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Social Theory: Structural Violence

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: January 7, 2000
E-Mail Curran or Takata.



Black Letter Definitions

"structural violence":

"Structural violence" is the causing of harm by inflexibility and rigidity of the rules of the structure in dealing with difference. In gender, race, and class we have become much more aware in recent years of the harm that can be caused without any given perpetrator, by the holding to rules that do not allow for differences.



Conceptual Link between Structural Violence and Labelling Theory

Labeling is an example of the structural violence of the language of the social system. In school and in the system of juvenile justice, students are labeled "delinquent" or "deviant. As Lemert points out in his theory of "secondary deviance", these labels don't take in one-trial learning. But over time, when the person is repeatedly labeled, he/she begins to take on the role the label describes. That, says Lemert, is secondary deviance.

It is structurally violent because it defines someone's identity with respect to another's rules and perceptions of behavior. The person labeled is often not part of any interdependent definition of the role, and simply has the label applied to him/her with no particular regard for his/her situatedness. Nothing feels worse than being accused of something you genuinely believe you are innocent of. To label someone unthinkingly is to harm that person through the denial of his/her contribution to his/her own identity, and perhaps to lower his/her self esteem disastrously. To so discourage someone is to harm them, and to harm the social system by failing to support them in efforts to grow and mature.

Questions and Sites to Spark Ideas

  1. Explain how labelling students as late, with no attention to the cause of their lateness is structurally violent.

    Such labelling tends to lay responsibility for the lack of fit at the feet of the student, and because of the school's authority and prestige, many students will accept that responsibility, even though transportation issues may make on-time arrival possible. Such institutional labelling identifies the student as "late," a perjorative description, and may harm the students' building of positive identities interdependently with the educational institution. That harm will be further exacerbated by diminishing the support available to the student to successfully achieve his/her academic identity.