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Michel Wieviorka

Theoretical issues of violence: Defining violence and types of violence in the 20th century

15 Feburary 2019
  • 20th century history
  • violence
  • theoretical approach

This is a lightly edited transcript of a lecture given at the symposium ‘Violence in 20th-century Europe: Commemorating, Documenting, Educating’ in Brussels, Belgium on 6 June 2017.

I am a sociologist. I am not an historian. But I consider that social science should be multidisciplinary and that sociologists should not be too distant from history nor historians too far from sociology. We are dealing today with the 20th century, but we cannot begin such a meeting without mentioning what happened in England recently, that is, the terrorist attack in London on 3 June 2017. It is not only the 20th century that has had to deal with violence, terrorism and so on, so I would like to say something about this.

Let me start with the word violence. Although it is one of the main and constant issues in social science, I do not know of any scientific definition that really sums up a concept that we can all accept. Many definitions have been proposed. The same word for violence along with other words that describe many other issues are used in social science and in daily life, the media and politics. When one uses the same vocabulary in two different contexts – the world of social science and the world of daily life – there are always problems and some ambivalence because one never knows exactly what is at stake.

So to be more precise I will not deal with all forms of violence: I will focus mainly on physical violence, when violence clearly aims to modify the physical integrity as well as the intellectual or moral integrity of a person or a group. Sociologists and political scientists are well acquainted with the famous statement by the German sociologist Max Weber about the state having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. However, here I will notdeal with state violence. Nor will I deal with another interesting issue, which is what some social scientists call ‘symbolic violence’. No, I will focus on the physical and the concrete, with an emphasis on political forms of violence.

There are many different ways to analyse violence and we can distinguish three main approaches.

There is an academic and intellectual tradition that considers violence to be a reaction to a situation, as an expression, a modality of a crisis. When, for instance, workers lose their jobs suddenly because a factory is going to close down, they may shoot at car tyres, attack the managers and so on. It is a reaction to a crisis. When peasants say, ‘We do not want to pay’ or ‘We cannot pay more taxes and will become violent’, it is a reaction to a crisis or to a change in their situation. Experts sometimes call this ‘relative deprivation’ as it depends on certain frustrations that may lead to violence.

The political thinker and sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville was an advocate of such a philosophical or sociological theory. When Tocqueville analysed the French Revolution, he noticed that the majority of the people participating in it were not poor and were far removed from power. However, those in the thick of the situation where large changes were occurring felt a deep sense of crisis. The crisis could be economic, social, political or cultural. In the 1960s and 1970s this kind of approach was very important in the literature of political science but it soon became clear that the concept of relative privation was not that useful.

At this point a second approach became popular. Violence is not a reaction to a crisis caused by a change in a situation and that it is, on the contrary, a tool, a resource, which participators use, in order to achieve certain goals. In this kind of analysis, violence is instrumental. For example, ‘I kill you because I want your money’ is very rational. So some analysts insist on this instrumentality with the idea that violence can be individual, but also – which is much more interesting – by insisting on the collective dimension of this kind of phenomenon. Instrumental violence, for instance, appears when a social movement tries to become a political actor in order to enter a political system. Charles Tilly, the founding father of the so-called ‘resource mobilization theory’, is a well-known name in the fields of history and sociology. He shows how violence is a resource that is mobilized by an individual or a collective of actors in order to achieve certain goals. Therecan be different goals, but in literature you will mainly find analysis that describes political goals.

Let me give you a personal example of this way of dealing with violence. I was living in Washington, DC, in the mid-1980s and I was looking into the way American specialists proposed anti-terrorist measures. Anti-terrorism was big business in Washington, DC, and the people we were working with were proposing many different possibilities and possible hypotheses based on intelligent ideas on what instrumental decisions could be taken by terrorists. They were trying to envisage biological terrorism, chemical terrorism, nuclear terrorism and so on. And then one day terrorists outthought them, getting on planes with business class tickets, wearing very respectable clothes and carrying some small knives and this was September 11th. A very instrumental way of acting, and the experts who were trying to eliminate violence were not able to imagine the way terrorists could define their strategies. I give this example to illustrate the point that these violent perpetrators were partly rational. They were not crazy people. Sometimes you may be able to find some pathology or craziness, but terrorists are more calculating and strategic in their goals than we might expect. So at that stage we have two very different and opposing ways of thinking. On the one hand, violence is reactive and, on the other hand, it is calculating, strategic and instrumental.

The third approach is very different. It considers that violence has something to do with culture and with personality. In order to understand why people act violently, one must know something about their historical background: about the general culture into which they were born, about their family and their childhood. A famous example is given in The Authoritarian Personality, a classic book written by the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who during Nazism left Germany for the United States. Adorno and his colleagues claimed that if you wanted to understand how anti-Semitism could lead to extreme violence, you had to know about the way people were brought up. You had to know about education and you had to know about primary socialization. This is the idea: some cultures, educational systems and family influences prepare some personalities to be more violent than others. And, of course, this idea can be used in order to understand Nazism.

This approach is not that easy to use for analysing violence for a very simple reason. If you deal with young people who were born in the later years of the 19th century and if you want to understand Nazism, anti-Semitism and the extermination of Jews forty or fifty years after that, you have to forget all that happened between the time when these young people were living with their parents, and the moment when they act, half a century later. You jump and you forget history, politics and so many other factors that have changed society in the meantime. Another limit in this kind of approach is that it presumes that everything is more or less decided when people are young, and that people cannot change or avoid becoming violent.

So this kind of cultural approach focusing on personality has limited use. At this stage let me summarize my first remarks on three main classical approaches in social science. Each of them can be useful but each has its limits. It is not necessarily frustration that makes people act, nor is it necessarily a strategic or instrumental way of thinking that makes people act. You cannot say people who commit suicide act in a very rational way, it is more complex than that. And it is not only family, education and so on that make people violent. These are useful explanations but not enough to complete a general analysis of violence.

Now let me be a bit provocative: I would like to compare conflict with violence. Usually when one reads or hears the word conflict, violence springs to mind. Some people speak of ‘armed conflicts’ or ‘violent conflict’ in order to deal with war, civil war or guerilla warfare. The idea of conflict is usually connected with the idea of violence, so that people have come to talk about ‘conflict resolution’. Conflict resolution means bringing violence to an end. So while the idea of conflict is usually connected with the notion of violence, I would like to distinguish, and maybe contrast, these two ideas. In my vocabulary at least, when I say ‘conflict’, I mean a conflictual relationship between actors – a relationship that can at one moment become institutionalized or lead to some negotiation. So if conflict means making way for a relationship where negotiation is possible, where institutionalization is possible, then maybe conflict can counteract violence.

I mean here that I do not think that there is an end to violence when there is no more use of force. There is an end to violence when people say: ‘now we can debate and we can negotiate and we can institutionalize the differences between your point of view and my point of view.’ It is a huge thing, which I will not deal with here. It is true that in many cases you may find conflict and violence at the same time. These are, for instance, situations where actors who could become partners in negotiation use violence instead. But generally speaking, and I will give one or two examples, the more people are able to transform violence into negotiation, institutionalization, debate and conflictualization without violence, the better.

My first example is taken from the history of the working class movement in a number of countries. Let me select the French case. It sometimes started with violence, from the workers and sometimes from the masters of industry or from state opponents. And violence stops when you have a strong movement, able to negotiate. In the French case there was anarchist terrorism at the end of the 19th century; people were killing, planting bombs and so on, in the name of the poor and the excluded. Some time in 1894 or 1895 it stopped exactly when the first main trade union was created – la Confédération générale du travail – when the first Bourses du travail [labour exchanges], places where people could organize trade unions, were created. Why? Because trade unions firmly say that violence is not good, they prefer to exert strong pressure in order to achieve certain goals, such as transforming the conditions of workers. This case is absolutely clear: when the working class movement became strong and was able to negotiate and discuss, there was no more terrorism. I do not say violence stopped, of course, but there was no longer the need for such extremism.

A second historical example demonstrates the opposite: the end of the working class movement. The case of left-wing Italian terrorism appeared when the working class movement was in decline and no longer able to negotiate and transform its demands into debates. At that moment violence intensified and terrorism became more prevalent. I should be more precise but my general idea is that if we want to prevent this kind of violence, we must take into account the possibility, or not, of conflict in a society. When the working class movement was collapsing, more room was made for tensions.

Now I would like to make some remarks about the history of social science during the later years of the 20th century. Generally speaking, in the 1960s and 1970s, social science was dominated by what we could call structuralism: the idea being that what was important were abstract mechanisms – structures that organize collective life – rather than the subjectivity of the people. But in the 1980s and 1990s new ideas – and these are very important for violence – appeared explaining that we have to deal with subjectivity and not only with abstract mechanisms, structures and all this vocabulary. I will quote two world famous authors, both French: historian and philosopher Michel Foucault and sociologist Alain Touraine. Both, starting from very different perspectives, said that we have to take into serious account the notion of subject.

What does this mean? Its meaning is a little bit different for both of these two intellectuals – but they share the belief that the subject more or less has the capacity to act. Being a subject is being able to transform oneself into an actor. A subject is the opposite of an abstract mechanism. These great intellectuals and many others after them introduced the notion of subjectivity to social science, including when dealing with violence. Maybe Foucault’s or Touraine’s subjects are romantic people, wonderful people, who transform themselves into actors. They build their own life, a very wonderful life. But subjectivity does not mean only a wonderful life, subjectivity may lead also to the polar opposite, to the dark side of an individual or collective life. If we introduce the notion of subjectivity in order to analyse violence, we must admit that subjectivity can lead to dark and eventually cruel behaviours and not only to positive romantic forms of action.

The second point is that we must avoid what social scientists called naturalization or essentialization of social behaviours. Subjectivity is not nature, it is not an essence that is better than using the notion of subject. We should be interested in processes of subjectivation – the fact that people are increasingly able to build their own lives – and processes of desubjectivation – the fact that often people who are less and less able to build their own lives are going to be increasingly destructive.

And here begins a fourth approach in the analysis of violence, taking into account the processes through which individuals and groups learn more to be subjects or on the contrary to be anti-subjects, to destroy, to kill and to stand on the dark side of collective life. In some cases there is not such a big gap between subjectivity and action and violence, for instance when people live in neighbourhoods where they become violent because they are not master of their own lives and cannot become actors. But there are other cases where subjectivity is absolutely different. Some people, who I call antisubjects, use violence for pleasure; violence here is connected with nothing more than the pleasure sadistic cruelty can give them.

If we want to analyse violence today we must seriously take into account the idea that in some cases it is caused by the process in which people lose contact with what I call positive subjectivity and increasingly find themselveson the other side to the point where they kill, destroying other people or/ and themselves.

This kind of approach was not so prevalent during the 20th century; it begins to be more influential in social sciences during the later years of the 20th century. The new interest in the notion of subjectivity, for the processes of subjectivity and the appearance of deradicalization, for instance, appeared when it became obvious that in order to fight against radicalization, it was necessary to introduce policies of ‘deradicalization’ that seriously took into account the subjectivity of the individuals. This kind of vocabulary is close to the notion of subject. Radicalization means a new form of subjectivity, and deradicalization is supposed to introduce new elements, new dimensions in the subjectivity of these individuals, in their way of thinking and in their consciousness.

This is possible since during the last thirty or forty years of the 20th century there was an important development: the idea that violence was not only the problem of the state of order, it was not only a problem of a system, it was also the problem of the victims and of those people who suffer from violence. If we want to understand why there is such an emphasis on violence connected with the idea of subjectivity, it is because we are entering an era where victims are recognized, which was not so much the case before.

Victims have recently said, ‘I’ve been destroyed’ or ‘my group has been destroyed’, ‘my culture has been destroyed’, ‘my family has been destroyed’. When this is a discourse that people can hear, that politicians listen to, that the media echoes, then this changes the way people think. During the past forty years, we have come to recognize that victims exist. And as victims exist, we must take into account their subjectivity. And if we consider the subjectivity of the victims, we must also take into account the subjectivity of those people that perpetrate violence. I do not say that they are not responsible, my aim is to understand how people become violent.

This leads me to my conclusion. Entering an era with victims also means a period of ‘memory and remembrance’. Because the family, friends and neighbours of victims want justice and recognition, they want the violence suffered to be recognized. Victims have memories. Memory is not history, as we all know. Memory is what one remembers and what the family remembers, it is not necessarily what one finds in history books. And a problem has appeared: is it possible to pass from memory to history?

It is not so obvious, and in some cases it takes time but is possible. In my country, for instance, there was no room for Jews in the general memory and in school history books for twenty or twenty-five years after the Second World War. But some Jews, some intellectuals, some great historians, Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton for instance, authors of the famous book Vichy France and the Jews (1981), decided to mobilize themselves in order to make memory participate in the public debate and after some years, memory became history. Today you can open any kind of school book on the history of France and it will dwell on the French state during the Second World War, the story of Jews in France and so on, which was not the case before.

In some cases it is more difficult. It may be because different memories conflict with one another. Let me take a French example, the memory in France of the Algerian War. Some people are the sons of members of the National Liberation Front (FLN), while others are sons of Harki, native Algerian Muslims who either decided to fight with the French army or were obliged to fight with the French army. Some people were white French, the so-called Pieds-Noirs, who were obliged to return to France. Others were Jews from Algeria. All these people have different memories that conflict and sometimes they hate each other. So how can you come to a common understanding of the past when so many memories conflict? It is not so easy.

Sometimes the conflict is not within nation-state but at the international level. It is very interesting, for instance, to know that some committees have been proposed during recent years in order to work on a common history for children living in Germany and France, with the aim of publishing a book that would be accepted in both countries, which meant being able to deal with points on which the national narrative in both countries could disagree. It is not always so easy and sometimes memory can be an obstacle to history.

As you can see, I passed from time to time from analysing violence to the idea that we must put an end to violence. For instance, passing from memory to history helps to end violence. I think that the 20th century obliges us – speaking as a social scientist – to analyse violence. Maybe the 21st century will be the century where we build a new field – the end of violence. Let us study how people move from violence and how European Remembrance works. You could be a wonderful actor but you could also be a wonderful object of analysis! Why do you exist now? You did not exist fifty years ago. What does this mean? What does this bring? I think that there will be more and more work in the future with the aim of understanding violence and offer more analysis of how to eliminate it.



Michel Wieviorka is a professor at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences [L’Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales] and the president of the Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme (FMSH), Paris, France. He was director of the Center for Sociological Analysis and Intervention (CADIS, EHESS–CNRS) between 1993 and 2009. From 2006 to 2010, he was president of the International Association of Sociology (ISA/AIS), and has been a member of the European Research Council (ERC) Scientific Council since 2014. He heads the new SOCIO magazine (with Laetitia Atlani-Duault), which he created in 2013. His research has focused on the notion of conflict, terrorism and violence, racism, anti-Semitism, social movements, democracy and the phenomena of cultural difference. His main books translated into English include The Making of Terrorism (University of Chicago Press, new edn 2004), The Arena of Racism (Sage, 1995),Evil (Polity Press, 2012), The Lure of Anti-Semitism (Brill, 2007) and Violence: A New Approach (Sage, 2009).


This article has been published in the sixth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of Violence in 20th-century European History.

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