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Anthropology Violence
by
Deborah A. Thomas

Introduction

One of the hallmarks of the contemporary moment is a pervasive sense of the anarchic proliferation of, if not an actual increase in, nonstate as well as state-based violence throughout the world. Yet with few exceptions, violence has only in the past two or three decades become a topic of explicit concern among cultural anthropologists. In part, this is due to the difficulty of conducting ethnographic research within the context of violent conflict, but it also has to do with the original expectation of anthropology’s disciplinary purview. The early 20th century was dominated by psychological and functionalist paradigms that theorized violence as a natural inclination of human beings or a product of social conditions. Cultural anthropologists might have been inclined to write about “violent” societies, counterposing these with “peaceful” ones. To a degree, this sort of categorization was grounded in biological explanations (both psychological and genetic), though for the most part biology has been seen as only one of many causal factors interacting with ecology, history, and material resource acquisition and maintenance. Early ethnographic work on feuding, on the other hand, drew largely from functionalist perspectives to explain violent conflict in relation to the expectations and goals of particular societies. In other words, because ethnographers tended to be preoccupied with acephalous or “weak-state” societies, they were more often concerned with how violence operated as a mode through which social reproduction was achieved than with the ways state institutions and histories of colonialism structured both acute conflict and everyday experiences of subject formation. However, more recent research has moved away from both evolutionary-biological and functionalist arguments and has sought to situate violence within the context of regional, state, and global economic and political systems. Ethnographers have taken inspiration from Enlightenment social theory examining the social contract and the question of the monopoly of violence by the state, and post-1970s political anthropology has therefore generated important analyses of nationalism, imperialism, and colonialism that have been heavily influenced by Continental political and philosophical scholarship. These contemporary explorations of violence have tended to emphasize not only overt and spectacular forms of violence, but also the structural and symbolic dimensions of violence in everyday life.

Early Theories and Themes

Earlier approaches to violent conflict in cultural anthropology tended to reflect an evolutionary view of human societies. For example, where Tylor 1871 linked improvements in weaponry to societal advancement and Morgan 1877 tied violence to the rise of private property, other scholars were influenced by Georg Simmel’s view (see Simmel 1950, originally published in 1908) that war develops as humans move from a state of primitive aggression to modern mechanization. These early frameworks are rooted in a biological notion of competition, one that has not completely disappeared from analyses that position types of collective violence in relation to types of societies, which are then organized along an evolutionary scale. Otterbein 1993 and Reyna and Downs 1994 are examples of this conceptualization. Later studies (e.g., Chagnon 1968) institutionalized the notion that “violence” is intrinsic to certain societies, and Chagnon’s ethnography was supplemented by a documentary film called The Ax Fight that he made with Tim Asch (1971, distributed by Documentary Educational Resources). Conversely, peacefulness was seen as an essential characteristic of other societies, such as the Inuit (Briggs 1970). Even when violence wasn’t always the explicit subject matter of anthropological work, it was still often the case that anthropologists were conducting their research in the context of increasing colonial and interethnic violence.

  • Briggs, Jean L. 1970. Never in anger: Portrait of an Eskimo family. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    An anthropologist’s account of seventeen months on the Arctic shore within an Eskimo family. Briggs documents their behavioral patterns, and positions Inuit populations as essentially peace loving.

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  • Chagnon, Napoleon. 1968. Yanomamo: The fierce people. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

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    An ethnography of a sovereign indigenous Amazonian community living on the border between Venezuela and Brazil that emphasizes what is seen as a cultural predilection for violence and warfare.

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  • Morgan, Louis Henry. 1877. Ancient society. London: Macmillan.

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    The classic text in which Morgan lays out his theory of social evolution with an emphasis on the links between social progress and technological progress, a point that would later be taken up by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

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  • Otterbein, Keith F. 1993. Feuding and warfare: Selected works of Keith F. Otterbein. Langhorne, PA: Gordon & Breach.

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    A compilation of Otterbein’s cross-cultural ethnographic work examining the role of warfare in human social evolution.

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  • Reyna, Stephen, and S. P. Downs, eds. 1994. Studying war: Anthropological perspectives. Langhorne, PA: Gordon & Breach.

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    An edited volume that brings together spatially and temporally diverse cases of warfare from a broadly—yet exceedingly complex—social evolutionary perspective.

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  • Simmel, Georg. 1950. Sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated, edited, and with an introduction by Kurt H. Wolff. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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    An overview text that outlines Simmel’s notions of the relationships between individuals and society, and forms of social interaction. Broadly demonstrates his evolutionary point of view regarding transitions from “primitive” to urban and modern societies.

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  • Tylor, Edward B. 1871. Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, art and custom. London: J. Murray.

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    Classic anthropological text that traces the development of humans from a state of savagery to civilization and that outlines the ways culture is learned and passed from generation to generation.

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Archaeologies of Violence

Recently, archaeologists have challenged the myth of the “peaceful primitive” that developed from some of the earlier cultural anthropological accounts described in Early Theories and Themes. They have moved away from comparative, evolutionary analyses of violence and toward an approach that brings together environmental and social factors within both so-called pre-state and modern societies, thereby also bridging the temporal divide between past and present (see Arkush and Allen 2006 and Keeley 1996). Moreover, the newer archaeology of colonization, slavery, and empire building (both classical and modern) has begun to address complexly the relationships between violence, labor regimes, and emergent identities (e.g., Voss 2008). This sort of research has generated increased attention to archaeological practice itself and the complex histories of violence that may suffuse it (see Meskell 2009). Interpersonal violence also leaves traces on the bones of victims. Bioarchaeologists have used skeletal trauma as evidence for exploring the effects not only of war and human sacrifice, but also of interpersonal violence in the past (see Walker 2001). Some archaeologists have been able to provide insights into the biocultural adaptation of populations, and to tell us something about the status of women and children, as well as intracommunity class and status distinctions (see Larsen 1999 and Monge and McCarthy 2011). Typically, it is also these anthropologists who have been at the forefront of attempts to confront the effects of mass violence, as they are the ones called to exhume mass graves, either of slaves in New World societies (see Blakey 2001) or of indigenous victims of state terror throughout the world (see Hunter and Cox 2005).

  • Arkush, Elizabeth, and Mark Allen, eds. 2006. The archaeology of warfare: Prehistories of raiding and conquest. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida.

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    An edited volume that explores the development of warfare within preindustrial, non-Western societies, dispelling the myth of a peaceful past and investigating how choices about dwelling and political authority have always been linked to war and other forms of conflict.

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  • Blakey, Michael. 2001. Bioarchaeology of the African diaspora in the Americas: Its origins and scope. Annual Review of Anthropology 30:387–422.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.30.1.387Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Review article with a focus on seven decades of research on African diasporic bioarchaeology. Argues that forensic approaches do not pay enough attention to either cultural or historical research within African diaspora studies, whereas biocultural approaches tend toward a more holistic approach. Argues also that bioarchaeological research should be relevant and useful for the communities whose histories scholars construct.

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  • Hunter, John, and Margaret Cox. 2005. Forensic archaeology: Advances in theory and practice. New York: Routledge.

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    A textbook that charts the growth and development of forensic anthropology, examining both concepts and methods, and introducing the ways forensic archaeology has been used within international investigations of human rights.

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  • Keeley, Lawrence H. 1996. War before civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Seeks to debunk the idea that modern warfare is somehow more barbaric than that within “primitive” cultures, which are stereotypically envisioned as more peaceful. Argues that war has always been part of human life.

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  • Larsen, Clark Spencer. 1999. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting behavior from the human skeleton. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Provides a window into the ways bioarchaeologists interpret skeletal and dental remains of once-living populations for an understanding of disease, stress, injury, violence, physical activity, and diet, emphasizing the link between biology and behavior, and the influences of environment and culture on human biological variation.

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  • Meskell, Lynn, ed. 2009. Cosmopolitan archaeologies. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An edited volume that discusses the ethics of archaeological practice, emphasizing the responsibility of researchers to grapple with the repercussions of their projects, and to support the communities among which they do research. Contributors address a range of movements, including UNESCO’s cultural heritage projects, ecology and conservation initiatives, and the impacts of war and violence.

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  • Monge, Janet, and Colleen McCarthy. 2011. A life of violence: When warfare and interpersonal violence intertwine at Hasanlu, period IVB. In Peoples and crafts in period IVB at Hasanlu, Iran. Edited by M. de Schauensee, 183–194. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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    Article based on an examination of skeletal remains from Hasanlu that documents trauma differences between male and female skeletons, differences that are positioned as evidence for some of the earliest instances of recorded domestic violence.

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  • Voss, Barbara. 2008. The archaeology of ethnogenesis: Race, sexuality, and identity in colonial San Francisco. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    A historical archaeological exploration of a community of military settlers who forged a community in what is now San Francisco. Voss analyzes landscape, architecture, ceramics, and other material culture in order to trace the ways race and sexuality operated within colonial California.

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  • Walker, Phillip. 2001. A bioarchaeological perspective on the history of violence. Annual Review of Anthropology 30:573–596.

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    A review essay that tracks the various perspectives within biological and archaeological anthropology on violence and the ways we might interpret it across a variety of societies.

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Violence as a Cultural and Structural Phenomenon

Within the United States, early cultural anthropologists also examined the role of culture in violence, typically from a psychological perspective, as in the work of those who could be categorized under the rubric of the culture and personality school (Mead 1935, Benedict 1934). British structural-functionalists also explored violence, typically through the lens of managing interactions between kin groups and lineages of political authority (e.g., Evans-Pritchard 1940). As social anthropologists began to focus more on contemporary social processes within Africa, such as labor migration and urbanization, they also began to emphasize the political role of violence in ritual practices (Gluckman 1954). While violence within ritual practices was explored for its symbolic meaning within early “armchair” anthropological approaches to ritual like Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss influenced scholars like René Girard to read violence in a community’s myths and histories and to see it as foundational to notions of the sacred (this approach can also be seen in the classic ethnographic film Dead Birds, 1964, distributed by Documentary Educational Resources). This approach was later elaborated on and transformed within postmodernist American cultural anthropology to focus on the multivocality of ritual practices and the instability of culture (Rosaldo 1989). Violence, or the threat of violence, has also been theorized as a means of maintaining a balance of power among social segments and, in particular, as a cultural mechanism through which masculine honor is protected (see Abu-Lughod 2011 and Herzfeld 1987 for important critiques of this approach). Finally, anthropologists have also seen interpersonal violence as a cultural response to structural violence (Shkilnyk 1985), an approach that draws, in part, on Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the internalization and reproduction of violence within colonial society.

  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. 2011. Seductions of the “honor crime.” Differences 22.1: 17–63.

    DOI: 10.1215/10407391-1218238Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Through an analysis of popular culture, human rights reports, and her own ethnography, Abu-Lughod critiques sensationalist approaches to honor killing for reproducing a view that violence—and especially violence against women—can be reduced to the realm of cultural and even civilizational differences. She argues that this has led scholars and activists alike to ignore the historical and structural dimensions of violence against women in the Middle East.

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  • Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of culture. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

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    An early argument for cultural relativism and part of the culture and personality school that saw “cultures” as personalities writ large. She contrasts the ritual practices, beliefs, and social organization of Native American communities, labeling them as peace-loving “Apollonians” or wild, sybaritic “Dionysians,” to understand how each community had a “personality” that was subsequently encouraged in individuals.

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  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of Nilotic people. Oxford: Clarendon.

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    A classic ethnography of political and social organization within a pastoralist nonstate African society in what is now Sudan that examines patterns of descent and authority through an analysis of kinship and marriage systems.

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  • Girard, René. 1977. Violence and the sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    A structuralist account of the ways violence is represented throughout history, literature, and myth. Drawing from biblical narrative, Greek tragedy, and contemporary state violence, Girard argues that violence is a means to defuse the crises generated by desire and is sanctioned through the religious rituals and notions of taboo that become structuring principles of the social world.

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  • Gluckman, Max. 1954. Rituals of rebellion in southeast Africa. Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press.

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    An analysis of spring rites and harvest rituals among Zulu, Swazi, and Thonga communities in terms of how they express (and resolve) social tensions. Gluckman argues that these rituals are forms of protest that ultimately work to renew the unity of the political system, and that ritual rebellion is characteristic of societies where revolution is not envisioned as a necessary mode of social transformation.

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  • Herzfeld, Michael. 1987. Anthropology through the looking-glass: Critical ethnography in the margins of Europe. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A critique of Mediterranean anthropological emphases on the concepts of honor and shame as structuring principles. More broadly, Herzfeld seeks to examine the practice of “othering” within anthropological research, and argues that we must see the discipline itself as part of the same political and social webs as the communities under study. He argues for a more reflexive approach to ethnographic research and analysis.

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  • Mead, Margaret. 1935. Sex and temperament in three primitive societies. New York: William Morrow.

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    A classic and prescient account of the ways gender roles and individual temperaments are culturally variable, and of the view that there is therefore no natural link between sex (biology) and gendered expression (culture). Mead focuses on three societies that she characterizes as gentle, fierce and cannibalistic, and graceful though murderous, to show that masculinity and femininity are cultural constructions.

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  • Rosaldo, Renato. 1989. Grief and a headhunter’s rage. In Culture and truth: The remaking of social analysis. By Renato Rosaldo, 1–28. Boston: Beacon.

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    A classic example of postmodern anthropology that foregrounds the concepts of shifting subjectivity and reflexivity, and examines the relationship between emotion and violence. Rosaldo examines Ilongot approaches to grief, themselves conditioned by a field of social relations characterized by power, and argues that understanding and participating in “culture” is conditioned by experience over time.

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  • Shkilnyk, Anastasia. 1985. A poison stronger than love: The destruction of an Ojibwa community. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    Demonstrates the ways an Ojibwa community on a Canadian reservation was influenced by a series of modernization projects that ultimately destroyed traditional modes of production and cultural practices and poisoned the water source. Shkilnyk shows how community members internalize these patterns of structural violence through alcoholism, among other problems.

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Violence as Socially Productive

The late 1980s and 1990s heralded a reinvigoration of political anthropology. This was spurred in part by the new states and ethnic conflict that emerged after the 1989 breakup of the Soviet Union, but also by a number of theoretical interventions, including Michel Foucault’s explorations of topics like “madness” and “discipline” as well as his reformulation of notions of power and governance (see Foucault 1978), Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” (see Anderson 1983), and Philip Abrams’s rethinking of the state (see Abrams 1988). Among anthropologists during the 1960s and 1970s, Marx’s exegesis of the effects of capitalist accumulation and rural dispossession also inspired a structural-historical approach to conflict, particularly in colonial and postcolonial settings (see Mintz 1985, Wolf 1982). As a result of these intellectual developments, as well as of the growing conceptual influence of practice theory (Bourdieu 1977), anthropologists began to take on the modern state—colonial and postcolonial—thinking anew about the ways people negotiate, reproduce, and challenge (sometimes all at once) patterns of political authority, institutional structures of governance, and commonsense notions of belonging. Within these real-world and academic contexts, violence became an inescapable element of day-to-day life around the globe. As a result, contemporary ethnographic research approaches violence as neither automatic nor inevitable (see Schmidt and Schroeder 2001), neither random nor senseless (see Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004). Instead, sociocultural anthropologists today understand violence as historically situated practice that is not only destructive and damaging, but also expressive, performative, and productive, a potentially spectacular though also too often banal way of experiencing the world.

  • Abrams, Philip. 1988. Notes on the difficulty of studying the state. Journal of Historical Sociology 1.1: 58–88.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6443.1988.tb00004.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Classic essay redirecting focus from “the State” as an entity existing in “reality” to the institutional forms and ideological constructions of political practice (state systems and state ideas). With this essay, Abrams critiqued both political-sociological and Marxist accounts of governance and inspired generations of scholars to demystify the study of social and political subordination.

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  • Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

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    In a now classic text dealing with the origins of nationalism, Anderson argues that we must understand the processes by which national groupings came to be imagined, including the decline of religious monarchies, the rise of print capitalism, and changing conceptions of time and space.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A classic text for both anthropological and sociological theory that challenges both idealist and materialist approaches to social organization by emphasizing the dialectical processes of “habitus” as means through which social formations are reproduced. With this text, Bourdieu also provided a way for scholars to think more clearly about the various effects of symbolic capital in reproducing both ideological and material structures of power.

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  • Foucault, Michel. 1978. The history of sexuality, part I. New York: Pantheon.

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    The first of a three-volume series in which Foucault examines the ways in which sexuality became both an analytic and mechanism of power within European history. Foucault demonstrates that sexuality is foundational to our formation as modern subjects, and this is what leads to his analysis of biopower within Western societies as the means through which modern democratic populations are regulated and managed.

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  • Marx, Karl. 1992. Capital: A critique of political economy. Vol. 1, The process of production of capital, part VIII. New York: Penguin Classics.

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    This section of Marx’s classic outlines his thesis of how capitalist relations of production emerged out of an originary mode of accumulation that existed outside the boundaries of capitalism. He demonstrates how an exploitable wage labor market is formed from former agricultural producers (serfs and slaves), and how this is related to processes of colonialism and the violent appropriation of land. Originally published in 1888.

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  • Mintz, Sidney. 1985. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Viking.

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    This book tracks changes in global hierarchies and social structure through a historical analysis of one commodity, sugar. Using a historical political economy approach, Mintz illuminates the infrastructure of desire and consumption that facilitates colonial primitive accumulation, and demonstrates how the production and consumption of sugar over time sheds light on transformations within capitalism and, relatedly, notions of what it means to be modern.

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  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, and Philippe Bourgois, eds. 2004. Violence in war and peace: An anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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    This anthology gathers essays from a wide range of scholars that explore the various dimensions of structural, symbolic, and interpersonal violence in a range of locations throughout the world. The authors demonstrate the links between everyday forms of violence and moments of extraordinary violence, organized crime, and genocide.

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  • Schmidt, Bettina, and Ingo Schroeder, eds. 2001. Anthropology of violence and conflict. New York: Routledge.

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    An anthology of case studies of violent conflict around the world. The emphasis of the editors is on cross-cultural analysis and prevention, and while there are insightful studies of specific violent events in a range of locations, there is little attention to forms of human violence other than war.

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  • Wolf, Eric. 1982. Europe and the people without history. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    A now classic text that argues for greater attention to history among anthropologists. Wolf was the first to demonstrate the wide-ranging connections between regions of the world previously analyzed as tangential to European expansion, and he demonstrates that European conquest altered not only the development of non-European societies, but also the ways we understand their histories.

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War and its Aftermaths

One of the reasons cultural anthropologists had been, until recently, reluctant to become directly engaged with war research has to do with how researchers were implicated in counterinsurgency struggles in 1960s Thailand. The US Army’s “Project Camelot” tainted the image of anthropology at home and abroad by using ethnographic data in the service of an unpopular political project. Of course, the relationship between anthropologists and war efforts remains a hotly contested issue, which was rejuvenated recently with the development of the Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, through which civilian anthropologists were employed by the US military in order to help soldiers more thoroughly understand the social systems in which they were acting (for a sense of the parameters of the current debate, see Robben 2010 and Wakin 1992, cited under Anthropology and the Military). Nevertheless, a number of anthropologists have conducted important and engaged research in overt conflict zones around the world. Their studies have tended to focus on the elaboration of violent ethnic or religious conflict within the territorial boundaries of particular states, and have highlighted the various ways states have been involved in the production of violence against their own citizens.

Ethnic and Religious Conflict

The numerous works on Northern Ireland have addressed the class and religious dimensions of the conflict there, and how these have affected communities, families, and the constitution of political and national subjectivities (Aretxaga 1997, Feldman 1991). Similarly, studies within eastern European, South Asian, and African contexts have focused on both recent and longstanding religious and ethnic conflicts, as well as on how both colonialism and nationalism, as well as exile, have played foundational roles in inciting and perpetuating these conflicts (Daniel 1996, Mahmood 1996, Malkki 1995, Mamdani 2001, Tambiah 1986). Many of these accounts explore communal violence in relation to the discourses of history and nation that have undergirded the identity and political claims of groups marginalized from citizenship because of ethnic and/or religious differences, showing that these differences are always racialized and gendered, and that violent acts against women’s bodies are perpetrated and interpreted as threats to the whole communities these women are seen to represent (see Sutton 1995). Some have also attempted to understand the conjunction of gender formation, class and ethnic position, and political movements in the social production of violence (Kakar 1996).

  • Aretxaga, Begoña. 1997. Shattering silence: Women, nationalism, and political subjectivity in Northern Ireland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    A feminist ethnography of the conflict in Northern Ireland, this ethnography brings to light the political strategies of nationalist women in Belfast during the 1970s and argues that these strategies had important implications for more general resistance struggles. Aretxaga also argues that violence affects men and women differently and that the ways in which violence is gendered shift in relation to a range of social indicators and political experience.

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  • Daniel, E. Valentine. 1996. Charred lullabies: Chapters in an anthropography of violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    This classic ethnography of violence tracks the brutal civil war in Sri Lanka, Daniel’s native country, and demonstrates how anthropologists must struggle to find new conceptual and methodological frameworks in order to understand topics. Throughout, Daniel struggles with how to make violence legible without reducing it to simple explanation or sensationalizing the struggle into a form of pornography.

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  • Feldman, Allen. 1991. Formations of violence: The narrative of the body and political terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A narrative analysis of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Feldman delves into testimonies of paramilitaries in order to think through the meanings of fighting and suppression, the cultural construction of the body, and the symbolic forms and practices through which political agency is rendered.

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  • Kakar, Sudhir. 1996. The colors of violence: Cultural identities, religion, and conflict. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A psychological-anthropological exploration of stereotyping, religious antagonisms, and ethnocentric histories that structure violence between Hindu and Muslim communities in India. Kakar argues that the roots of contemporary communalism are to be found in early childhood socialization into religious identification, making violence something that is morally sanctioned, especially within the context of intensifying modernization and secularism.

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  • Mahmood, Cynthia. 1996. Fighting for faith and nation: Dialogues with Sikh militants. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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    An ethnography of Sikh Muslims living in North America and their experiences of marginalization and persecution at the hands of the Indian state during the mid-1980s. Mahmood’s is a narrative analysis that seeks to provide some insights into the ways diasporic Sikhs (Khalistani nationalists) understand the politics of violence and militancy, as well as how they construct a notion of freedom.

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  • Malkki, Liisa. 1995. Purity and exile: Violence, memory, and national cosmology among Hutu refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    An ethnography about Hutu refugees from Burundi who were relocated to Tanzania after 1972. Malkki examines the ways the categories of “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were constructed in relation to their experiences in exile, showing differences between those who lived in camps and those who were more assimilated into urban areas.

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  • Mamdani, Mahmood. 2001. When victims become killers: Colonialism, nativism, and the genocide in Rwanda. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    A now-classic analysis of the conflict in Rwanda, and in particular the role of the church in this conflict. Mamdani traces the construction of Hutu and Tutsi as ethnic and racial categories under colonial rule, and shows how these structural legacies of racial hostility resulted in the genocide of the early 1990s.

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  • Sutton, Constance, ed. 1995. Feminism, nationalism, and militarism. Arlington, VA: Association for Feminist Anthropology/American Anthropological Association, with International Women’s Anthropology Conference.

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    An edited collection that demonstrates the various ways gender is implicated in and mobilized through conflict situations around the world. Using a variety of case studies, authors argue that gender is a significant axis around which violence is organized, both symbolically and structurally.

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  • Tambiah, Stanley J. 1986. Sri Lanka: Ethnic fratricide and the dismantling of democracy. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    An ethnographic analysis of the causes of the violent conflict between Tamils and Sinhalese Buddhists in post-independence Sri Lanka. In his account, Tambiah emphasizes more recent developmental inequalities rather than age-old religious strife as causes of nationalist struggle during its high point.

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Revolutions and Postwar Reconstruction

Within Latin America, scholars have focused on how the various political insurgencies and counterinsurgencies of the 1970s and 1980s affected indigenous populations, both during the period of overt conflict (see Starn 1999 and Tate 2007) and throughout postwar reconstruction (see Green 1999, Nelson 2009, Sanford 2004, Silber 2011, and Warren 1998). In all these cases, scholars have also examined the ways the new neoliberal context has generated consumptive desires that, to contemporary community development workers, seem anomalous for former activists and revolutionaries. They have also documented how ethnic and other identities are reproduced and sometimes intensified within diasporic settings, generating new sites for conflict, and potentially for its resolution. Finally, cultural anthropologists working with forensic/biological anthropologists in post-conflict zones have demonstrated how practices such as the video-recorded testifying Francisco Ferrandiz has documented during mass grave exhumation projects in Spain are forms of performative witnessing, a way to recover the identities of the dead as the corpses themselves are being made visible (Ferrándiz 2008).

  • Ferrándiz, Francisco. 2008. Digital memory: The visual recording of mass grave exhumations in contemporary Spain. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 9.3.

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    Describes the process of video-recorded testifying among family and community members exhuming the bodies of their loved ones at mass grave sites in Spain. Ferrándiz argues that this is a form of performative witnessing that gives subjectivity to bones, and that helps communities personalize, memorialize, and move beyond the terrors of civil war.

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  • Green, Linda. 1999. Fear as a way of life: Mayan widows in rural Guatemala. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    An ethnographic account of how Guatemalan Mayas have reconstructed their lives after decades of genocide. In exploring the perspectives of widows, Green provides insights into how Mayas narrate what it means to live in fear, and how they themselves make sense of the political and structural violence carried out against them, as well of their own resistance. She highlights the ways violence operates through silencing, as well as the ways national struggles unfold locally.

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  • Nelson, Diane. 2009. Reckoning: The ends of war in Guatemala. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An ethnographic exploration of the postwar period in terms of “reckoning”—coming to terms, settling up, repairing—in order to think through the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction. Nelson demonstrates the difficulties of assigning blame and taking accountability and argues that power works duplicitously, even in the present with the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations.

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  • Sanford, Victoria. 2004. Buried secrets: Truth and human rights in Guatemala. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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    An ethnographic and oral historical account of the violence in Guatemala that is based on more than four hundred testimonies from survivors of genocide as well as interviews with forensic teams, human rights workers, and a variety of others in official positions with the military or government. Sanford analyzes processes of political change through an emphasis on truth-telling, memory, and the process of reconstructing life after trauma.

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  • Silber, Irina Carlotta. 2011. Everyday revolutionaries: Gender, violence, and disillusionment in postwar El Salvador. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

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    A poignant ethnographic account of the disillusionment, compromise, and capitulation that have characterized the postrevolutionary period in El Salvador. Silber also outlines the limits to postwar reconstruction that have been imposed by the neoliberal context and demonstrates how both notions of participation and experiences of consumerism and migration have structured the choices people have made since the end of the war.

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  • Starn, Orin. 1999. Nightwatch: The politics of protest in the Andes. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An ethnographic account of village mobilization through rondas campesinos during the height of the war between the Shining Path and the Peruvian government. Starn traces the historical conditions for the formation of the rondas, the ways they expanded, and their decline throughout the 1990s, in order to make an argument about the relationships between power and resistance.

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  • Tate, Winifred. 2007. Counting the dead: The culture and politics of human rights activism in Colombia. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Tate focuses on human rights workers within Colombia in order to explore how an idea of human rights action emerges and is deployed on the ground. Tate, herself a human rights activist, investigates the different ideas about rights that emerge among different categories of rights workers, thereby showing that understanding the discourse of rights within the context of broader cultural and political struggles is critical to understanding the effectiveness of activism.

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  • Warren, Kay B. 1998. Indigenous movements and their critics: Pan-Maya activism in Guatemala. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    An investigation of Mayan intellectuals at the center of cultural and national politics in Guatemala. Warren works to challenge the perception that indigenous movements operate in isolation, demonstrating instead that pan-Mayanism responds to a range of influences on a variety of scales, including the international, and showing that leaders have endeavored to insert indigenous concerns within broader initiatives related to human, political, and cultural rights within Guatemala.

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The Critique of Cultural Patterning

For some scholars (and for many lay analysts), the violence that proliferates in, say, India, Sri Lanka, or the former Yugoslavia is qualitatively different from the violence occurring in some places within sub-Saharan Africa or Haiti. The former is either seen as having some kind of logic that is associated with a sense of eternal subjectivity (in other words, it has to do with age-old religious strife or ethnic conflict) or as a perpetuation of barbaric tribalism (Richards 1996), whereas the latter is seen as lacking any rationale at all other than violence itself (see Scott 1997). This latter type of violence tends to be seen as deeply ingrained, and its perpetrators to be seen as immutably bereft of moral responsibility or human empathy, and patterned by a pathological culture that they cannot help but reproduce, while analyses of the former tend to ignore the discursive histories of the ethnic and religious rituals under question and their relationships to colonial projects (Scott 1994). Contemporary anthropologists have sought to debunk both these positions—recalling, as they do, old “culture of poverty” rhetoric, ideas about cultural essentialism, and notions of what constitutes productive forms of political resistance and social movement. They have been inspired, in this regard, by the seminal works of particular political scientists and historians who have argued that expressions of collective violence among poor and subaltern populations, such as rioting and banditry, should be seen as forms of social action and subject formation that are rooted in people’s local forms of resistance to various levels of structural hierarchy (Davis 1975, Hobsbawm 1959, Scott 1987) Yet, it is also true that violence, like all forms of human expression, takes diverse cultural forms in particular locations, and it is critical to explore not only the histories that generate these forms (see Whitehead 2004), but also the representational spheres through which these forms are aestheticized.

  • Davis, Natalie Zemon. 1975. Society and culture in early modern France: Eight essays. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    An exploration of the lives of peasants in early modern France. Davis was part of a historiographical community that began to see carnivals and religious uprisings as modes of social protest, thereby moving our view of social transformation beyond Marxist-oriented labor struggles and providing a lens through which ethnographers might examine power and resistance to it.

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  • Hobsbawm, Eric. 1959. Primitive rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. New York: W. W. Norton.

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    A historical examination of popular forms of resistance (beyond labor struggle) that included practices designated as illegal. In this text, Hobsbawm sought to debunk the notion that these forms of social protest were reactionary, and in it he introduces the concept of “social banditry,” which has been picked up by other social scientists interested in street gangs and illegal industries as subversive forms of protest and social transformation.

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  • Richards, Paul. 1996. Fighting for the rain forest: War, youth and resources in Sierra Leone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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    An ethnographic exploration of Sierra Leone’s war that seeks to debunk the centrality of tribalism as a normative concept through which conflict in African societies is viewed. Richards argues that the military methods used in Sierra Leone are not random, barbaric, or anarchic, but are strategic and rational within the context of a crisis in modernity.

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  • Scott, David. 1994. Formations of ritual: Colonial and anthropological discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

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    A historical and ethnographic examination of a Sinhala healing ceremony that had previously been analyzed under the rubric of “demonism.” Scott argues that the construction of this ritual as demonic says more about the anthropological gaze than about the ritual itself, and through a historicization of the ritual and its major characters, he argues that we must reconfigure our understanding not only of Buddhism but also of our own conceptual apparatus.

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  • Scott, David. 1997. The “culture of violence” fallacy. Small Axe 1.2: 140–147.

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    Scott analyzes the differences between perceptions of violence in societies where there exists an essentialist notion that age-old ethnic or religious strife is at the foundation of contemporary violence and those (as in the Caribbean and elsewhere in the African diaspora) where violence is seen as a cultural pattern that people are powerless to transform.

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  • Scott, James. 1987. Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    A now classic account of the ways people living in repressive conditions resist these conditions through such practices as sabotage, foot-dragging, and gossip. Within anthropology, this account helped to inaugurate a new interpretation of power and its undoing, and broadened the scope of practices that were seen as forms of resistance or participation in social movements.

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  • Whitehead, Neil, ed. 2004. Violence. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

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    An anthology that explores violence as expressive and culturally productive rather than solely destructive. Authors parse a variety of case studies in order to show the ways violence draws from and reproduces cultural codes, and in order to argue that anthropologists must understand these codes to understand something about the cultural manifestations of violence.

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The Violence of the State

Many of these authors position the conflicts they analyze as “genocidal,” encouraging us to theorize more robustly not only the ways violence is an integral dimension of state formation, but also how the process of state formation itself is inherently violent and integrally related to transnational circulations of goods, people, and power (see Taussig 1992, Coronil 1997, Nordstrom 2004). That these processes have also been gendered is a critical point made by several feminists analyzing conflict and its aftermath in a variety of localities. At the same time, anthropologists studying war have also been able to demonstrate the various ways people have developed new imaginations and practices of citizenship, both through their own participation in oppositional and/or violent conflict (see Goldstein 2004, Holston 2009), and through a rereading of their moral and material circumstances in everyday life (see Das 2007, Finnström 2008).

  • Coronil, Fernando. 1997. The magical state: Nature, money, and modernity in Venezuela. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A historical ethnography that explores the relationships between the generation of oil wealth, governance, modernization, and development. Coronil documents the processes by which the state must appear to magically transform the economy, thereby reinforcing colonial patterns of class privilege within the postcolonial context.

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  • Das, Veena. 2007. Life and words: Violence and the descent into the ordinary. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An examination of the extreme violence of the Partition of India in 1947 and the 1984 massacre of Sikhs. Das positions such extreme events of violence within the context of ordinary and daily violence in order to argue that spectacular violence never emerges within a vacuum, but instead its seeds are continually sown within the practices of daily life, as are its resolutions.

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  • Finnström, Sverker. 2008. Living with bad surroundings: War, history, and everyday moments in northern Uganda. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An examination of Uganda’s violent civil war that argues against portrayals of Acholi as exceptionally war-prone within an otherwise stable nation-state. Finnström focuses on narratives of individuals involved in and affected by the war in order to show that they use indigenous concepts of good and bad surroundings to explain their participation, their understanding, and their resistance to the war.

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  • Goldstein, Daniel. 2004. The spectacular city: Violence and performance in urban Bolivia. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An ethnographic examination of the ways marginalized migrants to Cochabamba assert a sense of national belonging and the rights of citizenship through performative spectacle. Goldstein analyzes street festivals and the lynching of criminals by vigilante groups side by side in order to make the point that these two forms of performance are related and have as their target a state that is not addressing the migrants’ basic needs and rights as citizens.

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  • Holston, James. 2009. Insurgent citizenship: Disjunctions of modernity and democracy in Brazil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    A historical and ethnographic investigation of the category of “citizen” within Brazil and how it differentiates rather than equalizes, thereby reproducing longstanding social hierarchies and forcing citizens to mobilize illegal means to get what they need. Holston focuses on how this conundrum has provided an opening for poor Brazilians to assert themselves in new ways, thereby challenging the ideological barriers between social groups and reshaping the meaning of citizenship.

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  • Nordstrom, Carolyn. 2004. Shadows of war: Violence, power, and international profiteering in the twenty-first century. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An examination of the politics of war and political violence that links practices of governance to international profiteering through illegal industries (drugs and weapons trades). Nordstrom provides ethnographic accounts by a variety of actors, including average families living through violence, in order to demonstrate how war itself is at the center of struggles about state sovereignty and the development of economic empires.

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  • Taussig, Michael. 1992. The nervous system. New York: Routledge.

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    A series of essays dealing with questions of terror and the state, as well as the relationships between magic and modernity. Taussig elaborates on several themes he has addressed in other works to explore the ways social control by the state places populations within a permanent state of emergency.

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Anthropology and the Military

A number of anthropologists have conducted research on military units and militarism more generally. A key early essay in this regard was Carol Cohn’s analysis of the semiotics of military symbolism, which demonstrated the ways discourses of security draw from broader norms and expectations about gender and sexuality (Cohn 1987; see also Gusterson 1998). Later works have emphasized the ways militarist discourse and practice permeate both the everyday life and institutional structures that shape the socioeconomic and political dimensions of communities within the United States (Masco 2006), as well as overseas (Gill 2004, Lutz 2009, Vine 2009). Researchers have also brought to light the various ways ethnographic work has been used within contexts of international conflict (Robben 2010, Wakin 1992). “Anthropologists and War” features anthropologists discussing the pros and cons of working with the military in conflict zones.

  • Cohn, Carol. 1987. Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals. Signs 12:687–718.

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    An investigation of the extremely sexualized and gendered language used by defense intellectuals and how it legitimates nuclear strategy in the United States. Cohn argues that language both reflects and shapes nuclear policy, and thus should be a concern among feminist researchers.

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  • Gill, Lesley. 2004. The School of the Americas: Military training and political violence in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    A study of the US army training center in Georgia formerly known as the School of the Americas, from which graduates were recruited to carry out military actions throughout Central and South America. Gill uncovers the practices and ideologies developed through training and provides insights into the various methodologies used by US and national forces, as well as into the ways US foreign policy concerns shaped conflicts throughout the region.

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  • Gusterson, Hugh. 1998. Nuclear rites: A weapons laboratory at the end of the Cold War. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Based on fieldwork at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Gusterson examines the ethics and politics of nuclear scientists, providing insights into the beliefs and values that motivate them as well as into their experiences with the regulations that contextualize their work (security and testing). Gusterson also examines antinuclear protesters, and argues that the scientists and the protesters actually share anxieties related to an increasingly precarious middle class.

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  • Lutz, Catherine, ed. 2009. The bases of empire: The global struggle against U.S. military posts. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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    Like her own book Homefront (Boston: Beacon, 2001), Lutz’s edited volume investigates the impact of US military bases on their surrounding communities within a variety of contexts, including Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Authors analyze the political, environmental, and economic effects of US bases, and also bring to light the various activist movements seeking to hold the US accountable for these effects.

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  • Macek, Ivana. 2009. Sarajevo under siege: Anthropology in wartime. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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    An ethnographic account of the experiences of Sarajevo residents during the war between 1992 and 1996. Macek documents people’s coping strategies, and argues that the division of Bosnians into antagonistic ethno-religious groups was the result rather than the cause of the war, and that nationalist political leaders ended up appealing to these ethno-religious loyalties to further divide the population. She shows how this led to a blame game and to severe disillusionment.

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  • Masco, Joseph. 2006. The nuclear borderlands: The Manhattan Project in post–Cold War New Mexico. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    An anthropological science studies text that examines the long-term consequences of the atomic bomb. Masco argues that the broader effects of the nuclear weapons industry on American society—such as the reconfiguration of time, nature, race, and citizenship—were obscured by the Cold War focus on potential apocalypse, and that these provided the logic that now undergirds the US war on terrorism.

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  • Anthropologists and War The Diane Rehm Show, 10 October 2007.

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    A panel on a US National Public Radio series features anthropologists discussing the pros and cons of working with the military in conflict zones.

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  • Robben, Antonius C. G. M., ed. 2010. Iraq at a distance: What anthropologists can teach us about the war. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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    A compilation by six anthropologists addressing how to conduct research on war when it proves too dangerous for fieldwork. Authors analyze the Iraq War in relation to other past and present conflicts around the world in order to parse particular features of the war in Iraq (such as the effects of fundamentalism on women’s rights), and argue that the inability to conduct fieldwork should not relegate anthropologists to silence on topics of critical importance.

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  • Vine, David. 2009. Island of shame: The secret history of the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Vine relates the story of the US government’s relocation of the indigenous population of Diego Garcia—part of an archipelago in the Indian Ocean first colonized by the French and then by the British—in order to establish a military base. He argues that the native population was never compensated for loss of livelihood or property and came to endure pervasive racism, poverty, and health problems.

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  • Wakin, Eric. 1992. Anthropology goes to war: Professional ethics and counterinsurgency in Thailand. Madison: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison.

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    A chronicling of the 1970 discovery by anti–Vietnam War student activists that prominent anthropologists were involved in US counterinsurgency activities in Thailand. Wakin documents this controversy and the responses of the American Anthropological Association and argues that within the context of the time, this event further polarized the academic community, leading it to pass a code of ethics but never fully resolving the issue.

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Colonization and its Legacies

At the forefront of analyses of contemporary conflicts around the globe has been the question of colonialism, and the ways its structural, symbolic, and ideological legacies continue to structure patterns of hierarchy and inequality among groups within and across territorial borders. Several scholars have linked current eruptions of violent conflict directly to divisions created during colonial rule, while others have emphasized more symbolic continuities alongside the material ones. In both cases, anthropologists have parsed the links between patterns of economic exploitation—past and present—and forms of governance, and have therefore tended to question the “post” in “postcoloniality.”

Imperialism

In several cases, scholars have attempted to show how the patterns of ethnic and genocidal violence that have characterized 20th-century conflicts have been linked to patterns of colonial conquest and governance (Mamdani 1996, Mbembe 2001, Taussig 1986). Within these accounts, history is mobilized both as an analytic category and as a method, a way to parse the place of the past in the present, and this has led to insightful approaches to temporality. For example, Achille Mbembe uses a layered sense of temporality to argue forcefully that the colonial state legitimized the reproduction of its own authority through the “miniaturization” of violence, the arbitrary and everyday forms of “micro-actions” that were designed to socialize the population into a constant state of fear and vulnerability (Mbembe 2001, pp. 25–28). He further asserts that this is one aspect of governance that has been reproduced in the postcolonial period throughout Africa. In this type of analysis, then, postcolonial presents always invoke imperial pasts, which themselves articulate with contemporary patterns of empire and capital accumulation to structure social hierarchies within and among populations (Hardt and Negri 2000). While we are perhaps most aware of violence in relation to the overt conflicts taking place globally, anthropologists have also sought to draw attention to other sorts of violence—those that are structural or symbolic—whose effects are sometimes less immediately apparent but are nonetheless central to people’s everyday lives and livelihoods, potentials, and worldviews. They have been inspired in this endeavor by Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of symbolic violence (Bourdieu 1977), those forms of “covert” violence that are embedded within the everyday, hegemonic practices and ideologies that structure and reproduce unequal social relations. This formulation has been very important to feminist theorists and scholars from otherwise marginalized populations because it turns attention away from physical violence (active war and conflict) and toward the forms of structural and symbolic violence that shape social hierarchies and patterns of domination in societies around the world. It has also helped scholars to examine the connections among current processes of neoliberal globalization, various kinds of state collapse, and both spectacular and everyday forms of violence. Moreover, this focus has helped to provide windows onto how people make worlds for themselves even in the face of “bare life” (Agamben 1998). Here, the focus has been on subjectivity and embodiment, and on how we make and remake ourselves in the contemporary world (Biehl 2005, Bourgois and Schonberg 2009, Das 2007).

  • Agamben, Giorgio. 1998. Homo sacer: Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Building on the work of Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, and Michel Foucault, Agamben argues that within Western political philosophy there has always existed a sense that sovereignty has been rooted in having power over life. He shows that within contemporary democratic societies, this power is rooted in a notion of the sacrality of “bare life,” the condition of living without rights or subjectivity, and argues that this condition characterizes the boundaries of citizenship today.

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  • Biehl, João. 2005. Vita: Life in a zone of social abandonment. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An ethnographic exploration of marginalization and abandonment within the contemporary condition through the analysis of the life and words of one individual, Catarina. Biehl slowly unravels Catarina’s history of involvement with the state, the medical system, and family networks in order to gain insights into her abandonment and pathology, and he relates her condition to broader systems of jettisoning that have emerged more strongly as a result of neoliberalism.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A seminal text within sociological and anthropological theory that introduces the concept of symbolic violence as a way to make sense of the reproduction of social domination through social habits. Bourdieu’s notion of symbolic violence, which includes processes such as gender and racial discrimination, also accounts for the ways people experiencing this violence misrecognize it, and he proposes that this is its greatest effect.

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  • Bourgois, Philippe, and Jeffrey Schonberg. 2009. Righteous dopefiend. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An ethnographic and photographic documentation of homeless heroin addicts, their histories, their survival techniques, their intimate lives, and their strategies for navigating police harassment. Bourgois and Schonberg demonstrate in various ways how medical and social service providers have been unable to provide services for populations that need them, and they provide insights into the material effects of addiction, homelessness, and both interpersonal and institutional violence.

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  • Das, Veena. 2007. Life and words: Violence and the descent into the ordinary. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An ethnographic analysis of the ways colonial practices and institutional distinctions are woven within the fabric of everyday life, constantly affecting social relations and reproducing inequalities, and occasionally manifesting publicly as spectacular instances of violence, such as during the Partition of India in 1947 and the anti-Muslim riots there in the 1980s.

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  • Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    A historical, sociological, and philosophical account of shifts in imperial practice over the past two centuries. The authors argue that contemporary “empire” is different from earlier forms of imperialism because it is rooted within a web of sociopolitical forces spawned by neoliberal capitalism, and that this new empire will be defeated by an equally diffuse web of “multitudes” who will organize acephalously across difference and around common interest.

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  • Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    A seminal analysis of the obstacles to democratization in postcolonial Africa. Mamdani explores the legacies of colonialism, arguing that all forms of colonialism—direct, indirect, or otherwise—are variants of racialized despotism in which cultural practices are mobilized within authoritarian contexts to subdue rather than inspire populations. He argues that the post-independence state holds within it the ghost of imperialist state structures such as apartheid.

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  • Mbembe, Achille. 2001. On the postcolony. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An exploration of power and subjectivity in contemporary Africa. Mbembe argues that the colonial past lives on in the present, especially through the registers of death, utopia, and desire, and that contemporary violence is the direct result of the forms of “commandment” generated by imperial rule.

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  • Taussig, Michael. 1986. Shamanism, colonialism, and the wild man: A study in terror and healing. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A now classic poststructuralist exploration of colonialism and healing situated among indigenous people along the Putumayo River in Colombia. Taussig describes the processes of conquest and exploitation but understands them in relation to local cultural conditions and concepts, not just as the result of materialist concerns. He also shows how through shamanistic practice, indigenous people create “spaces of death” through which they are able to engage and create their own histories.

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Violence and Neoliberalism

At the same time as anthropologists have sought to illuminate the structural legacies of colonial violence, they have also effectively demonstrated the effects of the violence that result from contemporary neoliberal projects, and the ways this violence shapes the symbolic, domestic, and intimate worlds for poor folk around the globe while at the same time publicly legitimizing social inequalities by obscuring their origination (see Appadurai 1998, Bourgois 2001, Bourgois 1995, Farmer 2003, Friedman 2003, Ong 2006, Scheper-Hughes 1992). These scholars have highlighted the connections between the intensification of spectacular violence and ethnic and other conflicts in relation to what Thomas Hansen has called a “wider anxiety regarding public order” (Hansen and Stepputat, States of Imagination: Ethnographic Explorations of the Postcolonial State, Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2001, p. 222), or what Arjun Appadurai has identified as a sense of uncertainty that must be rectified through the production (and subsequent mobilization) of minor differences among populations (Appadurai 2006). In other words, they have elucidated how the insecurities wrought by neoliberal policies have led to increased suspicion and anxiety about ethnic, religious, racial, and other forms of difference. Moreover, they have directed our attention to the ways we might link these processes to the development of subjectivities (Pine 2008).

  • Appadurai, Arjun. 1998. Dead certainty: Ethnic violence in the era of globalization. Public Culture 10.2: 225–247.

    DOI: 10.1215/08992363-10-2-225Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An attempt to understand how previous social intimates become engaged in violence against each other. Appadurai links the growing ethno-religious-nationalist violence around the world to processes of globalization, and argues that because of the uncertainty caused by these processes, individuals and collectivities are more inclined to create meaningful social differences between themselves and others, thereby justifying forms of violence.

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  • Appadurai, Arjun. 2006. Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An investigation of the relationships between globalization and the proliferation of violence. As in Appadurai 1998, the author argues that globalization has led to a sense of uncertainty, which must then be eradicated through the production of minor differences among and between populations. He also argues that we see a growing level of violence against minorities because they bring into question notions of belonging, citizenship, rights, and autochthony.

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  • Bourgois, Philippe. 1995. In search of respect: Selling crack in el barrio. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    An ethnographic analysis of a community of drug dealers and their networks in Spanish Harlem during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Bourgois demonstrates the connections between their behavior and broader structural issues related to economic restructuring and the falling away of social services, and he attempts to humanize the decision-making processes of people who others consider social pariahs.

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  • Bourgois, Philippe. 2001. The continuum of violence in war and peace: Post–Cold War lessons from El Salvador. Ethnography 2.1: 5–34.

    DOI: 10.1177/14661380122230803Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A documentation of the ways the Cold War obscured the researcher’s understanding of how political repression and terror were embedded in daily interactions that normalized interpersonal brutality. Bourgois outlines the connections between structural, symbolic, and interpersonal violence as he conducts both a retrospective analysis of his research in El Salvador during the 1980s, and a contemporary investigation into the ways neoliberalism frames people’s current efforts at postwar reconstruction.

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  • Farmer, Paul. 2003. Pathologies of power: Health, human rights, and the new war on the poor. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An analysis of how structural violence reproduces poverty and marginalization among communities around the world and gives rise to epidemic diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. Farmer compellingly illustrates how racism and gender inequality in the United States, for example, are embodied and therefore must be understood as having an impact on health. He argues that we must work to address structural violence rather than just managing inequality.

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  • Friedman, Jonathan, ed. 2003. Globalization, the state, and violence. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

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    An edited volume in which contributors analyze the relationships between contemporary processes of globalization, identity formation, transnational networks of crime and commerce, and the fragmentation of state power and subsequent rise of violence. They argue that the criminalization of ethnic populations and migrants is part of a broader process in which the notion of territorial “homogeneity” is no longer tenable.

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  • Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as exception: Mutations in citizenship and sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An exploration of neoliberalism not solely as economic process but as a strategy of governance. Ong shows how new arrangements are emerging in which governments attempt to re-engineer political space in order to serve market goals, and argues that this has led to a new kind of citizenship that distributes rights and benefits to people according to their marketable skills rather than their membership within nation-states.

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  • Pine, Adrienne. 2008. Working hard, drinking hard: On violence and survival in Honduras. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An investigation of violence, alcohol use, and the maquiladora industry in Honduras that brings to light the connections between these three “sites” in Hondurans’ everyday social relations. Pine contextualizes the daily routines of urban Hondurans in relation to US military, economic, and ideological domination, outlining the ways contemporary globalization works on the formation of subjectivity.

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  • Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1992. Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An examination of how the poverty of Brazil’s shantytowns creates new value systems regarding life and child rearing. In this classic ethnography, Scheper-Hughes demonstrates how the context of the shantytown leads women to express indifference and even neglect toward their children until they reach a certain age, because they feel that the children are doomed to die. She argues, therefore, that mother love is socioculturally constructed.

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Violence and the Privatization of Public Space

Not surprisingly, the insecurities noted by the works cited in Violence and Neoliberalism have also led to a sense among communities that the state, which should be providing security, social order, and justice, has shattered, or as the Haitians among whom Nina Glick Schiller and Georges Fouron have conducted research would say, has become merely apparent rather than responsible (Glick Schiller and Fouron 2001; see also Davis 2006). This disillusionment with contemporary processes of governance fuels the burgeoning private security industries in many locations around the globe (Caldeira 2000) and also generates alternative patterns of power, authority, and accountability within urban landscapes within the United States and abroad, which Hansen and Stepputat have called “informal sovereignties” (Hansen and Stepputat 2006, p. 305). For these scholars, linking political or gang violence, for example, to patterns of domestic, structural, and historical violence remains an urgent concern (Bourgois 1995, cited under Violence and Neoliberalism, Goldstein 2003, Thomas 2011, Venkatesh 2002, Wacquant 2008).

  • Caldeira, Teresa. 2000. City of walls: Crime, segregation, and citizenship in São Paulo. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An investigation of the ways fear of crime has led to the development of a burgeoning security industry within São Paulo, Brazil, thereby exacerbating previous patterns of social and racial segregation. Caldeira uses comparative data from the Los Angeles context to identify common patterns of emergent segregation within contemporary urban areas.

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  • Davis, Dána-Ain. 2006. Battered black women and welfare reform: Between a rock and a hard place. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    An ethnographic analysis of the impact of neoliberal welfare reform on women seeking to escape situations of domestic violence. Davis brings to light the contradiction between the assertions that welfare reform has moved women toward economic self-sufficiency and the experiences of battered women for whom the reformed policy presents obstacles. She also argues that these experiences are racialized.

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  • Glick Schiller, Nina, and Georges Fouron. 2001. Georges woke up laughing: Long distance nationalism and the search for home. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An ethnographic investigation of the practices Haitians develop transnationally that connect migrants to Haiti. Glick Schiller and Fouron use the concept of “long distance nationalism” to outline the patterns of obligation and reciprocity that maintain a sense of both legal and cultural citizenship among Haitian migrants, and also demonstrate how these patterns can reproduce social hierarchies at home in Haiti.

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  • Goldstein, Donna. 2003. Laughter out of place: Race, class, violence and sexuality in a Rio shantytown. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An argument against culturalist understandings of poverty and violence that is rooted in an ethnographic exploration of everyday life among women in Brazil’s favelas. Goldstein argues that these women create storytelling practices to respond to the trauma and tragedy that suffuse their lives, and that these practices constitute part of an emotional aesthetic that reveals the extent of their desperate circumstances.

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  • Hansen, Thomas, and Finn Stepputat. 2006. Sovereignty revisited. Annual Review of Anthropology 35:295–315.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123317Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A review article that surveys the field of cultural anthropological research on sovereignty. Hansen and Stepputat argue that sovereignty is not a “thing” to be parsed and understood, but a performative practice that takes various forms within different temporal and spatial contexts, and that therefore must be understood as dynamic.

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  • Thomas, Deborah. 2011. Exceptional violence: Embodied citizenship in transnational Jamaica. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    An ethnographic, historical, and popular-cultural exploration of the ways political violence in Jamaica is tied to broader histories of colonialism and geopolitical relationships between Jamaica, Great Britain, and the United States. Thomas demonstrates the long histories that buttress the informal networks of power that characterize contemporary political conflict.

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  • Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. 2002. American project: The rise and fall of a modern ghetto. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    An ethnographic (sociological) analysis of life in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes. Venkatesh explores the history and demographics of the project, and in so doing challenges a number of stereotypes. He demonstrates how residents understand crime, violence, and security, how they attempt to provide development and welfare for themselves and others, and how they cope within a context of structural marginalization.

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  • Wacquant, Loic. 2008. Urban outcasts: A comparative sociology of advanced marginality. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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    An examination of the processes that have produced marginalization within urban areas worldwide, focusing specifically on African American ghettos and Parisian banlieues. Wacquant argues that contemporary neoliberalism at the level of the transnational interacts with the specifics of national forms of marginalization and segregation to produce racialized modes of extreme marginality. Like others, he challenges culturalist explanations of poverty and violence.

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Reconciliations, Reparations, and the Law

For populations around the world, moving through and beyond violence—in its immediate manifestations as well as its long-term structural and symbolic effects—has involved forms of public testimonial, such as truth and reconciliation commissions, reparations movements, and other sorts of memorializing. Anthropologists have followed these events, asking questions related to both the framing and the objective of these sorts of inquiry and analysis. While we have typically taken a critical stance regarding the extent to which “truth” and “reconciliation,” or even “repair,” are achievable goals, we have also supported the efforts of those who have sought to bring often-silenced past injustices into public conversation and debate.

Reparations

Because anthropologists have emphasized the relationships between violence and state power, they have also been drawn to investigate the ways citizens and governments have attempted to make amends, indeed to reconcile, after egregious breaches of trust (Borneman 1997). Thus, there has been some attempt to analyze the various reparations movements and truth and reconciliation commissions that have proliferated in recent decades. This proliferation has been due, in part, to the elaboration of an international human rights framework through which instances of mass murder and some forms of mass trafficking have come to be understood as crimes against humanity (Trouillot 2000). While the development of international standards of right and responsibility has provided critical support for those activists and lawyers involved in exposing the terrors of particular governmental regimes, several scholars have argued persuasively that these commissions serve a liberal democratic status quo by consolidating the norms and institutions of liberal jurisprudence (Grandin and Klubock 2007) and by focusing on restorative rather than retributive justice (Borneman 1997). This is largely because their battles are fought within the theaters of law and legal rhetoric, which are themselves characterized by processes of political wrangling that result “in inclusions and exclusions and a moral gradation of atrocity” (O’Neill and Hinton 2009, p. 8). This means that the space of international law, and the sense of international morality that supposedly grounds it, are always already interested. Thus, fully apart from the thorny logistical questions raised by reparations movements (How do we identify those to whom reparations are owed? What form should reparations take? Should there be a relationship between reparations programs and other social justice goals?) is a whole host of conceptual issues, which shape outcomes and expectations for the future.

  • Borneman, John. 1997. Settling accounts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    An analysis of how eastern European countries have attempted to come to terms with postrevolutionary criminal pasts during the contemporary period. Based on fieldwork in Germany and elsewhere in central Europe, Borneman argues that where retributive justice has been publicly enacted, there has been less retributive violence. Borneman ultimately argues for the establishment of “rule of law” as a way to encourage justice, and for the position that accountability for criminality is embodied in the principles of law.

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  • Grandin, Greg, and Thomas Miller Klubock. 2007. Editors’ introduction. In Special Issue: Truth commissions: State terror, history, and memory. Edited by Greg Grandin and Thomas Miller Klubock. Radical History Review 97:1–10.

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    The introduction to a special journal issue on truth and reconciliation commissions outlines the editors’ main arguments: (1) that reparative justice is rooted within a context of neoliberal violence and class conflict, and (2) because of this the commissions cannot fundamentally address the sociopolitical inequalities and violence experienced by populations around the globe.

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  • O’Neill, Kevin, and Alexander Hinton. 2009. Genocide, truth, memory and representation: An introduction. In Genocide: Truth, memory and representation. Edited by Alexander Hinton and Kevin O’Neill, 1–26. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

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    A historical and ethnographic compilation that addresses the effects of genocide in a wide range of locations. Authors ask how people reconstruct their lives after exceptional violence, how they memorialize events, and how they come to understand (and represent) the “truth” of what happened in their societies. Authors also investigate the roles of various actors who come to be involved in truth telling or memorializing, including governments and NGO workers.

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  • Trouillot, Michel Rolph. 2000. Abortive rituals: Historical apologies in the global era. Interventions 2.2: 171–186.

    DOI: 10.1080/136980100427298Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An attempt to understand the wave of contemporary collective apologies contextualized within an analysis of historicity. Trouillot argues that these apologies are always “abortive rituals” because they rest on taken-for-granted liberal assumptions about the relationship between the past and the present, and between the individual and the collective, that do not make enough of the structural and symbolic legacies of violence.

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Truth and Reconciliation Commissions

One of the conceptual issues noted in Reparations has to do with how the context of emergent neoliberalism has shaped the parameters of inquiry, especially for truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs). If we agree with Greg Grandin and Thomas Klubock that “reconciliation, forgiveness, and political consensus have been understood as the basis for moving forward into an era of market-driven economic progress,” and that therefore TRCs avoid a concept of history that is rooted in “a conflict of interests and ideas within a context of unequal power” (Grandin and Klubock 2007, p. 5), then we have to concede that they cannot address the structural and political violence that gave rise to human rights violations in the first place, and therefore they are unable to significantly alter material inequalities. The inability of collective apologies or reconciliation commissions to address the root causes of violence through a more robust structural analysis, Kamari Clarke tells us, results in a situation “in which violence is increasingly viewed in terms of individual rather than collective guilt and justice is articulated through the achievement of a guilty conviction” (Clarke 2009, p. 4). One effect of this is that agents of powerful states can endlessly defer culpability by framing their actions in terms of a shameful, though temporary, immorality, which can be embodied within a single person (or group of persons) and which therefore can be relegated to the past. This is a point Nandini Sundar makes in relation to the killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. She argues that contrary to the popular opinion that activism within the sphere of international jurisprudence both reflects and generates an emergent international morality, in fact this morality “becomes part of a self-congratulatory liberal understanding that allows real and ongoing inequalities and injustices to go unchallenged” (Sundar 2004, p. 148). For Sundar, the focus on morality also allows for the persistence of culturalist explanations for mass violence, and these explanations reproduce the ideology that we can delineate a hierarchy of societies based on their cultural logics. In other words, the framework of international law—an increasingly ubiquitous technology of modern governance—can nonetheless reproduce culturalist approaches to global geopolitical issues, especially violence, and does not necessarily take into account alternative renderings of truth, justice, and reconstruction that emerge in local contexts (Shaw 2007a, Shaw 2007b).

  • Clarke, Kamari M. 2009. Fictions of justice: The International Criminal Court and the challenge of legal pluralism in sub-Saharan Africa. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511626869Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An analysis of the ways human rights values infuse new legal regimes such as the language of international justice, and how these also conflict with local religious and cultural norms. Clarke shows how conceptual categories such as “justice” and “law” are social fictions that are contested through practice and language at the local level (within Africa), and ultimately argues for a greater respect for legal pluralism.

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  • Grandin, Greg, and Thomas Miller Klubock. 2007. Editors’ Introduction. In Special Issue: Truth commissions: State terror, history, and memory. Edited by Greg Grandin and Thomas Miller Klubock. Radical History Review 97:1–10.

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    This introduction outlines the editors’ main arguments: reparative justice is rooted within a context of neoliberal violence and class conflict; therefore, TRCs cannot fundamentally address the sociopolitical inequalities and violence experienced by populations around the globe.

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  • Shaw, Rosalind. 2007a. Memory frictions: Localizing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone. International Journal of Transitional Justice 1.2: 183–207.

    DOI: 10.1093/ijtj/ijm008Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An exploration of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone that focuses on the various “frictions” that develop when international justice frameworks meet local contexts. Shaw focuses on the concept of truth telling and how its global resonance as part of a process of redemption through memory conflicted with popular memory techniques within communities in Sierra Leone. She argues that these conceptual differences also had implications for processes of reconstruction.

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  • Shaw, Rosalind. 2007b. Displacing violence: Making Pentecostal memory in postwar Sierra Leone. Cultural Anthropology 22.1: 66–93.

    DOI: 10.1525/can.2007.22.1.66Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An essay that discusses postwar reconstruction in Sierra Leone. Shaw shows that people were often unwilling to testify within the framework of a TRC, instead using public ritual practices to reintegrate former combatants. These practices helped youth to frame their experiences of conflict within the rubric of living a Christian life, thereby critiquing not only the government but also all the factions that had displaced and terrorized them.

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  • Sundar, Nandini. 2004. Toward an anthropology of culpability. American Ethnologist 31.2: 145–163.

    DOI: 10.1525/ae.2004.31.2.145Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A critique of the ways international law and justice institutions are uncritically hailed as part of an emergent international morality, which purportedly replaces what then become seen as “backward” cultural practices related to justice and authority. Sundar argues that it is this sort of framework that perpetuates a culturalist view that some societies are inherently violent.

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Violence and the Law

Reparations movements and truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) both rely on the law in order to support broader projects of community development and empowerment, a reliance John and Jean Comaroff have called “lawfare” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009). Lawfare is a sort of cultural activism enacted through legal channels—such as the preservation of particular indigenous cultural practices—that has a tendency to reproduce narrowly defined culturalist frameworks for understanding issues like violence. This is so because international human rights instruments that are designed to protect minority cultures within particular nation-states can have the effect of essentializing culture, even as they are developed to recognize past injustice and to protect collective rights to land, among other things (Hastrup 2003). Moreover, while lawfare is mobilized within the realm of the transnational, its aims generally tend to target the more modest space of the nation-state. This can have the effect of presenting the past as an aberrant break within a longer trajectory toward greater democracy and inclusion, a presentation that counters the deep structural-historical approach to violence outlined above. More broadly, the problem here is that legal language instrumentalizes, and so is neither able to apprehend the transnational dimensions of various levels of political, economic, social, and cultural violence affecting populations, nor to capture the symbolic and expressive dimensions of violence (Hastrup 2003). What is more, the sorts of grammars mobilized by particular TRCs delineate the range of “truths” that are permitted. Fiona Ross has shown that the way the South African TRC framed its inquiries in terms of the violations of human rights produced certain kinds of “victims” while ignoring others. In other words, as she argues, “the work of ‘rights’ frequently performs the same erasure of power [as the state]” (Ross 2003a, p. 76). In the case she examines, women were made to detail horrifying bodily harm, and they were encouraged to describe their suffering in relation to their roles as wives, sisters, and mothers of activists, but they were not permitted to describe how they may have suffered as a result of their own political activism (Ross 2003a, Ross 2003b). Of course, despite these various limitations, TRCs do also work to unearth specific silences within official historical records, even as they reproduce a view of democratic process as progressive and perfectible.

  • Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. 2009. Ethnicity, Inc. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    A discussion of the ways communities around the world are now marketing their ethnicity, cultural practices, or ecological heritage for global tourist markets, and how this entails certain kinds of engagements with legal institutions. They argue that community mobilization through “lawfare” limits the extent to which cultural practices can be seen as dynamic, while at the same time it is seen as one route through which communities can gain ownership over intellectual and cultural property.

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  • Hastrup, Kirsten. 2003. Violence, suffering and human rights: Anthropological reflections. Anthropological Theory 3.3: 309–323.

    DOI: 10.1177/14634996030033004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A critique of human rights as the universal standard for judging the effects of violence and suffering. Hastrup argues that legal frameworks address only the instrumental dimensions of violence, but not the expressive ones, and therefore this limits the extent to which both the causes and long-term impacts of violence can be addressed.

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  • Ross, Fiona. 2003a. On having voice and being heard: Some after-effects of testifying before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Anthropological Theory 3.3: 325–341.

    DOI: 10.1177/14634996030033005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An analysis of the ways narration (storytelling) constructs subjectivities within the context of social relations between self and other. Ross discusses storytelling as a method to recover “truth” within the context of the South African TRC, but she also shows how narratives became standardized and how stories themselves became alienated from their tellers.

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  • Ross, Fiona. 2003b. Bearing witness: Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. London: Pluto.

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    An analysis of how the framing of inquiries within the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission shaped their understanding of what constituted a victim and what constituted political action. Ross demonstrates that women, in particular, were charged with testifying to the various forms of suffering they experienced, but only in relation to their roles as wives and mothers, not as political activists in their own right.

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LAST MODIFIED: 01/11/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199766567-0027

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