Violence In Anthropology Research Paper

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Across the Cold War and the collapse of great-power socialism, anthropological studies of violence have focused on international patterns of revolution, counterinsurgency warfare, state terrorism, militant ethnic nationalism, communal violence, and organized crime (Wolf 1969, Das et al. 2000). The field has also reconsidered the violence of Western colonialism, the epistemic violence of states that marginalize devalued groups, and the structural violence inherent in systems of inequality that consign great numbers of people to unstable incomes and life-threatening poverty, hunger, and preventable disease (Schepper-Hughes 1992, Bourgois 1995).

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This array of issues contrasts with social anthropology’s earlier functionalist focus on the internal regulation of social tensions, leadership transitions, and intergroup hostilities in lineage-based societies, imagined as isolates. The turn to examining the interplay of local communities and state politics, and the political consequences of globalization has revitalized the subfield of political anthropology.

Although the discipline has appropriated issues from political science and comparative sociology throughout this scholarly transformation, it has also critiqued central assumptions in these fields and reasserted the importance of cultural issues in the study of violence. As a result, anthropology is contributing to a rethinking of the state in the context of globalization, and reconsidering the interface between state and civilian populations. Most importantly, it has taken on the cross-cutting question of how communities in different political situations cope with their own patterns of internalized violence.

The scope of the anthropological project has grown as researchers questioned the conventional social science emphasis on violence as the state’s monopoly over the use of legitimate force by the armed forces, police, and judicial systems (Giddens 1987). By contrast, cultural anthropology has chosen not to privilege uniquely formal institutions or physical harm in its studies, but rather additionally to examine the social fragmentation and suffering created by organized, but often informally instituted, structures of violence generated in situations of civil war, state terrorism, fragmented states, and globalized economies.

In Latin America, Asia, and Europe, a central issue has been the ways in which local communities both resist and become complicit with state violence. In regions of weak states where alternative power structures have assumed state functions, as in the case of the former USSR and sub-Saharan Africa, a major issue is tracing the growing significance of illicit trading networks and mafias.

Anthropology has embraced notions of culture that include the diverse discursive practices that states have used to legitimize the use of violent force by portraying others as inherently violent or not fully human, and thus deserving of preemptive control rather than full citizenship. The discipline has examined alternative forms of resistance to state violence, the politicization of ethnicity, and the impact of counterinsurgency states on civil populations. It has also begun to analyze popular representations of violence in the media.

1. Violence And Resistance

Rather than ignoring those without power and status, one well-established anthropological approach examines patterns of cultural resistance to domination and oppression. As has become clear in this literature, resistance in oppressive circumstances takes many highly coded forms. Resistance perspectives examine the way groups configure ideologies and political actions to reject the terms established for subordinates by state authorities and regional power brokers, even in extreme circumstances when they are political prisoners (Aretxaga 1997). A tactical dual consciousness allows submissive subordinates to feign submission yet hold subversive beliefs in their behind-the-scenes ‘hidden transcripts’ (Scott 1990).

This approach is especially concerned with cultural forms through which local populations keep their veiled social critiques alive: such as oral histories of martyrdom, ritual parodies of power structures, and political art. These cultural forms assert alternative moralities, unveil abuses of power, and describe forms of militancy, great and small. Such codes of resistance cannot be read from afar, that is without knowledge of particular cultural circumstances and access to how people rework cultural forms to deal with the particular existential dilemmas they face.

2. Violence And Leadership: A Critique Of Rational Choice Reductionism

Another line of analysis, influenced by political science, pursues the motivation of rivals for state power, particularly those who defy political systems and seek to undermine the integrity of the state by organizing separatist rebellions. Researchers have sought to understand political violence in these circumstances by using rational choice theory, and studying the competition of groups for resources and the self-interests of political leaders. Analysts now routinely question political leaders’ self-declarations, and unmask opportunists willing to politicize ethnicity and inflame populations to their personal advantage. Leaders exhibit a willingness, sometimes a frightening eagerness, to promote the radical fracturing of society into antagonistic groups with the goal of unifying their own group through strategic antagonisms.

Anthropology suggests that violence and conflict should not be seen as exceptional moments of crisis and rebellion, or simply as the consequences of competitions over resources, but as integral parts of a social fabric already fragmented in innumerable ways. Ethnographic research shows how important it is to comprehend people’s understandings of the contradictory tensions, and the heterogeneous personal and collective interests in their lives. Struggles over memory and history, the importance of culturally specific narratives for the expression of grievances, and the local constructions of ‘choice,’ ‘competition,’ and ‘opportunism,’ are all doorways to a fuller cultural analysis. At issue in moments of crisis are the intensification and redirection by leaders of what is already there—the systems of meaning that actively generate cultural understandings.

The mix of opportunism and resistance approaches chosen for interpreting a particular violent conflict depends on a range of factors, including the historically and politically conditioned gaze of researchers working in regional studies traditions. With its long colonial history, decades of military rule from the 1950s to the 1980s, anti-imperialist guerrilla movements that sought to topple elite-driven states, revolutionary socialist experiments, and current struggle to institutionalize democracy, Latin America has drawn the attention of a variety of analysts.

In these contexts, ethnic identities have been shaped by racially inflected modes of stratification, deep cultural resistance, and political mobilization that has had complex relations and tensions with capitalist and socialist ideologies (Hale 1994). In the case of the Zapatista uprising in Mexico—which protested entrenched regional violence and the subsistence shocks of the 1994 neoliberal trade agreements between the USA and Mexico that established the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—politicized indigenous identity has been the source of alternative visions of social justice, combining international human rights discourses with the communal politics of Maya communities (Nash 2001). It is hard to find the reductionist explanations of rational choice theory convincing in these complex circumstances.

3. Death Squads

Government-mandated counterinsurgency violence that seeks to extinguish political opposition is often an unstable solution to social conflict, yet it has been the common practice of regimes across the political spectrum. Violent states have persisted in labeling wide ranges of their citizens as dangerous and undeserving of full rights. Nationalisms have been crafted by political elites not only to create an imagined community for their country’s citizens but additionally to rationalize mass repression much wider in scope than any immediate uprising.

Anthropologists have documented an often hidden and always denied aspect of violent states: death squads operate at the margins, engaging in torture, kidnap, rape, and assassination outside the rule of law. Paramilitary groups specialize in what the police and armed forces officially appear to eschew: the extrajudicial torture and killing of dissenters, the disappearances of local leaders, students, and journalists, and the retaliatory abuse of activists’ families, including the rape of women to humiliate their parents and to pollute family lines. The political goal is to silence critics and intimidate the general public through preemptive violence, while maintaining plausible deniability of government involvements in violence against civilians. Some militaries have instituted community-based civil patrols, forced to engage in death squad activities and community surveillance, all in the name of self-defense. There are many variations of this violent mode of control, responding to the particular political and cultural histories of countries as diverse as Northern Ireland, Spain, India, Indonesia, Argentina, and Guatemala (Montejo 1999, Sluka 2000).

It is clear from these studies that the police and army are not bounded institutions set apart from society. Rather, the state, armed forces, paramilitaries, insurgents, and civil society form interpenetrating social fields. Civilians fill the ranks of armed forces on all sides and, often as forced recruits, experience state-centered indoctrination to fight these wars. The general population, whatever its sympathies, frequently finds no feasible exit from the conflict between insurgents and the state (Stoll 1993). Individuals become complicit in state violence by informing on the activities and putative alliances of their neighbors. Whether coerced, offered in exchange for personal gain, or solicited to enhance one’s power at the expense of others, these complicities involve betrayals that splinter family and community trust, and create situations of internalized violence that add new tensions to old divisions (Warren 1993, Das et al. 2000). These dynamics create powerful existential dilemmas for people who must endure heightened insecurity over long periods of time. As E. Scary (1985) observed, the deeper cost of violence is not its physical harm but its capacity to ‘unmake the world.’

In the face of state terrorism, anticolonial opposition movements pose particular challenges for anthropologists. In instances where cultural minorities or grassroots movements are repressed by overwhelming state power, it has been difficult for anthropologists not to sympathize with those who denounce and resist injustice. For some researchers, the fact of war justifies counter-violence, whatever form it takes. For others, the issue is how repression potentially recreates a sense of common purpose and unites resistance across ethnic, geographic, and class lines.

For still other analysts, resistance to repression involves a painful blurring of motives and allegiances over time, with individuals betraying their established loyalties rather than bridging them, sometimes voluntarily or in other circumstances to put off their own death sentences. Anthropologists have traced the contradictions, ironies, and the mimesis of state violence in anticolonial separatist movements. As Ortner (1995) argues in her critique of resistance approaches, anthropologists are called upon to contextualize and historicize (rather than ignore) the contradictory impulses of such social movements. A return to richer ethnographic portrayals has become necessary to counteract the earlier tendency to idealize opposition movements by focusing on their activities as exemplars of resistance.

Beyond the horror of state violence, there is no neutral subject position from which to narrate these histories. That counter-nationalisms can generate their own authoritarianism, death squads, and corruption-mirroring state power as they critique it—and that grassroots insurgents may lose rather than gain civilian support over time create special challenges for anthropological writing in politically charged situations. Another compelling issue is the criminalization of former combatants where peace processes have not coped with the extreme social fragmentation that accompanies protracted violence. Former combatants, death squad members, civil patrollers, and families displaced by violence need new sources of employment and community involvement if they are not to continue patterns of predatory behavior.

Perhaps the triumphalist discourse of democratic modernity—especially the post Cold War end-of-history variant of this discourse—has inhibited closer examinations of violence in democratic societies. Tambiah (1996) argues that paramilitary violence may be much more intrinsic to democratic states than is usually suspected. In practice, democracy channels intense competition for power through electoral politics which is often accompanied by occult violence. Thus, in India, groups frequently provoke riots at election time for their own political ends. Echoing these patterns, elections in Guatemala and Colombia bring waves of assassinations of candidates for local and national office. Although these riots and cyclic killings are condemned, electoral violence becomes an anticipated event in these political landscapes. The underside of democracy includes spaces of violence that are integral aspects of state politics, even as they are, in effect, public secrets.

4. Interpenetrating Explanations Of Violence

How does anthropology weight the factors ultimately accountable for contemporary violence? First of all, it is important to consider international influences such as the highly volatile global economy and neoliberal economic policies promulgated by the international development community as part of democratic modernity that creates and tolerates dramatic gaps between prosperous and impoverished citizens. Policies and investment decisions at great distance from their effects continue to bring subsistence shocks that threaten the lives of the poor. The Asian financial crisis of 1997, for example, which began in the realm of international currency speculation, precipitated the collapse of several national currencies and generated riots and continuing ethnic tensions in Indonesia.

Political transnationalism would be another issue. Counterinsurgency and insurgency training, and the sale of arms and surveillance equipment have long been global industries that are increasingly decentralized in practice. The School of the Americas, a US-based training center for Latin American military officers who have been implicated in many human rights abuses in their own countries, has been the conduit for techniques of violent control developed over the longer history of Western colonialism. Strategies first developed in colonial Asia were brought to Latin America in the 1950s, redeployed in Vietnam during the war, and later put back into circulation in Latin America, moving in the last decade from Guatemala to Mexico, where they have been used most recently against the Zapatistas. British colonial models of control developed in Kenya and Malaya have been redeployed in Northern Ireland. The post Cold War repositioning of militaries as partners in national development has left unchallenged the discourses of ‘national security,’ in which state terrorism can be used to combat whatever is discursively defined as a political threat.

Another crucial element for the explanation of violence is the national institutions and political actors who, for their own reasons and interests, seek to foster authoritarian, militarized solutions to social conflicts. Finally, it is important to include the interplay of local and national formations of violence to trace the intimate interplay of transcommunity organized violence with community conflicts.

To neglect any of these arenas, or to locate the moral or causal explanation of death squads in particular international arenas so that it displaces all other considerations, would appear to be a serious misreading of a complex political field of actors and institutions. Nevertheless, it is clear that the study of patterns of violence shows the direct linkage of very local events with wider power structures and globalized currents of change. Capitalist economics, which has led to the search for ever cheaper sources of labor without wider obligations for workers’ social welfare, and the transnational sex trade, which transforms adults and children into commodities, exemplify the social costs of globalization.

5. Violence And Media Representation

Current research challenges the usefulness of media accounts of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ to explain conflicts leading to the fragmentation of states. There is a consensus now that Western media and official media elsewhere promote dangerously simplified ethnic readings of conflicts, ones that reinforce primordialist readings of ‘the other.’ Such presentations in mass media deflect attention from the reality that the West has been directly involved in many ‘localized’ conflicts through economic and political interventions in the internal affairs of other nations (Allen and Seaton 1999).

In contrast to the overdetermined language of ethnic antagonism, recent research in anthropology demonstrates that many social systems involve the coexistence of diverse groups and hybrid identifications, and that politics in various parts of the world cross-cuts ethnic, religious, and linguistic difference. An important deconstruction of ethnicity as a fixed or essential entity is occurring across these analyses. The classical critique has been to discredit ethnicity in order to uphold class as the prime factor to explain social conflict. A more recent countertrend is to widen the field of identities and identifications under consideration, and to understand class as a creation of particular cultural and historical circumstance, rather than a preestablished or transcultural set of categories.

A fuller cultural analysis, which pursues the multiplicity of identities and the flow of ideas and signs across borders, is central to interpreting conflict and the directions it takes. The issue is not just meanings that mediate reality, but the images that make imagination—in this case violence, fragmentation, and/or coexistence—possible. Instead of assuming that people internalize the ethnic hatred and opportunist politics sold by corrupt leaders and the media—an assumption left unchallenged in US journalism by repeated photographs of armed mobs without any sense of people’s reasons for their participation—it is important to understand the playing out of contradictory consciousness in people’s daily lives, and the political consequences of these understandings. To make sense of low-intensity peace or nationalist crises, one must historicize and contextualize the forms of violence and its denial.

Culturally informed analyses call for an array of strategies for studying representation, control, resistance, and complicity—the violence within and without. Significantly, these same strategies can be used to explore unexpected alliances and unexpected avenues for negotiation that might successfully challenge violence and its grammar of oppositions.


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