Do certain cultures or societies cause violence?

Violence in society

Christoph Liell

To person

Sociologist, born in 1972; research assistant at the Max Weber College at the University of Erfurt.

Address: University of Erfurt, Max Weber College, Am Hügel 1, 99084 Erfurt.
e-mail: [email protected]

Publications including: Violence in the "Gang", in: Frank Gesemann (Ed.), Migration and Integration in Berlin, Opladen 2001.

Public discussions about violence and sociological analyzes are shaped by this: a specific tension between the fading out and the dramatization of violence.


Violence in modern societies is a paradoxical phenomenon: On the one hand, such communities are seen as civilized, at least internally non-violent and pacified. It is precisely this that is seen as the difference to premodern or non-modern societies. On the other hand, horror scenarios of ubiquitous violence are constantly being developed. A "war in the cities" or "time bombs in the suburbs" threatened to destroy modern society within. Youth violence, right-wing violence, violence in the media, violence at school, violence in the family, gang violence - everything condenses into a gloomy picture of the collapse of society. Not only the public and political discussion about violence is shaped by this tension between fading out on the one hand and dramatization on the other. Social science analyzes of violence also move between these two poles and provide corresponding explanations, survey results and statistics.

Both attitudes - fading out and dramatization - have in common that violence is viewed as a foreign body, as a deficit and as a synonym for threat, disintegration and dissolution of society: either violence breaks into society as barbarism from outside, or it dissolves - as a pathology of modern society - from within, from within. Such a deficit perspective does not offer a suitable starting point from which to adequately analyze the phenomenon of "violence", its causes and backgrounds, procedures and processes, effects and consequences.

On the socio-theoretical level, the one-sided connection between violence and disintegration - i.e. the breakup and disintegration of social order - means that the integrating, order-creating and stabilizing effects of violence are not taken into account. But this is precisely one of the reasons for the attractiveness and durability of acts of violence. This deficit perspective on violence tends to condense all possible phenomena that appear as evils of society (pressure to perform, individualism, pluralization of values, withdrawal from institutions, etc.) to a fuzzy and vague diagnosis of a "disintegrated society" and to condense them as Issue cause of violence. In a culturally pessimistic way, all productive ways out, solutions and handling of violent events seem downright hopeless.

On the action theory level, a deficit-oriented violence analysis hides the actual violent behavior, its very different context, course and consequences. Individualistically narrowed, the actors (especially the perpetrators) appear either unilaterally as instrumental, asserting their own benefit or as victims of anonymous general societal forces (disintegration, modernization, globalization). Both the mostly collective character of violent events as well as the often goal-means-calculations that delimit, euphoric character of violent acts and their own dynamics remain hidden. In addition, most violence analyzes assume that violence is a clear, objectively present and measurable variable - as if the classification of an act as violence was not the subject of historical and cultural change and, above all, of social and cultural disputes. With this and in connection with the often radically pessimistic societal diagnoses, analyzes of violence themselves (partly intentional, partly unintentional) become the plaything of conceptual strategies, dramatizations, stigmatizations and the call for "law and order".

I. Terms and definitions of violence

If violence seems to lose its shape between fading out and dramatization, it makes sense to first insure yourself about the subject. What is "violence" anyway?

The consideration of violent terms initially leads to an unmanageable diversity that cannot be finally systematised: physical, psychological, structural, cultural, legitimate, legal, open, covert, silent, social, political violence, violence against people, against things are just a few of the terms from this abundance. Friedhelm Neidhardt has made a proposal for the systematization of terms for the German-speaking area. According to this, the core meaning of violence lies in the "physical coercion of people with physical consequences for people" [1]. Based on this, there are numerous term extensions, such as B. Violence against property or structural violence. The expansion and delimitation of the concept of violence can, as in the case of structural violence, go very far. Violence is defined "as something avoidable that stands in the way of human self-realization" [2], and thus turns into an arbitrary, indistinguishable phenomenon that is supposed to capture all the evils of this world without distinction.

Against the background of this rampant use of the term violence, Friedhelm Neidhardt and Heinrich Popitz plead for the use of a restrictive, narrow concept of violence in the sense of the above-mentioned core concept [3]. However, such a narrow definition of violence repeatedly reaches its limits, because the connection to the physicality of violence, to the materiality of pain and injury, cannot inscribe social action (including violent action) in socially, culturally and historically different contexts to cancel. No matter how correct this reference to the physicality of violence and adherence to a narrow, restrictive concept of violence is, just as little can it remove the definition of the vagueness of the concept of violence. Which events are thematized as violence in each case depends on their social, cultural and historical contexts. Both historical and cultural anthropological studies raise awareness of this. [4]

A recent phenomenon that shows the limits of a definitive definition is violence in the family. Both corporal punishment of children and rape in marriage can be subsumed under a restrictive, physical concept of violence. Both are practices with a long history, and yet it is only in the past few decades that they have been discussed as phenomena of violence, victims find a language to articulate their experiences, initiate political discussions and finally criminal sanctions. Obviously, social, cultural and political movements are needed before violence in the family is removed from the normality of authoritarian family structures and becomes one Phenomenon of violence is made.

So if the indiscriminate expansion of the concept of violence does not appear attractive, then it makes sense to use a concept that is limited to physical violence. At the same time, however, it must remain clear that no objective definition can be obtained from the "nature of the matter". What violence is in each case remains dependent on the context and therefore variable.

II. The nonviolent modernity

Both the starting point - a modern age that sees itself as nonviolent and which is increasingly confronted with violence - and the difficulties in defining violence suggest that we must distinguish fundamentally different perspectives on violence. These are essentially shaped by specific historical experiences of violence (above all the religious civil wars in Europe in the 17th century, the First World War and the National Socialist genocide of European Jews) and raise the question of the relationship between modernity and violence New.

The most influential perspective on the relationship between violence and modernity is certainly the enlightenment-liberal view: violence is the outside of the social order, it is the opposite of modern society, the state, law and reason. Even with Thomas Hobbes, against the background of the historical experiences of the European religious and civil wars of the 17th century, violence, its avoidance and the pacification of society are at the center of his socio-theoretical considerations. The topic of violence versus modern society remains central in the modern-day reflection on the state and society and is interpreted optimistically in the Enlightenment: advancing industrialization and democratization lead to a decrease in violence. This self-image - reformulated as the theory of civilization and modernization - remains influential to this day: Increasing modernization and civilization, the establishment of the state monopoly on the use of force, the lengthening of chains of action, growing social differentiation and increasing affect control lead to a decline in violence within society. [5]

From this perspective, it makes sense to minimize the violence that occurs in modern societies or to interpret it dramatically as a relapse into barbarism. The talk of the sudden affliction, of the fateful onset of violence, of the insane perpetrator, but also the talk of increased violence due to cultural influences in a society that is not or not completely modernized are examples of how the phenomenon of violence outside of modern societies and their social order is located. Since violence cannot be part of modernity, it remains to consider violence as a deficit, as a foreign body that stands outside the social order. On the difficulties of social science theory, analyzing the relationship between modernity and war against this background [6].

III. Sensitization and Conceptual Strategies: Uncertainties in Nonviolent Modernity

The self-image of a nonviolent modernity creates insecurity and destabilization of its own accord, which lead to ever new dramatizations of an increase in violence. This is done on two levels:

On the first level, there are long-term processes of sensitization towards violence, which result precisely from the historical experience of the state monopoly on violence, its successful implementation and its emphatic thematization in the modern self-image. Because it can certainly be assumed that there will be a cultural change that will lead to a higher sensitivity to violence as a result of getting used to the achievements of the civilization process. [7] At this level, the success of the modernization and civilization process seems to be responsible for an increased sensitivity to violence and thus also for the perception of more and more violence in society.

On a second level, the vagueness of the definition of violence is combined with the strongly negative connotation that violence acquires in the modernist self-image. Both together lead to a strategic use of the concept of violence in political and social discussions. Violence can be used as a "condensation symbol" to designate almost any behavior and circumstances in order to discredit and scandalize them. By describing problems as "violence", moral indignation is certain, the prosecutors' feelings of solidarity are strengthened and new supporters can be mobilized. "[8] At the same time, such a decipherment of social relationships as violent relationships tends to" abstract differences and connect new ones Disturbances to old 'problem solving' such as the increasing 'violent crime' and the 'ubiquitous violence' "[9]. This is regularly followed by the metaphor of the" tip of the iceberg ":" The extension of the case is argumentative, based on the simple one Pattern of association. A concrete, spectacular, perhaps even extreme case is conceived as part of a larger underlying, more significant and more threatening problem. "[10] Various phenomena are summarized in a plausible manner as" violence "and thus refer to apparently similar experiences, problems, Causes and solutions - but at the price of ignoring all context- or case-specific peculiarities.

Two types of scandal appear to emerge:

- first political criticism as criticism of violence, in which specific social relationships in modern societies are exposed as relationships of violence. This approach can be observed in most social movements such as the labor movement, feminist, anti-racist movements and the peace movement, which have previously uncovered "normal" social conditions as violent ones (see also the example of violence in the family above).

- Secondly Social criticism as criticism of violence, in which certain structural features of modern societies are identified as causes for individual acts of violence. Violence itself is a symptom of the collapse of modern societies. In a culturally critical, conservative variant, egoistic individualism and the loss of common values ​​through pluralization processes are made responsible for the disintegration of modern societies. In a social reform variant, socio-economic disadvantages that occur structurally in modern societies are named as the cause of individual acts of violence.

Common to all these processes of sensitization and the strategic use of the concept of violence (as political criticism, as social criticism with conservative or social reform intentions) is a destabilization of the self-image of a nonviolent modernity. The positioning of violence as the negative center of modern society seems to provide the framework for more and more phenomena of violence to be discovered or for violent events, in a dramatic, condensed form, to immediately indicate a threat to the social order as a whole. If, however, every phenomenon of violence represents an attack on society, this first calls for the state monopoly of force on the scene, and the call for "law and order" becomes loud. To what extent this will result in a solution to the problem of violence, or rather its continuation and reinforcement, is questionable [11]. It follows that an analysis of violence solely in terms of threats and disintegration does not go far enough to adequately explain the cause, context and consequences of phenomena of violence.

IV. Violence as a principle of modernity

The further these sensitizations and conceptual strategies lead to the discovery of more and more violence in modern society and the more acutely the increase in violence is perceived, the more there is a tendency to reverse the fundamental relationship between modernity and violence: violence is then no longer outside of modernity , at best minimized as an exception or dramatized as a relapse into barbarism. Rather, violence is understood as an inherent basic principle of modern societies that comes from the midst of modern societies. Here it is important to distinguish a "strong" and a "weak" reading of this equation of modernity and violence.

1. Equation of modernity and violence - "strong" reading

The "strong" reading assumes - in quite different orientations such as Theodor W. Adornos / Max Horkheimer's "Dialectic of Enlightenment" and Wolfgang Sofsky's "Treatise on Violence" - that modernity and civilization as a whole and essentially cause the potential for violence to be unleashed . [12] This radical, culturally pessimistic reversal of the modernist assertion of a nonviolent modernity is based on the historical experience of the Holocaust, the murder of European Jews during National Socialism. The historical focus of the radical reading expands at the same time: it is no longer modernity alone, but the entire history of civilization that consists of an increase in violence, cruelty and barbarism.

As a correction to a trivializing analysis of a nonviolent modernity, which can only interpret Nazi crimes, but also colonial oppression, as exceptions and "industrial accidents" of modern societies or as an expression of a lack of modernization, this reading of a civilization and modernity soaked in violence is important. Their total, reflex-like reversal of the thesis of a nonviolent modernity to the thesis of the barbarism of all civilization, however, overshoots the goal: the most diverse phenomena of violence are embodied in a universal historical perspective one founding violence, as mere archetypes or forms of central principle subsumed. Dramatized in this way, violence seems threatening everywhere and yet at the same time remains hidden as a phenomenon. Violence becomes an abstract principle in which a consideration of the historical, cultural and social circumstances of concrete acts of violence no longer appears necessary. The view of phenomena of violence and their productive processing, also in the sense of a search for problem solutions, is systematically blocked.

2. Equation of modernity and violence - "weak" reading

The "weak" reading of a violent modernity stands, so to speak, in the transition between the two extreme alternatives.It results from the above-mentioned uncertainty of the modernist self-image, which results from dramatic conceptual strategies, especially with a socially or culturally critical intention. If phenomena of violence are explained with reference to processes of deprivation, i.e. to social and economic disadvantage and the structures of inequality in modern societies, then the cause of violence is located in the middle of modern societies - but at the same time these analyzes can be read in such a way that they are concerned with criticism a certain (e.g. neoliberal) variant of modernization is about. Such a "weak" reading of a violent modernity is in the transition area to the self-image of a nonviolent modernity, which nevertheless remains the foundation of the analysis.

V. Current research on violence: Violence from the midst of society

The "weak" reading of violence inherent in modernity can also be found in the diagnosis of disintegration. They see not only real or perceived disadvantage as the cause of violence, but also the exaggeration of egoistic values ​​or the disintegration of integrating values ​​as well as the dissolution of social contexts as a result of modernization and globalization processes. The more dramatic the cause-and-effect relationship - deprivation and disintegration processes as the cause of violence - is presented, the more the "weak" reading approaches the "strong" one: the pessimistic criticism of society overlaps the search for productive alternatives, and the impression prevails, modern societies at all led to a seemingly inevitable outright explosion of violence.

This tension between the notion of a non-violent and a violent modern age leads to characteristic entanglements of fading out and dramatization of violence in empirical violence research. Since it is difficult to document the respondents 'actual actions in questionnaires, the interviewees' attitudes and orientation patterns are asked for and analyzed. The research into violent acts takes a back seat in the studies in favor of the elaborate research into individual attitudes such as "acceptance of violence" and "willingness to use violence". The few questions that apply to one's own violent behavior are held in stereotypical "in order to" formulations, which always presuppose purpose-oriented, instrumentalist motives for violent acts without alternative, i.e., motives other than rationally calculating are ignored. This turns out to be a dramatization of violence because the characteristic "advocacy of violence" is much more common than the characteristic "violence". For example, up to 60 percent of those questioned express (depending on how the question was phrased) attitudes that accept violence, while around 12 percent state that they had used physical violence in the past year. According to the varying question, the proportion of "proponents of violence" also changes. T. drastically and becomes any number. Methodologically inadmissibly, the distinction between attitudes and behavior of individuals is blurred: the agreement to statements about the normality of violence is simply interpreted as an advocacy of violence and, completely misleading, even as violence. [13]

General structural changes in society as a whole are regularly assumed to be the cause of violence in the form of processes of social disintegration. However, it remains unclear, firstly, to what extent the culturally pessimistic diagnosis of "disintegration" is tenable at all, and secondly, how such macro-structural causes affect the level of the actors. Because often it seems that acts of violence between individual attitudes and overall social structures are disappearing. By assuming a diffuse ensemble of general structural social problems (disintegration) as the cause for all violent acts, violent actors always appear as passive victims of socio-structural processes.

Theories of disintegration are based on the idea of ​​a romantically idealized normal state of a well-ordered, homogeneous society integrated through shared norms, which remains in a kind of equilibrium. Every form of social change and pluralization processes appears as a danger, as a threatening dissolution and disintegration of social order. Apart from the question of how realistic (not least historically) this ideal image of an "integrated society" is, this perspective systematically obscures the analysis of social change processes, which consist not only in the dissolution of social order, but also in its transformation and Neoplasm.

This fading out of reintegration phenomena is illustrated by the example of the analysis of youth scenes: "There is still a rapid escape from the institutions, especially from the organizations: be it parties, trade unions, churches, youth associations, etc. ... Adolescents demonstrate it in an exemplary manner: Their actions, no matter what kind, increasingly take place beyond (binding) institutions in (non-binding, fluid) scenes Cohesion problem visible as a variant of lacking integration. "[14] To describe youth scenes so suddenly and one-sidedly as" variant of lacking integration "is implausible and contradicts the results of youth research. [15] The community and milieu-creating, i.e. (re) integrating" effect " of youth scenes does not even come into view in the theory of disintegration. This also leads to the fading out of the integrating, social order-creating effect of acts of violence in such scenes. [16] That these youths mostly create social belonging in groups by means of violence - be it in the provocation of the (stigmatizing) public, even if it is tolerated by the local public, remains hidden. However, precisely this (re) integration effort could be a reason for the attractiveness of youth scenes with an affinity for violence.

By ignoring reintegration processes and (in this sense) the "productive" effects of violence, not only is the view of the analysis of violence phenomena blocked. The deficit perspective also leads to a dramatization and totalization of the disintegration diagnosis, and thus to a panorama of modern society with no perspective or alternative. The disintegration model becomes completely questionable because in some cases no statistical connections between "disintegration" and "violence" can be shown or the proportion of "disintegrated" among the respondents is always much higher (about six out of ten respondents) than the proportion of "violent" and "proponents of violence" (around one in ten respondents). [17] But why only a few "disintegrated" people exercise violence or agree to do so, while the majority (as well as the non-disintegrated) do not, remains unexplained.

Last but not least, the underestimation of the representations of violence leads to an intertwining of fading out and dramatization. In the questionnaire, it is always assumed that violence is a uniform, objectively measurable quantity and that all respondents understand the same thing as "deliberately beaten or beaten up". Context, situations, intensity, course and consequences of violent incidents and acts of violence do not play a role, and it remains unclear what exactly is measured (e.g. scuffle in the schoolyard or stabbing, racist manhunt or the fight of youth groups). At the same time, this vagueness opens up the field for speculations that cross the line to stigmatize, as in a study of Turkish young people and their comparatively higher levels of violence and willingness to use violence. [18] It is hardly surprising that the "Spiegel" uses this study to support its thesis of the "time bombs in the suburbs". [19]

VI. Alternatives

1. Representation of violence, apologies of violence

In the search for alternative concepts for the analysis of acts of violence and violent events, two misunderstandings must be avoided: First, the conclusion that violence is nothing more than a construct, so that it is sufficient to use the various representations (definitions, dramatizations, stigmatizations, etc.) of To study violence (and to 'expose' it), while one cannot say anything about violence itself as a phenomenon. One such, in criminology as labeling approach Well-known perspective, which is limited to the investigation of the institutionally (by the police, courts, media) produced boundaries between "normal" and "deviant" / criminal, ignores the level of action, the actors and their physicality. Last but not least, pain, injuries and sometimes the death of the victim show that the phenomenon of violence does not merge into mere construction and definition processes. The investigation of representations and constructions of violence is a necessary part of the analysis of violence, but it is not sufficient on its own.

A second possible misunderstanding concerns the talk of "productive" or "positive" effects of violence (in contrast to the deficit perspective on violence criticized above). Is the labeling approach always suspected of trivializing violence, one comes close to glorifying violence. Because one third reading this theme of violence and modernity consists precisely in the idea of ​​positive violence directed against modernity. As in the modernist idea of ​​a non-violent modernity, violence and modernity are opposed to each other, only the evaluations are reversed: a spontaneous, impulsive, cleansing, intoxicating, non-rational violence ("violence") is supposed to be the bourgeois, frozen in its rationality and decadence Overcoming society and its bureaucratic state authority ("force"). Such mythologizations and apologies of violence were and are uttered by both the left and the right. [20] They are morally and politically absurd, but indicate that phenomena such as violence and war are more than mere means, as the first reading (a non-violent modernity) and the second reading (a violence-producing modernity) suggest. As a euphoric and traumatizing experience, violence can provoke social, cultural and psychological transformations, gain specific dynamics and an "obstinacy". Here the precarious limit of speaking of "productive" effects of violence becomes clear: This does not refer to the moral evaluation of violence, but to the fact that violence - instead of only shaking and destroying social relationships and individuals - also includes affiliations and identities can change and create. [21]

2. The ambivalence of modernity and violence

In a fourth reading the relationship between modernity and violence is understood as flexible and tense. Violence does not stand outside of modern societies (as in the first reading), nor is it the principle and basis of modern societies (as in the second reading), nor is it responsible or sensible to propagate an anti-modern intoxication of violence (as in the third reading). Rather, the type, extent and form of specifically modern forms of violence and different types of links between violence and modernity are the focus of context-oriented research. [22] From this perspective, violence is not everywhere, but also not outside of society, but can be found and analyzed in various contexts, and it is seldom subject to a single general cause (e.g. disintegration, etc.).

This assumption of an ambivalent, tense relationship between violence and modern society can circumvent the wrong alternatives of suppressing and / or dramatizing violence. Most promising are studies that reconstruct acts of violence in different group contexts in a comparative way. [23] It is z. For example, the time-limited, periodic character of violent behavior by young people is clear, which shakes the idea that violence is rooted in deep-seated attitudes, almost as a personality trait in the individual. But also the embedding of violent behavior in group contexts up to the creation of collective affiliations through violence in "gangs", among right-wing skinheads, hooligans or in the hardcore scene becomes clear. [24] Such ethnographic studies can differentiate between various forms of violent acts: e. For example, actionist violence that is purposeful in itself, or purposeful, calculating violence, or ideologically legitimized violence. Specific alliances of z. Partly highly increased individuality on the one hand and collectivity on the other hand, from flexibility and episodic nature of such group affiliations on the one hand and their intense, identities and bonds-creating power on the other. Only on the basis of their analysis can a more well-founded assessment of the (also long-term) integrative or disintegrative consequences of acts of violence be made.

In addition, connections between the violent acts of the actors and their representation in public and in the media become clear. This concerns the specific appropriations of pop culture styles spread across the media and around the world by local youth groups. Not least at this level, basic differentiations are used that forbid a simple equation of styles (skinheads, death metal, hip-hop, grafitti, etc.) with a certain action (e.g. violence). Representations of violence also play a role when it comes to connecting a local public to the violent behavior of young people. Here, too, very different (and always momentous) reactions can be found, from open tolerance and encouragement to the instrumentalization of acts of violence (as a doorman, room steward) or simple ignoring to stigmatization. In addition, the mass media dramatizations of "dangerous streets" and neighborhoods can be reconstructed, in which the phenomenon is often only staged in front of the camera and against payment by young people. [25] And finally, there are entanglements between representation and (violent) action also in the integration of young people into the pop culture / music industry through the professionalization of their activities. To what extent musical, dance, artistic, sporting etc. Activities accompanying violent acts, but above all being able to replace them, becomes visible in the various contexts.

3. Conclusion

In order to be able to analyze the interconnections of acts of violence and its discursive representations, the fourth reading of the relationship between violence and modernity, which is differentiated here, comes to the fore. Only this framework, which is based on an ambivalent relationship between modernity and violence, enables context-specific research into phenomena of violence, without generalizing assumptions about the cause and beyond trivializing fading out, culturally pessimistic dramatization or unsustainable glorification of violence. In this way, specifically modern forms of violence can then be recorded in a differentiated manner and make it possible to break out of the violence dilemma of modernity, which Jan Philipp Reemtsma puts into the words: "Modernism is obsessed with the issue of violence on the one hand, and on the other hand has considerable difficulty in formulating it with it. " [26]

Internet references by the author:

Working Group on Social Science Research and Further Education (University of Trier)

Hamburg Institute for Social Research

Institute for Conflict and Violence Research (Bielefeld University)

Center for Conflict Research (University of Marburg)

Research on youth cultures and violence