The Violence Triangle

Johan Galtung has shown that there are several different ways of classifying the phenomenon of violence. Here I will summarize the three main types of violence: (1) personal or direct, (2) structural or indirect, and (3) cultural or symbolic.

In his paper “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Galtung made his highly significant — and now widely accepted — distinction between the two fundamental types of violence:

We shall refer to the type of violence where there is an actor that commits the violence as personal or direct, and to violence where there is no such actor as structural or indirect. In both cases individuals may be killed or mutilated, hit or hurt in both senses of these words [i.e., physical and psychological], and manipulated by means of stick or carrot strategies. But whereas in the first case these consequences can be traced back to concrete persons as actors, in the second case this is no longer meaningful. There by not be any person who directly harms another in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances. (1969: 170-171)

In the follow-up paper, Galtung introduced his third category, cultural violence:

By ‘cultural violence’ we mean those aspects of culture, the symbolic sphere of our existence . . . that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence. (1990: 291)

For Galtung, simplistic stereotypes that identify entire cultures as violent are not very helpful; it’s much more preferable to say, instead, that a particular aspect of a particular culture is an example of cultural violence. Explaining further, Galtung notes:

Cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right — at least not wrong. . . . One way cultural violence works is by changing the moral color of an act from red/wrong to green/right or at least to yellow/acceptable; an example being ‘murder on behalf of the country as right, on behalf of oneself wrong’. Another way is by making reality opaque, so that we do not see the violent act or fact, or at least not as violent. (1990: 291-292)

Galtung suggests that the three types of violence can be represented by the three corners of a violence triangle. The image is meant to emphasize that the three types are causally connected to each other.

Among the three types of violence represented in the above diagram, the most obvious type is direct or personal. Everything from threats and psychological abuse to rape, murder, war, and genocide belong to this category. It is called personal violence because the perpetrators are human beings, i.e., persons.

The second type, structural violence, is much less obvious, though it can be as deadly, or deadlier, than direct violence. Typically, no particular person or persons can be held directly responsible as the cause behind structural violence. Here, violence is an integral part of the very structure of human organizations — social, political, and economic.

Structural violence is usually invisible — not because it is rare or concealed, but because it is so ordinary and unremarkable that it tends not to stand out. Such violence fails to catch our attention to the extent that we accept its presence as a “normal” and even “natural” part of how we see the world.

Galtung explains the distinction as follows:

Violence with a clear subject-object relation is manifest because it is visible as action. . . . Violence without this relation is structural, built into structure. Thus, when one husband beats his wife there is a clear case of personal violence, but when one million husbands keep one million wives in ignorance there is structural violence. Correspondingly, in a society where life expectancy is twice as high in the upper as in the lower classes, violence is exercised even if there are no concrete actors one can point to directly attacking others, as when one person kills another. (1969: 171)

Even though structural violence has real victims, it has no real perpetrators. And because there are no real perpetrators, the question of intention does not arise. To identify structural violence, it is imperative to focus on consequences rather than intentions. Galtung points out that Western legal and ethical systems have been preoccupied with intentional harm because of their concern with punishing (or holding accountable) the guilty party. This concern is appropriate for direct violence, but quite irrelevant for structural violence. In fact, too much concern with catching the perpetrators keeps our attention focused on one kind of violence, allowing the other, more pervasive kind to go unnoticed. According to Galtung:

This connection is important because it brings into focus a bias present in so much thinking about violence, peace, and related concepts: ethical systems directed against intended violence will easily fail to capture structural violence in their nets — and may hence be catching the small fry and letting the big fish loose. (1969: 172)

Finally, there is the issue of cultural violence.

Violence, whether direct or structural, is a human phenomenon. As such, it poses for human beings not only a physical or existential problem but also a problem of meaning. Both types of violence, therefore, need to be justified or legitimated in one form or another. This occurs in the arena of culture, in the realm of beliefs, attitudes, and symbols. It would be erroneous to say that culture is the root cause of violence, since the causal influence runs bilaterally among the three corners of the violence triangle. Yet, neither direct nor structural violence can go on for long without at least some support from the culture. In any given culture, the justification or legitimation of violence can come from a variety of directions — most significantly from religion, ideology, and cosmology, but also from the arts and sciences.

8 Comments on “The Violence Triangle

  1. What would you say is a limitation of Galtung’s violence triangle?

  2. It would have been more interesting, if you would have compared Galtung’s Violence triangle with the Conflict trainge of ABC. 🙂 It was a nice read. Definitely going to help me with my papers. 🙂 thanks a bunch!

  3. Pingback: Mightier than the sword | World Unravelling

  4. Pingback: The Multiple Violences of Current U.S. Immigration Policy and possible interventions – Bios Praktikos

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