashes of the revolutionary era right up to the outbreak of war. The Stamp Act riots are exemplary. Colonists around the continent began their protests almost as soon as the law's passage became known. Crucially, however, they began their protests in writing, fulfilling a standard "requirement" prior to a riot: the need to petition peacefully for redress. The first act of violence hit Boston on 14 August 1765, when the South End mob, spurred on by Samuel Adams and the Loyal Nine, hanged an effigy of the new stamp distributor, Andrew Oliver, paraded the effigy through town, and then tore down the stamp distribution building as well as Oliver's house. Oliver promptly resigned his distributorship. The Boston violence peaked eleven days later when the rioters pillaged and destroyed the mansion of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Word of Boston's riots spread quickly around the colonies, and as 1 November (the date for the law to take effect) approached, riots broke out in nearly every colony. In most of them the violence remained confined to the most visible symbols of the act: forcing distributors to resign, preventing the landing of the stamps, or tearing up customs records. The rioters effectively nullified the act, and Parliament got the message. Parliament repealed the act in early 1766, at least momentarily confirming for Americans the effectiveness of their actions.

Although many observers considered the destruction of Hutchinson's house to be excessive, for the most part rioters around the colonies worked hand in glove with local elites and were specific and discriminatory in their violence, while fully adhering to the penal and festive traditions of riot. Some scholars have even argued that the colonists understood such corrective riots aspart of a legal process of popular enforcement. Events in New York City were in marked contrast to the Boston riots. There the Stamp Act riots quickly spun out of control, gripping the city for a full twelve months. The scholar Philip Ranlet has argued that this experience of excessive protest violence energized moderate and conservative forces within the city's leadership and led New York in the succeeding years to be among the most reluctant of the revolutionary colonies.

The Stamp Act episode set another precedent that would contribute strongly to the character of later imperial riots. The intercolonial Stamp Act Congress, with its call for a boycott of English goods, set a precedent for future cooperation among the colonies, and the boycott required enforcement. Rioters thus found a further basis for their legitimacy as popular enforcers of a local congress's decrees. Violence came part and parcel with the developing notion of popular sovereignty—with the people's will defined in extralegal conventions and conferences, and enforced in the streets.

The almost refined quality of the protest riots, and the increasing control over the rioters' behavior exercised by an elite committed to principles of preserving property, culminated in the Boston Tea Party. This was a highly controlled protest exercise that in fact generated little to no actual violence. In Boston the "rioters" even replaced a broken padlock and punished those few who tried to steal tea for personal use. During a similar tea dumping in New York "persons of reputation" stationed themselves on the ship to make sure that the crowd only dumped tea. The British reaction, however, was of a different order. Despite a clearly expressed colonial restraint, Parliament and the ministry saw only the destruction of valuable property and retaliated with a series of punitive acts, the Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts. Britain's outraged response would eventually create the circumstances for the march on Concord, and the violence there would lead to war.

Violence as a component of the protests between 1765 and 1774 advanced the level of friction and disgust on both sides of the Atlantic, and thus helped lead to revolution. This was true in part because violence as a tool of communication is an awkward medium, easily misunderstood and frequently hard to keep "on message" when passions of the moment break free of control. The infamous Boston Massacre represents a good example. The poorer workers of urban Boston had grown to resent moonlighting British regulars and had begun insulting and challenging them in the streets. On that particular March night in 1770 the resentments of the workers spiraled out of control, and their taunts and rocks finally led a small, scared troop of soldiers to open fire. Passion and fear ended up dictating the violence on both sides, and no clear message emerged except for the propagandized version later constructed by the Whig leadership: the redcoats were in Boston to impose tyranny. It was easy to take rhetorical advantage of violence.

Imperial protest violence had other effects. The consistent use of riot as a means of popular expression over a long period of time helped widen the political public. As large numbers of people participated in political action in the streets, they felt included in the wider discussion, and this helped create an expectation that they would be included in all political discussions. Furthermore, American militia laws (in most colonies) that nominally required all free men to own weapons meant that a riot always held the menace, and sometimes the actual presence, of armed force. In many circumstances, in fact, the militia formed the nucleus of a body of protestors. In the minds of the colonists, such a body of men, in their ranks with their officers at their head, did indeed represent the political will of the people. From a British perspective, such a body of men represented a dramatic escalation away from traditionally structured riots and toward something that looked much more like a rebellion.


Eighteenth-century Americans were no less cognizant than we that war inevitably entailed a certain amount of indiscriminate destruction and death. War, and the violence therein, carried with it a certain legitimacy. That legitimacy did not extend to acts seen as outside the bounds of acceptable wartime behavior. The issue of the legitimacy of wartime violence, especially in terms of the political effect of that violence, was most pertinent in the interactions of armies and civilians. Eighteenth-century European armies, although still highly cosmopolitan and international, were nevertheless uniformed, and the distinction between soldier and civilian was at least theoretically clear. During the Revolution, as civilians suffered from the actions of soldiers who were clearly soldiers, or from the actions of irregulars pretending to be soldiers, or as soldiers suffered from the actions of guerrillas not in uniform, resentment and anger built, leading to an escalation and intensification of violence.

The War of Independence was in fact an ideal arena for an escalation of violence based on perceptions of illegitimacy. First of all, it had begun with an act widely perceived as an atrocity: American propagandists portrayed the British march on Concord, and especially British actions on the march back, as unprovoked attacks on civilians, women, and children. Reports of Lexington and Concord played a major role in spurring the rage militaire—the filling of the ranks of the Continental Army and the militias during 1775 and 1776. As for the British, they initially conceived of the war as a rebellion; both by tradition and by recent codification (in the juristic works of Hugo Grotius and Emmerich de Vattel), rebels in arms merited no restraint. This attitude plagued British planners and officers throughout the war, as they never consistently settled on a policy of fire-and-sword destruction (as appropriate to a rebellion) versus one of conciliation and counter-revolution. Even those counterrevolutionary activities that the British did undertake—supporting Loyalists, encouraging slave revolt, and leaning on Indian allies—were all seen by colonists as acts outside the bounds of legitimacy, and thus all were used as excuses for intensifying violence. Finally, and perhaps most significant in terms of day-to-day activity over an eight-year war, were logistical difficulties for both sides—for the British, the Atlantic Ocean; for the Americans, financial and demographic shortfalls. These difficulties led to a nearly constant reliance on the populace for supply, and the impressment of supplies from locals has ever been fraught with the potential for violence. Such violence might be considered the collateral damage of an early modern army on the move, but by the late eighteenth century it had come to be regarded as illegitimate.

Historians have approached the topic of wartime violence in various ways. Nineteenth-century folklorists tended to exaggerate the level of British and Loyalist atrocity, and their accounts held sway for many years. Later historians preferred to avoid the subject in favor of a cleaner political or military narrative. Some scholars have begun to move past nineteenth-century assumptions to ask just how bad the violence was. More significantly, other historians have returned to the issue of violence as part of an effort to understand the experience of the home front, both for its own sake and for its possible radicalizing influence on postwar popular politics. Some scholars have used the contours of the violence (who used violence, against whom, and how) to examine issues of regional and social relationships. Following one such approach, historians have argued that the violence represented a continuation of prewar social struggles exacerbated by the elite-led revolutionary government. The alternative argument contends that localism and a desire for order were more central and that, in the end, the Whig government was the most effective in meeting those demands for order.

Just how bad was the wartime violence? There is no general consensus on the issue. The answer depends on perspective—whether you were an Indian, a Tory, a house-holder in a theater of operations, a British soldier, or a Continental Army soldier. The war was fought on a continental scale, with operations of varying intensities in widely dispersed locales; all had consequences for residents in the area. Whether driven by an ideological belief in the cause or by an intensely localist instinct for self-preservation, much of the unconventional violence of the war followed the patterns of violence in other "people's wars" in its intensity and in its tendency to escalate through upward spiraling rounds of retaliation. It is also true, however, that despite Whig propaganda to the contrary, much of the conventional confrontation between British forces and Washington's Continentals tended to follow eighteenth-century prescriptions for restraint in war. There were glaring exceptions, especially by the British, perhaps most famously the poor conditions and treatment of American prisoners of war, or such events as the 1780 massacre of surrendering Continentals at Waxhaws, South Carolina, by Banastre "Bloody" Tarleton. Washington, for his part, was largely successful in containing the worst effects of an army on the move—never perfectly, but nevertheless impressively.

The conflicts between Whig and Loyalist adherents generated significantly more violence, and in some regions apparently deteriorated into widespread destruction and vigilantism. Even in this environment of civil war, however, both sides sought to clothe their actions in legitimacy either through pretensions at judicial forms or with reference to the Law of Retaliation. The famous hanging of Loyalist prisoners taken after battle at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, for example, followed not only a consultation of the North Carolina law for the establishment of a court, but also a trial, complete with references to retaliation for Loyalist violence in South Carolina. In the end only nine of some six hundred prisoners were hanged. The remainder were marched away and for the most part forced to enlist in the Patriot militia. In one sense, the easiest way to acknowledge the restraint that persisted even in the worst episodes of Whig—Tory violence is to compare it to the kind of warfare waged against Indian enemies. In the campaigns against the Cherokees or against the Iroquois, the precedents of white-Indian war and the all-consuming desire for land required little to no restraint. Few rules applied, and women, children, the old, and the towns and crops themselves were all regarded as legitimate targets.

Even more elusive is a consensus on the political ramifications of the experience of violence. Indeed, the debate on the political ramifications of the Revolution as a whole still rages on, and the impact of violence alone is a mere subset of the larger question. The historian Richard Maxwell Brown has suggested that the whole experience of resistance and war contributed to an expansion of the expectations of popular sovereignty. John Shy and Alan Kulikoff each have gone farther, arguing that military participation and the widespread violence of the war deepened democratic impulses. Contradicting Shy and Kulikoff, Sung Bok Kim has argued that sheer exhaustion from the high level of violence in Westchester County, New York, in fact brought about a depoliticization. A. Roger Ekirch has argued that the level of violence in North Carolina inspired a demand for a return to older standards of order and thus won support in the countryside for the order-imposing Whigs. It is possible to see a trend toward greater centralized control of the militias, at least in North and South Carolina, as a response to the unconstrained militias who were sowing violence in the countryside. The conservative reaction of the late 1780s is usually blamed on the experience of a weak central government during the war. Its inefficacy in raising money and running a war frustrated many, and led some leaders (including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton) to demand a more powerful government. The experience of violence may have had a similar effect on a more popular, visceral level. Some revolutionary leaders had lost their confidence in the ability of republican virtue to contain excessive violence and now instead looked to establish stronger forms of authority. Other colonists, having engaged in violence during the war, expected a similar freedom to be violent in the early republic.

SEE ALSO Boston Massacre; Boston Tea Party; Guerrilla War in the North; Intolerable (or Coercive) Acts; Kings Mountain, South Carolina; Stamp Act; Tarleton, Banastre; Waxhaws, South Carolina.


Brown, Richard Maxwell. "Violence and the American Revolution." In Essays on the American Revolution. Edited by Stephen Kurtz and James H. Hutson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973.

――――――. Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Ekirch, A. Roger. "Whig Authority and Public Order in Backcountry North Carolina, 1776–1783." In An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution. Edited by Ronald Hoffman, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985.

Gilje, Paul A. The Road to Mobocracy: Popular Disorder in New York City, 1763–1834. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Greene, Jack P. "From the Perspective of Law: Context and Legitimacy in the Origins of the American Revolution." South Atlantic Quarterly 85 (1986): 56-77.

Hoerder, Dirk. Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1765–1780. New York: Academic Press, 1977.

Kim, Sung Bok. "The Limits of Politicization in the American Revolution: The Experience of Westchester County, New York." Journal of American History 80 (1993): 868-889.

Kulikoff, Allan. "Revolutionary Violence and the Origins of American Democracy." Journal of the Historical Society 11 (2002): 229-260.

Lee, Wayne E. Crowds and Soldiers in Revolutionary North Carolina: The Culture of Violence in Riot and War. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001.

――――――. "From Gentility to Atrocity: The Continental Army's Ways of War." Army History 62 (2006).

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Ranlet, Philip. The New York Loyalists. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

Shy, John. "The Military Conflict Considered as a Revolutionary War." In A People Numerous and Armed. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Slaughter, Thomas P. "Crowds in Eighteenth-Century America: Reflections and New Directions." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 115 (1991): 3-34.

Van Buskirk, Judith L. Generous Enemies: Patriots and Loyalists in Revolutionary New York. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Ward, Harry M. Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002.

Wood, Gordon S. "A Note on Mobs in the American Revolution." William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd series, 23 (1966): 635-642.


views updated May 23 2018


The issues of violence cut across national, racial, and ethnic boundaries and thus are international. They include abuse, armament, battery, capital punishment, crime, femicide, infanticide, militarization, pornography, imprisonment, rape, refugees, murder, sexual slavery, sexual harassment, sexual mutilation, street harassment, terrorism, torture, and war. Peace is the alternative to these various forms of violence—more specifically, peace that takes the form of nonviolence and social change, conflict resolution (mediation and negotiation), disarmament, peace activism, peace education, women's human rights, international peace organizations, and resistance and peace movements.

Sexuality and sexual relations are central to an analysis of political and national struggles worldwide. Recent sociological, anthropological, and political studies dealing with aggression, violence, war, and the role of women clearly indicate this connection. Aspects of nationalism and the ways in which they relate to sexuality and to women's traditional roles in society are also part of this complex.


The problems associated with masculinity include aggressiveness and violence, which are linked directly with the political and personal exploitation of nature and women. Exploitation takes various forms, from exhausting and misusing the world's resources; to oppressing people of other races, sexes, and ages; to invading and/or dominating other countries or continents; to conducting an arms race. The consequences of that exploitation are death, destruction, and violence. It is a vicious circle that keeps repeating itself, as if human beings were incapable of breaking the chain of war creating valorizing codes of heroism and masculinity and then masculinity creating war. Only a different vision, different values, and a change in power relationships and in the social construction of identities so that they would be grounded not in dominance and submission but in a harmonized acceptance of differences could bring about harmony and a future of life and hope instead of wars and a nuclear holocaust.


Many studies have found a link between sexuality and national and international conflicts. Jean-William Lapierre and Anne-Marie de Vilaine (1981) see a connection between masculine predominance and the importance of war. According to those authors most civilizations are based on conquest and war. They explain how in so-called modern societies, politics, industry, and business constitute a kind of war in which men and sometimes women imitating men's behavior must be energetic and aggressive to have power. Miranda Davies (1983–1987) demonstrates how many women in the third world realize that although women may join guerrilla movements, participate in the economy, enter politics, and organize trade unions, they still are seen as second-class citizens, bearers of children, and domestic servants. Zarana Papic (1992) and Helke Sander (1992) remark that women's condition drastically worsened in the former Yugoslavia because of the civil war there. This holds true for most places that have experienced similar postmodern wars.


In Asia and Europe and North America, in old and new concepts of the term, nationalism is a complex component of revolutionary discourse. It can move among all the facets of political power. For example, nationalism in an extreme form can be fascism. Maria-Antonietta Macciocchi (1976) analyzed fascist ideology in Italy from a feminine perspective. The collective irrational is at work in all human groups. Conscious and unconscious forces brought the masses to fascism, leading them from a transcendence of the individual ego into total allegiance to the Italian nation. The first victims of that racism, women adhered to it through a form of masochism that prepared them to make all possible sacrifices

Although nationalism has been necessary in young Arab states that gained autonomy from colonialism, as with fascism, nationalism has reclaimed many of the most patriarchal values of Islamic traditionalism. Lebanese writer, artist, and activist Mai Ghoussoub (1952–2007) analyzed how the political rights of women, although nominally granted by national states, are in practice a dead letter in military dictatorships in which suffrage has no meaning.

Sander (1992) noted how in the former Yugoslavia the strongest and most dominant parties express extreme forms of nationalistic ideology so that their nationalism rejects the national identities of others. Civil society is the first victim of this totalitarian, domineering, nationalistic ideology. The former Yugoslavia, which used to be, as did Lebanon, a country in which various ethnic, cultural, and religious groups lived in tolerance and relative autonomy and harmony, became a place in which human rights and especially women's rights were threatened because women were looked at almost exclusively as reproductive bodies whose purpose was to bring into the world bodies to kill and be killed. Sander explained how that irrationality is actually a rational manipulation aimed at leading people to accept the dominant, exclu-sive, nationalistic ideology with its cruelty and hatred for the other.

Croatian philosopher and writer Rada Ivekovic (b. 1945) has shown how radical nationalism is a mechanism of binary oppositions that in the long term invariably leads to war. Because women are less anguished about their internal frontiers and the limits of their bodies, they are more peaceful in regard to outside (political) frontiers; this involves identity and the way the subject (the one who acts) is constructed. Women are biologically and socially more open to the acceptance of the other in themselves, as is seen in the sexual act and pregnancy.


In societies that take pride in the leader, chief, or hero, the macho man embodies all the masculine values. Those values of conquest, domination, competition, fighting, and boasting, which allow one to get what one wants through lying and perfidy, transform the hero into the man with the gun—the militiaman. The man with the gun has a military role and an economic and social function. He uses the weapons of war to destroy and seize control of a region or another group. He participates in looting to benefit his clientele of family members and extend the range of his influence. Through the extension of his influence, he builds a system of wealth distribution and gains even more power. Material goods and gains are obtained through the gun and other weapons. It is a primitive system and a vicious destructive cycle rather than a self-preserving one. The more men desire omnipotence and control of others, the more weapons are used. The means of conquest are valued in proportion to their success.

The gun, the machine gun, and the cannon—masculine sexual symbols that are extensions of the phallus—are used to conquer and destroy. Some authors indicate that for some men there is a kind of jouissance—pleasure in a sexual sense—in war. It is for men the closest thing to what childbirth is for women: an initiation into the power of life and death. Elisabeth Badinter (1986) makes a connection between the experience of childbirth and war. However, there is a fundamental difference between creating life in the act of childbirth and destroying it in war. Even if the two experiences could be brought together, they would divide rather than unite man and woman.

The meaning and importance given to a military weapon and to the sexual weapon are equal. Man uses his penis the way he uses his gun: to conquer, control, and possess. In a macho society one tries to obtain material goods and territory not to enjoy them or out of need but to enlarge one's domain and authority. Similarly, sexual relations often are built not on pleasure, tenderness, or love but on reproduction, the preservation of girls' virginity (the honor of the family), the confinement and control of women to increase male prestige, and overestimation of the penis. Lapierre and de Vilaine (1981) have shown that this phenomenon exists in almost all civilizations, with hunting followed by war lying at the root of women's oppression. Bob Connell (2001) sees a relationship between masculinity, violence, and war, saying that it is not by chance that the great majority of soldiers are men. However, that connection should not be attributed to biology, which would absolve masculine responsibility, but to social and cultural factors.


Susan Brownmiller (1975) has shown how rape is a conscious tactic of warfare. Michel Foucault (1926–1984) wrote about the connection between death, sex, violence, and male sexuality. Wilhelm Reich (1972) analyzed how repressed sexuality based on authoritarian family patterns is at the root of sadistic murders, perversions, psychological problems, and social and political conflicts. René Girard (1972) analyzed the relationship between violence and religion, tracing it back to sexuality, as it is expressed in human groups that often need a scapegoat to avoid violence that would lead to annihilation. Issa Makhlouf (1988), in an analysis of the Lebanese tragedy, which he sees as a collective fascination with death and destruction, described Lebanese males as having gone mad and becoming drunk from killing.

Through the ages men have been fascinated with war. At a deep level it has been a way to prove their existence, an expression of male desire. Desire closely linked to sexuality and the death instinct has been written about extensively by scholars from Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) to Jacques Lacan (1901–1981). Sexuality connected with war, oppression, power, and aggressiveness has been analyzed by authors ranging from Reich, Georges Bataille (1897–1962), Foucault, Henri Laborit (1971), and Girard, along with more recent works by men who have pointed to the connection between masculinity and war (Connell and Poole [1985], among others). Those themes also have informed the entire body of feminist writing. How these issues can be articulated in contemporary societies and what avenues can be found for nonviolence and peace as a positive force are topics that have informed the work of a great many other writers.


The difference between male theorists and feminist theorists is that the connection between sexuality and violence in men does not lead male scholars to want to change men, women, objectification, or dominant/submissive sexuality; in fact they celebrate it. In contrast the women scholars and a group of Australian male theorists want to change these conditions of female oppression and male domination.

Aggression and submission are at the core of the basic relations between men and women. Many theorists insist that these basic relations must change because they are the primary cause of forceful exploitation and account for perhaps the most significant common characteristic of sexism and the war system: rape.

Ivekovic notes that rape is a way for a rapist to capture what constitutes strength and power in women: mixity. She says that in the Balkan wars at the end of the twentieth century, as in many other wars, women exercised less violence, expressed more compassion, and felt a desire to help and understand the other side. The notion of mixity, hybridity, and creolization is developed by Ivekovic, who says that symbolically, women, more than men, represent a space of mixity, meeting, and mixing. It is the feminine principal that women create through mixing that is attacked by those who want to purify their origins, liberate themselves from the other, and negate the other. She shows how for men identification means exclusion of the other; for women it implies a paradox because women have to identify with the different or the other. For women nationalism does not signify exclusion of the other (sex) but, rather, coexistence, because identification with the father figure itself entails mixing and inclusion. Nationalism for women does not mean (symbolic) self-breeding, because identification is with the father figure, not with the mother figure. It entails symbolic breeding in and with the other.

Nationalism needs founding myths, and those myths usually say something about the birth of a nation and declare that one culture is more ancient, better, male, and heroic. The sexual dimension allows and structures a very important form of thought and one of the mechanisms for the symbolic construction of power: The dominant group has the power to represent God the father or the father of the nation. She says that Belgian feminist and cultural theorist Luce Irigaray's (b. 1930) research, particularly that on syntax, shows that generally, women do not place themselves at the center of the space opened up by their speech. They tend to ask questions more than they state affirmations. Their subject is hesitant, open to interaction with the other, oriented toward the other, and waiting for it (him).


The idea of mixing and blending leading to hybridity, plurality, and creolization is at the center of action and theory for peace. It allows one to see problems from many angles and to identify or distance oneself when necessary. Multiculturality can be viewed as a positive factor in these contexts. It allows one to be assertive and autonomous, rejecting traditional as well as neocolonialist values, and to struggle in the world for human values. Violence against women still happens in most cultures to different degrees and in different manners. Women in the Middle East are victims of forced marriage, required virginity, honor crimes, sexual mutilation, beatings, lack of freedom of choice, claustration, and veiling. One of three women in the United States will be raped during her lifetime; women will experience discrimination in the workplace and earn one-third less than what men earn with the same qualifications and in the same jobs.


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Badinter, Elisabeth. 1986. L'un est l'autre: Des relations entre hommes et femmes. Paris: Editions O. Jacob.

Brownmiller, Susan. 1975. Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Connell, Robert. 2001. "Men and Violence." Columbia University. Available from

Davies, Miranda, ed. 1983–1987. Third World, Second Sex. London: Atlantic Highlands.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. 1987. Women and War. New York: Basic Books.

Girard, René. 1972. La violence et le sacré. Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset.

Laborit, Henri. 1971. L'agressivité détournée. Paris: Union Général d'Editions.

Lapierre, Jean-William, and Anne-Marie de Vilaine. 1981. "Femmes: Une oppression millénaire." Alternatives Non-Violentes: Femmes et Violences 40: 21, 25.

Macciocchi, Maria-Antonietta. 1976. Eléments pour une analyse du fascisme: Seminaire de Maria-Antonietta Maccicocchi. Paris: Union Général d'Editions.

Makhlouf, Issa. 1988. Beyrouth, ou la fascination de la mort: Easai. Paris: Editions La Passion.

Michel, Andrée. 1995. Surarmement, Pouvoirs, Démocratie. Paris: L'Harmattan.

Morgan, Robin. 1989. The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism. New York: Norton.

Morgan, Robin. 1992. The World of a Woman: Feminist Dispatches 1968–1992. New York: W.W. Norton.

Papic, Zarana. 1992. "Ex-citoyennes dans l'Ex-Yougoslavie." Cahiers de Genre 36: 207.

Patton, Paul, and Ross Poole, eds. 1985. War/Masculinity. Sydney, Australia: Intervention.

Reardon, Betty. 1985. Sexism and the War System. New York: Teacher's College Press.

Reich, Wilheim. 1972. L'irruption de la morale sexuelle. Paris: Payot.

Sander, Helke. 1992. "Une Guerre de Mâles à l'Extrême." Cahiers de Genre 26: 207.

                                            Evelyne Accad


views updated May 14 2018


In the years following the American Revolution, society in regions other than the frontier became more violent as a result of several factors. One underlying reason for increasing violence was the increasing overall population of the new nation, from 3 million in 1790 to 31 million in 1860; major population growth especially affected cities, such as New York, which grew from 40,000 inhabitants in 1790 to nearly 1 million by 1860. An increasing disparity between the rich and the poor also contributed to a spike in violence, as did ethnic and religious tensions among foreigners, immigrants (especially Irish Roman Catholics), and more established Protestant groups. Racial tensions were on the rise, as whites feared black competition for jobs, interracial marriage, and the specter of social equality, with blacks retaliating. Another factor was the decline of a paternalistic system of labor; masters now lived with or in close proximity to servants, laborers, and apprentices, thereby weakening workers' sense of their place in an organic social order. As a consequence of changes in the social order, separate upper-, middle-, and working-class cultures arose with separate notions of morality, along with an increasing individualism that gave ordinary folk confidence in their own judgment and self-worth. Thus government's role was altered from an active guardian of the common good, achieved through state regulation to redress injustice and solve economic problems, to a supposedly impartial arbiter that merely existed to protect property and preserve order.

taxes and autonomy

The three most significant episodes of American violence in the late eighteenth century reflected the old colonial notion of corporate violence, which had prevailed before and leading up to the Revolution. In Shays's Rebellion (1787) in Massachusetts, and the Whiskey Rebellion (1794) and Fries's Rebellion (1799) in Pennsylvania, respectable members of aggrieved communities banded together, invoked the principles of the Revolution concerning self-taxation and local autonomy, and staged carefully limited violence against outsiders who threatened to foreclose on their estates or otherwise punish them for nonpayment of taxes. The community members involved in these actions considered themselves "the people" assembled against unjust grievances; only those who suppressed them called them rebels. A small number of men were killed or punished severely as a result of these cases of tax resistance.

ethnic and racial violence

In the early nineteenth century, cities were the most frequent sites of large-scale violence, as novels such as Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800) and Herman Melville's Pierre (1852) attest. There men of all classes representing different ethnic groups lived side-by-side and competed for jobs, political power, and prestige while seeking to demonstrate their masculinity and patriotism in a crowded arena. Some riots were limited to the working class, as when American sailors brawled with Spanish sailors (Philadelphia, 1804) and French sailors (Philadelphia, 1806; Charleston, 1811; Savannah, 1811; New York, 1812; Norfolk, 1813; and New Orleans, 1817—all but the Philadelphia fights leading to deaths). Rioting against Roman Catholic foreigners and immigrants, and against blacks, occurred most frequently; mobs were usually composed of all classes, led by "gentlemen of property and standing" who went unpunished. In 1815 whites attacked blacks opening a new house of worship in Philadelphia, burning the building, and in 1819 they attacked blacks daring to celebrate Independence Day in New York City. White crowds chased blacks en masse out of the cities of Providence, Rhode Island, in 1824, and Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1829.

The worst of these ethnic and racial riots, however, occurred in the 1830s, after large numbers of Irish Catholics arrived in the cities and abolitionists began to push for immediate emancipation of slaves. Crowds opposed to Irish immigrants burned the Ursuline Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts (1834), believing the nuns there kidnapped Protestant girls and threatened to kill them if they did not become Catholics. That same year other crowds devastated New York's and Philadelphia's black communities; burned Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Hall, built by abolitionists to hold interracial meetings (1838); and murdered the abolitionist newspaper publisher Elijah Lovejoy in Alton, Illinois (1839). The deadliest ethnic riots occurred in the 1850s, when the Democratic Party, which included many Roman Catholics, clashed with the nativist Know-Nothings, who opposed all immigration, during several elections. The worst occurred in Baltimore in 1856, leaving from 8 to 17 dead and from 64 to 150 wounded. Another major ethnic riot, however, was anti-British; in New York City in 1849, partisans of the American actor Edwin Forrest tore down the Astor Place Opera House where the British actor William Macready was performing; 22 people died and at least 48 were wounded. Baltimore was also the scene of the bloodiest riot during the economic depression of the 1830s: the houses of the mayor and several directors of the Bank of Maryland were destroyed, and order was restored only when volunteers fired into the crowd.

Unlike the spikes and troughs of urban violence and violence between whites, the violence associated with slavery in the early Republic was relatively constant. Violence was integral to the slave system, from the usual practice of whipping disobedient slaves to executing rebels and runaways in frequently horrific ways. Whites on slave patrol policed the South; federal marshals pursued runaways into free states, where they sometimes met with violent resistance from blacks, as in Boston (1819), York, Pennsylvania (1825), and Philadelphia (1835), and, on at least one occasion, death, as in Christiana, Pennsylvania (1851). Slave rebellions in the United States were rare; in the larger West Indies islands and South America, by contrast, the smaller white population and the availability of large, unsettled areas facilitated escape by slaves who formed autonomous Maroon communities. The only rebellions involving large numbers of blacks in the United States were Gabriel's Rebellion (1800) and Nat Turner's Rebellion (1831), both in Virginia, and the Vesey Rebellion (1822) in Charleston, South Carolina. Both Gabriel and Denmark Vesey were betrayed by conspiracy; only Turner's rebellion resulted in white deaths. White violence against blacks was punished on rare occasions when whites openly and outrageously offended communal standards for the treatment of slaves or free blacks.

indian policy

The rules of civilized warfare that the United States, France, and Britain generally practiced toward one another were suspended in dealings with Indians. By the American Revolution, Indians had generally been defined collectively as a distinct (red) race that was temperamentally uncivilized and hostile. The massacre of peaceful Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten in 1782 in present-day Ohio by Revolutionary militia was a taste of the forthcoming century. Even those who wished to protect the Indians, such as Thomas Jefferson, given their belief that frontier expansion was inevitable and government's role limited, could only envision their forcible removal to land too undesirable and distant for whites to covet.

domestic violence

In the antebellum period states and municipalities instituted reforms regarding domestic violence. Influenced by Victorian notions that women were the proper guardians of the home and possessed a nature morally superior to men, by 1850 nineteen states allowed divorce on grounds of cruelty. The intertwined temperance and women's movements were crucial in calling attention to the way drunken husbands abused wives and children. New York was the first city to build an institution to protect abused children in 1825, and by the 1850s most states had done so. But in general beating was considered a masculine prerogative to correct unruly wives and children, and prosecutions were successful only when women's lives or physical well-being were threatened. In schools, too, physical punishment of students was reported in three-quarters of early-nineteenth-century autobiographies.

punishment of criminals

Physical violence in the punishment of criminals decreased in the early Republic, although arguably at the expense of mental torment. Extended periods of imprisonment in penitentiaries and reformatories to induce social conformity rather than whipping or public humiliation became the standard punishments for noncapital crimes. The Eastern State Penitentiary, founded in Philadelphia, which substituted silent labor in solitary confinement, and New York's prison at Auburn, where convicts worked in closely supervised teams, were pioneering institutions. Public execution of criminals declined, with the death penalty carried out more frequently behind prison walls: authorities found that rather than serving as warnings against vice, the open-air spectacles encouraged merriment, riot, and further crime.

a violent society?

Society celebrated violence in other ways. Upperclass enemies, especially but not exclusively in the South, fought duels if they believed their honor was insulted. Although in most cases seconds worked out an amicable accord, the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton in 1804 and the confrontation between James Stark and Philip Minis in Savannah in 1832, which resulted in Stark's death, were only two of hundreds of incidents that ended fatally. Unlike men in Europe, much of the free male population in the United States owned guns and belonged to voluntary military societies once the required colonial militia system faded. Masculinity was demonstrated through active participation in homosocial associations such as saloons, fire companies, political parties, and the Masons and other fraternal orders. The outer limit of these associations were filibustering expeditions where men organized, successfully in some instances (Florida, 1819; Texas, 1836; Nicaragua, 1855) to take over territories in Latin America, for which they were cheered rather than punished. Although illegal and opposed by reformers and genteel members of the elite, bare-knuckles prizefighting, along with cock- and dog-fighting and bearbaiting, remained popular working-class activities. Unlike the regulated prizefights of the late nineteenth century instituted by a progressive elite seeking to preserve society's masculine, aggressive qualities, those before the Civil War had few rules and no time limits, and went on until losers were dead, unconscious, or had lost an eye or an ear.

Was the early Republic a violent society? In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer and observer of American ways, reported that he could travel through large stretches of America between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River in perfect safety. Nevertheless, in cities and families, on plantations and in schools, in popular culture and the treatment of prisoners and Native Americans, violence permeated American society.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Removal; Corporal Punishment; Dueling; Firearms (Nonmilitary); Fries's Rebellion; Gabriel's Rebellion; Manliness and Masculinity; Riots; Shays's Rebellion; Slavery: Slave Insurrections; Temperance and Temperance Movement; Vesey Rebellion; Whiskey Rebellion; Women: Rights .


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William Pencak

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