Violent States, States of Violence

About

This programme is a collaboration between SWOP and the School of Human and Community Development, and is funded by the Mellon Foundation. The principle investigators are Prof Garth Stevens and Prof Karl von Holdt. 

This programme brings an alternative perspective to bear on violence. We seek to foreground the acts, processes, meanings and moralities of violence, and in so doing to gain a deeper understanding of violence, why it occurs and how it is embedded in society. We attempt to suspend immediate and ‘common sense’ judgements about violence in favour of a deeper understanding. 

Violence is often regarded as immoral or deviant. We argue that all violence is embedded in moralities and rationales that justify and regulate its use. Violence is often regarded as disruptive and disorderly. We argue that violence is very often an ordering process as well, a way of regulating activities or of restoring order to the world – whether this be in the hands of vigilantes attacking ‘criminals’, or taxi operators deploying violence in the struggle over taxi routes, for example.

Violence is frequently seen as instrumental or goal-oriented. We believe that it may be expressive, a form of language, or self-making. Violence is frequently understood as destructive and counter-productive. We believe that sometimes it is productive or transformative, as when violence constitutes gender, or violent resistance to apartheid produced the conditions for a transition to democracy. Democracy and development are often thought of as antidotes to violence. We think that as often as not they provoke both new and old forms of violence. Violence is multi-faceted, ambiguous and shape shifting – it may be empowering and provide a way for those without voice to speak to authority – but it is simultaneously profoundly disempowering and silencing.

While much research into violence partitions it into discrete categories, such as criminal violence, political violence, sexual violence, youth violence, and so on, we attempt to research the connections between different forms of violence, and the ways violence moves through different contexts, changing its targets and its effects. For example, protest violence against authorities may become institutionalised within political parties as a repertoire to be deployed against opposing factions. On the other hand, it may return in the form of violence against the most vulnerable groupings in the community, such as woman or foreigners. Criminal violence may remake itself as political violence, and vice versa. State violence may return in the form of witch killings. We also seek to understand the connections between large historical processes involving structural violence and the de-personalised violence of corporations and states, and the dynamics of subject-formation and agency at the micro-level. Hence the title, Violent States, States Of Violence. What do the agents of violence experience as they deploy their violence skills – pleasure, fear, agency, danger, manhood – and how do they integrate these feelings into their sense of the world? Is violence intrinsically masculine, and are there specific forms of feminine violence? Or is all violence simply gendered in one way or another?

Again, much research into violence does not investigate violence as such, but restricts itself to investigating what it takes to be the causes or impacts of violence. In contrast, we believe a deeper understanding of the why of violence will be found by pursuing the how of violence as it unfolds in real time and in a context of changing power relations.

These are difficult research questions, and we grapple with them together with our students and colleagues.

We envisage projects researching the following themes and sites:

(1) State Violence; (2) Socio-Economic Transformations and Violence; (3) Violence and Collective Action, (4) Communities and Violence; (5) Interpersonal Violence; (6) Interactional Studies of Violence; (7) Embodied Enactments, Affective-Discursive Practices, and Violence; and finally, (8) Responses to Violence. 

People

My dissertation seeks to answer why there is more continuity than change in the South African mini bus taxi industry and explore the role of the state and violence in shaping it si

Dylan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology, with a theoretical interest on how violence co-opts traditional logics of power to pose bigger questions about the democra

Her current research investigates the relationship between wartime rape and militarized masculinities in the eastern DRC. She explored how wartime rape constructed a hierarchy of g

Her current research examines the relationship between artisanal mining and violence in Kwekwe from 1980 to 2022. Her dissertation seeks to examine the various dimensions of local

Her research focuses on the unrest that unfolded in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in July 2021, looking specifically at the events in Vosloorus, Gauteng. Masego has experience

Karl von Holdt is a professor at the Society Work and Politics Institute. His current research interests include popular politics, movements, violence, the political economy of cor

Brett Bowman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, School of Human and Community Development, at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Read

Projects

Events

Violent States, States of Violence

A research programme based at Wits University and funded by the Mellon Foundation.

Principal Investigators – Prof Garth Stevens and Prof Karl Von Holdt.

This programme is a collaboration between SWOP and the School of Human and Community Development.

This programme brings an alternative perspective to bear on violence. We seek to foreground the acts, processes, meanings and moralities of violence, and in so doing to gain a deeper understanding of violence, why it occurs and how it is embedded in society. We attempt to suspend immediate and ‘common sense’ judgements about violence in favour of a deeper understanding.

Violence is often regarded as immoral or deviant. We argue that all violence is embedded in moralities and rationales that justify and regulate its use. Violence is often regarded as disruptive and disorderly. We argue that violence is very often an ordering process as well, a way of regulating
activities or of restoring order to the world – whether this be in the hands of vigilantes attacking ‘criminals’, or taxi operators deploying violence in the struggle over taxi routes, for example.
Violence is frequently seen as instrumental or goal-oriented. We believe that it may be expressive, a form of language, or self-making. Violence is frequently understood as destructive and counter-
productive. We believe that sometimes it is productive or transformative, as when violence constitutes gender, or violent resistance to apartheid produced the conditions for a transition to democracy.
Democracy and development are often thought of as antidotes to violence. We think that as often as not they provoke both new and old forms of violence. Violence is multi-faceted, ambiguous and shape shifting – it may be empowering and provide a way for those without voice to speak to authority – but it is simultaneously profoundly disempowering and silencing.

While much research into violence partitions it into discrete categories, such as criminal violence, political violence, sexual violence, youth violence, and so on, we attempt to research the connections
between different forms of violence, and the ways violence moves through different contexts, changing its targets and its effects. For example, protest violence against authorities may become
institutionalised within political parties as a repertoire to be deployed against opposing factions. On the other hand, it may return in the form of violence against the most vulnerable groupings in the community, such as woman or foreigners. Criminal violence may remake itself as political violence, and vice versa. State violence may return in the form of witch killings. We also seek to understand the connections between large historical processes involving structural violence and the de-personalised violence of corporations and states, and the dynamics of subject-formation and agency at the micro-level. Hence the title, Violent States, States Of Violence. What do the agents of violence experience as
they deploy their violence skills – pleasure, fear, agency, danger, manhood – and how do they integrate these feelings into their sense of the world? Is violence intrinsically masculine, and are there
specific forms of feminine violence? Or is all violence simply gendered in one way or another?

Again, much research into violence does not investigate violence as such, but restricts itself to investigating what it takes to be the causes or impacts of violence. In contrast, we believe a deeper
understanding of the why of violence will be found by pursuing the how of violence as it unfolds in real time and in a context of changing power relations.

These are difficult research questions, and we grapple with them together with our students and colleagues.

We envisage projects researching the following themes and sites:


(1) State Violence;
(2) Socio-Economic Transformations and Violence;
(3) Violence and Collective Action,
(4) Communities and Violence;
(5) Interpersonal Violence;
(6) Interactional Studies of Violence;
(7) Embodied Enactments, Affective-Discursive Practices, and Violence; and finally,
(8) Responses to Violence.

People

My dissertation seeks to answer why there is more continuity than change in the South African mini bus taxi industry and explore the role of the state and violence in shaping it si

Dylan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology, with a theoretical interest on how violence co-opts traditional logics of power to pose bigger questions about the democra

Her current research investigates the relationship between wartime rape and militarized masculinities in the eastern DRC. She explored how wartime rape constructed a hierarchy of g

Her current research examines the relationship between artisanal mining and violence in Kwekwe from 1980 to 2022. Her dissertation seeks to examine the various dimensions of local

Her research focuses on the unrest that unfolded in parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in July 2021, looking specifically at the events in Vosloorus, Gauteng. Masego has experience

Karl von Holdt is a professor at the Society Work and Politics Institute. His current research interests include popular politics, movements, violence, the political economy of cor

Brett Bowman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, School of Human and Community Development, at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Read

Projects

Publications