Introduction to Practices of Violence

The Goal and the background

Exploring new directions in research comprises the adaption of state-of-the-art approaches into specific research fields. Accordingly, the Online Research Encyclopaedia will explore the potential of practise theory in conceptual (what are practices of violence?) and pragmatic (how to empirical research those practises) respect.

Proponents of practice theory argue that neither exclusively people (or genes) nor social (or else situational) contexts provoke specific types of action. It is rather assumed that practices exist which are ready for performance and which – what is more – even guide it. As regards collective violence these could, for example, be practices of violent control and coercion. Examples are terror (not terrorism) and torture but also places as gathering points for practices serving the purposes mentioned above such as camps where, for instance, practices of torture are actualized. And finally, complex forms of practices or bundles of practices such as wars or genocides, both of which also as a whole can be considered practices. Especially phenomena such as camps and wars provide additional samples to work out a central aspect of approaches of practical theory, namely the part artefacts play in initiating and shaping actions.

The aim of investigating practices of violence in historically and regionally diverse cultural settings is to empirically explore the potentials of an alternative (yet by no means exclusive) explanatory approach for the handing down of forms of violent control and the coercion of humans by other humans that have been virulent for centuries.

What are practises?

“There is not one theory of practice, but it is a family of similar theoretical approaches.” (Schäfer and Everts 2019, 9, transl. CG). In these introductory remarks we will refer to a couple of authors and concepts without, however, excluding other points of view as a matter of principle

“Practices exist as sets of norms, conventions, ways of doing, know-how and requisite material arrays” (Shova and Panzar, 2007, p.155). Considered from a conceptional point of view, practices-as-entities and practices-as-performances are often differentiated (ibid., p.166). Others speak of the form or pattern ‘practice’ on one hand and the performance ‘praxis’ on the other hand (Alkemeyer, Buschmann and Michaeler, 2015, p.27). Within the context of the encyclopaedia we will for pragmatic reasons only use the term practice.

Artefacts & routines

Practice theories stress the relevance ascribed to artefacts. This refers to the material world that is not only created, used and manipulated but that can itself guide or even force actions (Latour, 2006, pp. 369–398).

Further, routines (consciously trained) or habits (unplanned appropriation) are issues relevant to practice-theory (Bongearts, 2007, p.256). By no means are these described as unalterable but rather as changeable by a number of processes such as appropriation, interpretation and problem solving (Jaeger-Erben, 2010, p.260). Variations are not only necessary because routines and habits are individually appropriated but also because social and material relationships are complex (Reckwitz, 2003, p.294). All in all, a practice-theoretical approach to collective violence allows a comparative investigation of practices of varying forms and sizes (e. g. torture, camp, war), their handing down over centuries and their specific historical appropriation and actualization.

For this reason, it is the aim of empirical research interested in practices of violence to investigate a historically and regionally as diverse variety of cultural settings as possible. As the differences between the settings might easily make the comparisons seem arbitrary, a rigid contextualization of the practices in question is necessary. Therefore, here we explore practices of control and coercion in the context of collective violence.

Past practice theoretical research on violence

Research on violence has only rarely investigated practices in the way the Encyclopaedia aims to do. The term occurs as early as in the 1990s in influential sociological texts. For example, Trutz von Trotha, with reference to Wolfgang Sofsky, demanded a pointed investigation of practices of violence (Trotha, 1997, p.20). However, Sofsky referred rather to performances, for example, when investigating a historical case of infanticides (Sofsky, 2001, p.49) These analyses do not include practises that are to be appropriated or handed down, as outlined above. Beyond the German-speaking area, for example, the sociologist Daniel Feierstein referred to genocide as a social practice (engl.: Genocide as a social practice, in the Spanish original El genocidio como práctica social). In this context, as already indicated by the title, genocide itself is understood as a practice of forced social reorganisation (Feierstein, 2014, pp.48–51).

In his investigation of fascist groups in Italy and Germany in the 1920s-1940s, Sven Reichardt, who also contributed some theoretical groundwork, focused on the performative production of a community through shared acts of violence committed against others (Reichardt, 2004, pp.129–153). Castelli Gattinara and Caterina Froio found a similar mechanism in organizations of the current Italian extreme right although the practices are directed toward the in-group. They describe a collective martial arts exercise, a kind of pogo-dance and mutual thrashing with leather belts (Gattinara and Froio, 2014, pp.166–167).

In her book on female guards in concentration camps Elissa Mailänder speaks of violence as a social practice. She is interested in the functions of insults, slaps in the face and kicks to execute power and – which is central – to facilitate communication although she does not label and conceptualize them as practices in the way outlined in this paper (Mailänder Koslov, 2009, pp.411-424). Marc Buggeln, writing on the Neuengamme subcamps, investigated “work practices of prisoners […] guarding practices of their overseers […] practices of violence of the perpetrators [and] practices and processes of community formation.” (Reference) One of the practices investigated in this context is whipping which Buggeln traces back to antiquity. However, the question of how such a practice maintains itself, how it is handed down, remains unanswered (Buggeln, 2009, pp.355-356). Yet, in both studies practices are not of central interest. They feature as an explanatory element, a heuristic, while a genuine practice theoretical approach to research on violence would aim to investigate practices of control and coercion, their handing down and appropriation in a culture-comparative and systematic fashion. Two of these practices are slavery (or slaveries, to be precise) and torture.

Scopes of practices

The examples show that practices of various scopes exist. The term scope refers to the quantity and complexity of the instances that constitute a practice. Such instances comprise just as much artefacts such as stationary, the letter-box or the thumbscrew as they include practices such as reading or beating that also exist beyond the investigated practice in question. Accordingly, we are as much confronted with larger practices such as slavery and torture as with smaller ones such as the usage of privileged prisoners as a means of control in the context of slavery (but also and beyond this in German concentration camps, for example).

Theodore Schatzki developed a vocabulary to differentiate scopes. He points out that “[b]undles also range in complexity from pairs of practices and arrangements (e.g. a particular ritual in a particular office) to compounds of multiple practices and arrangements (e.g. a company) to linked compounds of practices and arrangements, which [he] call[s] ‘constellations’ (e.g. and economy)” (Schatzki, 2016, p.33). Accordingly, we will refer to practices as differing in size or complexity.

Frequently, smaller practices (whipping, privileged prisoners, torture) constitute larger ones (slavery). Although a kind of knowledge of the large practice – for example, to seemingly naturally fight battles or exploit people in a specific way – exists, it is only the multitude of single practices that makes battles and slaveries possible if it does not indeed constitute them as a large practice – constellation according to Schatzki and practice formation according to Hillebrandt (2015, p.41). In this context practice theoretical approaches explicitly reject the micro-macro-logic promoted in many disciplines (as it has been mentioned above as relevant for research on violence) because every phenomenon can be traced back to a bundle of practices that then can be described and analysed in the same way as other practices (Schatzki, 2016, pp.33-34).

Following Schatzki’s concept of social-sites, the Encyclopaedia aims to investigate physical places as aggregations of practices. This applies, for example, to camps (especially but not exclusively concentration camps) whose purpose (not the only one but the one relevant here) is the forced control of its inmates, their coercion into doing specific things and their murder.

Specifics of practices of violence

Practices of violence differ from many of the practices investigated heretofore in many respects. Yet depending on the specific practice of violence that is being investigated these differences are more or less pronounced. They also vary regionally and, more importantly, in terms of time (historically). Three examples should illustrate this:

(1) (Many) practices of violence are not part of what is commonly considered as normal or usual (anymore). Considered historically, violence is denormalized in many societies (Reemtsma, 2008). This means that, on the one hand, it is considered a deviation while, on the other, it is transferred to specialists (e. g. hangmen, soldiers, policemen).

(2) (Some) practices of violence are forcibly appropriated. Withdrawing is possible only to a limited degree. However, the cost of withdrawal varies considerably. In the camps of the Red Khmer it was life-threatening to deviate even slightly from the guards’ instructions (Bultmann, 2017, pp.116–141). In contrast, in the National Socialists’ concentration and elimination camps considerably more alternatives existed. It was even possible to completely evade one’s duties.

(3) (Some) practices of violence do not exist continuously but can only be found in-between long spatial and temporal distances. This applies, for example, to torture or else specific practices of torture. These differences (practice as a special case, forced participation, discontinuous performance) also contribute to the broadening of the concept of practice and its applicability.

Time and space

Slavery and torture (and further practices of violence such as terror, battles, camps) are practiced at various times and places in many cultures. Methodologically, in order to investigate these two differently sized practices, it is necessary to see that which is temporally and spatially local as determined by supratemporal and supraregional elements of the practice in question (Schatzki, 2016, p.33). Some elements of an analysis of this type are, according to Schatzki “activities, entities, rules, understandings, and teleologies” (ibid., pp.33-34). A further and more specific question asks for the purposes of a specific practice – for example, of a particular type of torture. This then is the basis for the comparison with other practices (at other times and places) defined as torture.

Social importance of practices

Practices mediate social relationships. It is difficult to imagine a practice that does not bear on social relationships. Battles, for example, lead to death, injuries, loss, suffering, recognition, material gain etc. They have the potential to bring about profound change. Finally, slaveries are social relationships that are per se regulated by violence. Therefore, to deal with practices automatically is closely related to the study of social relationships.

How to investigate practices?

How to investigate practices is a question that has not only prompted a series of suggestions but that, more importantly, has been answered by a considerable number of exemplary investigations of practices. Yet these do not accumulate to a consolidated arsenal of methods.

Affording a pragmatic approach, the respective object of investigations determines which method is best. A particular practice is actually nothing that can be simply observed. Instead researchers conceptualize something people do as a practice because it fulfills a number of criteria. Some criteria for practices are that they exist beyond individual intentionality, because they are a knowledge (a competence) to do something purposefully, because they vary but have yet a recognizable common core, because they are social (i. e., they organize relationships between agents).

Concerning practices of violence, these are identified as such previous to the investigation so that the next step consists in finding, describing and, eventually, analyzing examples for their more or less competent performance. And – this might come as a surprise – the practice is not only stored and has to be verified in its performance as Stefan Hirschauer argues: “If, however, competent behavior is moved center stage – as practice theories do – knowledge is distributed between knowing bodies, clever commentators, informative documents and intelligent machines.” (Hirschauer, 2008, p.978).

This is important inasmuch as the investigation of violence is strongly limited for ethical and practical reasons. An essential method, namely observation – if possible even participant observation (in explicit elective affinity to ethnographic research) – is missing (Röhl, 2016, p.337). The analysis of objects, buildings, instructions and descriptions of all types of acting performed by the agent becomes all the more important.

The possibility to use self-generated data for a comparative investigation of practices of a broad temporal and spatial scope is very limited. Accordingly, it is the material that already constitutes the basis of a historically oriented research on violence that must also yield information on practices – only that the interpretations of the agents, the justifications, explicit constructions of meaning, explanations for actions and the like are of less interest. Attention is paid to the human-object-constellations (Kalthoff, 2016, p.336), to the question how objects and locations inspire or even guide practices, how they are appropriated, modified (physically manipulated), and alternatively used. How something is tried out: Can electric shocks be produced by a field telephone? The frame of these indeed creative activities is set by the respective practices and by the explicit purposes. Additionally, there is the identification of the involved knowledge that exceeds handling. For example, it is important to know that privileging some prisoners prompts these to become extremely effective helpmates when controlling the non-privileged and it simultaneously prompts the latter to aim to become the former. In this way, practices exceed performances.


As regards methods, the greatest challenge will be to find sources for the relevant times and places that provide sufficient information for an analysis and, indeed, a comparison. This holds especially true for the relation between documented instructions, interpretations, but also for things and the actual performative appropriation of practices. Furthermore, it might not always be possible to decide whether a practice of violence is indeed appropriated again, that is, whether it is an actualization or whether it is a new creation. Even theoretically, this is difficult to answer because such an assessment would afford to define just when a practice can be considered new(ly created). Is this already the case when specific processes were not handed down? Or only when no trace of a kind of common knowledge – for example, of the fact that the causing of pain can be a control mechanism – can be found? (Gudehus, 2018, p.48). Even if this question can be answered by assuming a pragmatic approach to research, it is likely that often it will hardly be possible to state with absolute certainty which knowhow circulated when and in which way.


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