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Violence and violence prevention

This session will offer some information about Violence and Violence prevention, on a theoretical base as well as by asking you what you think about these topics. Sorry, we can't offer you any answers because the topic of violence is far too complex for answers in such a short session. But at least, we can offer an overview about different approaches and levels which are important to understand and analyse violence.
At the end, we want to try to show an intersectional perspective on violence as it was developed in the PeerThink Project and we discuss the example of Class here as a structural form of violence which can have heavy effects on youngsters, not least in terms of Peer violence.
Since we like critical thinking, we also say what is critical about the idea of violence prevention.
In our view, this theoretical discussion is helpful in order to improve the practical work on violence prevention. You will find some advice for practical work in the end as well as links to more practice-oriented materials.

Maybe peer violence among yougsters is a problem in your school, in your Youth center, in your neigbourhood? We try to help to analyse the particular forms of direct violence, but we also want to direct your attention to structures that can lie behind such violence and might affect it, like poverty, exclusion, Dominance relations. To bring this together makes the whole thing so complicated...and it’s a pity that there are no easy solutions like “do this and the violence stops”.

To find a way into the topic take a minute a think about which forms of violence you know.
Do you see any connections between these forms of violence, for example between peer violence and racism, or psychic and sexual violence?
This is one aspect that makes violence prevention complicated: the interconnection between different forms of violence.

Nevertheless, let’s start with an easy overview part:

Violence Prevention
Violence Prevention is a concept with multiple dimensions.
“Prevention” can be divided into three levels, primary, secondary and tertiary prevention (Caplan 1964):

1.Primary prevention tries to prevent violence before something violent has happened. It tries to change circumstances that support violence and helps actors to deal with it in order to avoid violence.

2.Secondary prevention works on violence prevention with persons, who have already acted violently. It tries to minimise the harm and improve the persons' competences, their social circumstances or institutions.

3.Tertiary prevention is used after people have become violent and tries to help them by resocialisation or rehabilitation in order not to fall into relapse.

We focus mainly on basic knowledge useful for primary and secondary violence prevention here and lay great emphasis on the meaning of structural violence in concepts of violence prevention.

Depending on a social or educational project's background violence prevention aims at changing one's personal, communication and/or interactive behaviour. This should be reached by reflecting one's own behaviour, strengthening one's self-esteem, sharpening the social awareness, improving the conflict ability, controlling one's behaviour and learning social skills. Most violence prevention projects focus on individual behaviour, they rarely concern the concrete life circumstances and culture of the young persons, nor forms of structural violence. Gender norms are also seldom taken into account.

So, let’s move on:
Defining violence
Johann Galtung (1998), peace researcher and carrier of the alternative Nobel Prize defines three kinds of violence: personal, cultural and structural violence.


Image at http://www.engender.org.za/publications/engenderingsecurity.html

It is important to acknowledge, that each form can occur in combination with the others and that they are interdependend. Cultural violence is used when cultural norms and values are used to legitimate forms of (inter)personal or structural violence. The construction of inequalities is often realized under means of cultural violence, for emample, when wage gaps between men and women are explained by the natural inferiority of women. Direct personal violence is performed by an actor, while violence without a concrete actor is called structural violence. Structural violence is embedded in a society's system and appears in the inequality of power relations. Its mechanisms are hard to recognise and therefore it is difficult for disadvantaged groups to fight against it, for example, when children have difficulties to gain higher Education because they come from a working class background.
We want to keep these connections between the three forms in mind, when we think about certain youngsters and violent incidents.

Judge yourself: Is this violence?
- A 4th grader gives a presentation on classical dance in his sports class. Afterwards some of his male and female class mates laugh at him and call him a sissy. [in pop up:] Yes, this is a mixture of psychic violence (being laughed at for something you like) and cultural violence because there are some social norms that define classical dance for men as gay or girlish and devalue these attributes which quite often keeps people from intervention in such situations, because they think themselves that the boy should rather play soccer.

Ok, let’s go deeper into theory…:
The Conditional Matrix
The conditional matrix is a concept from Grounded Theory, a qualitative research strategy that was described by Strauss and Corbin (1998). It basically consists of layers of different generality, from the „micro“, personal ones to the very general, broad “macro“ levels. The fundamental idea is that phenomena (such as violence), can be “traced“ throughout the various levels in order to find appropriate explanations. Each level is connected to other levels and forms a kind of context, or conditions, for the other levels. We introduce this concept here to have a framework for explaining what kind of perspectives and levels the various theories and theoretical concepts integrate, and especially to emphasise the focus of the Peerthink project.


Elements on each level (see Strauss & Corbin, 1998, p. 136f.):

International: International politics and laws, culture, values, philosophies, economy, history, international problems, environment
Regional, national: national politics and laws, national culture, history, values, economy, problems and topics.
Community: All the topics above, in relation to the community: demographic specificities that make a community unique.
Institutional, organisational: Each has its own structure, rules, problems and history.
Suborganisational level in organisations and institutions: This level contains specificities of a city quarter, a geographical area, a classroom in a school.
Group, collective, family, individual: Biographies, philosophies, knowledge and experiences of individuals, families and various groups (for example peer groups)
Interaction: Interaction means everything that people are doing together referring to a phenomenon or what they are doing with reference to each other. Actions, conversations and cognitions that are accompanying actions are included, as well as self-reflection and contact with others. Interactional processes can be: Negotiating, dominating, discussing, quarrelling, reflecting...
Action: An active way of expression of the self or of the interaction with other people. Action is performed to deal with a phenomenon, to react to it, etc. Action and interaction together constitute a meaningful unit.

Although it is not the task to analyse violent behaviour here, it is interesting to put some action/interaction in connection with „peer violence“ into the centre of the conditional matrix, for example, “A is violent against B“, and try to link such a sequence to all the levels that surround this interaction. Theories of (peer) violence try to explain causes and conditions of violent acts, and these explanations refer to one or more of the levels given in the matrix; some theories refer to more levels, some focus on a certain level. Normally, no theory can capture all levels and link them in a meaningful manner, but some selection and focus is there.

Here is a selection out of many theoretical concepts to explain violent behaviour; it is not at all complete, but a cursory list that should illustrate how various theories can focus on the one or the other level (or more) (based on Schmoll, n.d.1). Schmoll is writing about male perpetrators of violence in relationships, but many of the concepts that he is compiling can be applied to other forms of violence as well:

Experiencing violence as a risk factor for perpetrating violence: This rather early concept says that men and male youngsters who have experienced violence themselves, or who have witnessed violence of the father against the mother, have a higher probability of committing violence themselves (“intergenerational transmission of violent behaviour“). This concept focuses the level “group, collective, family, individual“. It does not contradict other concepts that focus on macro levels, but it doesn't explicitly involve these levels.

Model learning: Young people learn their own behaviour from other persons, especially from those who they value positively (for example parents, educators, peers). This concept has similarities to “intergenerational transmission“ and could explain different rates of violent boys versus girls (boys often identify with male models whose base rate for violence is higher). Again, the concept mainly takes the level “group, collective, family, individual“ into consideration, but also meso levels could be integrated well, for example positively evaluated “cultures“ in a neighbourhood, city quarter, etc. Model learning opens a constructive perspective for educational work, because the social workers and educators can act as alternative role models and constitute positive examples of peaceful cooperation, especially if they work in diverse teams with groups of youngsters.

Psychoanalytical concepts: Psychodynamic theories are used to explain violent behaviour as well, for example by the concept “identification with the aggressor“ or “re-inscenation of a traumatic experience, with a triumphatic result“ (i.e. traumatic experiences are dealt with by acting violently). Again, “group, collective, family, individual“ is in the centre.

Social control theories: Violence is seen as a fundamental element of human behaviour and a resource to get control and power over other people. People only refrain from violence due to norms and sanctions. Social networks and societies as a whole are actually fostering violent behaviour if they do not react consequently and with strong sanctions against violence. In the case of missing sanctions, people are reinforced to behave violently; model learning and the expectation to be successful pursuing one's goals by using violence are combined in this approach. (On the other hand, if social networks are reinforcing non-violent behaviour and communication, a constructive development is possible.) This approach takes various systems into account that can reinforce or sanction behaviour: schools, neighbourhoods, institutions, the legal system (and its execution). Thus, it is broader than the ones mentioned above (levels “organisational, institutional, community, national“ and even higher levels).

Violence as an effect of patriarchal structures: This concept tries to explain the violence of men against women. It focuses the societal level and emphasises male dominance and suppression of women. Violence has the function to ensure and maintain this male dominance over women. In many cases, it is not necessary to use violence in order to put through the gendered hierarchical organisation of society, but the dominance relation between men and women is institutionalised and internalised, resulting in a hegemonic structure. This concept is good at integating the higher levels of the Conditional Matrix (economic perspective, history), but it is restricted to male perpetrators of violence. If practical work with groups or individuals has to be developed, the concept has to be taken into consideration, but it is not sufficient and has to be enriched by concepts that also focus the lower levels of the matrix, for example by concepts like “cultural overlapping“: The more a society accepts and fosters violence as a means to pursue attractive goals in one area (for example military interventions, or positive connotation of violence in media), the higher the probability of a transmission of this positive attitude towards violence into another area (for example one's own real-life-environment).

Violence as a means to compensate for feelings of inferiority and low status: Violence is seen as resource to compensate for all kinds of feelings of inferiority, frustration, negative feelings, in relation with self-esteem. This idea is similar to the theory of symbolic self-completion: If people cannot correspond to their ideals, they seek and show symbols to compensate for this discrepancy. A common explanation of violence-using youth is to seek respect. Especially for men and boys, but also for certain women and girls, violence can be interpreted as a symbol and resource to cover other subjective weaknesses. They might mistake respect for fear, but from their perspective this strategy works perfectly well. Hypermasculine behaviour and interaction is displayed, to compensate for insecurity. In this model, male ideals that are connected to rather high levels of the Conditional Matrix are combined with lower levels (group, individual). Especially adolescent girls increasingly adopt this model, too, but research on violent girls is still rare.

Integrative or ecological approaches have tried to interconnect various systems that surround the violent person, e.g.:


  • Micro system: family, working place, neighbourhood; this system includes the subjective meanings of these systems to the individual.
  • Meso system: It contains connections between micro systems, as well as institutions (and again, subjective meanings).
  • Exo system: Elements that influence the individual without being in direct contact (for example laws).
  • Macro system: Societal and cultural factors, ethnic group, social milieu (and subjective meanings).
This approach resembles the concept of the Conditional Matrix; however, there are differences (for example in the ecological approach, the violent person is in the centre, in the Conditional Matrix, the violent action/interaction is in the centre).

Pooh, so far with the different approaches... We hope we didn't promise too much when we said it will be more complexity and less answers...

But finally, we want to provide our view of the approach and theoretical position of the Peerthink project, mainly in terms of the Conditional Matrix.

In case of the Peerthink project, the basic approach can be drafted as follows:

  • The actions and interactions that are of interest contain physical violence, psychological forms of violence, as well as discrimination. All forms of discrimination because of gender, sexuality, Ethnicity, social class and other social difference causes are included. The referring interaction means actively discriminating against someone as well as reacting to discrimination. As can be seen in this example, it is often possible to differentiate victims and perpetrators in a certain sequence of violence, but there are also situations where this differentiation will not be that easy, for example in various forms of fights between peers or in situations where a person reacts to structural violence by exercising direct violence.
  • Various social categories are considered within the intersectional approach of the Peerthink project. These categories (for example genders, sexualities, affiliation to majority groups or to minorities like ethnic minorities, social milieus) shape and influence the everyday life experiences of youngsters with violence. This basic orientation towards Intersectionality is very close to the idea of the Conditional Matrix to interlink the various levels and take the interaction of the levels into consideration.
  • The young person is affected by many social differentiations. What does it mean to young people to be seen and affected by different social categories? Which problems arise, but also what possibilities and resources can be derived from different affiliations of young people in different contexts? An intersectional view on youth reality is an analytical approach to explaining violence, but also a way to identify resources for a non-violent behaviour. The basis is always to “track” the person’s actions, interactions, cognitions, emotions, behaviours and affiliations upwards through the various levels of the Conditional Matrix. Similarly, various resources can be derived from the persons affiliations (or positions on the various levels), and made clear and offered to them.

In case of the Peerthink project, the theoretical focus can be drafted as follows:

1.Violence, including all forms of discrimination, is something that young people experience or that they commit, sometimes both at the same time. Various forms of action and interaction are possible, each has its individual “track“ upwards through the levels of the conditional matrix. (Action/interaction level)

2.On the other hand, there are similarities of many cases. For example many members of minorities (i.e. to be identified as a minority by others) face discrimination because they belong to a group that other people consider as inferior or hostile (for example non-dominant ethnic groups or those of non-heterosexual orientation). Interventions can be addressed to the discriminating persons or to the persons who are discriminated against, or to both, if discrimination and counter-devaluation escalate. Here, the level of groups is in the focus. Of course, these groups are placed in some social surrounding and conditions: a city quarter with its structural conditions and history (suborganisational level); a city or region (regional level) with its economic situation and differential effects on certain segments of the society that shape people's resources; the economic situation as a whole in a country at a given point of time (for example an economic recession; = national and international level) may have different effects on certain sub-populations (for example people with lower education, or immigrants) etc. Such “macro processes“ influence all the processes on the meso- and micro level, e.g. economic stress in a household with low income and low educational level, in a economically problematic city quarter can result in a higher inclination towards discriminating against minorities in the neighbourhood. In this way, macro levels can be linked with micro levels, e.g. the individuals or the family, which can become a resource or a factor that fosters violence in the example above.

3.Thus, the social worker's/educator's perspective on the question of why some young people become violent and why others do not, constitutes questions as follow: What do structural hierarchies in society have to do with individual violent actions? How do I as a person in the field of education see and judge differences? It leads the social worker and educator towards a reflective approach with the youngsters, exactly on the various levels and their interconnections, on how personal processes (for example discriminatory attitudes and behaviours; or experiences) are linked to meso- (for example unemployment rate and public opinion/reaction in the neighbourhood) and macro processes (for example international finance crisis).

4.In other words, the theoretical approach of PeerThink is quite comprehensive in the sense that it tries to link macro and meso processes with the micro level. On the practical side, these interconnections should be reflected and made conscious by the means of group work with youngsters, community work, and similar work.

An example of structural violence: class
Following a concept of intersectionality, which means to take into account different social affiliations and power relations which affect a person, we try to bring into the debate on violence prevention a strong focus on a category which seems to be a little old-fashioned: class. This means to take into account one's background concerning the (structural) distribution of financial resources, cultural resources and education, which can become visible in a person (for example by the professions of the parents, the bodily “habitus”, the use of language and even the development of musical taste etc.). But it means also to have an analysis of a society’s relations of production. Each school, each educational institution is asked to “produce” human resources in order to deploy them on the labour market. A certain alignment is applied, often punctuality and the learning of professional jargon and business vocabulary is rated higher than creativity or critical questions.2 Children who do not fit into the economic logic of markets are sorted out early, often left without a fulfilling perspective for their future. The spaces where children can develop without demands of competition and efficiency become smaller and smaller. The ideas of moral and the ideas of (economic) success seem to be incompatible today, it is almost impossible to be successful and act morally at the same time. This is even more obvious when taking into account the constant situation of tight job markets. Educationalist Marianne Gronemeyer draws up a connection between competition and direct violence when she accuses the schools of teaching the children the logic of rivalry, where everybody has to compete with everybody and friendly behaviour towards others puts one almost at a disadvantage (Gronemeyer 1996). She describes school as a violent institution itself, because education is in fact made a scarce commodity in times of equal opportunities which is not available for everybody, and the schools have to fulfil the task of aligning students to their “fate” as privileged or unprivileged (http://www.efeu.or.at/seiten/download/fachreader.pdf, page 22, access 19.8.2008).
Teachers and pedagogues are themselves part in this power game, when they prejudge pupils with certain social markers (like class, gender, ethnicity) according to hierarchical socio-economic stratifications in a society. They also have the possibility to interrupt this maintenance of structural and personal discrimination, when they reflect on their own concepts of “normality” and “performance measurement”. For the context of German schools, Weber shows that the meaning of class is made invisible by processes of gendering and ethnicising (Weber 2003). By teachers of the ethnic majority, gender in terms of the attributed premodern or macho-related forms is stressed in certain processes of ethnicising (for example, wearing a Muslim headscarf is interpreted as passiveness and a limited ability to think independently). Especially Muslim youths are said to live in patriarchal, premodern family structures, which is a stereotype that helps to construct the Christian, western societies as highly developed and as the bearers of gender equality. With such a biased view on gender and ethnicity, power inequalities and the distribution of economic resources are out of the focus. Concretely, in school ethnicised youths are evaluated worse than German youths who have the same class background and a comparable performance. Those judgements are based on unreflected expectations which follow everyday constructions of social norms. This is already an intersectional analysis, to figure out which categories are “at work”, how they influence each other and how one of them might be instrumentalised in order to render another one invisible.
Children who do not fit into the economic logic of markets are sorted out early, often left without a fulfilling perspective for their future. The spaces where children can develop without demands of competition and efficiency become smaller and smaller. As actors in the educational sphere we must ask ourselves where and how we can provide spaces, where children and youths can learn without being pressured to adapt themselves, where they can develop in dignity and without degradations, where they can question norms and try new skills and performances. As said in different approaches on violence, social deprivation and a feeling of inferiority can lead to violent behaviour, especially in a surrounding of competition. These kids need support, but they also need people who are more privileged and who care for them. Regarding (peer) violence prevention, teaching empathy with the underprivileged is still a mission uncompleted. Therefore Social justice and mutual respect are important values for a peaceful life in a heterogenous society.

Martina Weber reports, that a girl who is wearing a headscarf, is described by a teacher as “non-communicative”, “inhibited” and passive and that she has some silent conflicts with universalistic thinking due to being used to prefab Muslim thinking (2008, 51f.). Neither the social adaptation to hegemonic standards of the girl is seen nor the history of universalism as a bourgeois fight for power, which was not neutral to Religion as well.
Do you know other examples of such hegemonic thinking, which prohibits to perceive the concrete and individual character of a person?

Working on experiences and untold stories

Many teenagers can not be sure if the society they live in will offer them any place where they can work, be useful, gain importance and meaning in the future. They know that once they might have to leave their social surrounding in order to perform a job somewhere else, because someone is needed, not because they are needed. It is still true, the higher the education the better the chances to be in a position to choose. But a lot of European students grow up with the knowledge of being already sorted out. They search for ways to make a living (including dealing, hustling, prostitution, property crimes, etc.) and to find acknowledgement. Sometimes the use of violence seems to be a resource to overcome assumed deficiencies – at least for a short time –, and sometimes such violence is strongly connected to gender (mostly masculinity) and/or ethnicity. For boys’ peer groups, violence seems to be an everyday phenomenon, it is used for example to prove one’s masculinity and destroy – as a tribute to a homophobic culture – any images of their softness and vulnerability (Seidler 2006. 126). Girls are often better than boys in controlling a group or their relationships by psychic violence like emotional blackmail, bullying or social control. However, they use physical violence in certain situations and support or even delegate certain forms of male violence. The reasons for the use of violence are complex (we already said that, didn’t we?), but regarding violence as a resource of power, it is supported by certain positive portrayals of violence in our culture. Politicians pursue aggression and violent strategies to resolve problems and are extolled for it. Movie stars, hip hop singers and sports heroes use violence and are rewarded for it with power, status, money (and – if male – with women). In either sphere, the costs of violence are rarely shown. It is reasonable to talk about the costs of violence with children and youngsters, but it is also reasonable to ask them about their own experiences and their own reason for using violence.  It can be useful to find a calm setting and create an atmosphere where the youths can open up and tell their stories of deprivation, shame, helplessness and loss of control as well as of strength and empowerment.3

Biographical Reflections:

  • In your adolescence, did you use physical violence against others? Against whom and in what kind of situation(s)? How did it feel? Was this behaviour expected from you? Why/why not? With whom did you talk about it afterwards?
  • Did others use physical violence against you? How did that make you feel? How did you react? Was this reaction expected from you? Why/why not? With whom did you talk about it afterwards?
  • Did you witness any violence during your adolescence? Against whom and in what kind of situation(s)? How did you react? How did it make you feel?
  • What about psychic violence (harassment, blackmail, bullying etc.)? (Think about the same questions as above.)
  • Concerning your (structural) conditions (like money, social position of your family, your outer appearance, your abilities, etc.), were you rather in a strong or in a weak position in your school, your neighbourhood, your family, your sports club, your religious group? 
  • What feelings did these structurally violent experiences trigger in you? In case they made you feel frustrated, annoyed, aggressive, helpless etc., where did you go with these feelings? Are there any connections between these feelings and yourself or others in your surrounding acting violently on a physical or psychological (such as bullying, excluding or mobbing others etc.) level?
  • Are there any connections between concrete violent incidents and these structural conditions?
  • What is different for the kids today? What do the kids you are concerned with experience? (Think also about virtual violence or mobile phone related violence...)

And now the most important question for direct action: Are you able to intervene?

  • Are you afraid of something?
  • How can the kids scare you?
  • Which kind of violence or threat makes you helpless? (Think of a certain situation… What would help you to become active again?

Critique on the concept of prevention:

After having read these ideas on structural and individual conditions and the reflective questions, we want to come back to our initial introduction on different forms of violence and prevention. Do you have any idea why violence prevention is something that has also been criticised? Isn't it good, when violence is prevented, because violence is always bad bad bad...???   ;-)

There can be critique on...

  • The PERSPECTIVE: Which form of violence is attacked? Often prevention projects focus on interpersonal violence and thus naturalise structural violence as one important source for violent behaviour.
  • The AIM: What is the aim of violence prevention? Absolute abstinence of violence of everyone is rather a utopia ... and by the way: how is state violence dealt with? Isn't it a bit hypocritical when small violent acts between kids are forbidden in the name of living together in peace but deathly military attacks are accepted - also in the name of peace?
  • The LABELING: The kids who should be supported are often stigmatised and labelled as risk groups.
  • The RESULTS: Violence prevention measures are hardly evaluated, there is only little exchange and good practice. (So give your comments in the forum!)
  • The TOP DOWN APPROACH: The experiences of the youths themselves are not taken into account.

How could you work on preventing violence while taking into account the kids’ perspective? For example, participation, representation of interests, dealing with feelings of powerlessness, self-efficiency… apart from the classical approaches of working on empathy etc., which should not be discounted but complemented…

So, what to do next?
There are method sheets in this PeerThink Manual, which offer you some concrete examples for pedagogic action.
There are more self learn sessions on racism and gender.
There is more theory on intersectionality [link articles].