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Moral Economies of Violence: a Deep Historical View

… It should be this evening that we use three hundred qiang-captives (in sacrifice) to (Ancestor) Ding. Use. (Heji 293, Late Shang oracle-bone divinatory inscription (ca. 1200 B.C.))

Fan Chi asked about benevolence. The Master said, “love humanity”. He asked about knowledge. The Master said, “know humanity”. (Attributed to Confucius (6th C B.C.) - The Analects)

The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable. (“Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Walter Benjamin, 1940)

The above three quotations, spanning 3000 years, frame the enduring issue of violence and civilization. On first sight, the moral and cultural distance between the large-scale use of human beings as offerings to the gods and ancestors interchangeable with cattle or sheep – hacked, burned, drowned or buried alive – and the moral philosophy of Confucius a mere six hundred years later, seems an impassable chasm. Yet to bracket Shang practices of collective violence as mere reflections of Bronze Age savagery is to hold that view of history that Benjamin claims is untenable. It is, moreover, to forget that in the time of Confucius the practice of retainer sacrifice was enjoying a modest comeback under the auspices of filial piety (Huang 2001) even as inter-polity violence reached hitherto unprecedented scale and destructiveness. Even more troubling, the hierarchy of being and caring fundamental to Confucius’ moral philosophy and foundational to major currents in later Chinese constructions of authority, bears more than a family resemblance to the hierarchy of being that structured the Late Shang moral economy of war and sacrifice.

Nor, in this current era of genocide, war, and terror can we claim the high ground of history. Rather, we must recognize that violence is a human problem (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois 2004: 3) and broadened to include symbolic (Bourdieu 2000, 1998, 1990), structural (Farmer 1997) and everyday violences (Kleinman 2000), in short, all the various mechanisms by which social suffering comes about, violence, broadly construed, becomes one of the most central social-historical issues. Violence and Civilization, moreover, have been topics long intertwined in the social sciences. While Marx and scholars inspired by him have seen human history in terms of the dialectics of class struggle, and social complexity as attended by relations of dominance and inequality, Weber famously defined the state in terms of a monopoly over the use of force . In archaeology however, despite being the discipline most directly involved in the study of the origins or early stages of civilizations and states , and despite the recent shift from evolutionary typologies to a focus on how ancient polities actually worked , the issue of violence and civilization has scarcely been broached. At the same time, while a number of disciplines have recently contributed to the study of violence in human societies and the anthropology of violence has become a burgeoning sub-field, relatively little attention has been given to the deep historical dimensions of social violence both in the sense of studies of ancient societies and in the sense of long-term diachronic changes in practices of social violence. If it is true, as the war, oppression, terrorism and genocide of the last hundred years tragically suggests, that violence in its many forms is still very much with us, then it is also true that some forms of violence, such as human sacrifice or slavery, appear to be more features of past societies than present ones. If practices and institutions of violence are fundamentally social/cultural (contra Hobbes) and intertwined with political and economic regimes in the modern world, then changes in those cultural, political and economic regimes over time ought to affect the forms (structural, symbolic, or physical) and roles (direct or indirect) of violence. An exploration of the relationships between changing socio-cultural orders and violence broadly conceived would then be a productive, if under-explored avenue of research. Indeed, if violence, broadly construed, is a potential aspect of power on the one hand, and of inequality on the other, then studies of inequality and complexity can scarcely afford to ignore it.

Equally controversial and multivalent is the concept of “civilization”. Whether seen as part of the conceptual baggage of European colonialism (eg. Patterson 1997), the unfinished work of the Enlightenment (eg. Elias 1994) or simply the larger cultural sphere in which polities are discursively and practically embedded (eg. Yoffee 2005, Trigger 2003, Marcus and Feinman 1998), “civilization” is always seen in some relationship to violence (whether overt or structural, whether taming it or promoting it). While it might be argued that this ambiguity is reason enough to abandon the concept of “civilization”, I would instead claim that this very ambivalence points to the significance of the nexus of normativity, order, identity, distinction and power that all the above conceptions of civilization hold in common, a nexus about which we are still unsure what to think. If the violence of the 20th century shattered much of the 19th century optimism concerning the inevitable progress of “civilization” (seen in terms of a reified Western tradition) and undermined its justifications for imperialism and colonialism, the continued relevance of “civilization” is nevertheless on display in its strategic deployment by former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s renaming of the “war on terror” as the “struggle against the enemies of freedom and civilization”. If Western constructions of civilization have had an ambivalent relationship to violence and domination, including and excluding, hierarchically ordering and structuring both agency and power, then as some archaeologists (eg. Baines and Yoffee 1998, Van Buren and Richards 2000) have shown in their studies of early civilizations, the creation of discursive as well as political dominions and world orders is not a phenomenon limited to the modern West. Violence and civilization then, is a fundamental human social-historic issue. That being so, it seems germane to ask of “civilization” the question asked of “violence” – “How do discursive and practical orders of identity and difference and their related social and political structures change over time? Or, “How is ‘civilization’ locally instantiated?” Combining these questions we can then ask, “What are the relationships between these historically constituted civilizational orders and their regimes of violence (sporadic or routine, instrumental or structural, physical or discursive) over time?”

Moral Economies of Violence:

The broad notion of violence that I propose here moves away from the usual understanding of violence in terms of intention to a focus on effects, such as the causes of “social suffering” (Kleinman et al. 1997). For, as Bauman argues, “intent” is “totally inadequate to cope with the present challenge of a planet-wide interdependence …” (100) where the proximate causes of suffering frequently have their ultimate origins in larger structures and logics of inequity. A focus on social suffering would also open a conceptual space for the grounding of violence in terms of its local moral experience. If we follow Kleinman (1999) in seeing moral experience in terms of local, inter-subjective claims about “what matters”, then violence can be seen as an overturning or ignoring of those claims. Moreover, as this inter-subjective space is always culturally constructed as well as performatively brought into being, and, in so far as not everyone’s suffering counts equally, it is constructed in a moral economy structured with hierarchies of being and caring. That is to say: the context of social violence must include its “moral economy”.

In another line of reasoning productive to the study of social violence Kleinman (1999) contrasts moral experience with ethical discourse stating that while “the latter is an abstract articulation and debate over codified values”, “conducted by elites, both global and local” (363), “moral experience is always about practical engagements in a particular local world, a social space that carries cultural, political, and economic specificity. It is about positioned views and practices: a view from somewhere and an action that becomes partisan” (365). What is productive about this distinction from the point of view of studying regimes of violence over time is the potential for disjuncture,

"… to be sure, what is at stake in a local world may involve a moral economy of systematic injustice, bad faith, and even horror. Yes; from an ethnographic perspective what is at stake, what morally defines a local world, may be, when viewed in comparative perspective, corrupt, grotesque, even downright inhuman. That is to say, the moral may be unethical, just as the ethical may be irrelevant to moral experience." (366)

For the (pre)historian of social violence, this distinction and possible disjuncture between ethical and moral action suggests at least two levels of analysis. It opens up the question of the relationships or tensions between local moral economies of violence and their larger (ethical) institutional and discursive contexts.

Moreover, since both the moral and the ethical are grounded in local and translocal economies, institutions and practices, analysis must proceed both diachronically and over a number of scales. "For the ethnographer like the social historian, in order to specify a local world and its transformations, it is crucial to understand how moral experience changes under the interactions between cultural representations, collective processes, and subjectivity, interactions that are in turn shaped by large-scale changes in political economy, politics, and culture. Moral experience then, possesses a genealogy just as it does a locality." (373)

A study of social violence then, as implicated in moral experience and ethical discourse , must be grounded in the contexts and histories of local and translocal worlds. This in turn suggests the study of the longue durée of social violence in addition to the scales of institutional and individual time. What are the changing bases of ethical discourse and moral experience over time and space? What social economies of violence do they construct or resist in their collusion or disjuncture?

Another, perhaps more troubling, use of Kleinman’s notion of moral-experience as inter-subjective claims about “what matters”, is its inversion in a dialectics of inter-personal violence. This involves not so much misunderstandings or lack of care about what matters locally for others as the vampiric dialectic of inter-subjective power discussed by such diverse authors as Hegel, Scarry, Patterson, Girard and Bourdieu across topics ranging from slavery to symbolic violence. In ways subtle or visceral, from adolescent put-downs (or academic “bloodsport”) to the radical subjugation of “enemies” (whether through the spectacle of sacrifice or the ritual of political trial) the inter-subjective basis for moral claims can also be the site of a dialectical struggle for relationally constituted being. As Scarry (1985:60) writes of torture, “what by the one is experienced as a continual contraction, is for the other a continual expansion, for the torturer’s growing sense of self is carried outward on the prisoner’s swelling pain”. If Bourdieu (2000) is correct in his claim that symbolic capital (honor, regard, status, recognition, etc.) grants people a “theodicy of their existence” yet can only be “won from others competing for the same power”, then forms of this agonistic dialectic of being underlie some of the most basic social relations. Nevertheless, the social opportunities for, and moral economies of expanding one’s being at the expense of another vary widely in time and space (from taking heads in battle to competition for promotion), and are the results of local and trans-local historical processes which ought to figure prominently in any diachronic study of violence and civilization.

Violence and Order:

Implied in a dialectics of relational being and caring is the potential for more or less permanent hierarchies to form. Orlando Patterson (1982), for instance, argues that a commonality of institutions of slavery cross-culturally is the production of the “socially dead”, and, conversely, through the ownership of slaves, the socially exalted. Hierarchy then, normally thought of in terms of economic, political or symbolic status, can be seen in more immanent, existential terms while violence, in both overt and covert forms, becomes intertwined with the social order. Nevertheless, violence (physical or symbolic) can serve the interests of more or less egalitarian social orders as well (Claestres 1994, Fowles, this volume). In these cases, it is not that the suffering of some individuals is deemed unimportant or even the natural order of things, but that through their actions some groups or individuals are perceived to have placed themselves beyond the community – in effect, as Agamben (1998) would have it, under the ban. These transgressors are thus constructed as situationally less than human: dangerous, monstrous, witches or sorcerers - aggressors against the social order (Douglas 1966) against whom society is forced to take action. With this we can see the inter-relationship of violence and cultural orders in general (whether egalitarian or hierarchical) in local constitutions of being and translocal politics of identity and worth. Moreover, if genocide is the limit case of violence against the Other (or insider made Other), constructed as life not worth living, then it is also true that similar (if less extreme) cultural or “civilizational” logics of relative worth shape practices of social violence as widely varied as human sacrifice, slavery, colonial domination, and the bombing of foreign civilians justified as “collateral damage”.


As I have been arguing, a notion of violence that focuses on effects need not be centered on the intentional infliction of bodily harm. Coercion through the confiscation of land or livelihood, imprisonment, hostage-taking, ostracization, excommunication, stripping of rank or honors, public humiliation, etc. can all be seen to be forms of non-physical violence. Nevertheless, looking at social violence in terms of its production of suffering requires an even wider definition. Discussing the relationship between genocide and modernity Hinton (2002) states that, “with the rise of the nation-state and its imperialist and modernizing ambitions, tens of millions of “backward” or “savage” indigenous peoples perished from disease, starvation, slave labor, and outright murder”. With this we see that there is another sense of social violence potentially intertwined with civilization, that is, non-intentional, or non-instrumental structures or processes of destruction and suffering. This type, or these types of violence include what Farmer (1997) refers to as structural violence and what Bourdieu (1990, 1998, 2000) terms symbolic violence. An overarching term for these violences might be systemic violence in so far as they are the destructive indirect, material or discursive effects of social orders and institutions. Violence in this sense is generally directly related to social hierarchies and inequalities. Examples might include retainer sacrifice in Ancient Egypt (Morris, this volume) or the Chinese Bronze Age (Campbell, this volume), or the Malthusian logic of the English response to the Irish potato famine (Kearns 2007). Modern day examples might include the translation of domestic economic hierarchies into inequalities of access to medical care or the implication of global economic hierarchies in the distribution of poverty, sickness and death. As Bauman (2006: 100) argues, “‘the distinction between a killing by an intentional individual act and killing as a result of ‘the egoistic citizens of rich countries focusing their concerns on their own well-being while the others die of hunger is becoming less and less tenable”.

Effects of Violence:

Violence, or “violences” though purely negative in connotation, frequently produce ambivalent effects. On the one hand, sanctioned violence or its threat in the form of punishment lies at the heart of most if not all communities (whether this is figured as alienation, incarceration or bodily punishment) and practices of violence are crucial in creating and reproducing social categories and hierarchies. And yet, on the other hand, violence, in producing social suffering “ruins the collective and the intersubjective connections of experience and gravely damages subjectivity” (Kleinman et al. 1997). Various forms of violence can also have unintended consequences, “rebounding” or calling forth resistances . Finally, it could be said that violence (both systemic and direct) is one of the most salient features in local constructions of the “human” and how this category is graded in local economies of suffering and worth.

Violence and History:

Perhaps the most famous theorist of violence and civilization, Norbert Elias (1994) proposed that civilizing processes in Europe lead to a reduction of violence and its removal behind the scenes. Describing life in feudal Europe before “courtierization” Elias states, “The life of the warriors themselves, but also that of all others living in a society with an warrior upper class, is threatened continually and directly by acts of physical violence; thus measured against life in more pacified zones, it oscillates between extremes” (449). Gradually through a process of pacification, violence becomes the monopoly of the state. And, "… with this monopolization, the physical threat to the individual is slowly depersonalized. It no longer depends quite so directly on momentary affects; it is gradually subjected to increasingly strict rules and laws; and finally, within certain limits and with certain fluctuations, the physical threat when laws are infringed is itself made less severe." (449)

Attending this “civilizing process”, “physical clashes, wars and feuds diminish, and anything recalling them, even the cutting up of dead animals and the use of the knife at table, is banished from view or at least subjected to more and more precise social rules” (452-453). Nevertheless, even as Elias describes it, this civilizing process can also be seen as ambiguous, and if violence is widened to include non-physical and non-instrumental violences, even Elias’ sense of “civilization” can no longer be said to be the antithesis of violence.

Forms of non-physical violence that always existed, but hitherto had always been mingled or fused with physical force, are now separated from the later; they persist in a changed form internally within the more pacified societies. They are most visible so far as the standard thinking of our time is concerned as types of economic violence. In reality, however, there is a whole set of means whose monopolization can enable men as groups or as individuals to enforce their will upon others. (447)

Thus, a re-reading of Elias might argue for a transformation of violences attendant on “increasing webs of interdependence”, “advancing division of functions” and growing social spaces over which social networks extend and into which they integrate (448), rather than a reduction and a removal of violence behind the scenes. Indeed, from an anthropological point of view, Elias’s Hobbsian understanding of pre-civilization as nearly unfettered war of man against man seems at best naïve and culturocentric, buying into, as one critic puts it, “the etyological myth of the West” (Bauman 1989: 107); suggesting a basically pre-social, individualistic moral economy of violence before civilization’s taming influence.

Elias’ narrative of the “civilizing process” has also been explicitly critiqued by authors such as Bauman (1989) who, in his work on the Holocaust, writes of the “moral invisibility” created by the very lengthening webs of interdependence celebrated by Elias, “With most of the socially significant actions mediated by a long chain of complex causal and functional dependencies, moral dilemmas recede from sight, while the occasions for more scrutiny and conscious moral choice become increasingly rare (25)”.

Tellingly, in contrast to the “ontological fragility” and multiple sources of danger that Kleinman (1999) sees in everyday life, Elias writes of our modern cities that, “the chief danger that people here represent for others results from someone in this bustle losing his self-control” (446). What were once external dangers become almost purely internal or inter-subjective psychological dangers for Elias and the various forms of non-physcial violence that Elias acknowledges briefly a page later nevertheless do not actually figure into his analysis of violence or danger. More radical theorists of violence and politics such as Foucault (1995) and Agamben (1998) have argued that what Elias sees as the reduction of violence attending the civilizing process is actually the much more sinister transformation of overt and unsystematic violence into soft, covert and omnipresent regimes of power (Foucault 1995). Indeed, in Agamben’s teleological reading, Western political history amounts to the growth and intensification of the “biopolitical” basis of political power, a power that has always been grounded in violence. For Agamben (following Carl Schmitt) sovereign power is based on the exception which, intersecting with life and law, resolve themselves in the ban, or the ability to remove members of the polity from its protective circle figuratively or literally, essentially making them available for violence . Agamben, moreover, sees the fundamental problem with Western political philosophy as the dialectic between constituting and constituted power. (42-44). Arguing against Negri’s position that “sovereign power arises as the establishment – and therefore the end – of constituting power” Agamben sees the “alterity” between revolutionary constituting power and stable sovereign power as residing in the original “ban-structure of sovereignty”: including by exclusion. This implies that the revolutionary “free praxis” of power/violence, the initial internal pacification that Elias sees as necessary in establishing the “civilizing process”, is always inextricably part of sovereign power. In Agamben’s own words, “The sovereign sphere is the sphere in which it is permitted to kill without committing homicide…”(83). Sovereign power then, is fundamentally concerned with decisions about life, and Agamben sees the increasing capacities of modern state intervention and interpenetration with the lives of its citizens through “biopower” in decidedly sinister terms. Whether we accept the frequently ahistoric and aphoristic particulars of Agamben’s monolithic understanding of sovereignty, the idea that sovereign power (however locally instantiated) fundamentally concerns decisions over life links it to both moral and ethical practice and the hierarchical constitution of being . This again points to the potentially complicated ways that power, being and economies of violence are constituted through time.

If, as Kleinman (1999) claims, moral experience, including moral economies of violence, “possesses a genealogy”, then changing forms of violence as sources of danger, and of social suffering, are both product of local and translocal transformations and constitutive of local experience. To specifically address the question of violence and civilization, however, we need to be specific about which forms of violence are at play in what changing practices or economies. The potential of this line of study, beyond the enrichment of the literature with some ancient examples of social violence, lies in the opportunity to explore the constituting connections between crucial facets of human existence normally considered in isolation, if not simply bracketed off and ignored. Moreover, the study of violence and civilization speaks to a crucial, if troubling, aspect of human experience in-the-world, and, if I am correct in my assertion that moral economies of violence construct hierarchies of being, the topic of violence and civilization lies at the heart of historically and locally constituted instantiations of that kernel of Western Humanism, “the human” itself.