Violence Socially Constructed?

The world is certainly not a sterile place, and natural and manmade threats to individual safety abound. It is reasonable to suggest that few observers would categorize erupting volcanoes, earth-shattering temblors and cataclysmic floods as being socially constructed, but the analysis of manmade violent acts quickly becomes subjectively murky. Can violence of any type be regarded as being social constructed, or is the entire process part of the natural world that transcends humankind’s ability to assign legitimate meanings to violence? To gain further insights into this argument and determine the most reasonable answers, this paper provides a review of the relevant literature concerning social construction in general and socially constructed violence in particular, followed by a summary of the research and important findings in the conclusion.

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Review and Discussion

There is a wide gap between the extreme positions taken with respect to social constructivism. At one extreme, there are those who hold that “there are no objective facts or truths, or no facts independent of social construction” (Goldman 2002, p. 196), then everything in the world is a product to some extent of humankind’s interpretation of it. At this end of the divergent poles of thought concerning social constructivism, there is also the view of weak and strong interpretations of the world that has an effect on the logical outcomes of such analyses. For instance, according to Goldman, “The weak form of social constructivism is a rather innocuous doctrine, which would probably be agreed to by almost everybody. But weak social constructivism poses no challenge to objectivism about facts or truth that classical epistemologists commonly endorse. That representations are socially constructed is compatible with there being mind-independent and community-independent facts that render such representations true or false, veridical or nonveridical” (2002, p. 196). By sharp contrast, though, strong social constructivism holds that everything is socially constructed at some level. For instance, Goldman reports that, “Strong social constructivism claims not only that scientists’ representations of quarks or thyrotropin releasing hormone are socially constructed, but that quarks themselves and thyrotropin releasing hormone itself are socially constructed. This is a much more dramatic thesis, but also much more dubious” (2002, p. 196).

Despite this dubious quality, strong social constructivist claims about violence universally cite its socially constructed nature. Indeed, Burstyn, Bender and Casella unequivocally state that, “Violence is socially constructed” (2001, p. 95). In support of this assertion, Burstyn and her associates cite several years of empirical observations with young people and the subjective nature of what behaviors could be characterized as being violent. In this regard, Bender and Casella add that, “What is violent to me may not be considered violent to others — particularly many of the young people with whom I worked for a year at the alternative school. Within the classroom and hallways and on street comers, I frequently observed mock fights between friends and fellow gang members — actions that I labeled as violent. Fighting, hitting, slapping, and verbal threats were a part of daily life” (2001, p. 95).

Therefore, as an extension of the “if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest’ conundrum, strong social constructivists would argue that violence does not exist in the physical plane without the essential involvement of humans in understanding and interpreting these events. This all-or-nothing approach, though, fails to illuminate what causes violence or what can be done to stop or mitigate it. For instance, Fish points out that, “If everything is socially constructed, the fact of a particular thing being socially constructed is not a fact you can do anything with. It won’t help you to distinguish that socially constructed thing from all the other socially constructed things” (1995, p. ix). Despite this constraint, Fish suggests that it is important to recognize the fact that issues such as violence have a socially constructed component in order to more fully understand the phenomenon. In this regard, Fish writes, “Once you see that something is socially constructed you are better able to revise it” (1995, p. ix).

One way to use the socially constructed views of violence to help reduce it is therefore to develop an understanding of the respective perceptions of violence on the part of the victims and perpetrators of violent acts. This type of analysis, though, is also fraught with a high degree of subjectivity since it typically involves self-reports of the impact that violence had on victims as well as what gratification was received by the perpetrators. By any measure, though, violence can have profound and long-lasting effects on its victims and perpetrators alike. For example, Kuper and Kuper report that:

Whether physical or psychological, the harm felt by the recipient of violence varies, as does the long-term impact on his or her everyday life. A recent experience of violence, or its threat, may have significant effects, altering an individual’s routines and personal lifestyle or it may have little noticeable influence on daily life. Studies of posttraumatic stress disorder, for instance, often explore the impact of violence upon individuals’ lives. (2004, p. 1048)

Other ways of understanding violence as being social constructed include the manner in which violent behaviors and acts are formally categorized by law enforcement and mainstream society (Kuper & Kuper 2004). This categorization helps to identify the various theoretical foundations that have been used to explain and understand violence and how these findings can be used to address the problem. For instance, biological explanations of violence indicate that there may be a genetic or hormonal cause, while psychological explanations of violence cite conditions such as diminished self-esteem, depression and feelings of inadequacy as contributing to the incidence of violence in a given population (Kuper & Kuper 2004). Likewise, even evolutionary psychology has been used as a paradigm for understanding violence. In this regard, Kuper and Kuper report that, “Evolutionary psychology, too, provides a framework for explaining violence, suggesting that competition, status and control over reproductivity provide men with strong legacies within which contemporary, individually committed violence should be placed” (2004, p. 1084).

Clearly, there is much to be gained from examining violence from these socially constructed views, but there are some limitations to just how much can be learned and applied from such analyses. In this regard, Kuper and Kuper emphasize that, “Sociological explanations, such as those that examine the links with economic deprivation, gang involvement, dominant social groups and use of violence in the informal economy, provide descriptions of the context within which violence occurs, but fail to predict which individuals within those environments will commit violence” (2004, p. 1048). The extent to which violence is institutionalized is another important socially constructed view that can be used to better understand how violence can inordinately affect a given segment of society. For instance, Kuper and Kuper note that, “Analysis of structural vulnerability such as the violence towards women by men, racial attacks and homophobic violence, displays the use of violence to maintain dominance. Violence that is specifically targeted against particular groups or individuals because of their beliefs, their skin colour, their gender, their sexuality or their social class works to remind those more vulnerable that they will be constrained by those structurally advantaged” (p. 1048). Finally, Kuper and Kuper (2004) note that while violence can achieve dominance through force, violent acts can also be an indication of resistance within a given population, as manifested through violence committed by politically motivated civil insurgents. This type of pigeonholing can be useful, but it also highlights the highly subjective nature of the analytical process. As Kuper and Kuper point out, “Naming actions as violence or resistance to oppression demonstrates how explanations of violence are subjective” (emphasis added) (2004, p. 1048). This type of categorization would involve distinguishing between individual acts of resistance to violence (e.g., battered women striking back) or collective acts (e.g., armed civil insurgents engaging in a revolt) (Kuper & Kuper 2004). Rather than the all-or-nothing strong social constructivist extremes described above, a more balanced view is presented by Kuper and Kuper who suggest that it is the meaning of violence that is social constructed rather than violence itself. According to these authorities, “Public debates, as well as criminal trial defences, revolve around the use, meaning and consequences of violent actions. Often the subjective meanings of violence, and the social and political contexts within which violence arises, are contested and contestable. The meanings of violence are socially constructed” (emphasis added) (Kuper & Kuper 2004, p. 1048).


While these socially constructed explanations are clearly important to understanding violence, including how it can affect those involved and what may cause it, they do not come face-to-face with the issue of whether violence per se would continue to exist in a world without humans around to create the social constructions that strong social constructivists insist is a prerequisite for the phenomenon. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of violence in nature that would continue without humans, and nature has proven time and again that wherever there is something to eat, there will be something there to eat it. Violence, like the sun or the moon, is a fact of any kind of life, human or not, and humans do not need to be involved for it to exist.


Burstyn, J.N., Bender, G. & Casella, R. et al. 2001 Preventing Violence in Schools: A Challenge

to American Democracy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fish, S. 1995 Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change. New York:

Goldman, a.I. 2002 Pathways to Knowledge: Private and Public. New York: Oxford

Kuper, a. & Kuper, J. 2004 the Social Science Encyclopedia. London: Routledge.