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Practices of (collective) violence

Christian Gudehus, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, IFHV

Collective violence

Research on violence is not a discipline but a field or – if a closer look is taken – even a number of fields because the definitions of violence, the research theories, methods, and explanations considerably differ.

The encyclopaedia will focus on collective violence. This includes violent events, actions, relationships ascribed to groups. People hurt and are hurt because they belong to a group or are perceived as belonging to a group. These attributions and self-attributions are not the only reasons for the performance or experience of violence, and they need not be relevant to all participating agents but they make it possible to conceptualize them as justifiable and justified actions. The assault was carried out and just because the addressees belonged to another group that may or even must be fought. Further differentiation can be made.

Group membership

Definitions that focus on group membership as such contain a basic theoretical premise that can be found in varying forms in all theories of collective violence: It is necessary for pogroms, massacres, wars, and genocides – to mention but a few forms of this type of violence – to distinguish between in- and outgroups. This is true, but it can explain very little because the psychological and social formation of difference is a fundamental human skill and activity. Marilynn Brewer investigated the circumstances under which this principally useful differentiation becomes a psychological premise for violence (2001, pp.17–41). Richard Jenkins found that ethnicity as a fluid and social entity, generated by practices is not solely responsible for motivating actions and does not predetermine the direction (e. g. pro vs. contra) an action takes. An extensive political and economic contextualization on a local level and beyond is needed (1997).

Three levels

Accordingly, approaches address the phenomenon at different levels. Traditionally, macro-, meso- and microlevel are distinguished. The former refers to large groups such as states. In this context, security dilemmas, ideologies, concepts of territories, etc. come into view. The middle section – meso – discusses, for example, social milieus contributing to processes of radicalization. At the micro-level, research concerns itself with the acting agents. Those levels are not addressed in most practice-theoretical approaches as explained here.

Perpetrator research & sociology of violence

Depending on the chosen vantage points, it comprises all participants engaged in the process of destruction regardless of whether they participate intentionally or not; or is limited to those who execute violence – the so-called perpetrators. Concerning these, a special field of research has developed, perpetrator research. This term dominates approaches of the historical and social sciences. Usually, case descriptions or case studies (often based on extensive fieldwork) are linked up with theoretical concepts and empirical findings from many different fields of research. Apart from these, especially in Germany, the sociology of violence has evolved since the 1990s that focuses on the explanatory reconstruction of relevant events and actions. Both – to some degree also related approaches – can be set off against research focusing on causes for violence.

Psychology of evil

A third vein of research predominantly located in the Anglo countries can be made out that might, according to the titles that are used without any irony, be called Psychology of Evil. It shares some features with German perpetrator research but is not as closely related to historical sciences. These studies often connect a whole range of quite different psychological and socio-psychological approaches explaining individual action. A few of them develop original approaches. There are more very fertile and very diverse approaches to collective violence. These include works of organizational sociology such as those challenging the whole rhetoric of ethnicity, nation, and (collective) identity and that consequently dispute fundamental research terms.

Even though they are as yet far from mainstream, for some years now socio-theoretical concepts whose central topics are action, social order and social change (Joas and Knöbl, 2004, p.37) have been adopted by research on violence. For example, figurational analysis and concepts of habitus are operationalized (for an overview, Gudehus, 2018). Violence is discussed in the context of the emergence of social orders (Beck and Schlichte, 2014). Textbooks refer to such approaches (Alvarez & Bachman, 2014) and there are elemental works on the impacts such theories might have on genocide studies (Friedrich, 2012). A relatively new development are approaches that propose a methodology of a processual explanation of violence, analytically retelling the events step by step (Hoebel and Knöbl, 2019). In this way, explanation, analysis and narration fall into one.

Distinct theories of action deserve even more attention. The literature on collective violence includes, for example, elaborations of concepts of habitus (Bakonyi and Bliesemann de Guevara, 2012). Actually, also terms borrowed from the toolbox of practice theory and partially related to theories of habitus are employed (Reichardt, 2004; Buggeln, 2009; Springmann, 2019). Especially practice theoretical approaches allow even more radical perspectives on actions in the context of collective violence. This holds particularly true if methods of control and the coercion of opponents and prisoners such as terror, torture, or camps are investigated, the knowledge (know-how) of which has been handed down for millennia. Attention is then paid to forms of appropriation of these practices and their actualization in the course of time. Considered from this viewpoint, questions on the intentionality of damaging action or of human evil (Psychology of Evil) itself fade into the background.

Practices of violence

The vein of research introduced here takes exactly this at its point of departure. In a nutshell: Violence is neither to be understood as a function of specific historical constellations nor as a result of individual deformation nor as a consequence of social dynamics. Instead, the comparison of cultures along the dimensions of time and space concerned with the generation, existence, appropriation, and perhaps the opting out from – or of – practices is of interest.

What are practises?

“There is not one theory of practice, but it is a family of similar theoretical approaches” (Schäfer and Everts 2019, p.9, quotation transl. by CG).

In many publications the terms practice and praxis are used synonymously. Yet there are also differentiations, for example, when the form or pattern “practice” is set against the performance “praxis” (Alkemeyer et al., 2015, p.27). In contrast to this, Stefan Hirschauer proposes using praxis as the generic term subsuming three types of (constructions of) meaning: activities (interactive meaning), action (subjective meaning) and practices (collective meaning) (2016, p.51). As much as this differentiation makes sense from a heuristic point of view, as little can it be recommended in the context of pragmatic research considerations because, for example, for every utterance, including those of third parties (for example, when referring to the literature), it would have to be decided which meaning was intended.

“Practices exist as sets of norms, conventions, ways of doing, know-how and requisite material arrays” (Shove & Panzar, 2007, p.155). Considered from a conceptional point of view, practices-as-entities and practices-as-performances are often differentiated (Ibid., p.166). Correspondingly, the relation between their ability to form and to guide performance or else their indeed idiosyncratic appropriation by individuals is discussed (Alkemeyer et al., 2015). Therefore, it may be argued, on the one hand, that practices prefigure options for actions – as is the case with frames, habitus, figuration and social norms (Gudehus, 2016). On the other, it is human activity that sustains and varies these options or that lets them fade away. Accordingly, a similar statement concerning practices has it that “on one side of the coin, practitioners are captured by practices. On the other, practices are defined and constituted through participation” (Shove & Pantzar, 2007, p.156).

In practice theory, human action comes into view as processes of interpretation, appropriation and, eventually, as constituting reality. These approaches claim to go beyond conventional theories of action especially in that they radically emphasize practice as place of the social (Reckwitz, 2003, p.289; Bongearts, 2007; Schulz-Schaeffer, 2010). In this way not only the relevance of ideas, attitudes and, consequently, reflections that precede intentional decisions to act are put into perspective. Rather practice itself, i.e., beyond the individuals practising and the societies generating it, becomes the central subject of analysis (Reckwitz, 2002; Hörning, 2004). Hence practices are supra-individual, otherwise they would be actions (Haasis & Rieske, 2015, p.33). Or as Hirschauer argues, “action is every segment of a practice that is carried by a body” (2016, p.51, quotations transl. by JH). As regards violence, this means that its performance is not investigated as a consequence of certain conditions but as an indeed creative appropriation of already existing practices of the power to oppress and control. Their performance becomes routine, a natural and formative element of the respective sociality that is being investigated. As a consequence, it has been found for fascist combat leagues (German: Kampfbünde) that their coherence was created by the very performance of violence (Reichardt, 2004, p.141). A similar argumentation is applied to the National Socialist Volksgemeinschaft (although no reference is being made to practice theory) that was actually much more than an ideological concept in that it too was continuously created performatively and especially by violent actions of varying intensity (Wildt, 2007; Bajohr & Wildt, 2012). Accordingly, the object of investigation is not even a specific action (anymore), but, for example, beating and torture as already existing knowledge “out there” that is appropriated by individuals (Schatzki, 2008, p.106). Two more aspects must be stressed. First, 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, p.256). Second, also routines (consciously trained) or habits (unplanned appropriation) are issues relevant to practice-theory (Bongaerts, 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, empirical research interested in practices of violence should aim 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, I suggest to explore practices of control and coercion in the context of collective violence.


Practices do not only change or fade away, but they must of course also and first of all develop. Such processes are historically comprehensible. The genesis or emergence, the differentiation, and the fading out of practices is similar to those of species. According to evolutionary theory, nature mutates all the time. Some mutations are more helpful than others. Those animals or plants that develop variations that fit in very well with the environmental conditions are more likely to survive than others. And with them their – mutated – genes will not only survive but become dominant in a particular environment. Practices are the product of creative reactions or actions that relate to a need (communication, control, lust/fun, etc.) in a specific social and physical environment. Something becomes a practice when it is no longer connected to the will and intention of individuals but is a knowledge an option that individuals relate to in one way or another. They will vanish only when they do no longer attract humans. The reasons for that may be manifold. Practices could lose their relevance for a new generation (wearing beautiful clothes on a Sunday) unless, for example, simply better – (now) more functional – practices exist (the use of social media vs. letter writing).

Finally, praxeology is discussed in an ever-growing number of disciplines and fields. But even within just one discipline, sociology, for example, praxeology is not conceptualised as a hermetically fixed narrative (Hillebrandt, 2014, p.117). There is not one practice theory but a multiplicity of approaches – theoretical and empirical. What is presented here therefore represents only a fraction of what this research approach has to offer.

Practices in the context of violence research – a very brief overview

Practices are options to act. What is more, they are calls to action. Marrying (Schäfer, 2016a, p.12) or writing letters (Haasis & Rieske, 2015, pp.7-12) are examples of practices that illustrate this. People write or wrote letters because knowing how to do it is or was part of a context guiding their actions. This context consists of letters that are delivered by the post, of letter boxes into which they are put, of stamps and stationery, of reading (aloud), of the ability to read and to write. What is required now is the taking on, the respective individual appropriation, the development of a style etc. It is here where individual intentionality has its place; individuals decide how they write a letter or how exactly they celebrate their wedding. Yet especially this example also shows how prone to change and inconsistent some practices are in the long run. Even if writing letters will not die out, it will probably be practiced on fewer occasions. Technical innovations have brought about other forms of written communication that are tried out, refused, accepted, appropriated and that eventually become new practices. Their existence and performance have consequences. Thus, the closer forms of writing are to orality – depending on whether letters, emails or instant messenger is used – the more emotionally relevant signals (I am perceived, loved etc.) occur with the corresponding consequences for social interactions.

As has been hinted at, research on violence has only rarely investigated practices in this sense. 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 (1997, p.20). However, Sofsky referred rather to performances, for example, when investigating a historical case of infanticides (2001, p.49). These analyses do not include practices 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 (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 (2014, pp.48-51).

In his investigation of fascist groups in Italy and Germany in the 1920s-1940s, Sven Reichardt who also contributed crucial theoretical groundwork (Reichardt, 2007) focused on the performative production of a community through shared acts of violence committed against others (Reichardt, 2004, pp.129-53). Castelli Gattinara and Caterina Froio found a similar mechanism in organizations of the current Italian extreme right although the practices were directed toward the in-group. They describe a collective martial arts exercise, a kind of pogo-dance and mutual thrashing with leather belts (2014, pp.166-7).

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 as means 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 (2009, pp.411-24). 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”. 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 (2009, p.19, pp.355-6). Yet in both studies practices are not of central interest. They feature as an explanatory element, a heuristic approach 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. Christian Gudehus and Michaela Christ have a chapter with 13 entries on such practices as assassinations, so called disappearences, executions, or simply a slap in the face in their edited handbook on violence (Gudehus und Christ 2013, pp.99-175).

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). The examples of marrying and writing letters already indicate that research literature investigates practices of varying sizes and complexity. Further examples are censorship, archiving, negotiating (Brendecke, 2015). Corresponding to the topic collective violence, Marian Füssel shortly points out with reference to the example of battles that these consist of a number of practices (deployment, songs, planning, lootings). Yet he does not conceive of the battle itself as a practice (2015, pp.32-3). Additionally, 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.32) As these terms are not binding, I suggest referring to practices as differing in size or complexity. Accordingly, Frank Hillebrandt suggests a logic of differentiation employing different terms and distinguishes between “practices as individual events, types of practices as single practices linked up to forms of practice, and practice formations as a collection of different discursive material elements” (2015, p.40; quotation transl. by JH). 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, Praxisformation, i. e. practice formation according to Hillebrandt). 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.33-4).

Following Schatzki’s concept of social-sites, I propose to investigate physical places as aggregations of practices. He describes social-sites as a network of orders (consisting of humans, artefacts and things) and practices (Schatzki, 2002, p.XI). 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.

The argument that violence may be researched with approaches not developed for violence but for action or, more generally, for practices should not prevent the recognition of possible special features of violent practices. However, the question is if these features are unique to such practices and if they therefore require particular theoretical consideration. 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.116-7, p.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. Michael Mann mentions some instances when people refused to (continue to) participate in killings without serious consequences (2005, pp.68-9). Nonetheless, an undetermined number of murderers felt they must obey unjust commands to avoid severe punishment – as, for example, reported by the affected Obersturmführer (first lieutenant of the SS) Albert Hartel (Klee et al., 1988, pp.85-6). Still the pressure was considerably lower than in the cases of Cambodia or Rwanda.

(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.

The next-to-last two dimensions of the approach promulgated in this paper correspond to the already introduced levels of the comparison of practices: time and space. Or in the words of Theodore Schatzki “Practices, arrangements, and bundles extend over objective time and space.” (2016, p.32) People have married and will marry in one way or another in probably all cultures and for all time. Marrying is thus a supratemporal and -regional practice that is practiced in completely different forms. Although fortunately not to be found quite as often, slavery and torture (and further practices of violence such as terror, battles, camps) are also practiced at various times and places in many cultures. Methodologically speaking, 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 (Ibid., p.33). Some elements of an analysis of this type are, according to Schatzki, “activities, entities, rules, understandings, and teleologies” (Ibid., p.33-4). 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.

Practices mediate social relationships. It is difficult to imagine a practice that does not bear on social relationships. Marrying, for example, can lead to changes in an individual’s status and roles that exceed the married pair by far. Writing letters might mean to begin relationships, to care for, to vary or to finish them. Battles 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.


There are a number of proposals and especially a considerable number of exemplary investigations of practices. However, we cannot speak of a consolidated arsenal of methods. It is even discussed whether there are any specific methods of practice theory (pro: Schäfer, 2016b; contra: Shove, 2017). Affording a pragmatic approach, the respective object of investigation 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 fulfils a number of criteria. Marrying, writing letters and torture are practices because they exist beyond individual intentionality, because they are a kind of 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), etc.

Concerning practices of violence, these are identified as such previous to the investigation so that the next step consists in finding, describing and, eventually, analysing 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 behaviour is moved centre stage – as practice theories do – knowledge is distributed between knowing bodies, clever commentators, informative documents and intelligent machines” (2008, p.978, quotation transl. by JH). 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, Röhl, 2016, p.337) – is missing. 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 lesser interest. Attention is paid to the human-object-constellations (Kalthoff, 2016, p.236), 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: Is it possible to write on a napkin? Can electric shocks be produced by a field telephone? If so, it may become an artefact in the context of torture practices (Rejali, 2007, p.197-8). 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. One of the most demanding tasks is to document how such kinds of knowledge are stored: When a given practice has not been carried out for some time, it seems to have vanished. The ultimate goal of a research program on practices of violence would be the comparison of cultures along the dimensions of time and space concerned with the generation, existence, appropriation and perhaps the opting out from – or of – practices. In this way it is possible (1) to test whether such an approach can develop an explanatory force in its own right and especially in cases when (2) a historical and regional omnipresence of practices of violence is sought to be explained.

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? Even if this question can be answered by assuming a pragmatic approach to research, it is likely that often it will be hardly possible to state with absolute certainty which knowhow circulated when and in which way. This might be one reason why useful comparisons, for example, of torture practices so far have only been delivered for the twentieth century.

A further qualifying argument is that a research on violence focussing on practices will not be able to explain complex phenomena comprehensively on their own account. Accordingly, Atlantic slavery could only be understood if seen in its context of the transformation of objects, people, and social relations to goods. This might be the case. Yet it could be argued from a practice theoretical vantage point that these processes also consist of many permanently flexible practices. Thus, the fundamental decision has to be made just how comprehensively research on practices of violence must be laid out: either as focussed on violence that consequently must be defined more precisely – or as focussed on comprehensive phenomena such as the diverse forms of slaving. In view of the complexity of the second question and the hitherto scarce empirical preliminary work a restriction to the former seems to be advisable at this point of time. Following this path, a medium-term aim could be the development of a historical anthropology of practices of violence. This could aim at the generalizations of research results on specific practices.

Christian Gudehus is a senior scholar at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum. He supervises the project.


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