In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Violence

  • Introduction
  • Early Theories and Themes
  • Archaeologies of Violence
  • Violence as a Cultural and Structural Phenomenon
  • Violence as Socially Productive

Anthropology Violence
Deborah A. Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0027


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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

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

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

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

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

    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.

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

    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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