Structural Violence

Big Question: What is structural violence, and why is understanding it essential for informed civic action? 

Time Commitment: 60 minutes

Why This Matters: 

As we’ll demonstrate with examples throughout these webpages, if people are unable to analyze and see structural violence, they frequently ignore the ways they are harming others and/or engage in ineffective forms of service and citizenship. Seeing structural violence accurately makes us all more effective in any efforts to step forward into ethical interdependent living. 

Diving In, Part 1:  

In our opening page on interdependence we closed with a quote from the great novelist James Baldwin, 

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also so much more than that. So are we all.”

In this black and white image, sitting at a desk of a library with a lit cigarette in right hand, James Baldwin gestures left hand towards the camera.
Photo of James Baldwin: Ted Thai/Getty Images

Time, circumstance, and history have profound effects on who we are and what opportunities are available to us. Structural violence is a key concept across a number of fields that gives language to the historic and contemporary social forces that have created and regularly recreate inequality. 

View this 2 minute video from HarvardX on the topics of direct, structural, and cultural violence. 

The video named structural and cultural violence. Structural violence describes:  

  • Systematic ways in which a regime prevents individuals from achieving their full potential (institutionalized racism, sexism, classism) (Johan Galtung
  • Historically given (and often economically driven) processes and forces that conspire to constrain individual agency (Paul Farmer

Structural violence persists because inequalities often seem ordinary, the way things are and always have been. Cultural violence permits the persistence of structural violence through dominant cultural assumptions and beliefs. 

To provide an example of cultural violence, the video narrator mentioned dominant cultural beliefs during the era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and how beliefs regarding inferiority and superiority were used to justify this indefensible set of practices and institutions. 

Reflection Question: 

What dominant cultural norms indefensibly undermine cosmopolitan and human obligations today? What dominant cultural norms undermine our understanding of our interdependence with one another and the ecology that surrounds us? 

Diving In, Part 2: 

As we reflect on the violences of dominant cultural norms today, some are easier to identify than others. Below we will illustrate structural violence with a specific example of the differences between individual bias (explicit or implicit racism) and institutional bias (the accumulated effects of decades and centuries of racist actions). Before that, however, we ask you to carefully read, The Nobodies, a poem by Uruguayan writer and social activist Eduardo Galeano. We opened with Baldwin and share Galeano’s poem to recognize how artists often trouble our settled understandings of normal to push us to identify injustices around us and imagine the more just, inclusive, sustainable communities we must co-create. 

The Nobodies 

(recited here by Galeano in Spanish – the language of original composition)

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will suddenly rain down on them–will rain down in buckets. But good luck doesn’t rain down yesterday, today, tomorrow, or ever. Good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.

The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.

Who are not, but could be.

Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.

Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.

Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.

Who don’t have culture, but folklore.

Who are not human beings, but human resources.

Who do not have faces, but arms.

Who do not have names, but numbers.

Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the police blotter of the local paper.

The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them.

In this sepia toned image, writer and activist Eduardo Galeano looks past the camera and reaches out his right hand in front of him.
“We have a memory cut in pieces,” Galeano told Democracy Now! “And I write trying to recover our real memory, the memory of humankind, what I call the human rainbow, which is much more colorful and beautiful than the other one, the other rainbow. But the human rainbow had been mutilated by machismo, racism, militarism and a lot of other isms, who have been terribly killing our greatness, our possible greatness, our possible beauty.” (Photo: gndolfo/flickr/cc) 

Reflection Question: 

As you mull over the last ten lines of The Nobodies, we ask again – What dominant cultural norms indefensibly undermine cosmopolitan and human obligations today? Another way of asking this question, through the lens of the poem, is asking what communities and populations are systematically ignored, deliberately forgotten, and intentionally marginalized? 

In the pages to come, we will consider this question in respect to people who migrate, children in the education system, people who are incarcerated, people of different racial identities living in different contexts, non-human members of our shared ecology, and beyond. We will also learn from organizations, activists, academics, and other folks who push against structural violence.  

Diving In, Part 3: Structural Violence, Individuals, and Institutions 

Structural violence is not individual racism. The two often overlap, but they are different. This is essential to understanding oneself as a civic actor, as working to ensure you are not racist, or working to liberate oneself from implicit biases to the extent that might be possible, does not address structural violence. 

This video from David Williams, MPH, PhD, Professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health clarifies the differences between individual and institutional discrimination.

Page Completion – Outcomes:

Now that you have completed this page and the readings, videos, and activities within it, you should have strengthened your understanding of: 

  • Structural violence
  • The difference between individual actions or beliefs and structural violence 
  • The relevance of structural violence to social and environmental challenges today

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Citation for this page: Hartman, E. (2020). What is structural violence, and why is understanding it essential for informed civic action? In E. Hartman (Ed.). Interdependence: Global Solidarity and Local Actions. The Community-based Global Learning Collaborative. Retrieved from http://globalsolidaritylocalaction.sites.haverford.edu/structural-violence/

Citations:

The New York Times Magazine. (2019). The 1619 Project. Retrieved May 8, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html

Videos and pieces cited within the videos:

Big George. (2012, February 14). LOS NADIES de Eduardo Galeano [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrI0xYEndT0

HarvardX. (2017, June 7). Direct, structural, and cultural violence [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LW_rTeawAi0&feature=emb_logo

Spectrum Health Lakeland. (2018, July 31). Interview with David Williams, MPH, PhD: Structural Competency and Institutional Discrimination [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UF4JlVbOak&feature=emb_logo