Conceptualizing cultures of violence and cultural change

Wood, John Carter (2007). Conceptualizing cultures of violence and cultural change. In: Carroll, Stuart ed. Cultures of Violence: Interpersonal Violence in Historical Perspective. Palgrave Macmillan.




The historiography of violence has undergone a distinct cultural turn as attention has shifted from examining violence as a clearly defined (and countable) social problem to analysing its historically defined 'social meaning'. Nevertheless, the precise nature of the relationship between 'violence' and 'culture' is still being established. How are 'cultures of violence' formed? What impact do they have on violent behaviour? How do they change? This essay examines some of the conceptual aspects of the relationship between culture and violence. It brings together empirical research into nineteenth-century England with recent research results from other European contexts to examine three aspects of the relationship between culture and violence. These are organised under the labels 'seeing violence', 'identifying the violent' and 'changing violence'. Within a particular society, narratives regarding particular kinds of behaviour shape cultural attitudes. The notion 'violence' is thus defined in relation to physically aggressive acts as well as by being connected to other kinds of attitudes and contexts. As a result, the boundaries between physical aggression which is legitimate and that which is illegitimate (and thus 'violence') are set. Once 'violence' is defined, particular cultures form ideas about who is responsible for it: reactions to violence become associated with social arrangements such as class and gender as well as to attitudes toward the self. Finally, cultures of violence make efforts to tame or eradicate illegitimate forms of physical aggression. This process is not only connected to the development of new forms of power (e.g., new policing or punishment strategies) but also to less tangible cultural influences which aim at changing the behaviour defined as violence (in particular among the social groups identified as violent). Even if successful, this three-tiered process of seeing violence, identifying the violent and changing violence continues anew, emphasising the ways that cultures of violence develop through a continuous process of reevaluation and reinvention.

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