What We Teach about When We Teach about Violence
Susan Cunningham
Associate Director, Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies;
Lecturer in Sociology, Holy Cross College
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During recent months, U.S. news media have reported deeply disturbing events involving the intrusion of violence into hitherto less vulnerable settings, namely schools and churches. The multiple school shootings of 1998 paled in light of the Columbine High School massacre last spring in Colorado. The late-summer multiple-murder/suicide incident at a Baptist Youth Meeting in Texas brought further angst and perplexity to citizens. Although feelings of outrage surface appropriately, in order to learn from these troubling occurrences, it is important to examine them with an objective lens.

American cultural discourse has always included the kind of violence portrayed in media, such as homicide and urban rioting; it has only recently begun to acknowledge violence in the home, in the forms of family violence and child abuse (e.g., Gelles, 1987). The intrusion of violence into the traditionally safe havens of school and church has intensified public concern about violence and brought it to the attention of most segments of the population. Political figures and bodies have responded, but with superficial analyses of the problem. Although the visibility of individual-level violence is unmistakable, systematic understanding of underlying processes is lacking. To accomplish any appreciable reduction of societal violence, it is necessary to understand its complexity. Causes, interventions, and prevention strategies are contingent upon the validity of definitions available. Here I consider issues of definition that need to be addressed in an undergraduate course on violence, with implications for scientific and public-policy circles as well.

Problems of Definition | Earlier attempts to define violence have been hampered by several factors. First, researchers and policy makers have categorized the forms too rigorously, concentrating their efforts on such varied topics as homicide, domestic violence, and urban rioting but generally not searching for common themes. Although each form of violence is complex and worthy of scrupulous analysis in its own right, only rarely does one find the boundaries crossed from one topic to another. Identifying the commonalities among different forms of violence could advance violence studies significantly.

Second, there is a culturally induced tendency in America to focus on questions of personal pathology in most violence-related inquiries, whether the setting is the home or the street. Comments about sanity and craziness permeate discussions. Analysis searches for who is to blame and what might be wrong with a person who commits violent acts. Although questions regarding psychological factors and personal pathology require attention, exclusive emphasis on this type of explanation precludes any analysis of social-structural and interpersonal factors. When the need to blame motivates a search for the "bad guys" responsible, one will, of necessity, miss any social-structural dimensions.

The second problem brings into focus the issue of level of analysis needed for each form of violence. Violence occurs at both individual and collective levels. A more fine-grained approach, advocated by Turpin and Kurtz (1997), would distinguish the national and global levels as well. They cite the feminist argument that "the personal is political" to communicate the importance of understanding micro-level violence in the home in informing our perceptions of violence at broader institutional levels (Brock-Utne, 1997). Similarly, Eisler (1997) argues that the connection between physical and structural violence is the "missing link" in the area of human rights theory.

Both of the above problems create rigid distinctions between various forms of violence that hamper a clearer understanding of the causes of violence. By contrast, Turpin and Kurtz offer a different model, a "web of violence," which synthesizes the divergent areas of violence studies and allows fludity across levels. For Turpin and Kurtz, there is a dialectic between the macro- and micro-levels of violence, and there are common factors underlying different forms of violence (e.g., street assaults and child abuse) at any level of focus.

C. Wright Mills's classic notion of "sociological imagination" stresses the importance of looking beyond people at the individual level to the structural backdrops of all personal lives. Drawing our attention to the intersection of biography and history, he argues that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own changes in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances (1959:5).

His contemporary, Peter Berger, also appreciates the importance of social location in understanding individual actions. According to Berger, to be located in society means to be at the intersection point of specific social forces. Commonly one ignores these forces at one's peril. One moves within society within carefully defined systems of power and prestige (1963: 67).

Location is generically important because it influences a whole gamut of conditions ranging from life-chances and health to worldview. Without an appreciation of location, one fails to see the contrasting perceptions of or vested interests in violence based on one's place in society. Children of a lower social class have been subjected to physically dangerous conditions at school for several decades, in contrast with middle-class students, for whom violence and its consequences are only a more recent phenomenon. Ignoring this intersection of people and social structures has serious ramifications for violence studies in that analyses will be short-sighted and incomplete at best.

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