History Of Violence Research Paper

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Violence in its various forms has been an aspect of historical descriptions since Thucydides, but to this day there is no independent specialty in historical research on violence. The history of violence is thus written as part of military and war history, of research on revolution and protest, and of the history of gender and the body. In Europe and elsewhere, it cuts across the institutional and disciplinary logic of the study of history. This lack of independence has two consequences for historical research on violence. First, it is always interdisciplinary and includes approaches proper to political science and social history, as well as issues of cultural history. Second, it cannot look back on a unified development, but on disparate traditions in the individual disciplines. While revolutionary violence, for example, is discussed primarily in the context of the French Revolution, research on social protest has developed under the influence of 1950s Anglo-American social history and of the reactions to the 1960s urban riots in the USA. The historiography of research on violence is thus many-stranded and international.

1. Definitions Of Violence

The definitions of violence are as varied as its manifestations. The term itself takes on disparate coloring in the context of each respective national language. English, French, and Italian reflect the Latin and emphasize the injuries caused by violence and its violation of corporal integrity. By comparison, the German term ‘Gewalt’ is less negatively charged, also being used as a synonym for ‘power’ or ‘pou oir’. Only its extension ‘Gewalttatigkeit’ captures the injurious character of the Anglo-American term. A comparative examination of the history of terms is a desideratum for research.

The spectrum of scholarly definitions of violence is broad. The distinctions between direct and indirect, collective and individual, legitimate and illegitimate, concrete and structural, physical and psychological, and manifest and symbolic violence reflect varying accents in the discussion. Depending on the definition, the focus can be on the manifestations, the justifications, or the effects of violence. The term has been specified further in accordance with its intended use for qualitative or quantitative studies. Modern research on protest sees collective violence when at least 20 persons take part in acts in which persons or objects are damaged.

In the current discussion among historians, violence is widely understood as injury to people’s physical integrity, caused by various historical actors in various contexts. Here, violence is not seen as an anthropological constant, nor as a universal historical trait held in common, but tied to the actions of specific groups and conditions that are subject to change in various national societies and epochs. The German sociologist, Heinrich Popitz, has advanced this view (Popitz 1986). He sees violence as ‘an act of power that leads to the intentional bodily injury of others’. In this view, corporality distinguishes violence from other means of domination, such as orders, though it contributes to their effect.

Since violence injures bodily integrity, it possesses a massive potential for threat and evokes fears. These can contribute to the avoidance of acts of violence, but can also amplify them. The pair of terms ‘physical’ and ‘psychological’ violence touch on this connection. Not only does the experience of physical violence, such as torture or rape, have psychological consequences; psychological violence, such as brainwashing, can also have physical effects. Popitz’ definition also points to the concept of power. It thus designates the content of violent conflicts as an often unequal structural situation of victims and perpetrators. This underscores that the history of violence is also always a part of societal processes in which the distribution and resources of power are up for discussion.

Beyond its physical core, the term violence has taken on various meanings in the course of the modern age.

(a) In the process of forming states, legitimate violence is distinguished from illegitimate private violence, independent of whether the latter is wielded in revolutions or in defense of the status quo. The state has defended and extended its monopoly on violence as a constituting component of being a state since early modern times. This monopoly prevailed through the disarmament of the feudal rulers. With the army and (since the eighteenth, and especially the nineteenth, centuries) the police, state organs exercised the monopoly on legitimate violence. This monopoly required justification in its form and degree, but not in its existence. Lindenberger and Ludtke saw the hallmark of modernity in the network of relationships between physically suffered violence, on the one hand, and the state monopoly on violence, on the other (Lindenberger and Ludtke 1995). Thus they not only claim an increase in the state’s practice of control and repression, but also touch upon the everyday experience of violence. In the modern age, citizens can come into conflict with state regulations and sanctions, which in turn provoke violent actions. In modern protest research, Charles Tilly, among others, has held state reactions to unrest responsible for the extent of counterviolence (Tilly 1975).

(b) The experiences of dependency and inequality between the centers of power, colonies, and the so-called ‘Third World’ led the Norwegian social scientist, Johan Galtung, to develop the concept of ‘structural violence’ (Galtung 1975). From the perspective of peace politics, he drew attention to a discrepancy. He saw a chasm between the existing potential for development based on technology and available societal wealth, on the one hand, and the respective levels of development of disadvantaged groups and countries, on the other. His concept emphasizes, not individual perpetrators, but social structures, and not primarily physically-experienced violence, but poverty and exploitation. He was not so much concerned with legitimating counterviolence, as vehemently defended by the Algerian sociologist, Frantz Fanon, but with social peace, which he thought would be secured for all through equality and opportunities for development (Fanon 1961).

The term ‘structural violence’ flourished in the 1970s, but also met criticism. It was accused not only of failing to define ‘structure,’ but also for lacking specificity in its analysis of violence. ‘By tendentiously deciphering all relations as relations of violence, these relations are leveled,’ wrote Wolf-Dieter Narr (1973); i.e., the analyses of violence and of society are indistinguishable. Galtung was able to demonstrate that the term ‘violence’ can be applied meaningfully in the analysis of acts in the context of the forcible relations effective in acts of exchange, in inculcating literacy, and in migrations.

(c) The concept of symbolic violence is beset with similar problems of distinction. Pierre Bourdieu and Claude Passeron used it in their theoretical analysis of the French school system and thus designated ‘that form of violence’ that ‘is exercised against a social actor with the complicity of this ‘‘actor’’’ (Bourdieu and Passeron 1970). The experience is violent in that the actors are subjected to a code of language and behavior alien to them; it is symbolic through the verbal and semiotic form of its mechanisms. These shape the school’s demands and enable or prevent scholastic careers. According to Bourdieu, by accepting this code, the actors contribute to the lasting legitimation of the scholastic system of selection. This term rightly touches on the linguistic and semiotic dimension of violence, but expands it to the point that it no longer has clear contours.

(d) In the course of the development of gender history in the 1990s, the concept of violence has been extended to private forms of violence within the family. Feminist literature has used the term ‘sexual violence’. This refers to actions that appear in a form tying societies to sexuality. They are carried out against the will of persons who do not have the same power resources as the perpetrators. Sexual violence is thus analyzed as part of the inequality effective in the relationship between the sexes. It shifts from an exceptional phenomenon to one in terms of which the paradigmatically prevailing ideas of power relations and sexuality, and the experiences of women and girls can be grasped. This extension of the concept of violence not only opens new fields to scientific research, but, since the 1980s, has also been taken up in the penal codes of individual societies.

2. Historical Research On Violence

In the past, experience with violence was subsumed again and again in theoretical sketches. Among them, the theories of Thomas Hobbes, Max Webber, and Hannah Arendt were doubtless the most influential, though they arose under disparate conditions (Hobbes 1914, Weber 1919, Arendt 1970). But, especially since the 1950s, their influence on historical research on violence has been superseded by that of Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, and most recently Clifford Geertz (Elias 1976, Foucault 1975, Geertz 1973).

Thomas Hobbes was the primary inspirer of historical research on violence (Hobbes 1914). In seventeenth-century English society, which was no longer integrated by religion, he demonstrated in terms of contract theory the necessity of the state’s use of violence. Hobbes postulated that, to pacify an English society composed of private persons hostile to each other, these persons relinquished their rights to the Leviathan state, i.e., in the English case, to the absolute monarch. In return, they received protection from hostile others and the guarantee of societal peace. The double function of the state’s monopoly on violence—on the one hand, to protect the interests of individuals, and on the other, to limit their possibilities of self-realization and their rights—has become the common possession of most analyses of violence since Hobbes. The individual’s relationship to state violence thus often develops from his specific experiences either with the state’s protection or with its limitation of his freedom.

Norbert Elias has provided important stimuli for historical research on violence (Elias 1976). Elias described European history since the Middle Ages as a history of civilization. This hypothesis is based on two central assumptions. First, Elias says that, in the course of the expansion of the trades, commerce, transportation, and the activity of the state, the interaction among members of society became more frequent and more dense. To the degree that they competed for influence and shares of power, agreements on behavior, and behavioral norms were required. In this process, civilized manners prevailed. On the other hand, the state monopoly exercised an increased external compulsion over the behavior of the members of a society. This found its most complete form in courtly society. In the realm regulated by courtly etiquette, the individual’s success depended on new civilized modes of behavior. To the degree that peoples’ definition of themselves conformed to this framework, forms of self-compulsion and control of feelings resulted. Violent structures of interpersonal societal relations receded as the model of civilized and inner-directed acting spread from the upper strata to the rest of society. Elias’ historical periodization has been criticized by Hans-Peter Duerr, but his secular-based hypothesis has nonetheless been very fruitful for research (Duerr 1988–96).

Michel Foucault emphasized the shift in form and content in state practices of punishment, which shaped both societal reality and the individual’s life practice lastingly (Foucault 1975). In his view, the practices of domination targeting the body have shifted since 1800 to strategies targeting the mind. The disciplinary measures carried out on the human body in clinics, psychiatric facilities, and prisons took on a more total character in the modern age. As in Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panoptikum,’ the individual is now subjected to control by institutions and the effects of techniques of power, which in turn are provided by the fields of study that dominate discourses (Bentham 1787). In Foucault’s model, the direct violence of the exercise of power made way for the violence of discourses—at least after the threshold between the epochs, which he locates around 1800. Historical studies have relativized this hypothesis and made it more specific, as they did with Elias’ theories, but it too has retained its importance as a challenge to detailed studies.

While Elias and Foucault locate the changing use of bodily violence in epochal contexts and societal macrosituations, cultural anthropological studies have gained importance over the years, and they are no longer devoted to the causes, but to the forms of violence. Attention to the ‘how’ of the practice of violence, a maximum of ‘dense description’ of constellations of violence, and even an ‘ethics of precision’ (von Trotha 1997) is demanded for the description and explanation of acts of violence and their results. In referring to Clifford Geertz, recourse is taken to anthropological approaches or variants of symbolic interactionism are tested (Geertz 1973).

3. Emphases And New Fields In Historical Research On Violence

3.1 An International Comparison Of Violence

Historical research on violence has so far privileged the national context and has seldom conducted international comparisons. This concentration on the nation state suggested itself, since the state monopoly on violence stood in the center of research on violence. But there are still some comparative works, based partly on national research or inspired by the latter’s questions. Among these is the long-term comparison of the period from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, in which P. Spierenberg describes behavior toward victims, the weak, and animals to demonstrate a general increase of empathy in Europe (Spierenburg 1991). Charles Tilly formulated a typology of collective violence in Europe, in which he names the parochial conflicts—the feuds between geographical communities (Tilly 1975). He uses the term ‘reactive violence’ to designate resistance against state interference in the citizens’ way of life. According to Tilly, proactive violence is exercised within those organizations that acquire, and seek to defend, their political power.

All these investigations face the problem of having to work with unequal and incomplete national data. Since forms of protest and criminality take different cultural shapes in different societies, views of reality are often grasped as reality itself. In comparative research on revolution, violence has often not been accorded central importance. The only exception is Arno Mayer’s study that contrasts the violence of the French and the Russian Revolutions (Mayer 2000). Finally, research on totalitarianism has pinpointed state terror as a central instrument of totalitarian systems. Dietrich Beyrau has presented a critical, detailed analysis contrasting and comparing violent state measures (Beyrau 2000). It elaborates the similarities as well as the differences between the violence of the National Socialist and that of the Stalinist systems of rule. Comparative studies permit discussion of the charged question of modern research on violence: whether private and public violence dwindles in or is compatible with the functioning of modern society.

3.2 Collective Violence As Social Protest

Research on protest is one of the most flourishing branches of research on violence. The extent and significance of acts of violence are examined in it. It has taken on new contours since the 1950s, under the influence of English, often Marxist-inspired social history and of the 1960s American research on urban riots. Insight into the inherent logic of popular action has supplanted the condemnation of rage-blinded, aggressive mob and crowd activity. Their violent nature has been interpreted less as a defining characteristic than as an aspect of social protests and less as irrational than as a rational strategy. Georges Rude and Edward P. Thompson in particular have carried out this revision (Rude 1964, Thompson 1971). Thompson has also drawn attention to the ‘moral economy’. With this term, he designates the model of violence as a fitting behavior by peasants, artisans, and workers in response to the markets in times of economic crisis or famine. Acts of popular violence in Great Britain during the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries are set in relation to this model and contrasted as a traditional alternative to the developing market society. Thompson’s continuing hypotheses that these protests were directed against the gentry have meanwhile been revised. Nevertheless, building on Thompson, attention has shifted to the significance of violent protests in a strategy based primarily on negotiating and compromising with the authorities. In this context, John Bohstedt speaks of a ‘protocol of riot’ that the protesters strictly adhered to, in order to initiate negotiations, rather than destructive activities (Bohstedt 1988). When violence was nonetheless employed, its form was often borrowed from traditional rituals or it was applied symbolically against objects. Between 1770 and 1850 in Great Britain, France, and Germany, the majority of protests against famine, tax revolts, and resistance against conscription were usually conducted nonviolently. Following the American urban unrest, Graham and Gurr later questioned this hypothesis of violence’s positive significance for negotiating processes (Graham and Gurr 1969). They underscored that violence is, as a rule, unproductive, while in Charles Tilly’s interpretation of violent means as part of power struggles, they can indeed be successfully employed (Tilly 1975).

Since the mid-1980s, this still influential view of protest has been accused of attributing too much rationality to it and of denuding it of its emotionality. Alain Corbin in particular has pointed out the degree to which fears, hopes, and rumors have been responsible for acts of violence (Corbin 1990). George Lefebvre already traced plundering and acts of violence against the landed nobility in France in 1789 to the effects of alarming news and fears in the rural population (Lefebvre 1970). For his part, Corbin describes how, on a market day in August 1870, a crowd of 300–800 people tormented a young noble and then burned him alive. He had been accused of being a Prussian and of calling out ‘Vive la Republique.’ These acts, like the Grande Peur in the French Revolution, can be traced to the spread of rumors, but that does not explain their cruelty. For historical research on protest, this finding suggests that violent activity should be understood as part of a history of the emotions.

The investigation of the history of violence has not been limited to the extent and significance of acts of violence, but has also asked about its instigators and causes. The mass psychologist Gustav Le Bon has attributed mass violence primarily to women (Le Bon 1908). Historical research on protest has shown that women have taken part in acts of violence. But women remained in the minority and were more intensely active when the well-being of the family was at stake than, for example, in conflicts with the military. Beyond that, the social profile of people arrested for manifestations of violence has been worked out. They usually do not come from the ‘Lumpenproletariat,’ but are rural and urban wage-earners, sometimes from tradesmen milieus. The people, more than the mob, carried out these actions. Bohstedt, in particular, has pointed to disturbed societal relations as one of the causes of violence in Britain, especially where social contact and dependencies between the upper classes and the masses were attenuated (Bohstedt 1988). But this hypothesis cannot be confirmed for other protests. Whether acts of violence always followed social disintegration, and whether rituals of violence do not in turn presuppose relatively unified communities is a question for additional research. In the past, historical research on protest has concerned itself most with the phase in which civic society was formed, but now it is also examining the period between the world wars of the twentieth century and is including the problem of political violence to a greater degree. Its approaches and methods must now prove themselves in this field.

3.3 Historical Research On Violence As Crime

Violent crime in its long-term historical development, societal distribution, and meaning has been investigated primarily in terms of Europe in the Middle Ages and early Modern Age, and in terms of the twentieth-century USA. Modern historical studies of crime that also address nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe are rare. Quantitative international comparative studies of violent crime often exhibit methodological deficiencies, because the data base in the individual countries and through time is uneven, and above all because the prevalence of recorded acts of violence determined also depends on the strength and severity of prosecuting authorities. Additionally, Eastern and Central Europe have been almost completely omitted from almost all long-term studies, due to the lack of research there or to language barriers. Nevertheless, trend analyses from a bird’s-eye perspective can provide hypotheses that can then be worked out in detail or modified by historical microresearch. Spierenberg hypothesized a drop in the rate of homicide in Europe before 1850 (Spierenberg 1991); in contrast, studies of Western Europe and the USA from 1800 to the beginning of the twentieth century by Gurr and Lane find a rising rate of crime and homicide (Gurr et al. 1977, Lane 1997). These rates allegedly fell in the century from 1840 to 1940, only to rise again in the middle or end of the 1950s, but individual studies of crime in discrete nation states or cities do not confirm this chronology. American research has confirmed the hypothesis that the USA was, and remains, the most violent nation among the Western democracies. But it is still debated whether this can be traced primarily to ‘frontier violence’ (Hollon 1974) and its consequences.

Modern research on crime focuses on the relationship between delinquents, the penal system, and prosecution. Social history concerns itself with the social origin and situation of criminals; legal history and sociology investigate penal ‘labeling,’ which criminalizes specific behaviors; and institutional and political history is devoted to the construction of prosecuting bodies. Nicole Castan and Gerd Schwerhoff, among others, have conducted historical studies of cities or regions, examining premodern societies’ approach to violent delinquency (Castan 1980, Schwerhoff 1991). The following general finding resulted. Until the early modern age, even homicide was an infraction that was not punished automatically by death, but it could be atoned for and expiated through rituals and payments of money. In sixteenth-century Germany, laws called for more severe punishments, but court practice was orientated more toward requiring expiatory measures benefiting the surviving relatives than toward retaliation. This assessment of violence was not surprising in a time that still accepted it as a definite part of societal practices and rituals in the premodern period. Among youth, villagers, and journeymen and masters in trades, not only were conflicts resolved by violence; initiation rites were also organized around violence.

The criminalization and limitation of violence is a process that began in the early modern age, but did not fully prevail until the full-blown modern age. For France, and based on the discourse of elites, Muchembled reports on rapid advance of the process of civilization, locating the criminalization of homicide in the eighteenth century (Muchembled 1988). But even for the eighteenth century, doubts have been raised whether the draconian penalties prescribed can be regarded as an indicator that more severe norms prevailed, or if these penalties were intended to compensate for the weakness of prosecuting authorities. For it has been pointed out that, precisely in premodern times, legal jurisdiction and police control had not thoroughly penetrated into rural communities in a number of European societies. For the nineteenth century, Peter Gay has advocated the hypothesis that, despite the criminalization of violence, it was indeed tolerated in specific societal areas, to the degree that it remained limited to and ritualized in them (Gay 1993). He adduces the examples of the duel and students’ fencing to gain scars, corporal punishment in schools and the army, and violence within marriage. The question of when which practices were prosecuted judicially and considered illegitimate violence has not yet been investigated adequately in international comparison.

3.4 Recent Approaches Of Historical Research On Violence

Historical research on violence has taken on new dimensions in the newer style of the history of war and the military. The latter is concerned with military perpetrators of violence that exceeds normal military action: participation in mass executions, acts of annihilation, torture, or rape. Browning and Bartov have been exemplary in pursuing this approach in studying National Socialist police troops and the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front respectively (Browning 1992, Bartov 1985). Concentrating on military perpetrators opens up the analysis of wars that accompany decolonization, the Vietnam War, and warlike conflicts accompanying the collapse of the bipolar world order. Beyond the discovery of formerly unknown or repressed atrocities committed by soldiers and officers, attention has focused on analyzing the causes of such inhumane behavior. Current discussion addresses the question of whether specific images of community and/or group cohesion motivate the perpetrators.

Beyond soldiers’ and officers’ motivation, interaction, and acts, research is also concerned with how they deal with experiences with violence. To the degree that interest in the history of memory and experience increased, the effects of violence on postwar societies has also been researched. World War I has been more thoroughly considered than World War II. Even today, it is becoming clear that societal discourse on wars and on the legitimacy of the violence exercised in them has as large a role as direct experience of violence in dealing with the past. It turns out that there is a need to correct the one-dimensional assumptions that experiences on the front are transformed directly into a brutalization of postwar behavior.

Since violence is defined as physical injury, its analysis is also part of the history of the body. The experience of pain is not historically constant and unchanging, but is influenced by respectively specific bodily experiences and views of the body. The conditioning of the human body by the military, prisons, and insane asylums, whose importance has been underscored above all by Foucault, as well as the feelings felt and expressed thereby, are relevant as parts of the history of violence (Foucault 1975). Just as the awareness of the body, its integrity, and its injuries are interpreted culturally, the views and assessments of violent intrusions into the body—such as bodily injury, homicide, rape, or torture—depend on the respective common cultural patterns. In the future, these must be examined not only in terms of their shaping in specific epochs and by gender, but also in terms of their disparate shaping in different cultures.

All this already indicates the degree to which research on violence has profited in the late twentieth century from interest in questions of cultural history. In this context, simple attributions have become problematical. The taboo against violence is no longer seen as the dominant characteristic of the modern age, whose ambivalence Baumann has underscored (Baumann 1991). The media’s conveying and staging, which depicts and overemphasizes acts of violence, have contributed to this ambivalence of the modern age. These connections are often mentioned in current diagnoses, but there is a lack of comparative historical research devoted to the respective cultures of violence in various milieus and at various times. For most epochs, not even the discursive boundaries between violence and nonviolence are well enough known. Special attention should be paid to the degree to which state authorities and the upper strata of societies have intervened in the justification of forms of violence and in its condemnation. For the respective concepts of violence all have a mediating link between the state monopoly on violence and everyday experience.

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