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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 08-Nov-06


Wednesday 08-November-06

Social violence

Pierre Bourdieu was a 20th century French sociologist who was interested in power and its application, which is not surprising as power is a significant element of sociology and all relationships have elements of power, whether or not it is used. Power can be described as 'the ability to get what you want', and in social situations that often occurs in dependency relationships, for example where one person has an obligation to another person then the second person has the power of calling in the favor. This giving and getting favors is very similar to giving and getting money, which economists call 'capital'. And like money, the capital of power is not always distributed fairly. Managers have vested power. Big men have physical power, which is felt as threat (it is no surprise that the average executive is both male and taller than average).

Some call this power 'social capital', but Bourdieu goes a step further by recognizing that it is not real capital but something symbolic in the way that it is non-verbal, non-tangible. And as with any power, you can use it for good and ill, to help or harm others. Sometimes this is deliberate, and the wielding of power creates more power as my threat to you leads you to give more power to me (power is, in many cases, illusory and symbolic only). Other symbols include how we dress, the size of our office, how we speak and so on, and each contributes to the power that other people cede to us. Thus not only taller men have symbolic capital: a shorter woman can significantly increase her power by dressing smartly, wearing expensive jewellery, talking aggressively, and so on. In doing so, when others (of any height or gender) feel bruised by her actions or appearance, then symbolic violence is done.

Life can easily become a non-stop power struggle in which symbolic capital leads to unquestioned obedience. Much use of power is subconscious and not realized as being used by it's wielders, and even those who are the subject of symbolic violence. It is, however, a very small step to open your eyes to see what you are doing and see what is being done to you. And then you can start to do something about it.

Your comments

I have seen life as the "non-stop power struggle" you describe. I see it within my job and at home. I have noticed an increase in the lack of communicating and sharing ideas, whereas now people want to be right and thus by being "right" they are taking "power" away from me (and others). When I try and explain a position or idea I am called argumentative and told "You can't stand to be wrong, etc.." My purpose in the discussions whether it be at work or home is to educate, inform or be educated and informed but alas the "power struggle" invades the discussions and the symbolic violence is perpetrated against me to increase the other's power. I am always shocked by the hostile response I receive when putting forth alternate ideas. This blog has made me realize why it happens and now I may be able to circumvent the violence by trying to avoid what others see as a challenge to their "authority" and "power".

-- Monae Dasher

Dave replies:
Hello Monae. I studied Tai Chi for 15 years and found that the physical methods there of yielding then guiding can be applied to the rest of life. If the other person wants to fight, I yield at the rate at which they push, so I am always just out of harm's way. It is difficult to fight nothing, so they eventually calm down and return to their home position. I follow them there also and see if I can guide them to somewhere else. The most powerful power is not felt. The best power helps others.

 There is no clearer place to see social violence than in a contentious divorce. I have written a book and created a website explaining step by step how it worked in a real case, see (

Rachel Simmons wrote an important book on social violence among adolescent girls, "Odd Girl Out". In this book she does a longitudinal study of showing how the girls develop their social aggressive skills.

Note, 'social' does not mean it is ineffective. Social violence is used to suppress peoples development or even to murder. In my opinion this is what happened to Megan Meier (

-- Tom L

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