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April 3, 2003

Anthropologists explore meanings, contexts of violence

Anti-war protesters around the world condemn what they call America’s “culture of violence.”

Some Americans believe Iraqis (and Middle Eastern people in general) are violent by nature, and Islam is a religion of hate.

Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Chechnyans, Catholic and Protestant Irish, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda — each people tends to see itself as the victim of aggression, injustice and exploitation but never the perpetrator except in self-defense or in seeking revenge.

To anthropologists such as Pitt’s Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart, the notion of inherently violent cultures or religions is, at best, misguided. At worst, they say, it’s a pretext for genocide.

To explore meanings and contexts in which violent actions occur, Stewart and Strathern wrote “Violence: Theory and Ethnography” (Continuum Publishing, 2002), one of four books that the husband-and-wife team authored or contributed to last year.

“Our purpose,” they write in “Violence,” “is not to propose a single new theory to replace existing ones, nor is it to produce a complete synthesis of viewpoints. It is, rather, to assess the present state of knowledge and perspectives on violence, particularly in terms of the contributions made to those perspectives by anthropology. In taking this approach, we do not reject biology and psychology. Rather, we recognize the ‘layered’ quality of all explanations of, or discussions about, human behavior, from molecular biology to metaphysics.”

In an interview, Strathern, Pitt’s Mellon Professor of Anthropology, called violence “practically a human universal. Research indicates that there is no known human society that has not had episodes of violence.

“A term such as ‘culture of violence’ is usually used as an ideological rather than a factual statement. It’s a term of disapproval, a value judgment. Instead of attributing violence to some vaguely defined notion of culture or religion, we [anthropologists] attribute it to situations that people find themselves in.”

As condescendingly as some Europeans denounce the United States’s violent crime, gun culture and so-called “cowboy” foreign policy, “anyone who looks at European history can’t deny that it’s been very violent,” noted Stewart, a research associate in Pitt’s anthropology department.

She cited Ireland’s bloody Troubles. “One of the areas where we do our research is the border area between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The reason that this has been such a violent region is not because of the people’s cultural heritage or who they are. It’s because of the context in which they’re living.”

In their book, Stewart and Strathern build upon anthropologist David Riches’s concept of the “triangle of violence” involving performers, victims and witnesses. Violence is marked by contests regarding its legitimacy as a social act, according to Riches.

“The performer may see a violent act as justified, and therefore legitimate,” write Stewart and Strathern. “The victim is likely to see this same act as unjustified and illegitimate. The witness or witnesses will have a different range of views depending on relations with either the performer or the victim or both.”

Sometimes, especially in the collectivized violence called war, it’s hard to differentiate between performer and victim. Each side may claim simultaneously to be the victim, and the role of the witness becomes murky.

“For example,” Stewart and Strathern write, “Russia’s war against Islamic rebel forces in Chechnya in 1999-2000 was viewed by the Russian government of the day as a necessary act of retaliation against terrorists, but by international witnesses as involving acts of violence against civilians that violated human rights and could possibly destabilize the wider region, although direct intervention was not seen as feasible.

“As long as there is no direct contest between these divergent witnesses the question of legitimacy will be left unresolved, making it more possible for the conflict to continue.”

In justifying violence, nations have developed such concepts as “pre-emptive self-defense,” which the Japanese military cited in attacking Pearl Harbor. The term also might apply to America’s current war against Iraq, and it certainly would sound familiar to Islamist terrorists who describe their violence as defensive action in a war started by America against the Muslim world. (Osama bin Laden called the United States “the biggest terrorist in the world.”)

Using case studies from around the world, Strathern and Stewart draw some piquant parallels — for example, making a connection between dances held in some New Guinea societies to celebrate news that an enemy leader has been killed by sorcery, and annual marches by Protestants near Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast to celebrate the Protestant William of Orange’s victory against the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The authors note: “Such displays at boundaries are common between antagonists….A triumphalist note certainly adds to their ability to insult the other side. Music and singing carry strongly over space, forcing people to hear them.”

The Orangemen’s marches “often provoke violence because they transfer political symbols from the center of a community to its edges, where they act as provocations,” write Stewart and Strathern.

Through their fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, the Pitt anthropologists have documented elaborate social mechanisms for preventing violence from escalating.

“This often involves extensive compensation payments for damage done to others, especially for a killing,” said Strathern. “It’s all backed up by religion and cosmology as being something that you should do.”

Bedouin Arabs, likewise, have traditionally settled disputes through massive compensation payments rather than killing, “Violence” points out. The book quotes anthropologist Frank Stewart’s observation that the new and globalized dialectic of “Islam” versus “the West/America” does not in any way correspond to customary Bedouin ideas about honor and law, which are “fundamentally directed towards the peaceful settlement of disputes.”

“These are valuable ideas,” Strathern said of tribal conflict-resolution systems, “but the problem with borrowing these strategies is, obviously, one of scale. Because of the small scale and the extensive kinship relations in these traditional societies, it is much easier for them to come to terms. Among developed nations, there is a greater fear and assumption of malevolence on the part of the various actors, and ties between peoples are fewer.”

Stewart suggested that developed countries might benefit from adopting at least one conflict-resolution technique of New Guinean tribes: drawn-out negotiation of compensation payments.

“They devote a great amount of time to this process,” she said. “There’s a lot of back-and-forth negotiation, lots of meeting and talking. It can take years before a payment is made. Through this process, there can be some cooling off of hostilities.”

As Winston Churchill remarked, “Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”

— Bruce Steele

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