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Andrew Strathern & Pamela J. Stewart


Conceptual Themes and the Evaluation of Actions


Violence is a complex and ambiguous construct, centering on ambiguities in the use of force and coercion between people, issues of legitimacy, and differences of viewpoint between performers, victims, and witnesses (»the triangle of violence«). These various complexities are illustrated by the case of Arjuna and Krishna in the Mahabharata, suicide as exemplified by cases among the Duna of Papua New Guinea and by the death of the British weapons scientist Dr. David Kelly, questions of revenge, suicide bombers, and cruelties in academia exemplified in Ha Jins novel The Crazed. Violence is further linked to the notion of a »violent imaginary« and attitudes to terror and terrorism. Finally we make a connection between ideas about terrorists and ideas about witches and sorcerers as »enemies of the people«. 1



1. Introduction

Pamela J. Stewart / Andrew Strathern:
Violence: Theory and Ethnography.
London – New York: Continuum, 2002.
book cover
The Continuum International Publishing Group:
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Online order:
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1 The evaluation of human action plays an important part in processes of social life everywhere. Some concepts that are regularly used in such evaluations are themselves pervasively difficult and ambiguous. One such concept is that of violence. In this essay we employ David Riches' earlier exploration of ambiguities in the idea of violence (Riches 1986), and our own deployment of his model of violence as a process (Stewart/Strathern 2002), in order to illuminate further the problem of violence in general. From one point of view, this problem may be seen as a problem of definition: what acts are we going to call violent? From another point of view the problem is ethical: what is the place of violence in social life? Clearly the two viewpoints are related, since what we decide to include in the idea of violence as a construct will affect how a violent action is evaluated.

2. Violence as a Construct

2 As we explain early on in our book on Violence, definitions of violence are subjective and emotive (2002, 3). »Violence«, we write, »pinpoints the differences between people's perceptions of what is proper and appropriate in different contexts of conflict« (ibid.). This point can apply within a given milieu or, more radically, between different societies seen in cross-cultural terms. Violence also »can be seen as either destroying order or creating it«, depending on one's position and the context at hand (ibid., 2).
3 Violence is not simply the exercise of physical force to get something done. For one thing, it is the exercise of force, or more generally power, in such a way as to harm others in pursuit of one's own ends. Stereotypically, the violence involved is physical, and causes injury or death, including potentially to the performer of the violence himself or herself. 2 But it may, of course, be of a more subtle or less observable kind, executed by words or by witchcraft and sorcery. 3 The two types of violence often feed into each other. Suspicions of occult violence lead to outbreaks of physical violence, for example.

2.1 Ambiguity

»The performance of violence is inherently liable to be contested on the question of legitimacy.«

David Riches
(1986, 11)
4 In either case, the question of ambiguity emerges. Here we draw on Riches' proposition that »the performance of violence is inherently liable to be contested on the question of legitimacy« (1986, 11). So, a further element is added to the definition of violence. It is harm done to others which provokes arguments about its legitimacy. Human societies depend both on controls over behavior and the expression of positive values between people. Controls over behavior may involve the use of force or coercive techniques, such as physical punishment or restraint by incarceration. Violent behavior in particular may be controlled by these means, in which case what distinguishes the control from the violent behavior itself? Clearly, it is the labeling of actions that makes the distinction. Here, issues of what is seen to be »justice« enter in.
5 Later in this essay, we take up the question of the relationship between »revenge« and »justice«, arguing that these concepts are more closely allied than is sometimes admitted or allowed. The ambiguity here is also related to the question of legitimacy. Under what circumstances is revenge seen as legitimate or illegitimate social action? And legitimacy itself is subject to degrees, rather than always being something clear-cut.

2.2 The Triangle of Violence

6 Riches introduced a further consideration, which is his model of violence as a process. He called this the »triangle of violence«, consisting of performer, victim, and witness. Each of these three categories of persons involved is likely to have their own view of the legitimacy issue. A performer may see his or her action as legitimate, or at least justified; the victim is less likely to do so; and the witnesses will evaluate the actions variably according to their relationships with either the performer or the victim (or both) and their own social standards, moral code, or personal interests. The merit of Riches' triangle lay largely in helping us to handle the question of ambiguity by pointing out that the ambiguity of evaluation arises out of people's conflicting perceptions, and that these result from their differing relationships to the action itself.
7 It is also clear from this discussion that the question of what is to be called violence cannot be settled simply by a physical description. Whether an act of force or power is seen as violence or not is calibrated by people's reactions to it. Schoolboy bullying can be said to be youthful play or it can be defined as intimidation and violence. The question of legitimacy therefore straddles both the definitional issue and the issue of evaluation. Actually, the evaluation determines the definition.

2.3 Complexities in the Model

Bruce Steele:
»Anthropologists explore meanings, contexts of violence«.
In: University Times (University of Pittsburgh) 35.15
(April 3, 2003).
external linkArticle
8 In using Riches' triangle as a framework for discussing cases, we found that two complexities have to be taken into account. First, when there is a mutual performance of violence and each side involved is both performer and victim, it is clear that each side will view its acts as legitimate in context, and witnesses will vary in terms of which side they are on. This gives us the basic scenario for sequences of revenge-taking that are so pervasive in human conflict. In this case it is the »fact« of victimhood that prompts someone to become a performer, and each performance therefore generates a counter-performance, with a logic that may be impervious to the views of others as witnesses. Or it may be fed by the positive support given by witnesses.
9 Here lies the second complexity. The witness category may be very complex and may include people who conflict in their evaluations. In today's geopolitical world, where conflicts in one place, such as the Middle East, are seen as having serious implications for the world at large, this is particularly true. The idea of terrorism and its effects on a global scale exemplifies an extreme development constituting the expansion of Riches' triangle concept to the world scene as a whole. We consider this point further below.

2.4 Existential Capacities

10 In phenomenological and existential terms we have also commented on another part of Riches' discussion, where he proposes that violence has inherent capacities »as a social and cultural resource« (1986, 11) because of four properties. The first property we have already cited: that its performance »is inherently liable to be contested« (ibid). This property, however, is different from the other three, since it really depends on evaluations. The other three Riches gives are that »violence is unlikely to be mistaken as such«; that it »is highly visible to the senses«; and that performing it »to a moderate degree of effectiveness« does not necessarily require great knowledge, indeed in many cases the basic tool is simply »the manipulative and strength resources of the human body« (ibid.).
11 We recognize the value of these observations, but not as absolute generalizations. As we point out, »people may actually not agree at all on the ›meaning‹ of a violent act« (2002, 8). In other words, while an act of physical force »is unlikely to be mistaken as such«, its labeling as a violent act or otherwise may be contested. What is or is not labeled an act of »terrorism« depends on this same point. Further, some kinds of imputed violence, such as witchcraft, are not transparently visible to the senses but may require specialist diagnosis or be treated by some people as entirely imaginary. All that is visible, then, is the reality that someone has suffered misfortune and that someone is accused of causing it.
12 The fourth property Riches cites is, however, very suggestive. It explains why a threat of violence easily cross-cuts social hierarchies and control systems, why the idea of revenge is so powerful, and why such a threat is so prominent in the debates about terrorism. Suicide bombers illustrate this point strikingly, and much of the »war on terror« is based on fears that result from a global sense of vulnerability linked to the existential properties in Riches' scheme generally. While we have modified the account of these properties in our comments here, we recognize that there is a strong existential and experiential component to the idea of violence as something that captures attention and produces a sense of shock or fear, because it demonstrates the vulnerability to harm of the human body (or other bodies).

2.5 Violence, Warfare, Revenge

Raymond C. Kelly:
Warless Societies and the Origin of War.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
book cover
University of
Michigan Press:
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13 In succeeding sections we take up questions of suicide, revenge, and terror in more detail. Before doing so we note briefly that violence is set off from warfare as a topic in that those who go to war tend to define it as the justified or legitimate use of force either in attack or self-defense, in response to or in order to pre-empt hostilities from the other side. In other words those who declare war define it in terms that legitimize it, notwithstanding that some witnesses may declare that it is unjustified or that its use of force is excessive or inordinately cruel and violent. Legitimacy, contested or otherwise, is therefore at the heart of debates about war as well as debates on violence generally.
14 Raymond C. Kelly (2000, 41-73) has examined in detail hypotheses about the historical origins of war, pointing out that in terms of his definitions warfare and violence are not the exact same thing. Acts of violence are found widely, if not universally in all parts of the human record, he notes. But warfare, in the sense of planned collective action emerging from a political sense of legitimacy, developed only with a certain stage of social organization.
15 Kelly's argument is relevant to our own consideration of revenge, because he essentially argues that warfare originated as planned attacks on other groups carried out as acts of revenge, following the development of corporate groups based on kinship and descent whose members recognized co-responsibility for their actions, including actions of violence. War, therefore, incorporates acts recognized as violent, but its proponents claim legitimacy for their actions in terms of group aims and imperatives.

2.6 Arjuna and Krishna

Krishna and Arjuna
enlarge Krishna and Arjuna in their chariot
16 Another example that is a good case study for looking at issues of legitimacy and violence is the Mahabharata (frequently referred to as »the great story of India«). This well known epic tale, composed between 300 BCE and 300 CE, narrates the tale of a great war between two sides of an extended royal family whose members all trace their heritage back to an earlier ancestor, Bharata. The two sides in this war are the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The narrative is filled with episodes of revenge seeking, deception, bribery, and killings between the two sides and eventually the Pandavas are exiled from the kingdom for twelve years, after which the great war between these enemies begins.
17 Before the battle various omens appear, including the arrival of thousands of carrion birds that gather at the site. Although both sides agree to abide by a set of rules during the battle, e.g., no fighting at night and no striking of unarmed persons, all of the rules are eventually broken as the battle proceeds.
18 One of the main Pandavas warriors is Arjuna. He is a master of arms, especially the bow, and has received special training in the techniques of warfare. But at the battlefield, after the troops have amassed and just before the killing begins, Arjuna questions the legitimacy of his forthcoming actions and asks himself: »How can any good come from killing one's own relatives? What value is victory if all our friends and loved ones are killed? … We will be overcome by sin if we slay such aggressors. Our proper duty is surely to forgive them. Even if they have lost sight of dharma [translated variously as social duty, righteousness, or universal order] due to greed, we ourselves should not forget dharma in the same way.« Thus, overwhelmed with grief and indecision, Arjuna doubts the correctness of his impending actions and does not know what to do.
19 At this point the deity Krishna appears and instructs Arjuna on the meaning of firm and resolute action in terms of the self, as an individual, within a morally or cosmologically determined code of behavior. This battlefield conversation between Arjuna and Krishna is the section of the Mahabharata that is known as the Bhagavad Gita (translated as the Song of God). The eighteen chapters of the Gita represent a holy book for Hindus. It has been interpreted in numbers of ways but one that is commonly put forward is that the dialogue is one between two inner selves or voices: Arjuna's doubting self and Krishna, his transcendental self. The cosmological thought world presented in the Gita defines actions as »right« or »wrong« in terms of doctrinal codes expressed in the teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads.
20 Krishna explains to Arjuna that actions that are taken under guidance of the supreme being cannot produce either good or bad reactions. Krishna provides the example of a man who kills another in war, saying that he is not guilty of murder but if he does the same of his own free will then he is liable to be punished. Krishna tells Arjuna that the battle must go forward in order to reestablish dharma and keep it strong. At the end of the dialogue between them Arjuna states that Krishna's will is to be fulfilled and the battle begins.
21 Arjuna thus confers legitimacy on the war, including the killing of his own relatives, in the name of a greater cause, whose tenets remove individual responsibility in the name of a transcendental cosmological order of things. In European and contemporary world history wars waged »in the name of« a deity or a cosmic cause are also labeled in positive terms by the combatants.

3. Suicide

Michael Cholbi:
In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
external linkArticle

In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
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Matthew Pianalto:
Suicide and Philosophy.
external linkLinks
22 Is suicide a legitimate act, one that harms others, and/or a violent act? As with all questions of this type, a universal answer cannot be given because of cross-cultural variability. In the Netherlands euthanasia has been made legal in medical contexts where a person has made the individual determination, in consultation with medical experts, that the quality of their life is so poor (e.g. living with extreme pain) that they would rather not continue to live. In this instance it is the state that is legitimizing the termination of a life. Other countries do not support euthanasia on the grounds that it is a form of either assisted murder or suicide (considered to be an inappropriate action).
23 The suicide of widows in parts of India, and, to take a less well-known example, the strangling of widows among the Seng Seng people of Papua New Guinea (Goodale 1995, 175-177) was an act that was expected as a moral obligation, and could be also enforced on religious grounds. Although a Seng Seng widow did not literally kill herself, she was expected to acquiesce in her death at the hands of her brother. If an act is normatively enjoined and brings honor rather than shame, how is it to be categorized? Is it a violent act when there is no aspect of contested legitimacy in it, at least from within its own immediate cultural milieu?
24 Here we have to think of the expanded version of Riches' triangle. In the first place we can ask whether it is the person who commits suicide who is solely involved as the »performer«. The agency of others who act to coerce or bring about the act of suicide could be considered to be involved here. We have previously used the concept of »chains of agency« to look at questions of this sort (2000a). In the second place, if we expand the role of witnesses in space and time, it is clear that an outside observer may regard an act as violent or illegitimate, even if insiders do not (see Abbink 2000, 78, and 2001, 136-137); and insiders also may be influenced, for example by government or reformist religious authorities, to alter their view of certain acts and re-classify them as »violent« or »illegitimate« when previously they were normatively valorized. In such circumstances of historical change the evaluation of suicide may become contested and ambivalent.
25 Legal and religious mandates in the history of European society have given suicide a negative connotation, as a means, presumably, of discouraging it as an »anti-social« act. Thus, relatives of a person who commits suicide may be unable to collect life insurance taken out in their name. Traditionally, in some parts of the world, Christian burial within »consecrated« ground was denied to suicides, since they were felo de se, had committed a crime against themselves. The assumption here was that only the Christian God was supposed to have the right to both give and take away life. At the behavioral and emotive level, however, matters may not be so straight forward. There is always an interest in what caused a person to commit suicide and these causes may include collateral blame placed on the suicide's kin or associates. Proverbially, coroner's verdicts on suicide are »suicide while the balance of mind was disturbed,« which implies that something caused the disturbance, but also leaves the investigation at the point of determining what the state of mind was.

3.1 Chains of Agency and Intention

The shamers are thus put in the position of the performers of violence and the person who commits suicide is seen, at least in part, as a victim. 26 The question of causes and responsibilities is not, however, left just at this point by some cultural codes of legality and ethics. In these, suicide is an act which can have multiple consequences, stemming from enquiries into what chains of agency were responsible for inducing it. In focus here is the question of the agency of the suicide himself or herself. What did the suicide intend? Typically, the context of a suicide is one in which shame is said to have been involved, and shame is a powerful, culturally-shaped emotion in many societies, including those in Papua New Guinea (Stewart/Strathern 2002, 132, with references given there). But along with shame there often goes another element, that of protest. And where a suicide is seen as a protest, further issues of responsibility come into play. The person committing suicide may be seen as pointing a finger at the injustice of those who heaped excessive shame on them or unreasonably refused to alleviate their dilemmas.
27 Shaming is a powerful sanction, especially in the small-scale, face to face communities in places such as Papua New Guinea, but it can be overused or abused as a form of power over others. Thus a person may experience »shame« because they have done »wrong« things, but if another person »makes shame to come upon them« by accusations or responses that are too harsh, then it is the shamer's turn to be blamed. Often, then, when someone commits suicide out of shame, their kinsfolk may search for those who communicated that shame in the first place. In evaluating the event, if people think that the shamers acted excessively, it is they who may be blamed for the death, and compensation in wealth items (pigs, valuable shells, or state-introduced currency) may be demanded of them. The shamers are thus put in the position of the performers of violence and the person who commits suicide is seen, at least in part, as a victim, thus influencing the assessments of witnesses. The question of »who drove them to it?« can thus have legal consequences in societies of this sort.

3.2 Suicide and Revenge

28 We further related these patterns to the overall scenario of revenge (2002, 132-136), quoting other ethnographers of New Guinea (e.g. Dorothy Counts 1980, 1984, and in particular Christopher Healey 1979, who seems to have been an early exponent of analyzing suicide in New Guinea as an action taken to generate particular subsequent outcomes). In a rather different example, we cited the case of the orator and politician Cicero in ancient Rome, who, after being betrayed by Octavius, thought of going into Octavius's house and killing himself on the altar of his household gods in order to bring supernatural vengeance on Octavius himself (2002, 133). Here the idea was that the domestic gods, the Lares and Penates, would be offended at the desecration of their altar by the act of suicide and its spilling of blood, but would direct their ire not against Cicero but against Octavius. The act would thus have been an act of revenge involving the Lares and Penates as offended witnesses and agents of vengeance against the man whose household they were otherwise expected to protect. Suicide as a protest to the spirits, with an appeal to their pity, concern, or retributive powers, is an idea that would resonate well with Papua New Guinean ideologies.

3.3 Case-Histories from the Duna Area, Papua New Guinea

Excessively harsh words can effectively be seen as forms of psychological violence, inducing inordinate shame and triggering protest suicide. Words are powerful and may kill, and deaths must be paid for. 29 We were led to this topic by our observations in the field among Duna-speakers in the Southern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Two cases occurred in the Aluni Valley, where we were working, in 1999. In one a young woman decorated herself elaborately and hanged herself from a tree near the settlement of a young Duna man whom she had a relationship with and had wished to marry. This man, as it had turned out, already had one wife and his parents had rebuffed the girl. The father in particular had spoken harsh words to her, and she had been shamed, as well as disappointed about the demise of her relationship. Her act of killing herself was clearly seen as an act of protest against the family of her lover, although some people suggested that her mind had also been turned by the actions of local witches who wanted to mystically consume her body's life-force (tini) after her death. The father of the young male lover was brought to a local moot and ordered to pay compensation to the dead girl's kin. This would be seen as her way of exacting revenge.
30 In the second case (2002, 134-135) sexual promiscuity was also at issue. A young Duna man had been accused of sexually interfering with a Duna girl of the local parish. The girl involved was considered by the community to be too young for sexual activities. Parish councillors and leaders decided that the young man should pay a largish sum in compensation, of which he was able to raise half of the requested amount. The leaders reportedly suggested to the girl's family that they accept this and close the issue, but an uncle (father's brother) of the girl abruptly accosted the youth later and demanded that he pay the other half. That night the youth went missing and was found dead early the next morning. He had hanged himself from a tree. The uncle was now blamed for the young man's death and a heavy demand for compensation was placed on the girl's family. The message here was the same as in the first case. Excessively harsh words can effectively be seen as forms of psychological violence, inducing inordinate shame and triggering protest suicide. Words are powerful and may kill, and deaths must be paid for.

3.4 The Case of Dr. David Kelly

»David Kelly«.
In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.
external linkArticle

»David Kelly.
Special Report«.
In: Guardian Unlimited.
external linkDossier

The Hutton Inquiry:
Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr David Kelly.
external linkWebsite

Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction:
The Assessment of the British Government.
external linkDocument
31 While aspects of these Duna cases might be seen as peculiar to societies in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, other aspects are more generalizable. Parallels to the New Guinea cases are found in the case of Dr. David Kelly, a senior weapons scientist in the Ministry of Defence in Britain. David Kelly's death in July 2003, apparently by suicide, followed the revelation that he was the secret source used by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) reporter Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan had suggested that the British government's picture of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's weapons in Iraq had been overstated, perhaps as a means of persuading the British parliament and public that the war against Iraq was legitimate and necessary. Central to the issues regarding British Intelligence sources that were involved was the notion, highlighted repeatedly by the British government, that Saddam Hussein could deploy »weapons of mass destruction« within 45 minutes. David Kelly, who had been one of the chief British officials involved in the United Nations-sponsored inspections of weapons in Iraq until these were curtailed, was apparently of the view that this claim was somewhat over-stated, and seems to have communicated this view to Andrew Gilligan. Gilligan's presentation of this view was that the Government had »sexed up« the dossier on Iraq for its own propaganda purposes and that Alastair Campbell, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Chief of Communications, had been instrumental in this process.
32 Gilligan at first refused under government questioning to reveal his source, and did so publicly only after David Kelly was found dead, his wrists slashed, at a favorite spot where he was accustomed to walk near to his home. Kelly's death occurred after his Ministry had allegedly colluded with other journalists in revealing that he was thought to be Gilligan's source. David Kelly himself had suffered a severe handling by the government's own Parliamentary Committee chosen to investigate the issues. According to the testimony of his wife, David Kelly was a quiet person who shunned publicity, was deeply disturbed by the way he had been treated, and felt that his Department, headed by the Minister of Defence, Geoff Hoon, had betrayed him. His death, seen as a suicide, could easily, therefore, be read as an act of protest. Equally, elements of shame, as well as humiliation, were involved, since David Kelly did not have official authority to speak to journalists about issues over intelligence information. But an interpretation of his acts might suggest that his moral concerns overrode the technicalities of his official position and that he felt the retribution enacted on him was excessive. If so, the elements of feeling and intention involved in this case are closely parallel to those we have taken from our Duna ethnography.
33 What is also particularly interesting here is that the aftermath of Kelly's death has been very considerable and has had serious implications for the British government itself. If Duna suicides are seen as brought on by violent and excessive responses to »wrongdoings«, this can cause the tables to be turned on accusers and expensive compensation demands instigated against them. Analogously, in this case Kelly's apparent suicide can be seen as having struck a blow against the Ministry he felt had betrayed him. The death immediately forced the government to authorize a fully independent inquiry, led by Lord Hutton (formerly the Chief Justice of Northern Ireland), to examine the circumstances surrounding it. Lord Hutton announced that he would run the inquiry as he himself saw fit and proceeded to subject all the parties involved to searching questions. As a result aspects of the government's war policy and the levels of validity of its intelligence information inevitably came to light. The Prime Minister Tony Blair's approval ratings dropped and newspapers reported that the British public no longer trusted him. This was partly because up to and during the time of the Hutton Inquiry no actual weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq.
34 Finally, when John Scarlett, the senior intelligence officer involved in preparing the Iraq dossier, was required to testify at the Inquiry he defended the validity of the 45 minutes claim, but added that this referred to less powerful battlefield weapons, not long-range ones. This was a very considerable admission, completely altering the significance of the claim. As this had been presented by the government it appeared to be designed to make the British public feel that they were vulnerable to a surprise attack closer to their homeland, thus making a »self-defense« case for the war seem compelling.
35 By his presumed suicide, then, David Kelly magnified greatly his own agency, which he perhaps felt had been deeply impaired by the political events that swirled around him. The Inquiry – like a Duna moot – provided an opportunity for many more facts and opinions to emerge that would write themselves into British political history in the way that major compensation payments inscribe themselves on Duna political consciousness. David Kelly may have slashed his wrists, but whose violence impelled him to do so? His death caused the public at large to look for the chains of agency involved and seek to distribute blame. The Hutton Inquiry, in turn, was looked to as a possible source of definitive closure on the affair. 4

4. Revenge

Revenge is a fundamentally important part of human social and political processes. 36 A protest is often also an effort to take revenge. Suicide may be the protest of those who see themselves as not having the power to make their agency felt in any other way. Revenge by injuring or killing an enemy is the other-directed counterpart of this kind of suicide, followed where persons feel they have the capacity to strike back without destroying themselves. Revenge is a fundamentally important part of human social and political processes (Stewart/Strathern 2002, Ch. 6).
37 We had several reasons for taking this position in our discussion of the topic. First, we did so to counter any presupposition that revenge is a narrow theme belonging only to small-scale societies and has no place in larger-scale arenas of analysis or in relation to contemporary world affairs. Revenge is certainly an overt cultural motif in feuding societies, but it is not confined to them. It is a motive commonly ascribed to the actions of individuals everywhere and occurs frequently in television programs, films, and novels depicting criminal activities, especially those involving violence, and their investigation by police and detectives. Second, as a case history from northern Albania in 1998 indicates, tribally-based patterns of feuding may continue through massive historical changes and may be inflected by these changes (2002, 118-119). A further case-history from the Solomon Islands among the Kwaio people was used to make a similar point (121-127). And third, these same tribal societies also provide us with striking instances of patterns of feuding which have been from time to time transcended by instituting large payments of compensation for deaths.
38 Peace-making in Highlands Papua New Guinea took the form of such payments. They were an indigenous development pre-dating colonial control in the 1930s, but they also effloresced mightily in the years following the »pacification« process, road-building, and the introduction of cash cropping. Wealth in pigs, shells, and state money was symbolically seen as equivalent to the life of persons and used to pay for deaths or injuries, as well as in a host of life-cycle payments that may be seen in general as »paying for the person«. While revenge was seen as one way of balancing political relations, giving and receiving wealth came to be seen as a more effective way because it transformed the competition between clan groups from destructive actions into symbolic claims to status based on the disbursement of wealth. This paradigm has to be seen as a political achievement brought about by a combination of circumstances (2000b; and 2002, Ch. 4-5).
»The primitive sense of the just … starts from the notion that a human life … is a vulnerable thing … For this penetration, the only remedy that seems appropriate is a counterinvasion, equally deliberate, equally grave. And to right the balance truly, the retribution must be exactly, strictly proportional to the original encroachment. It differs from the original act only in the sequence of time and in the fact that it is response rather than original act.«

Martha Nussbaum
(Sex and Social Justice, New York 1999, 157-58)
39 This political achievement is interesting to consider in the light of Raymond Kelly's theory of the origins of warfare briefly noted earlier in this essay (Kelly 2000). Kelly traced possible sets of historical transitions in responses to homicide, ranging from no counteraction at all to kin-based vengeance obligations and corporate kin-group liability for killings (Kelly 2000, 60; Stewart/Strathern 2002, 111). When kin-group vengeance became structured by corporate group liability, Kelly argues, the conditions for war emerged. Kelly's discussion therefore takes us to the point where revenge is valorized in corporate kin terms. It does not take us into the world of competitive exchange that for a while replaced vengeance in Highlands New Guinea, possibly in part because Kelly did not himself study a society in which this efflorescence of exchange took place. But there is a strong literature that discusses these New Guinea »solutions« to war and the ambiguous violence that inevitably accompanies it, no matter what the particular political ideology happens to be.
40 We can see similar processes at work in terms of negotiation for compensation payments by sufferers or family members of deceased persons in response to the bombings such as the Omagh bomb attack in August 1998 that have taken place in Northern Ireland. In this case, however, the victims of violence have looked to the British government for reparations rather than to the perpetrators of the attack. The government is seen here as a witness of the violence, but also as having a special responsibility to the victims.
41 The US government has also offered compensation to those who suffered injury or death from the suicide hijackers who destroyed the Trade Towers in New York City on 9/11 (September 11th, 2001). In this instance compensation is being offered so that family members will not take out individual law-suits against various concerns, e.g. the airlines involved in the events and various US government agencies. Cases of this kind recognize the question of chains of agency in relation to violence that we have noted above.
42 Our final purpose in stressing revenge had to do with pointing out its close relationship to justice. In state societies, where governments claim a monopoly, both internally and externally, of the legitimate use of force, this relationship is denied. Rather an effort is made to oppose the two concepts, so that revenge is not justice. In this case, only the state can execute people and people may not »take the law into their own hands«. Even the extent to which people can as individuals defend themselves by the use of force is questioned or limited by governments. This is sharply underlined by the case of the farmer Tony Martin in Britain, jailed for shooting a 16 year old burglar who along with an older man invaded his house in 1999. Eight months later Martin was convicted of murder when a jury deemed his actions as going beyond self-defense. The sentence was subsequently reduced to manslaughter on appeal and Martin served two-thirds of his five year term of imprisonment. During that time he became a symbol of the rights of homeowners to protect their property and themselves. 5
43 In spite of state policies of this kind, and as the level of popular support for Tony Martin in Britain showed at the time, there is a constant resurgence of feeling that associates justice with revenge in the sense of »getting even« or »giving someone what they ›deserve‹«. Here we see that revenge is tied up with notions of balance in social relations, and with the idea that order is a matter of balances of all kinds: that is, it is a matter of a kind of cosmos (compare here generally Abbink 2000). Revenge, therefore, is not limited to idiosyncratic personal motivations. Like justice, it also appeals to wider notions. In claiming legitimacy by this means, revenge acts seek to escape or resolve the contests of legitimacy that surround them. Revenge takers may see their acts as justifiable homicide just as politicians speak of just wars.
44 The ambiguity of justice and the significance of revenge, as well as the intentionality of suicides, are all further tied in with the issue of terrorism and violence, to which we now turn in our final section of this paper.

5. Terror and Violence

5.1 The Violent Imaginary

»Violence needs to be imagined in order to be carried out.«

Ingo W. Schröder / Bettina E. Schmidt
(2001, 9)
45 Schröder and Schmidt (2001, 9) note the importance of what they call »violent imaginaries«. Analogous points are made by Göran Aijmer (2000, 3), when he expresses his interest in the »symbolism of iconic codes and their use in the visionary building of possible worlds, forming the imaginary order of a society«. Violent acts, Aijmer argues, may embody complex aspects of symbolism that relate to both order and disorder in a given social context, and it is these symbolic aspects that give violence its many potential meanings. As Schröder and Schmidt further argue, »violence needs to be imagined in order to be carried out« (9), and they go on to point out the importance in this context of historical memory, which »can be represented through narratives, performances and inscriptions« (ibid.).
46 Their well-taken summary of these factors is underpinned further by Aijmer's analysis of symbolism and »iconic codes«, that is, codes that are embodied or expressed »outside language« (2000, 3). Aijmer also emphasizes the imaginary character of symbolism here, expressed in ways that he says cannot be verified in terms of »referential meaning« (ibid.). Put more simply, this means that people create their own fears out of the imagination of possible horrors. To this we can add that when actual horrors take place, as they frequently enough do, these in turn feed into the world of the iconic imagination. Our point here is, then, that in assessing the impact of activities seen as »terrorism« around the world we have to take into account that their effects are magnified through the workings of the emotions and the imaginative capacities of people. These imaginative capacities are strikingly engaged in extreme circumstances involving bomb blasts, the collapse of buildings, dismemberment, mutilations, and acts of torture. Imagination is involved also in cases where people envisage themselves as the performers of violence as well as on the part of victims and witnesses.

5.2 Suicide Bombers

47 A notable instance is the case of suicide bombers, who are prepared to infiltrate into seemingly innocuous social contexts and then to kill themselves in an effort to kill others. Body and bomb are fused into one, and the performer of the violence is also his or her own victim. Suicide bombing is thus an extreme case of protest suicide, with the added twist that the intentionality of the act is made quite patent. Such a paradoxical notion greatly adds to the terror inherent in the act. Moreover, such suicides are invariably associated with cosmic purposes or causes beyond the individual life of the bomber, as were the actions of kamikaze pilots in Japan in World War II (Ohnuki-Tierney 2002). What is terrifying to contemplate here is the intention to do lethal harm to oneself in order to do harm to others, an intention that could only go with a strong belief in the legitimacy of the act itself. Typically, the reasons involved are ones we label as »religious« (see Juergensmeyer 2000 for numerous examples).
48 The underlying ideology is that of the martyr, and it is related to ideologies that specify that it is right to die for a particular cause. (Patriotism specifies the same value, we should note.) The suicide bomber is a terrifying figure, then, because he or she walks into a context like a hidden witch or sorcerer, but one willing to die for a cause like a patriot. It is an anomalous figure combining contradictory characteristics and therefore »monstrous« and liminal in relation to society at large.

5.3 Witches

In many instances the »terrorist« stands in the same semantic and psychological space as the witch in the classic sense. 49 The suicide bomber is an extreme example of the insider/outsider character who can stand as a focus of blame in situations of tension or conflict. In general, it is clear that the labeling of persons and groups in particular ways is one means of tagging them negatively or positively within a prescribed moral framework. The terms »terrorism« and »terrorists« are examples of how words are used by governmental organizations and news agencies to discriminate narratives that place people within particular systems of social values and thereby present judgements about the morals of the actions of those labeled in these ways. By pinpointing blame for untoward events on those carrying these labels, a mechanism is generated to assist in gaining public support for retribution and violence to be taken against those deemed to be responsible.
50 In many instances the »terrorist« stands in the same semantic and psychological space as the witch in the classic sense. In addition, accusations of wrong-doing against others may work as a covert form of »witchcraft« against persons, leading to conflict, violence, and scapegoating in the same way that witchcraft accusations did in the past and still do in many parts of the world. 6 We argue that gossip and rumor are often, if not invariably, the precursors of witchcraft and sorcery or sorcery accusations and that they inevitably fix on persons who are vulnerable in contexts of conflict. These contexts may be interpersonal, or they may involve the attention of state authorities, or both conditions may apply. In either case the presumed violence of the witch regularly leads to overt violence against the accused. Analogously, suspicions of hostile occult activity by state authorities can lead to rebellions or uprisings, which again involve violence. We are here firmly in the domain of »the violent imaginary«, in which the imaginary leads into the physical and back again into the imaginary in a feedback loop that can spiral out of control.

5.4 Academia

Ha Jin:
The Crazed. A Novel.
New York: Pantheon, 2002.
book cover
Pantheon Books:
external linkWebsite

Online order:
external linkAmazon
51 In general when a network of competitive relationships exists these will be marked by some degree of tension, destruction, jealousy, and ambiguity. It is in these relationships that ideas of witchcraft or sorcery easily arise and flourish. One arena in which a form of »witchcraft« and »sorcery« can lead to psychological violence is the academic world in which individual egos can become extremely inflated and hidden processes of action can correspond closely to veiled accusations of sorcery or to acts of witchcraft and sorcery. Words uttered or written on paper can destroy a person's or a project's integrity, while ostensibly operating as a part of a confidential review process. »Damning with faint praise« is equivalent to denying a person or project an identity as a group member. An insistence on an »analytical perspective« may also function as a demand for a particular kind of analysis as opposed to some other viewpoint. Competitive jealousy is often at the core of actions targeted against other academics.
52 A recently published novel, The Crazed, by the Chinese writer Ha Jin (2002) provides an example of the sorts of psychological violence that can damage and even destroy persons. The central character is an elderly professor, Prof. Yang, who is a well respected teacher of literature in a provincial university in China. The novel begins with Prof. Yang suffering a stroke. We are told that »… his colleagues used to envy his energy and productiveness – he had published more than any of them and had been a mainstay of the Literature Department …« (3).
53 The character Jian Wan, a close student of Prof. Yang, spends time in the hospital tending for him and listening to his acerbic rantings about various aspects of his life in which he sees some of his colleagues as his tormentors. The narrative outlines various jealousies and resentments between colleagues in his department over time and how colleagues restricted Prof. Yang's scholarly pursuits and tried to demoralize him. It is unclear what brought on the stroke but the narrative implies that it was partly due to the actions of colleagues. After Prof. Yang's death the novel details various events in which Jian Wan is involved, including being at Tiananmen Square in Beijing during the June 1989 bloody repression of student demonstrations that sought democratic reform in China. The resentments against Prof. Yang in his department are transferred onto Jian Wan who is labeled as a counterrevolutionary after he has returned from Beijing and is told that the police will be coming to remove him. In the end Jian Wan sets out to escape from China to live in another country.

6. Conclusions

Wim van Binsbergen:
Violence in anthropology. Theoretical and personal remarks.
external linkArticle
54 In this paper we have argued for the pervasive relativity and ambiguity of the application of terms relating to violence. The relativity emerges from David Riches' argument that acts of violence take place in contexts of contested legitimacy and that evaluations depend on the perspectives adopted by actors in the »triangle of violence«, marked by performers, victims, and witnesses. This relativity exists in tension with the existential feeling that we can recognize acts of violence when we see them, a feeling that derives from the knowledge of the vulnerability to harm of the human body and of life in general.
55 In addition, we have argued that the moral quandaries relating to violence apply also to issues of warfare, as illustrated in our section on Arjuna and Krishna, and that these quandaries are solved by actors through the invocation of transcendental or overriding concerns. Following Raymond Kelly's theory of the origins of warfare, we noted the motif of revenge as a near-universal way of justifying and perpetuating acts of violence in conflict situations, itself transcended in some cases by an ethos of making reparations for killings.
56 We explored the ambiguities of the concept of violence further with a discussion of suicide and intentionality, drawing on cases from the Duna area of Papua New Guinea and on a case from the United Kingdom in 2003, the death of Dr. David Kelly. In both instances, suicides magnified their agency through death. We proceeded to argue that this magnification is seen most clearly in the case of deaths labeled as martyrdom and in the deaths of suicide bombers seen as terrorists. We have concluded with a brief further exposition on terror and violence, linking terror to the »violent imaginary« and comparing the theme of terrorism to the theme of witchcraft and sorcery. 7 We briefly extended this theme into the realm of conflicts within academia, citing Ha Jin's novel The Crazed to show the intertwinings of the personal and the political and how these intertwinings can have lethal effects.
57 As a postscript, two further issues of interest have largely fallen outside of the scope of this paper. One is the question of the efficacy of violence. 8 The other is the question of creativity. Violence is one means of destroying a particular order of society so as to create another. Does this justify it? In the first place, not all violence can be interpreted as having this aim. Nigel Rapport (2000) has given an interesting and original discussion of this problem, focusing on individual creativity, stressing the role of imagination, and distinguishing between what he calls »democratic violence« that encompasses »diverse individual meanings« and »nihilistic violence« which negates »common forms of exchange« (54).
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/5/fss-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2004 Authors & polylog e.V.



The article was submitted in October, 2003. go back
This was the kind of violence we mostly were examining in our book on Violence (2002). go back
This second kind of violence, and the significance in relation to it of rumor and gossip as expressions of human malice, is the topic of a further book that we have recently completed entitled Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip (2004). go back
Our account here is taken from U.K. newspaper sources at the time of the death of Dr. Kelly. Information from these sources can be found for example on the Internet at external linkhttp://media.guardian.co.uk and external linkhttp://www.cnn.com. go back
See external linkhttp://slate.msn.com/id/2086396. go back
We have written about this in our book, Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors and Gossip (2004), and in our book on Terror and Violence: Imagination and the Unimaginable, edited by Strathern, Stewart, and Whitehead (forthcoming). go back
We have explored this in our book on Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors and Gossip (2004) where we link rumor to violence. go back
This issue, and others, is discussed in chapter 8 of our book on Violence (2002). go back


Andrew Strathern is Andrew W. Mellon Professor for Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. He received his PhD from Cambridge University in 1966. He is a social anthropologist whose interests include the analysis of political and economic systems, kinship theories, social change, religion, symbolism, ethnicity, legal anthropology, conflict and violence, the anthropology of the body, and the cross-cultural study of medical systems. He has carried out long-term fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. He also conducts research in contemporary Europe (primarily Scotland and Ireland) and has an active program of research in Taiwan. For many years he has collaborated with his wife Pamela J. Stewart and they have published widely on their findings.
Prof. Dr. Andrew Strathern
University of Pittsburgh
Department of Anthropology
3302 WWPH
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Fax: +1 (412) 648-7535
external linkhttp://www.pitt.edu/~strather/
Pamela J. Stewart is Research Associate in Anthropology and Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and Adjunct Lecturer in Anthropology at the James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. She received her PhD from the University of Illinois. Her research interests include women's identities and life histories, farming practices, national identity, patient/physician communication, religious change and sorcery, forms of violence and its impact. She has researched in the U.S., Scotland and Papua New Guinea, most of it jointly with Andrew Strathern.
Dr. Pamela J. Stewart
University of Pittsburgh
Department of Anthropology
3302 WWPH
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Fax: +1 (412) 648-7535
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