The Word “Violence” (2)

Here is Galtung’s first definition of violence, as appeared in “Violence, Peace, and Peace Studies,” published in 1969:

As a point of departure, let us say that violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations. (1969: 168)

This is an ambitious definition. It assumes that each human being is endowed with a particular capacity for physical and psychological achievement, but only some of us are able to realize that capacity to any appreciable degree. For others, something seems to interfere in the process, causing their actual realizations to fall significantly below their potential realizations.

According to Galtung:

Violence is here defined as the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual, between what could have been and what is. Violence is that which increases the distance between the potential and the actual, and that which impedes the decrease of this distance. Thus, if a person died from tuberculosis in the eighteenth century it would be hard to conceive of this as violence since it might have been quite unavoidable, but if he dies from it today, despite all the medical resources in the world, then violence is present according to our definition. . . . In other words, when the potential is higher than the actual is by definition avoidable and when it is avoidable, then violence is present. (1969: 168-169)

Galtung’s first definition of violence emerges when we ask the following question: Why is it that some human beings are not able to fully actualize their physical and psychological potential? The answer can take two forms, depending on whether the cause of the difference between the actual and the potential is avoidable or unavoidable. For the purpose of defining violence, only the former scenario is relevant. Thus, violence can be defined as that avoidable cause which prevents a person from actualizing his or her physical and psychological potential.

The lifespan of human beings can be seen as one aspect of their “somatic realization.” When the actual lifespan of a person or a group of people falls below their potential lifespan, Galtung would identify the cause as violence, but only if it is avoidable. For instance, death due to tuberculosis can be avoidable or unavoidable, depending on the context. In the eighteenth century, there was insufficient understanding of microbiology, pathology, and pharmacology to cure tuberculosis, but this is no longer the case in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries. Death due to tuberculosis may not have been avoidable in the eighteenth century, but it is definitely avoidable today. If people continue to die of a disease for which effective treatment is available, then clearly there is something preventing these people from accessing the appropriate medical care. That something is called violence.

Galtung’s second definition, which appeared in his paper “Cultural Violence” (1990), is as follows:

I see violence as avoidable insults to basic human needs, and more generally to life, lowering the real level of needs satisfaction below what is potentially possible. Threats of violence are also violence. (1990: 292)

Comparing this definition with the earlier one, we can see that the key distinction between “actual” and “potential” is still there, and so is the emphasis on “avoidable.” But the notion of “realizations” has been replaced by “needs,” and the domain of relevance has been expanded beyond human beings to include all life-forms. Both changes are significant. The new emphasis on “needs” makes the concept of violence much more accurate and focused, better equipped for empirical research; this is because consensus is easier to achieve for “needs” than for “somatic and mental realizations.” Similarly, the inclusion of life-forms other than human beings in the definition makes it possible to apply the analysis of violence to ecological destruction, rendering the notion of “ecocide” highly meaningful.

Galtung’s definitions of violence are closely linked with his view of the various types and sub-types of violence. In his 1969 paper, Galtung introduced his fundamental distinction between two major types of violence, namely direct violence and structural violence. Twenty years later, he added a third type, cultural violence. This way of thinking about violence allows Galtung to imagine a “violence triangle,” a very useful device for understanding the complexities of our world. I will discuss Galtung’s typology in my next blog post. Suffice it to say that all three types should be considered together, since they are deeply interdependent and intimately interconnected.


  1. I think the TB example is a little weak. A stronger example would be lynching of black men in the USA. There were not many lynchings, but the threat of lynching and the example of lynching were used to reinforce a status quo of institutionalized racism, thus preventing black people from assuming any kind of political, artistic, or economic control over their lives. The physical violence of the lynch mob was just a small portion of the institutional violence done to black Americans.

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