Deborah A. Thomas

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online January 2012 | | DOI:

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One of the hallmarks of the contemporary moment is a pervasive sense of the anarchic proliferation of, if not an actual increase in, nonstate as well as state-based violence throughout the world. Yet with few exceptions, violence has only in the past two or three decades become a topic of explicit concern among cultural anthropologists. In part, this is due to the difficulty of conducting ethnographic research within the context of violent conflict, but it also has to do with the original expectation of anthropology’s disciplinary purview. The early 20th century was dominated by psychological and functionalist paradigms that theorized violence as a natural inclination of human beings or a product of social conditions. Cultural anthropologists might have been inclined to write about “violent” societies, counterposing these with “peaceful” ones. To a degree, this sort of categorization was grounded in biological explanations (both psychological and genetic), though for the most part biology has been seen as only one of many causal factors interacting with ecology, history, and material resource acquisition and maintenance. Early ethnographic work on feuding, on the other hand, drew largely from functionalist perspectives to explain violent conflict in relation to the expectations and goals of particular societies. In other words, because ethnographers tended to be preoccupied with acephalous or “weak-state” societies, they were more often concerned with how violence operated as a mode through which social reproduction was achieved than with the ways state institutions and histories of colonialism structured both acute conflict and everyday experiences of subject formation. However, more recent research has moved away from both evolutionary-biological and functionalist arguments and has sought to situate violence within the context of regional, state, and global economic and political systems. Ethnographers have taken inspiration from Enlightenment social theory examining the social contract and the question of the monopoly of violence by the state, and post-1970s political anthropology has therefore generated important analyses of nationalism, imperialism, and colonialism that have been heavily influenced by Continental political and philosophical scholarship. These contemporary explorations of violence have tended to emphasize not only overt and spectacular forms of violence, but also the structural and symbolic dimensions of violence in everyday life.

Article.  13070 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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