Episodic and Structural Violence
Peace psychologists distinguish between two general types of violence; episodic and structural. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term ‘episodic’ as “occurring, appearing, or changing at usually irregular intervals.” Based on this definition, episodic violence can be described as an observable event that is often aimed at inflicting physical harm on others and occurs once or repeatedly. An example of episodic violence could be violent protests erupting after a presidential election. This has been observed in different countries over the years, marked by security forces firing teargas at crowds, demonstrators spending days in the streets, sometimes ending in destruction of property or clashes with the security forces.
Structural violence on the other hand refers to a form of violence where the social structure harms a certain group of members by preventing them from meeting their basic needs or preventing them from having equal access to resources such as education, civic services, safe jobs or political power. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term ‘structural’ as relating to “the way something is built or organized.” From this definition, we can deduce that structural violence is a normalized state of being that is not necessarily fair to all groups. Unlike direct violence, it does not literally directly harm in the physical sense but it does so indirectly through the unequal access to resources in societies. In his works of 1969, Johan Galtung, the principle founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies highlighted structural violence as “depicting the way in which institutions in a society are organized and distribute resources, providing ample goods and services for some members of society while depriving others”. Using the example of the protests after an election, structural violence could exist as rigged election systems that exclude certain groups of the population, inaccessibility of voting stations or even governance that has policies discriminating a group or groups of people.
Implications for peace-making and peace-building
According to the United Nations, (Agenda for Peace report 1992), peace-making involves “actions to bring hostile parties to agreement, essentially through peaceful means”. Generally this usually involves putting in place measures to address conflicts that are already in progress. Peace-making refers to efforts that are put in place to settle differences and move a violent conflict into a peaceful resolution. The objective is simply to end direct violence between the contending parties. In contrast, peace-building is concerned with strengthening a society’s capacity to manage conflict in nonviolent ways. In the Agenda for Peace, former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali introduced the concept of peace-building as “action to identify and support structures, which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid relapse into conflict.” Peace-building is an intervention designed to prevent the relapse of violent conflict. From this context we can deduce that the differences between episodic and structural violence are important to consider when designing interventions to be used in these two different but overlapping processes.
Researchers suggest that peace-making interventions are based on theories and practices aimed at tension reduction while peace-building seeks to induce tension and disrupt hierarchically organized structures and relations. Thus when approaching peace-making, the focus is on lessening the tensions and animosity and restoring peace. Whereas in peace building, the focus is on leveraging the underlying tensions in order to motivate reform and change.
In regard to peace, Galtung referred to the distinction between negative peace and positive peace. Negative peace refers to the absence of violence while positive peace is far reaching and includes creation of social systems that serve the needs of everyone in the society, most notably through the constructive resolution of conflict. Therefore, it is important to design the different types of interventions with this in mind. Negative peace interventions are designed to prevent and mitigate violent episodes and are more relevant to be applied to episodic violence. For instance, in the event of violent protests, the police could be deployed to disperse violent crowds in a civil manner and government officials could create an official platform for them to air their grievances, such as a town-hall meeting. On the other hand, positive peace interventions involve social and cultural transformations that are long term and are aimed at the reduction of structural violence. In the case of violent protests, positive peace interventions would focus more on the upholding of the rule of law in relation to elections and governance. The intervention would be more concerned with re-establishing a fair electoral system that all citizens can participate in rather than just focusing on the current eruption of violence.