Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part II

This is part two in the discussion. To visit part one, see Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part I

Identities and Boundaries: A Constructivist and Discursive Approach

Group formation is the product of a social process, made and remade using historical context, cultural and mythological structures (Brubaker, 2004; Wimmers, 2008). These myriad ingredients are part of the constructive and constraining forces of identity and boundary formation but Brubaker draws attention to an additional cause. “Certain dramatic events, in particular, can serve to galvanize and crystallize a potential group or to ratchet up preexisting levels of groupness (Brubaker, 2004: 41).”

Let us accept Brubaker’s claim. If we extrapolate this notion that dramatic events crystallize even previously tenuous or non-existent group bonds, then one can present an argument that dramatic framing can serve as a constructive force. This seems to hold true even if the framing agent subsumes previously disconnected and distinct groups or individuals into a single frame. However, such boundaries, lacking strong self-identification, are usually more durable in the eye of the observer/framing agent than in the objectified group. This dichotomy can play out in the protraction of inter and intra-group conflict that is inaccurately understood and framed by an observer, but that discussion is for another time.

Here we see the symbolic violence inherent in the imposition of meaning. If personal and group identities, treated by some as the most sacrosanct component of the human experience, are a constructed social phenomenon, then the forced imposition of a particular framed identity—based  on the constructed reality of the framing agent and not the autonomy of the object of framing—is a violent act. Of course we should not overlook the efforts of certain groups to engage in countervailing tactics in the face of imposed boundaries through such tactics as boundary contraction, expansion or blurring or inversion and resignification (Wimmers, 2008; also see Judith Butler). But this requires an examination of why and how certain groups are capable of extricating themselves from the imposition of meaning and others are not. There is not enough room to develop such an inquiry here.

Within the constructivist school Fearon and Laiton point out three main approaches. These are broad structural forces, discursive processes and individuals acting to produce or reproduce identity and boundaries. Identities are formed by either content, e.g. x cannot live with y, or boundary, e.g. a is part of b but not part of c (Fearon and Laiton, 2000). Actors within this constructivist biosphere are not necessarily free to choose whichever approach they like best. There exists three primary types of constraint: the institutional environment, the distribution of power, and networks of political alliances (Wimmers, 2008). For purposes here I will only focus on the discursive element of identity and boundary construction with obvious special attention on framing and the role of power.

Discourse theory is rooted in phenomenological and constructivist approaches: being concerned with an individual or groups’ reflection and analysis of the phenomenon around them and acknowledging that these phenomena are comprised of a multiplicity of constructed and dynamic realities to which people have ascribed meaning. It is from this milieu of intention, iteration, and interpretation that discourses are produced and reproduced. Discourses are boundary forming because they set normative relationships and expectations between different subjects. They are capable of delineating the border between the acceptable and unacceptable and of legitimizing, no matter how reprehensible the act (Apter, 1997: 3-4).

Discourse fits into the Hegelian dialectic. However, an important constituent of the dialectic process as Habermas points out, if a true synthesis is to be attained, is the intersubjectivity of various participants within the communicative process. This breaks down when the relationship of agents changes from one of subject-to-subject to one of subject-to-object. Discursive relationships become quite negative—and  theoretically violent—when they produce such a subject to object relationship where, in Kantian terms, the subject treats the object as a means to an end.

In this sense, the discursive process is also quite Foucaldian in that it is closely related to power. Agents with power often prevail in determining the dominant discourse. They have the power-to-define, the Symbolic Power elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu. However, it is also worth noting that sometimes discourses can take on an element of power on their own through popular reproduction, or a meaning far from the first intent of the originating agent. For some, like Austin, Searle and Habermas, language is part of social action and reality. Power over language is therefore as important as power over other forms of action. This explains why, as Brass notes, it is often as equally important to ask who has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as who has a monopoly over the interpretation, framing, of violence (Brass, 1996).

Power over language is therefore as important as power over other forms of action.

Discourse analysis is made more complicated by the fact that the discourse originating agent is often in a position to hide his or her intended effect through a web of sometimes opaque terms. Brass has noted that, “behind such discourses as ‘criminal law and order,’ ‘caste and community,’ ‘faith and sentiment,’ ‘profit,’ and ‘Hindu-Muslim communalism’ is a nexus of power and interest that fools both villagers and outside analysts (Brass, 1997: 96 in Fearon and Laitin, 2000: 864).” We also see this opaqueness in the following forms: the ‘Cold War,’ ‘War on Drugs,’ ‘War on Poverty,’ or ‘War on Terror.’ These vaguely defined but staunchly defended discourses show how easy and convenient it is to frame a war on the immaterial. What is important then is understanding not only how specific frames are used but also to understand the underlying potential of framing.

How do constructivists argue the discursive origin of boundaries? Bourdieu notes, by reifying groups, by treating them as things-in-the-world, framing agents actually, “contribute to producing what they apparently describe or designate (Bourdieu 1991a: 220 in Brubaker, 2004: 37).” This means that if the agent doing the framing is describing or designating an individual, institution or incident, regardless of the actual language used, then they are contributing to the constructive process. If this construction of identity is forced upon the object of framing then it is a case of directed structural and symbolic violence, if we accept that violating the autonomy of the individual is a form of violence. In terms of physical violence, Wimmer synthesizes the above discussion:

Only those in control of the means of violence will be able to force their ethnic scheme of interpretation onto reality by killing “Catholics,” “Shiites,” or “Furs,” or resettling “Tatars” and “Germans” a la Stalin, thus making Catholics, Shiites, Furs, Tatars, and Germans (Wimmers, 2008: 994).

 

Apter, David E., (1997), “Political Violence in Analytical Perspective” in Apter, David E. The Legitimization of Violence, New York, New York University Press, pp 1-32

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

Brubaker, Rogers, (2004), ‘Ethnicity without Groups’ in Wimmer, Andreas et al (eds.), 2004, Facing Ethnic Conflicts: Toward a New Realism, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 1-20.

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.

Wimmer, Andreas, 2008, ‘The Making and Unmaking of Ethnic Boundaries: A Multilevel Process Theory’, American Journal of Sociology, Volume 113, Number 4, pp 970-1022

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

One Response to Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part II

  1. Pingback: Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part III « michaelcaster

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