I am rather late to the forum but I have a few thoughts from an anthropological perspective. I am Canadian but I work in Southern Africa since 2002 and lived in Durban, South Africa until last year (as well as time spent in the UK and New York). Traveling through different places with such different levels of violence made me interested in the subject.
I think that attempts to create one explanation are flawed from an anthropological perspective. There is never just one cause that fits each circumstance. Poverty never explains much in terms of violence as the majority of the poor do not violence. Some have postulated that levels of inequality help explain that and South Africa stands as an example of that but some Southeast Asian countries with similar levels of inequality do not experience such violence.
So perhaps it comes down to issues of culture and how local cultural responses fit with issues of inequality, poverty, marginalisation within society more broadly.
In my work with the Bushmen I am always surprised at how little external violence exists although some communities have turned inwards with domestic violence and even murders. No matter the poverty of the community in South Africa I always new students were save going to visit them but was always concerned when students wished to do urban projects in Durban as safety is a real issue in the city centre.
I guess in short each group, place and people needs to be understood in own right in light of their own histories. Overarching theories of violence seem to exclude too many examples of difference to be useful as a tool to understand violence.
I came to anthropology from another phd I was doing in peace and conflict studies. One of the major problems I had was with the definitions and to exorcise what I had just been through I wrote this paper. Maybe it can be of help http://openanthcoop.ning.com/forum/topics/the-roots-of-violence?com...
Have a look at Rene Girard's mimetic theory. He holds that violence is at the origin, and indeed the necessary cause, of all social formations.
A good entry point is his book Violence and the Sacred or the book Violent Origins (really interesting debate!).
An interesting way to look at violence from a different standpoint
it is my personal view that term (and phenomena) "civilization" includes only material side of culture - instruments of labour, technics, work systems, economy etc. And I also understand and admit the weak point of my argue. Culture (for me) is a general meaning; civilization is its partial representation.
Violence is a constant effort to sustain certain reality. It is a response, produced from the contact between the individual and the individual-world that he/she sustains. Like there's heat transference between two contacting surfaces, there's also sound emerging from the same contact and other forms of energy. Violence is an inmanent/adaptative respose that finds it's way depending on the way the individual or the group of individuals model it.
While some groups may grow a physical violence, others grow and breed indifference and superbia as the response to sustain their respective reality.
Non-physical violence is almost politically and morally accepted. Sub-clinical. Same thing from the same source at last. Our will to sustain this reality, is a certain kind of violence in some grade as long as we do not accept what reality is in its true sense, beyond our illusions.
Finally, I think, violence is just a common and immediate response emerging from our adaptative and systematic nature, a struggle to sustain our delusion. I do not think there is away out of it, beyond our life-cycle nature, which is inexorably adaptative.
I find it interesting that literally all the explanations offered here are either psychological or sociological -- none are, strictly speaking, anthropological. And I wonder whether this reflects a drift in the field of anthropology itself in those directions, and away from its original purpose. As I see it, if you are looking for the roots of violence you have no choice but to consider deep history, based on evidence gleaned from ethnography, archaeology, and, in more recent terms, population genetics. I've written a fair amount on the origins of violence in my new book, Sounding the Depths, especially chapters Six, Ten (see discussion of the Ik) and Eighteen (see references to Wade and Fukuyama). It's available for free at: http://soundingthedepths.blogspot.com/
All I'll add is that, yes, as at least one responder suggested, it's essential to distinguish between individual violence, which is often a purely psychological or interpersonal issue, and socially sanctioned violence, which is more properly the concern of sociology and anthropology. Every society includes violent individuals, and there are always specific situations that can lead to violence regardless of what type of sociey one is living in. But not every society sanctions violence, nor are there all that many which actively discourage it. It's only when we consider the distribution of such societies worldwide that we get some useful clues as to its origins.
Aggressive tendencies which exist in humankind are not purely instinctual; but rather derive from drives established in our primate past. Instinct is an invariable inherited impulse to do something and the activity to perform that act (Gilmore 1987:15). On the one hand, drives are quite variable in their final aims and can be altered by a change in the historical-material conditions, as well as by social factors. An aggressive individual in a non-storing band in the Paleolithic might strive to become a highly respected hunter who procured game and gave it to others; but an aggressive individual in a storing society, one with a storable-stealable-surplus, might aspire to hoard food or the means to procure it.
Furthermore, the aggressive drive can be organized by leaders who band together other aggressive individuals and control their aggression for a common end (Wilson 1988:181). Once a storable-stealable-surplus was available, aggressive leaders organized other go-getters’ “aggressive power” and they set about to organize and control labor power. As Peter J. Wilson put it, “The organization of the capacity for aggression must surely be considered a step in the evolution of human conduct and a contribution to the growth of civilization…”. Such tendencies were organized into a political structure and a military organization to access the wealth of others and, ultimately, to control territory and people. Neither political nor military organization on a large scale was indicative of non-storing Paleolithic peoples but became commonplace after the Agricultural Revolution.
We must distinguish between “little violence” and “big violence.” The former presumably existed in non-storing Paleolithic band life and does today in ethnographic accounts from hunting and gathering peoples. For example, the bare-handed, non-lethal attacks recorded by Lee (1979:453) 97 percent were Ju/’hoansi (!Kung) men beating women and only one recorded case of a woman attacking a man. These were bare-fisted affairs; but men also hold all the weapons and have a coercive psychological edge in gender relations. Shostak (1981:307) writes that when a conflict appears to be getting out of hand between men and women, the men are known to say: “I’m a man. I've got my arrows. I am not afraid to die.” Lee found that of known murders among the Ju/’hoansi, all were perpetrated by men and some of the victims were women.
For the Mbuti hunter-gatherers, Colin Turnbull (1961:127) indicated that men and women were not entirely equal. In public affairs, men took precedence. Men were associated with, hunting, power and influence, while women were allied with nurturing roles. This dichotomy came out violently in male-female relations, since Mbuti men said that a certain amount of wife beating was good (1961:127). These data on the Ju/’hoansi and Mbuti societies do not indicate peaceful and fully egalitarian societies, but rather ones that only have “little violence,” not highly organized violence i.e., militia and armies. These came about once a storable-stealable-surplus stimulated aggressive men to organize “big violence” to defend their surplus and homesteads and also to attack the stores of others.
Humankind would not have evolved and survived without the drive to violence. It was essential in both defense against animal aggressors and in the procurement of food. Hunters killed to get game and also used violence to drive off animals eating carrion so that they could have the remainder of the meat for themselves. But, again, this was “little violence.” “Big violence” or organized warfare only came about with the advent of a storable-stealable-surplus and the political organization to develop the means of destruction.
Gilmore, David D. 1987. Aggression and Community: Paradoxes of Andalusian Culture . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Lee, Richard. 1979. The !Kung San. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Shostak, Marjorie. 1981. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Turnbull, Colin M. 1961. The Forest People. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wilson, Peter. 1988. The Domestication of the Human Species. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
I agree with Eugene regarding the parallel between the onset of organized violence and the coming of a storable surplus and its consequences.
Environmental history of countries is many times, if not always, a quest for resources. The means to obtain them often modify geographically and environmentally the scenario in question and surely modifying ourselves.
Structural coupling between these characters and their scenarios renders different degrees of violence.