The Scaffolding is Down

Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part I

Lately I have been rather indolent with this blog. So, as a cheeky means to feign productivity I am going to post a previously composed essay in three parts. It adheres to the general theme of this blog but is certainly more abstract and theoretical than previous posts. The following is part I of  DEFINE AND CONQUER: AN INVESTIGATION INTO FRAMING AS A VIOLENT ACT


In framing an individual, institution or incident as X presupposes the existence of an objective meaning and distinct social phenomenon X. Otherwise the agent doing the framing is able to construct any possible meaning for X, thus creating a drastic power disparity between the agent doing the framing and the object of the framing. This power disparity can easily lead to excessive violence because if the X is only given meaning by the agent doing the framing, X can mean anything expedient to the framing agent, allowing for any legitimization of the use of violence against it. In this sense framing can itself be a violent act.

This paper will begin with a brief discussion of the concept of violence, from the traditional conception of physical hurt to the more inclusive forms of structural and symbolic violence. I will briefly address the literature concerning identity and boundary construction because it is important to position the discussion of framing within the constructivist school in order to demonstrate the enduring capability of violence qua framing. Furthermore, I will draw upon discourse theory to synthesis the constructivist approach with particular attention to the power of language. Finally, I will demonstrate how in certain circumstances framing is an act of violence against the object of framing.

Violence: Challenging Physical Hurt

Brass writes, “Inter-personal violence is an aspect of everyday life in virtually all societies… (Brass, 1996: 39).” In order to fully understand this statement we should first examine what conditions qualify  as violence.

The traditional conception of violence has been rightly criticized for being too parochial. This traditional notion of violence was fixated solely on the subjective violence of physical hurt. It was the reigning conception of violence for much of the last century as a convenient and simplifying worldview for policy makers in the age of conventional wars and a world system framed by bi-polarity. It wouldn’t be until scholars such as Galtung, Foucault or Bourdieu began to challenge this narrow view that a broader definition would position itself as a counter discourse for a changing modernity.

It should be understood as a triumvirate of not only physical but also structural and symbolic violence, a interactive spiral of violence as described by Helder Camara. Structural violence pinpoints certain systemic forms of violence such as poverty, exploitation or racism that have been produced by the social, political or economic structure of a given time and place. For most who speak in structural and post-structural terms, the current global economic and political system is inherently responsible for producing severe structural violence.

Symbolic violence is also a manifestation of cultural and social interactions marked by a distinct power asymmetry. This notion of violence goes beyond the obvious case of harassment or incitement. Zizek notes, “there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning (Zizek, 2008: 1).” Symbolic violence is important to discourse theory and particularly the critical analysis of framing.

The imposition of meaning through framing a discussion of violence is covered by Brass. He notes that what makes the transformation of everyday acts of violence into specialized forms is the process of framing, “developing categories defined as more serious or threatening to civil order and state authority, and fitting particular incidents or events into these categories (Brass, 1996: 39).”  As will be expressed below, this categorization is far more than simple phenomenological interpretation, it can have serious consequences.

It could be argued that immaterial violence, manifest in structural and symbolic forms, is more invasive because it is spread through communicative action and imagination, allowing for the justification of extremes to take hold at the subconscious level before they are brought into the physical realm. It is as Fearon and Laiton have pointed out that, “discursive or cultural systems at best create a disposition for large-scale violence, since they are relatively enduring structures… (Fearon and Laiton, 2000: 863).”

This point about the lasting impact of discourse is quite important. It demonstrates the enduring force of language and framing. This means, if the framing has a violent action potential then the violence is likely to be all the more insidious and enduring. The ‘just war’ discourse is but one example of this process: if belligerence is successfully labeled as morally just then the protraction of extremes is some how justified. Of course not all processes of labeling are violent. Below I will illustrate how and when framing is a violent act.

In order to fully grasp the violent potential of framing we must first turn our attention to the formative process of identities and boundaries. It is the position of this paper that communicative interaction is part of the constructive force of individual and collective identities and boundaries, from which are born perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ that make violence toward the Other somehow morally palatable.

Brass, Paul R., (1996), “Introduction: Discourses of Ethnicity, Communalism, and Violence” in Paul R. Brass (ed), Riots and Pogroms, New York, New York University Press, pp. 1-55

Zizek, Slavoj. (2008) Violence. London, Profile Books.

Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin, (2000), “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” International Organization 54, 4, Autumn 2000, pp 845-877.