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An Introduction to Peace Studies

Updated on March 30, 2016

What is Structural Violence?

Structural violence is, generally, unintentional violence done towards groups or individuals in social systems. One of the best examples of this is found in a article written by Scheper-Hughes, The Genealogy of Genocide. The reason I say it is the "best" example is that most individuals of American society will one day be confronted with this form of structural violence. This is the nursing home, where we send our elderly that can no longer care or function in society and need a caregiver. The elderly who are unfortunate enough to end up in a nursing home are merely “waiting to die”. Nursing homes are notorious for being understaffed and undertrained for the wide range of disease, injury and mental illness the elderly exhibit in this setting. Makes sense right? They are just waiting to die after all, so there is generally no effort in improving the status of the elderly who find themselves in the nursing home. Scheper-Hughes described it as such, “In these private, for-profit nursing homes, care for residents is delegated to grossly under-paid and undertrained workers who protect themselves by turning the persons and bodies under their care into things, bulky objects that can, once a staffer gets the hang of it, be dealt with in shorter and shorter stints” (1). Under these vast social systems, the individual is left feeling powerless, even when their own loved ones are involved and generally do nothing to change these systems. In short, these systems become commonplace and accepted leaving individuals to think generically, “Well, this is just how it is”. This is false, as there are several solutions to these issues both on the individual level, as well as the society itself. The first step for both the individual and the society is to recognize that there is a problem, and that a solution is possible. One solution on the society or government level is to adopt policies that are stricter for the care of our elderly, and to escape the psychological culture of “Well, this is just how it is”. Another way is to change how the medical institutions train our future doctors and nurses. In short, all doctors and nurses should have to spend some of their training in a nursing home. This will raise awareness within the medical industry of these issues. Currently, not all future doctors and nurses have to go through this and may remain blissfully ignorant to the structural violence in their own system. Fry states in the article, Enhancing Peace, “If implementing changes of this magnitude seem impossible, then a macroscopic time perspective may help to put the truly immense human potential for social change in focus” (2). The individual can make contributions as well, by taking personal responsibility for their loved ones and learning more about the disease, injury or mental illness that their loved ones are afflicted with and becoming a caretaker for their loved one, instead of leaving it to social systems like nursing homes.

Works referenced:

(1) Scheper-Hughes. Genealogy of Genocide. Rubbish People: Happy Valley Nursing Home section.

(2) Fry. Enhancing Peace. Values, Attitudes and Beliefs section.


Why do people turn a blind eye to war and genocide?

One reason that genocide, mass murder and horrible acts of war happen are the affect, or lack thereof, it has on the population. Those affected negatively, by injury or even death, due to such machinations obviously are going to feel it more acutely, than those that are not affected. Generally, those acutely affected by these horrible acts tend to react in one of two ways: They either attempt to escape the proximity of the affected areas, and become refugees or they attempt to fight back against these machinations through violent or nonviolent action. Slovic states, “This paper examines one fundamental mechanism that may play a role in many, if not all, episodes of mass-murder neglect. This mechanism involves the capacity to experience affect, the positive and negative feelings that combine with reasoned analysis to guide our judgments, decisions, and actions” (1). For those unaffected by such violence, we may simply read about it in the paper and frown before our fickle minds are off to the next thing, like that second cup of coffee. The saying, “out of sight, out of mind” is significant in this capacity and truly an accurate view of how the human mind responds to such incidents. If one is not immediately affected by such violence, then no new course of action need be taken. The good news is that this sort of human response can be changed, and has already begun to do so because of our ever evolving global society. As our capacity for destruction continues to grow through technology and engineering, so is our awareness of the global results such actions, like nuclear war, can have. As Hern states, “The principal difference between the human species and organismic cancer is that we can think, and we can decide not to be a cancer” (2). In short, as our local societies grow into ever more global societies, we as humans can make the necessary adjustments though government and civic institutions to pass laws that address these atrocities. Nuclear bombs can be dismantled. Vast areas of the world could become demilitarized through the goodwill efforts of our global society. Perhaps humans will even realize that we should consider if we should create such technological wonders of destructive power, before we ask if it is possible.

Works referenced:

(1) Slovic. If I Look at the Mass, I Will Never Act. Introduction.

(2) Hern. Is Human Culture Carcinogenic for Uncontrolled Population Growth and Ecological Destruction? In the section “Value of the Ecopathology Hypothesis”.


The Us vs. Them Complex

The Us vs. Them concept seems to be a natural process that develops in primates, such as humans, who live together in social groups. Through socialization and enculturation one member of a group learns to “belong” as these processes begin working on the human psyche from newborn to adulthood. Many societies have rites of passage that are publicly acknowledged, through ritual and/or ceremony, recognizing when one or several members of a social group “come of age”, or stop being children in the eyes of the community and enter adulthood. We, as human social groups, have done this throughout history and archaeological evidence shows that these rites probably began in prehistory, with the first bands of hunter/gatherers that formed on the African continent. These small bands of hunter/gatherers eventually gave way to city-states, with larger populations and a philosophical shift to agriculture and government organization in order to sustain the growing population. Eventually, these city-states grew into countries with physical boundaries to separate these various populations. Throughout this process, the individuals in these societies learned to trust those within their own social group and be wary, distrustful and even fear individuals outside their given societies. This is the foundation of the Us vs. Them concept. Scheper-Hughes states, “Extreme forms of oppositional thinking us vs. them can result in a social self identity predicated on a notion of "the other" as enemy” (1). Therein lies the danger that this process creates; a foundation for meeting strangers with a pretense towards violence. One way that modern societies can eradicate this seemingly outdated process of enculturation is to vary societal culture to those of the surrounding area. In short, create crosscutting ties as Fry states, “Relationships that link groups tend to reduce intergroup violence. The greater number of crosscutting ties, the smaller the chance of war” (2). We can do this through student exchange programs, marriage and various other opportunities to create a shared culture within societies that neighbor our own. Through this peace process societies learn to not only value their own members of society and traditions, but also those they share crosscutting ties with.

Works referenced:

(1) Scheper-Hughes. Genealogy of Genocide, A Genealogy of Genocide section.

(2) Fry. Enhancing Peace. Crosscutting Ties section.


What are some ideological and practical ways we can promote peace in today’s world?

In answering this question I will address my home country of the United States. One ideological way one can promote peace in this country is by learning to cooperate with one another instead of competing with each other. The United States is a country that is almost 250 years old. In the past 250 years, the population has grown drastically and the ideology of competing with each other has become outdated. Competition served its’ purpose by creating a country of “go-getters” that now, arguably leads the world on every front, from business to technology and government. But now, with the country full of natives and immigrants alike, that philosophy is failing us. This is mainly due to inconsistencies between population growth and industrial growth. There has been more people born, and continuing to be born in this country that will not be able to get a job when they grow to adulthood. For this reason alone, the American philosophy of competition needs to be altered to a philosophy of cooperation. If this does not occur, it will only serve to create an increasingly hostile environment as people scramble to survive in a country that has too many people to support, and not enough jobs to support them. Left unchecked, this could lead to civil class warfare, or in the very least, an increase in domestic terrorism. Hern states, “Whereas the life span of early humans was relatively short and comparable to that of other primates, cultural adaptations such as agriculture, weapons for hunting and defense against other animals, and modern medical care have resulted in increasingly long survival times for human beings. In fact, increasing survival times have become a principal problem for industrial societies” (1). Though even in the face of this grim diagnosis, anthropologists are not without hope, as we can do much to alter this potential American destiny. As Ferguson states, “A 'strong defence' will not long protect a declining industrial system” (2). In short, continued economic spending on the defense of a nation that already has the biggest, and most technologically advanced armed force on the planet, is as outdated as competition itself. It is the time for cooperation, on all levels of society, from individuals, to local communities, States and our global relations as a whole.

Works referenced:

(1) Hern. Is Human Culture Carcinogenic for Uncontrolled Population Growth and Ecological Destruction? Cultural Components of the Ecopathologic Process section.

(2) Ferguson. How Can Anthropologists Promote Peace? The Academic Mode section.


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