On Structural Violence

 (Asim Rafiqui)

Kanees Fatima breaks down while speaking about her son Shoiab who died in the Ali Enterprises Garment Factor fire on September 11, 2012.

One of the key issues I will raise in this work is the idea of Structural Violence and Structural Injustice. I want introduce these concepts here because their study will be a major part of the project ahead. It is the underlying issue I explore in the first set of stories that appear here – the consequences for the lives of the families of those who perished in the September 11, 2012 fire in the Ali Enterprises garment factory in Baldia Town, Karachi. As the project progresses, I will discuss questions of structural injustice through the lives of bonded laborers, traditional fishing communities, slum dwellers, factory workers, displaced farmers, child laborers and other communities.

Deborah DuNann Winter and Dana C. Leighton, in the introduction to D. J. Christie, R.V. Wagner and D. D. Winter (Eds) Book Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology in the 21st Century offered a very succinct and clear description of structural violence and injustice, when they wrote:

Structural violence [and injustice] … is almost always invisible, embedded in ubiquitous social structures, normalized by stable institutions and regular experience. Structural violence [and injustice] occurs whenever people are disadvantaged by political, legal, economic or cultural traditions. Because they are longstanding, structural inequities usually seem ordinary, the way things are and always have been…Whenever people are denied access to society’s resources, physical and psychological violence exists.

What we will find is that their stories reveal the fragile threads with which entire families hold onto their daily existence, and the ease with which their dreams, plans and futures can be shattered. By listening carefully, we will begin to see the economic arrangements that trap entire communities in very tenuous lives, and how specific social, economic and political arrangements work to deprive them of dignity, justice, liberty and choice.

There is of course a lot of academic and other writings about this issue and I will be referring to them in the coming weeks. References to books and articles of interest will be posted here on this website. However, a close examination, and criticism of structural injustices remains largely on the margins of human rights discussions, and certainly absent in most all media and journalistic writings about violence, poverty, deprivation, displacement and suffering. It is just not something most are able to see or understand. And perhaps more importantly, with its assumed criticism of the current structures of power, it is not something easily produced. Seeing our world as the work of man, as one created through the systems and institutions s/he creates, is a very Vico- vian (that is, Giambattista Vico, author of The New Science) idea. It is based on the realization that it is man who creates the institutions and social structures that privilege a few, and deprive the many, and hence it is man who must change or adjust them. It argues that the conditions of poverty, deprivation, suffering or injustice are not natural, or a consequence of mere chance, but are in fact an integral part of our social and economic history, and as such, can be understood, and rectified.

Maria Therezia Starzmann described, in a paper on Palestine titled ‘Structural Violence as Political Experience in Palestine: An Archeology Of The Past In The Present’ points out that:

…structural violence, which Žižek (2008: 2) has described as the “catastrophic consequences of the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems,” is that it appears to lack identifiable perpetrators (Galtung, 1969; Galtung and Höivik, 1971). In this sense, structural violence can be distinguished from direct violence, which is much more immediate because it inflicts suffering directly onto bodies which often remain visibly scarred. While this analytical distinction allows us to grasp paradigmatic perpetrations of violence, in reality the line between direct and structural violence is blurry; even if holding both concepts in tension, it is not always possible to draw clear boundaries around them.

I personally experienced these institutional and social realities and their debilitating effect on the lives of the many while documenting the landless peasant movement for land rights in Okara, Punjab in 2002 and 2003. Their eviscerating poverty, and backwardness, were and remain a direct result of the economic and political arrangements that disadvantage them and deprive them of any possibility of improvement, growth, and greater autonomy over their lives and futures. It was then, while living in the villages of Okara, that I first began to understand that issues of injustice and suffering went beyond the question of law and legality, but directly to questions of human decisions and arrangements.

The original term is attributed to Johan Galtung, who in a 1963 paper titled ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’ first discussed this idea. It has also been attributed to some the founders of the Liberal Theology movement that emerged in Latin American in the 1950s and 1960s. More recently, the physician Paul Farmer (a liberal theologist himself), one of the leading proponents for an anthropological understanding of structural violence, has been at the forefront of a call for a need for an anthropological understanding of how structural violence is perpetuated and maintained. In works like The Uses of Haiti and Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War On the Poor Paul Farmer has made lucid arguments for how certain economic, political and social arrangements result in premature death, long term suffering and inflict tremendous injustice on individuals. He has repeatedly argued that by understanding the institutional and social structures of a society – the economic arrangements, the social networks, the transactions that transpire between the players in these arrangements, we can begin to unravel and highlight the sources of suffering, deprivation and injustice in a society.

These arguments have also been made by writers and philosophers such as Iris Marion Young in works like Responsibility for Justice and the Politics of Difference. We have variations to this argument, perhaps most recently in the works of Martha Nussbaum and her concept of the ‘Capabilities’ approach to human development. See works like Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach and Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach. Whereas her focus is more on outcomes that reflect ideas of justice and liberty, the underlying analysis turns our attention to the same study of underlying social, economic and political arrangements that deprive people of rights and inflict specific injustices on them. It is also a call for a deeper understanding of underlying institutions and structures.


Bad Behavior has blocked 4 access attempts in the last 7 days.

%d bloggers like this: