Public Violence Research Paper

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Visibly violent social processes simultaneously attract and repel analysts of human behavior. War, rape, genocide, assassination, assault, football, looting, official execution, collective suicide, mutual flagellation, automobile collisions, airline crashes, gang fights, and struggles pitting police against demonstrators all qualify by some definitions as public violence. Most of them regularly attract headlines when they occur—the more extensive, public and grisly their consequences the bigger the headlines. Violence makes the news.

In these circumstances, reporters and readers commonly turn to very simple explanations: some humans are violent in nature, others peaceable, so violent events occur when violent people congregate and enjoy free rein. Unfortunately for that sort of explanation, the boundary between violent and peaceable people actually blurs badly. Even individuals who participate energetically in violent events generally spend most of their time and energy on nonviolent activities. Meanwhile persons who live mostly peaceful lives occasionally get involved in organizing or perpetrating violent activities, for example, by doing military service, serving on juries, or engaging in contact sports. Other people who flee violent interactions in their daily routines nevertheless support one variety of public violence or another in the proper circumstances, for example, by voting for candidates who favor the death penalty, by cheering one group of nationalists in their competition with rivals or by cooperating in what they call a just war. Indeed, most citizens of most states distinguish sharply between coercive acts committed lawfully by duly constituted agents of their own states (legitimate force) and similar acts committed by other people (illegitimate violence). Nonviolence is a beguiling principle, but one honored more in the breach than in the observance.

In general discussions of the subject, three competing views of violence prevail: as propensity-driven behavior, as instrumental interaction, and as cultural form. Treatments of violence as propensity-driven behavior locate its causes within the actor, calling attention to genetic, emotional, or cognitive peculiarities that incline a given individual, group or category of persons, to damaging behavior more than others. Portrayals of violence as instrumental interaction characterize everything from petty assaults to all-out warfare as means (however inefficient and self-defeating) to power, wealth, prestige, or other ends. To call violence a cultural form—as in the claim that because of the frontier, slavery, or capitalist competition the USA has an exceptionally violent culture—argues that the ready availability of certain ideas, practices, models, and beliefs itself promotes violent action.

The three views suggest very different approaches to inhibiting or promoting violence. Propensity-driven violence calls for the alteration or inhibition of motives, instrumental violence for shifts of incentives and outcomes, cultural violence for teaching new ideas, practices, models, and beliefs. Alas, none of these three broad approaches to violence has yet yielded systematic explanations of the genesis, trajectory, outcome, or sheer variety of public violence as a whole. Perhaps we await the social scientific Isaac Newton who will detect underlying regularities in all the diverse phenomena people call violent. More likely the notion of violence resembles such other widespread but diffuse terms as disorder and goodness: morally powerful categories that do not refer to any causally coherent domain.

In any case, the word ‘violence’ almost always arrives with baggage of disapproval. The distinction of violent from nonviolent social interactions usually depends on a moral boundary, or at least activates one. Precisely because of that moral charge, advocates of one cause or another frequently extend the term ‘violence’ to varieties of harm far outside the range of direct, short-term infliction of physical damage on one person by another. They label hate speech, pornography, poverty, unemployment, malnutrition, and other ills as forms of violence. To call a phenomenon virtual violence is to condemn it, to claim that it damages something valuable even if it produces no physical destruction in the short run. As a consequence, every social scientific attempt to delimit, describe, classify and explain public violence generates controversy. This attempt will be no exception.

We can nevertheless discipline the inquiry by adopting a restrictive definition of the phenomenon under analysis. Public violence, for present purposes, refers to episodic social interaction that:

immediately inflicts physical damage on persons and/or objects

results at least in part from coordination among persons who perform the damaging acts

occurs at least partly in publicly accessible spaces.

(The ensuing discussion will, however, extend ‘physical damage’ to forcible seizure of persons or objects over restraint or resistance.) At one edge, such a definition excludes strictly individual, private, impulsive, and/or accidental damage to persons or objects. At the other, it excludes long-term, incremental damage such as communication of infectious disease, cumulative wear and tear, exposure to toxic substances, and death hastened by neglect or social pressure. Nevertheless, it includes an immense range of social interactions, from minor scuffles among rival groups of voters to wholesale civil war. Despite a century or more of effort, social scientists have not so far assembled any reliable, important and systematic body of knowledge that applies to the whole range thus defined.

We therefore have no choice but to differentiate, reviewing analyses of narrower phenomena that bear some family resemblance to each other, probably share some causal processes, and have attracted sustained scholarly attention. Assuming episodic interaction in publicly accessible space, at least a little communication among actors, and some minimum of physical damage to persons or objects, Fig. 1 combines the extent of coordination among damage-doers and the salience of damage in the overall pattern of interaction to produce a crude typology of public violence. (‘Low’ coordination means individualized action with little collective planning and signaling, while ‘High’ coordination means activation of differentiated and bounded organizational structure with extensive planning and signaling. ‘Low’ salience of violence means that most of the social interaction involved produces no short-term physical damage, while ‘High’ salience means interaction strongly concentrated on damage.)

Public Violence Research Paper

Other distinctions come immediately to mind. Separation of symmetrical from asymmetrical interaction, for example, usefully distinguishes relatively even contests from situations in which a gang or an oppressor visits violence on a victim having no means of retaliation. Whether agents of a constituted government participate in public violence, as we shall see, significantly affects its character; thus we might also classify public violence by the presence or absence of governmental agents. Again, public violence probably incorporates scale effects, so that damaging interaction involving just two or three people differs qualitatively from otherwise similar interaction involving thousands of people at a time. The present classification gives priority to coordination and salience on the hunch that those two dimensions capture a significant part of the systematic variation about which social scientists have produced useful ideas and findings.

Within the coordination–salience space we can conveniently distinguish five locations:

(a) organizational outcomes: various forms of collective action generate resistance or rivalry to which one or more parties respond by actions that damage persons and/or objects; examples include demonstrations, protection rackets, governmental repression, and military coups, all of which frequently occur with no more than threats of violence, but sometimes produce physical damage;

(b) coordinated destruction: persons or organizations specialized in the deployment of coercive means undertake a program of damage to persons and/or objects; examples include war, genocide, collective self-immolation, and some kinds of terrorism;

(c) opportunism: as a consequence of shielding from routine surveillance and repression, individuals or clusters of individuals use immediately damaging means to pursue generally forbidden ends; examples include looting, gang rape, revenge killing, and some sorts of military pillage;

(d) fragmented resistance: in the course of widespread small-scale and generally nonviolent interaction, a number of participants respond to obstacles, challenges, or restraints by means of damaging acts; examples include sabotage, clandestine attacks on symbolic objects or places, assaults of governmental agents, and the more immediately damaging forms of what James Scott (1985) calls ‘weapons of the weak’; (e) violent games: two or more relatively well-defined and coordinated groups follow a known interaction script entailing the infliction of damage on others as they compete for priority within a recognized arena; examples include gang rivalries, contact sports, some election battles, and some struggles among supporters of teams or stars.

Of course these crude types overlap, for example in the activities of the South Asian thugs who sometimes act as enforcers for landlords in disputes with squatters (organizational outcomes) but at other times follow their patrons in large-scale raids on their caste, religious, or political enemies (coordinated destruction). Similarly, the various actions known as terrorism show up in all four corners of Fig. 1—as clandestine resistance, as a by-product of peaceful claim-making in highly repressive regimes, as part of genocide, and as opportunistic elimination of old enemies. It is nevertheless useful to retain the five-part division, because within each area thus delineated social scientists have accumulated at least a modicum of systematic knowledge. Let us therefore review them one by one. The following discussion gives extensive attention to organizational outcomes and coordinated destruction, then uses analogies and comparisons with the first two as it treats opportunism, fragmented resistance, and violent games much more summarily.

Organizational outcomes. A significant share of public violence occurs in the course of organized social processes that are not in themselves intrinsically violent. That is notably the case in collective political struggle. Political regimes differ dramatically in the scope they allow for nonviolent collective making of claims, for example by petitioning, shaming, marching, voting, boycotting, striking, forming special-interest associations and issuing public messages. On the whole, democratic regimes tolerate such claim-making more readily than do their undemocratic neighbors; that is one way we recognize a regime as democratic. Even in democratic regimes, nevertheless, such forms of collective claim-making occasionally generate open violence. That occurs for three main reasons.

First, every regime empowers agents—police, troops, headmen, posses, sheriffs, and others—to monitor, contain and, on occasion, repress collective claim-making. Those agents always have some means of collective coercion at their disposal, and always enjoy some discretion in the use of those means. In one common sequence, claimants challenge repressive agents, occupy forbidden premises, attack symbolically significant objects, or seize property, then agents reply with force. Because variants on that sequence frequently occur, when repressive agents are at hand they actually perform the great bulk of the killing and wounding that occurs in public violence.

Second, collective claim-making often concerns issues that sharply divide claimants from regimes, from powerful groups allied with regimes, or from rival groups; examples are campaigns to stop current wars, outlaw abortion or expel immigrants. In these circumstances, offended parties often respond with counterclaims backed by force, whether governmental or nongovernmental.

Third, in relatively democratic regimes an important share of collective action centers not on specific programs but on identity claims: the public assertion that a group or a constituency it represents is worthy, united, numerous, and committed (WUNC). Assertions of WUNC include marches, demonstrations, mass meetings, occupations of plants or public buildings, vigils, and hunger strikes. Even when the means they adopt are currently legal, all such assertions entail implicit threats to direct WUNC energy toward disruptive action, implicit claims to recognition as valid political actors, and implicit devaluation of other political actors within the same issue area. These features sometimes stimulate counter-action by rivals, objects of claims, or authorities, with public violence the outcome.

Organizational outcomes also include some encounters that do not begin with concerted making of claims. Border guards, tax collectors, military recruiters, census-takers, and other governmental agents, for example, sometimes generate intense resistance on the part of whole communities as they attempt to impose an unpopular measure. Similarly, audiences at theatrical performances, public ceremonies, or executions occasionally respond collectively to actions of the central figures by attacking those figures, unpopular persons who happen to be present or symbolically charged objects. By and large, organizational outcomes connect with issues over which groups are also currently contending in nonviolent ways.

One subclass of organizational outcome, however, displays a rather different pattern. Some organizations specialize in controlling coercive means, threatening to use those means if necessary, but seeking compliance without violence if possible. Examples include not only established agents of repression but also mafiosi, racketeers, extortionists, paramilitary forces, and perpetrators of military coups. When such specialists in coercive means encounter or anticipate resistance, they commonly mount ostentatious but selective displays of violence. Their strategy resembles that of many Old Regime European rulers, who lacked the capacity for continuous surveillance and control of their subject populations, but often responded to popular rebellion with exemplary punishment— rounding up a few supposed ringleaders, subjecting them to hideous public executions and thus warning other potential rebels of what might befall them. The strategy is most successful, ironically, when specialists in coercion never actually have to deploy their violent means.

Coordinated destruction differs in precisely that regard. It refers to those cases where persons or organizations specialized in the deployment of coercive means undertake a program of actions that damage persons and/or objects. Coordinated destruction overlaps with organizational outcomes because specialists in coercion participate in both and because threats of force sometimes escalate into struggles between coercive organizations. Here, however, the organizations’ strategies center, however temporarily, on the production of damage. Examples include war, genocide, collective self-destruction, public penance, and government-backed terror. The major distinctions separate (a) lethal contests, (b) campaigns of annihilation, and (c) ritual harm.

In lethal contests, at least two organized groups of specialists in coercion confront each other, each one using harm to reduce or contain the others’ capacity to inflict harm. War is the most general label for this class of coordinated destruction, but different variants go by the names of civil war, guerrilla, low-intensity conflict, and conquest. Although lethal contests of various sorts stretch back as far as humanity’s historical record runs, the standard image of two or more disciplined national armies engaged in destroying each other within generally accepted rules of combat only applies to a very small historical segment: roughly 1650 to 1950 for Europe, a few much earlier periods for China, even rarer intervals elsewhere in the world. Outside of those exceptional moments, autonomous raiding parties, temporary feudal levies, mercenary assemblages, bandits, pirates, nomads doubling as cavalry, mobilized villages, and similar conglomerate or part-time forces have fought most historical wars.

Lethal contests shade over into campaigns of annihilation when one contestant wields overwhelming force or the object of attack is not an organization specialized in the deployment of coercive means. Analysts have employed the term genocide for those campaigns in which attackers define their victims in terms of shared heritage and politicide for those in which victims belong to a common political category; so far no commonly accepted term has emerged for similar campaigns aimed at members of religious or regional categories. The usual stakes in campaigns of annihilation are collective survival, on one side, and recognition as the sole party with the right to territorial control, on the other. Because of those stakes, such struggles tend to generate vast mobilizations of support extending far beyond the specialists in coercion who initiate them.

Ritual harm plays a much smaller part in con- temporary public violence than do lethal contests and campaigns of annihilation. At times, however, they have assumed considerable importance, for example in the potlatch (aggressive, competitive destruction of the performer’s own symbolically charged property) that once marked struggles for precedence along America’s northwest coast. Other well known in- stances include the processions of flagellants once organized regularly by Renaissance Italy’s penitent confraternities. Today self-immolation, collective suicide, and hunger strikes occasionally occur as gestures of protest, serving chiefly to dramatize the positions of groups that lack other political resources.

Within the broad category of coordinated destruction, a remarkable change occurred during the half century following World War II. Where interstate wars among well-identified national armies had predominated for a century or more, shifts toward a much wider variety of coercive forces and toward campaigns of annihilation elevated civil war, broadly defined, to the chief setting of coordinated destruction. Decolonization, expansion of world trade in arms and drugs, reappearance of mercenary forces, and the weakening of central state capacity in many world regions all contributed to that change.

Opportunism combines low levels of coordination with high salience of violence within the total interaction. Opportunism benefits from some of the same processes that have favored recent moves away from interstate war toward violent struggle within state boundaries. Looting, gang rape, revenge killing, and some sorts of military pillage all occur more frequently in interstices, peripheries, and lapses of central state control. In fact, opportunistic public violence often occurs as an outgrowth of coordinated destruction. Disbanded but still armed troops, for example, frequently use their arms to prey upon civilians. The destruction wrought by mercenaries during truces, marches, and aftermaths of wars made them the bane of European civilian life during the sixteenth and seventeenth century heyday of mercenary armies. Similarly, when major protests or disasters divert the attention of repressive forces, looters and killers often take advantage of relaxed control to pursue their own ends.

Fragmented resistance involves segmented or weakly coordinated damage to persons or objects in the course of interactions that are not predominantly violent. When governmental agents, landlords, employers, religious authorities, or other powerful people impose innovations, exactions or constraints on subject populations, members of those populations often resist indirectly and on the small scale. They engage in sabotage, ambushes, and clandestine attacks on symbolic objects or places, and temporary acts of resistance that either inflict damage on authorities or incite violent reprisals from authorities. Fragmented resistance differs from organizational outcomes chiefly in the balance of forces among parties and the scale of organization among the weaker parties. Otherwise, the same regularities that apply to organizational outcomes apply to fragmented resistance.

In its most stylized forms, such as the medieval tournament, coordinated destruction comes to resemble violent games. Likewise, such violent games as ritual fights between youths of neighboring villages edge over into coordinated destruction. Still, we can usefully distinguish a class of public violence in which two or more relatively well defined and coordinated groups follow a known interaction script entailing infliction of damage on others as they compete for priority within a recognized arena. Age grades of local youths, organized gangs, sports teams, supporters of powerful or popular figures, electoral factions and fraternal orders inducting new members all sometimes engage in violent games. Frequently the outcome of the contest produces confirmation or alteration of a rank order that in turn entitles winners and their followers to prestige or privilege. In that sense, violent games stand somewhere between (a) WUNC performances (whether violent or not) and (b) the public displays of wealth, power and patronage by which warlords, crime bosses, political magnates, heads of influential families, caciques, and entertainment stars maintain their credibility.

In all its forms, public violence interacts closely with nonviolent politics. Violence as organizational outcome or coordinated destruction clearly entails struggles for power and takes shape from the character of power struggles spanning violent and nonviolent action. Violence as opportunism and fragmented resistance often occurs as a by-product of grand political processes: state formation, revolution, war, military conscription, taxation, patron–client realignment. Violent games follow their own rules, but frequently intersect with or mutate into other forms of public violence. At first glance, violence may seem the antithesis of orderly public politics. At second glance, most public violence connects closely with politics in general.


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