Institutional Violence: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Institutional violence is more common than you may think, and it has been affecting our culture since the establishment of this country. Continue reading to understand more about institutional violence.

Johan Galtung and Institutional Violence

If you're familiar with the current stream of protests with NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem, then you might have some idea about the concept of institutional violence. Institutional violence is more commonly referred to as structural violence, a theory established by sociologist Johan Galtung. The preferred term is actually structural violence, so this lesson will refer to institutional violence as structural violence.

Galtung is credited for first using the term structural violence in his piece 'Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.' Galtung's theory on structural violence is that it is a 'consequence of social conditions,' meaning that a group or institution is responsible for the death or demise of an individual. When this happens over and over to a particular demographic, it becomes more apparent that it is an issue of structural violence. The problem with this is that structural violence is a hybrid concept, meaning that it's part theoretical (hypothetical) and part empirical (evidence).

Structural violence is expressed by institutions through gender inequality, racism, discriminatory laws and even religious ideologies based on their response to direct violence. This is what makes revealing structural violence so difficult to prove. While structural violence identifies the victims, it also implicates the demographic responsible for creating those victims, which creates a resistance to accusations of structural violence. People are rarely happy to be associated with an institution responsible for the demise of a particular group of people. Unless, of course, you're a white supremacist. Hitler's regime in Germany during World War II or the American institution of slavery before the civil war are probably the most obvious examples of structural violence.

Direct Violence

To better understand structural violence, there needs to be a clear understanding of direct violence. Direct violence is much easier to determine because the violence is examined at its very essence. Simply put, there is an agent of violence and a victim. Bob punches Tom in the face. Bob is the agent of violence. Tom is the victim. There can often be more than one agent of violence and/or more than one victim, but for all intents and purposes, we'll use a one-to-one ratio to provide an example.

Now, lets consider Bob is a police officer and Tom is a suspect. If Tom punches Officer Bob in the face, Tom is the agent of violence and Officer Bob is the victim. Tom is probably going to be in very big trouble. However, if Officer Bob shoots Tom then Officer Bob is the agent of violence and Tom is the victim. This is simply an example of direct violence. We're only considering the actions of Officer Bob and Tom at the moment of violence.

If you've seen the news recently or you've been on Facebook or Twitter or any other form of social media, you're probably familiar with the growing controversy of NFL players taking a knee. How are these protests and structural violence related? The next section will illustrate that.

Take a Knee

The current debate on NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem is a significant example of why and how structural violence is so difficult to deal with or reveal. NFL players are kneeling, contrary to what has been said about the military or the flag or America, to protest racial injustice. This injustice refers to the many cases when a police officer shoots and/or kills an unarmed African-American and doesn't face any consequences, which is a form of structural violence.

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