Brian Holmes on Thu, 15 Nov 2001 21:04:19 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> structural violence

What does the concept of "structural violence" have to do with terrorism?
First, the nutshell definition, complete with critical proviso (or way

"Popularized by the Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, the idea of
structural violence involves a wide construal of violence aimed at showing
that its menace is present in institutional ways even where no literal or
'narrow' violence occurs. Structural violence does not involve agents
inflicting damage by force, but is equivalent to social injustice. Apart
from its potentiality for confusion, a key problem with the concept is its
dubious suggestion that a variety of apparently quite different social
problems are all essentially the same and will therefore yield to the one

Oxford companion to philosophy, from:

Next, a chance to form your own judgment by considering excerpts of Paul
Farmer's inaugural address at the College de France:

"A Horribly Interesting Reality"
Paul Farmer

"...Movements of poulations on a vast scale, and therefore of diseases,
are not new. But what is new, from a doctor's viewpoint, is that we now
have tools that did not exist just fifty years ago; and those tools are
distributed as unjustly as the diseases of which I am going to speak.
Infectious diseases that can be treated are the major cause of death among
the poorest people on this planet.

These same social inequalities give rise, obviously, to a constellation of
misfortunes running from human rights violations to terrorism. If the
doctor's task is that of preventing or curing diseases, the anthropolgist,
for his part, must "resocialize" the tragedy of those who needlessly
suffer. What justifies such an exercise? Does it do any good? Or is it
just a kind of fig-leaf over the doctor's vain efforts in the face of
immense suffering? That last idea is not my opinion, and I am quite
grateful to the College de France for having named to this professorship
someone who, along with others, devotes his tome to furnishing medical
care to poor people....

I don't expect to hit any theoretical high-points here, but simply to
elucidate how the concept of "structural violence" can cast some light for
anthropology and other disciplines seeking to decipher contemporary social
life. Like those who have studied slavery, racism and other forms of
institutionalized violence, a growing number of anthropologists are
interested in structural violence. Each one seems to have his or her own
definition of the "structure" and the "violence". Violence was the subject
of Françoise Heritier's seminar at the College de France: "Let us call
violence any constraint of a physical or psychic nature liable to lead to
terror, displacement, unhappiness, sufffering, or the death of loved
ones." The great epidemics of our day are one of the symptoms of
structural violence....

The unhappy consequences of structural violence (diseases, wounds, deaths,
subjection and terror) are material. For the anthropolgist who studies
poverty, exclusion, or the deadly mixture of the two, structural violence
is directly and concretely embodied in everyday reality.... Tacitus is
credited with this aphorism: "They created a desert, which they called
Peace." The phrase is fitting where the architects of structural violence
are concerned: in intellectual matters their favorite vanishing act
consists in effacing history. The refusal or distortion of history shares
in the desocializing process which is indispensable for generating a
hegemonic reading of events and their causes. Basic revisionism, which
consists in purely and simply denying the existence of an event, remains
possible but is neither very persuasive not very effective in the halls of
power. Effacing history is a subtle operation that moves forward with
small steps: it's a matter of erasing the links of cause and effect across
space and time. In its camp is found oblivion, a natural, biological
process. Time heals all wounds, it is said, including those which have
never been properly cleaned and threaten to break open again, to the great
"surprise" of those who have forgotten them...

When I began to study and to treat the two major infectious diseases that
afflict Haiti, tuberculosis and Aids, the old curse and the new one, I
made use of "world-system theory," as it is called in anthropology. In
fact it is not a particularly theoretical approach. It consists in
situating the ethnographically visible phenomena within the framework of
the economic and social structures that shape the existence of
individuals, to the point of deciding their life or death...

For lack of a better term, I often reused one from political economy, the
term "neoliberal," to designate the constellation of ideas generally
accepted today concerning commerce, development and the exercise of power.
These ideas are not always coherent but they have been accepted by a large
number of people in the rich market economies.... This neoliberal thinking
proves indispensable for the develpment of the modern world, whose
objective is less to attack poverty and social inequalities than to manage

Tuberculosis and Aids cause millions of early deaths every year. On a
world level, the two pathologies constitute the primary cause of mortality
due to infectious disease among adults. Whoever thinks about structural
violence ought to take a particular interest in the diseases and the
social structures that perpetuate them. As Alfred Kroeber suggests, an
anthropological approach ought to be both biological and social. Pierre
Bourdieu formulates that by saying "the body is in the social world but
the social world is in the body."

Allow me to illustrate that with tuberculosis, the best known of the two
diseases. We tend to think that the "white plague," as it used to be
called, developed with the industrial revolution and then disappeared. The
historian Katherine Otts notes, however, that "tuberculosis did not
'reappear' for those who have struggled against it all their lives and who
have been excluded because of the disease." A third of the world's
population is infected by the pathogen. We can expect from eight to ten
million cases per year, with two to three million deaths....

Since it opened in 1985, our clinic in Haiti has taken the responsibility
of helping the landless peasants and children scattered around the
hydroelectric dam, whose waters submerged the valley in 1956 and deprived
the peasants of their land and their revenue. We thought we were doing
good work, but we were wrong. Three years later, in December 1988, three
people in their forties died of tuberculosis. The team met for an urgent
consultation. Why had we not succeeded in avoiding these deaths?....

Over the next two months, we put together a plan destined to improve the
services offered to the patients... We didn't change the patients but we
did change our way of working. We organized visits to the sick almost
every day and we also furnished financial aid and food. The rates of cure
went from 48% to 100% in less than a year. For ten years now, no one has
died of pulmonary tuberculosis in the region served by the health

The distribution of Aids and tuberculosis, like slavery in the past, is
historically given and economically predictable. What are the shared
traits that underly past and present ills? Social injustices form the core
of structural violence. Racism in one form or another, inequality among
the sexes and above all, naked poverty in the face of abundance: all these
tragedies are linked to programs and plans that run from slavery to the
current quest for unbridled growth. These ills are at once the cause and
the result of displacements of population, declared or simmering wars,
hatreds that smoulder and whose explosion surprises only those who do not
know the historical foundations of contemporary conflicts. Racism and its
sidekicks (the scorn or even hatred of the poor) underly the refusal to
deal directly with these and other problems.",5987,3232--243438-,00.html

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