On Violence as a Social Construct: An Experimental Design

Lukas Holschuh

University of East Anglia


This paper reviews theories on violence to establish whether there may be cultures that are more violent than others. Violence is examined out of a socio-psychological perspective. According to the four different levels of analysis in social psychology (Doise, 1980), an experimental design is proposed that accounts for the different theories presented. It is argued that violence is a social construct rooted in the potential for violence in the structure and culture of a society. The concept of violence is broken down into three different categories as defined by Galtung (1990): cultural violence, structural violence, and direct violence. Different theories on violence and aggression are presented. Direct violence is conceptualised as the reflection of the psyche of a society in the minds of men, of its cultural belief systems and structural integrity.


Violence has been a constant companion of modern humans. The holocaust of about six million Jews by the German Nazi regime and the estimated 75 million casualties of the second world war, the 1994 Rwandan genocide of about one million Tutsis by Hutus, or the over 100,000 casualties of the ongoing civil war in Syria are testimony of humanity's violent history. According to Kaldor (2013), however, the times of territorial large scale wars are almost over, and violence is taking on new forms that result from the structure and culture of societies and are closely linked to the phenomenon of globalization and the hegemony of the western hemisphere.
Could it be that violence is, rather than being a natural human condition, a social construct, that it is the result of societal conditions? That is, are there cultures which are just more violent than others? To establish, if this might be true, this essay will review research literature to then design an experiment based on previous research.

Literature review

Defining violence

According to Galtung (1990), violence is not always visible but can be incorporated in the structure of a society and its cultural circumstances, i.e., there is direct and indirect violence. He conceptualized three forms of violence: cultural violence (cultural circumstances used to justify or legitimate and make people accept or support certain forms of structural and/or direct violence), structural violence (violence that is incorporated in the unjust structure of a society), and direct violence (the presence of immediate, physical violence, i.e., the execution of aggression) (1990).1

Cultural violence

Hofstede (Hofstede, 2001, p. 9) called culture "the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another." The Oxford Dictionaries define it as "the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people or society" (Culture, n.d.). Cultural violence is thus set in cultural norms and attitudes that influence the behaviour of people in a society.
In some regions, violence is seen as a legitimate means to restore honour, referred to as a "culture of honor" (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996), such as in the Middle East and Arab countries, central and southern America, and the southern United States (Hogg & Vaughan, 2011). Furthermore, Western and Eastern societies have different social systems, i.e., different psyches (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998), including differing self-concepts (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), value systems (Triandis, Leung, Villareal, & Clack, 1985; Triandis, 1994), and social norms and identities.
Western individualistic cultures may have more interpersonal competition and violence than Eastern collectivistic cultures, which may show more prosocial behaviour (Nadler, 1986). The latter may in turn be more susceptible to authority and thus in greater risk of state directed violence. A tendency for obedience to authority and conditions that encourage this can facilitate the exercise of violence, as the Milgram experiment demonstrated (Milgram, 1974).
Another factor of cultural violence is the media. Media play a crucial role in the creation, upholding, and counteraction (Ramasubramanian, 2007) of conflicts and the incitement to violence. States use media extensively to prepare societies for war, that is to change beliefs and emotions and to create stereotypes and prejudice2 (enemy images3) (Carruthers, 2000; Holschuh, 2013; Jones, 2002; Keen, 1986; Lynch & McGoldrick, 2005). Not only have media adapted state propaganda on a large scale in past conflicts and were often subject to veiled state control, they also have silenced critical thinking about peaceful alternatives and actively contributed to war—or, as in the case of Rwanda, solely instructed genocide—creating conflicts in the minds of men (Carruthers, 2000). The extent of dehumanization towards out-groups in a society, i.e., the intensity of prevalent enemy images, can serve as an indicator for the potential for violence (Carruthers, 2000; Harle, 2000; Holschuh, 2013; Keen, 1986; Zur, 1991). Furthermore, societies that are at war or have experienced warlike conditions show more violent behaviour, such as warlike sports, homicide, and assault (Ember & Ember, 1994).

Structural violence

Structural violence is violence that is hidden in the structure of a society. The structural integrity of a state is a crucial determinant of non-violence. New wars arise out of state failure (Kaldor, 2013). Structural inequalities, among others, can lead to direct violence because of feelings of social disadvantage (relative deprivation) (Walker & Smith, 2002), such as when the gap between rich and poor becomes extreme, as is happening in urban areas that are becoming the new places of informal warfare (Appadurai, 2000; Gandy, 2006; Herron, 2007; Leary, 2011; Norton, 2003; Packer, 2006; Simone, 2001). Poverty itself is an expression of structural inequality. The extent of structural inequalities can thus serve as an indicator for the potential for violence, and city dwellers may show more violent behaviour than people living in the countryside.

Direct violence

Structural and cultural violence lead to direct, physical violence (Galtung, 1990), which is a form of aggression.4 Direct violence does however not solely arise out of immediate societal circumstances. Assuming that behaviour is reflected in attitudes as part of the socialisation process5 (Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975), forms of cultural violence should be widely reflected in the attitudes of individual members of this culture. Individuals of cultures with a high potential for violence may have more violent attitudes and more positive attitudes towards violence.
There are different psychological theories on aggressive behaviour:

Biological explanations. Biological explanations conceptualise aggression as an instinct. This alone however cannot suffice to explain the whole spectrum of violence.

Social explanations. According to the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis (Miller, Mowrer, Doob, Dollard, & Sears, 1958), humans become frustrated when a goal-directed activity is blocked persistently and react with aggressive behaviour. Frustration is thought of as being the source and the reason for aggression. The theory may explain the link between various phenomena and the outbreak of violence, such as job loss (Catalano, Novaco, & McConnell, 1997), relative deprivation (Dutton, Boyanowsky, & Bond, 2005), and new wars. On the other hand, the theory may be too simplistic. It also has a very loose definition of frustration and, thus, has limited predictive power. According to the excitation-transfer mode (Bryant & Zillmann, 1979; Zillmann, 1988), arousal can trigger aggression. The model does however not account for any cultural differences.

In terms of Social Learning theory, observing and being rewarded for aggressive behaviour results in its imitation and maintenance (Bandura, 1973). Children that watched aggressive behaviour directed towards a puppet in "The Bobo doll study" (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961) were found to copy this behaviour. Even though, this experiment may lack mundane realism because of its simplistic operational definition of aggression, Social Learning theory can explain a variety of cultural differences in violent behaviour.


Based on the factors outlined in the previous chapter, we will now go on to design an experiment. As the research in this area shows, violence is more than a natural human condition but is, to a large extent, socially constructed. We would thus expect some cultures to be more violent than others.

Levels of analysis

We will construct the experiment considering the four different levels of analysis in social psychology (Doise, 1980): intrapersonal, interpersonal and situational, positional and ideological factors.

Ideological. As talked about in the literature review, societal circumstances can lead to violent behavior, which is what we want to measure. On an ideological level, we must thus take into account the psyche of an individual's society. Is the society individualistic or collectivistic? What are the cultural value systems (e.g., culture of honour) and therefore resulting social norms and identities? Do its members show a tendency for obedience to authority? To what extent are stereotypes, prejudice, and dehumanisation present among individuals of the society? In other words, we need to find ways to measure how much an individual's cultural background accounts for the extent to which this person shows violent behaviour.

Positional. On a positional level, we need to control for differences in behaviour that result out of social roles within society, such as gender and social status.

Interpersonal and situational. On an interpersonal and situational level, we must take care to control for situational variables that could confound our results. That includes environmental stimuli that could trigger aggressive reactions, for instance, potentially threatening situations.

Intrapersonal. What goes on within an individual will ultimately determine the person's behaviour. That is to say, societal circumstances influence behaviour by influencing a person's intrapersonal processes. Ideological factors are thus reflected in individuals themselves, which is where they can be measured. This includes an individual's violent attitudes and his attitude towards violence, feelings of social disadvantage, frustration, and learned behaviour.

Operational definition of violence

To design our experiment, we must now operationalise the concept of violence so that it can be measured. Based on the different levels of analysis, we can define violence as being set by the potential for violence and for aggressive behaviour. That is, we can measure violence by measuring the extent to which an individual's attitude can be considered violent and by measuring the extent to which an individual's behaviour can be considered aggressive. We will specify this more precisely when we design the experiment.



We will select a sample of students at different universities from different countries. The sample's gender ratio will be controlled so as to reflect the gender ratio of the population of the country. We will also take care to select students from a variety of different disciplines. This will control for participants' social roles. The study will be promoted by the promise of a small amount of money for compensation to be received right after completing the experiment. Participants will be informed that they are free to abort the experiment at any time without any particular reason. They will be informed that the study is about measuring people's attitudes towards violence.

Part One

We will first ask participants to complete a questionnaire that will assess their attitudes to measure the extent of their potential for violence. The questionnaire will include a number of questions and tasks to assess their attitudes and beliefs. There are two scales that do exactly this: Section 1 of the scale designed by the United States' National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (Dahlberg, Toal, Swahn, Behrens, 2005), and 'The Attitudes towards violence scale' (Funk, Elliott, Urman, Flores, & Mock, 1999). In our experiment, we will use the former because it is better accessible.

Part Two

Participants are told to wait in order to receive their compensation. After keeping them waiting for 45 minutes, a confederate will then give participants feedback (one by one in a separate room with a large window of mirror glass) on the questionnaire telling them that the evaluation of their answers has not been possible because we have not been able to decipher their handwriting and that they will thus not receive any compensation. The confederate will wait for participants' reactions and then add that instead, they are required to pay a compensation. The confederate will insist that the participants pay the compensation but must remain otherwise unresponsive to participants' behaviour. With this procedure, we aim at creating a frustrating situation in terms of the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis (Miller et al., 1958) and provoke aggressive behaviour.

Part Three

From a room located behind the mirror glass—invisible to the participant, we will observe participants' responses, i.e., their verbal communication and body language and measure them on a broad scale of the following four different levels:

Level one. Obedient behaviour is observed. The participant complies with the confederate's demands and pays the compensation.

Level two. Peaceful to slightly aggressive behaviour is observed. The participant refuses to pay the compensation and/or insists to receive compensation. He may use non-violent means, such as objective argumentation.

Level three. Aggressive behaviour is observed. The participant refuses to pay the compensation, insists on receiving compensation and insults the confederate. He may show aggressive body language.

Level four. Attempts to use physical violence are observed. The participant refuses to pay the compensation, insists on receiving compensation and insults the confederate. He shows very aggressive behaviour and may attempt to use direct violence against the confederate. In this case, the experiment will be aborted immediately.

Part Four

Participants will now be debriefed and given the promised compensation.

Expected results

We would then compare the results of participants according to their nationalities. We would expect that people from countries with high cultural and structural violence show a higher potential for violence, that is we would expect them to score higher on the attitude scale. We would also expect that participants from these countries are more likely in the second and third part of our experiment to show violent responses of level three and four. We would expect participants from countries with low cultural and structural violence, i.e., with high peaceful values, to be more likely to give level two responses. In terms of individualism and collectivism, however, we would expect participants from collectivistic cultures to be more likely to give level one responses, which we would not expect from individualistic cultures.


Responding with violence is expressive of an inability to solve conflicts by peaceful means. According to Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1973), behaviour patterns are learned by observing and imitating behaviour. These behaviours can be triggered by either situational circumstances (excitation-transfer model - Bryant & Zillmann, 1979; Zillmann, 1988), or emotions (Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis - Miller et al., 1958).

Direct violence is thus not only a social construct that is rooted in the potential for violence in the structure and culture of a society, but also the reflection of the psyche of a society in the minds of men, of its cultural belief systems and structural integrity. Violence, in this regard, is more than just the intent to harm (Carlson et al., 1989). It is expressive of the instability of the society in which it takes place. It is the embodiment and concretisation of cultural and structural conflict.


Appadurai, A. (2000). Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai. Bulletin of Islamic Medicine / Kuwait Ministry of Public Health [and] National Council of Culture, Arts and Letters, 12(3), 627–651.
Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Oxford: Prentice Hall PTR.
Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1961). Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575–582.
Bryant, J., & Zillmann, D. (1979). Effect of intensification of annoyance through unrelated residual excitation on substantially delayed hostile behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 15(5), 470–480.
Carlson, M., Marcus-Newhall, A., & Miller, N. (1989). Evidence for a General Construct of Aggression. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 15(3), 377–389.
Carruthers, S. (2000). The media at war: Communication and conflict in the twentieth century. Retrieved from http://www.getcited.org/pub/100430691
Catalano, R., Novaco, R., & McConnell, W. (1997). A model of the net effect of job loss on violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72(6), 1440.
Culture. (n.d.). Oxford Dictionaries Online. Retrieved January 10, 2014, from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/culture
Dahlberg LL, Toal SB, Swahn M, Behrens CB. (2005). Measuring violence-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors among youths: a compendium of assessment tools (2nd ed.). Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.
Doise, W. (1980). Levels of explanation in the European Journal of Social Psychology. European Journal of Social Psychology, 10(3), 213–231.
Dutton, D. G., Boyanowsky, E. O., & Bond, M. H. (2005). Extreme mass homicide: From military massacre to genocide. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 10(4), 437–473.
Ember, C. R., & Ember, M. (1994). War, Socialization, and Interpersonal Violence: A Cross-Cultural Study. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 38(4), 620–646.
Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1975). Belief, attitude, intention, and behavior: an introduction to theory and research. Reading, Ma: Addison Wesley Publishing Company.
Fiske, A. P., Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., & Nisbett, R. E. (1998). The cultural matrix of social psychology. In The Handbook of Social Psychology (4th ed.). New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.
Funk, J. B., Elliott, R., Urman, M. L., Flores, G. T., & Mock, R. M. (1999). The Attitudes Towards Violence Scale: A Measure for Adolescents. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(11), 1123–1136.
Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, 27(3), 291–305.
Gandy, M. (2006). Planning, Anti-planning and the Infrastructure Crisis Facing Metropolitan Lagos. Urban Studies , 43(2), 371–396.
Glasman, L. R., & Albarracín, D. (2006). Forming attitudes that predict future behavior: a meta-analysis of the attitude-behavior relation. Psychological Bulletin, 132(5), 778–822.
Harle, V. (2000). The Enemy with a Thousand Faces: The Tradition of the Other in Western Political Thought and History. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Herron, J. (2007). Detroit: Disaster Deferred, Disaster in Progress. The South Atlantic Quarterly, 106(4), 663–682.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. SAGE Publications.
Hogg, M. A., & Vaughan, G. M. (2011). Social Psychology (6th ed.). Prentice Hall.
Holschuh, L. (2013). Death Beyond Reason. An Analysis of the Construction of the Enemy in Barack Obama's Speech on the Death of Osama bin Laden. Retrieved from https://holschuh.jux.com/1126446
Jones, M. (2002). Social psychology of prejudice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, US: Prentice Hall.
Kaldor, M. (2013). New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era (3rd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Keen, S. (1986). Faces of the enemy: reflections of the hostile imagination. HarperCollins Publishers.
Kraus, S. J. (1995). Attitudes and the Prediction of Behavior: A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(1), 58–75.
Leary, J. (2011). Detroitism. Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics.
Lynch, J., & McGoldrick, A. (2005). Peace journalism. Hawthorn Press.
Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224.
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: an experimental view. Harper & Row.
Miller, N. E., Mowrer, O. H., Doob, L. W., Dollard, J., & Sears, R. R. (1958). Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis. Cleveland, OH, US: Howard Allen Publishers. doi:10.1037/11305-023
Nadler, A. (1986). Help seeking as a cultural phenomenon: Differences between city and kibbutz dwellers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51(5), 976.
Nisbett, R., & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South. Boulder, CO, US: Westview Press.
Norton, R. (2003). Feral cities. Retrieved from http://oai.dtic.mil/oai/oai?verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA523703
Packer, G. (2006). The megacity: decoding the chaos of Lagos. New Yorker .
Ramasubramanian, S. (2007). Media-based Strategies to Reduce Racial Stereotypes Activated by News Stories. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 84(2), 249–264.
Simone, A. (2001). On the Worlding of African Cities. African Studies Review, 44(2), 15–41.
Triandis, Harry C., Leung, K., Villareal, M. J., & Clack, F. I. (1985). Allocentric versus idiocentric tendencies: Convergent and discriminant validation. Journal of Research in Personality, 19(4), 395–415.
Triandis, Harry Charalambos. (1994). Culture and social behavior. New York, NY, England: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company.
Walker, I., & Smith, H. (2002). Relative Deprivation: Specification, Development, and Integration. Cambridge University Press.
Zillmann, D. (1988). Cognition-excitation interdependences in aggressive behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 14(1), 51–64.
Zur, O. (1991). The love of hating: The psychology of enmity. History of European Ideas, 13(4), 345–369.

1 "By 'cultural violence' we mean those aspects of culture [...] that can be used to justify or legitimize direct or structural violence. […] Cultural violence makes direct and structural violence look, even feel, right - or at least not wrong." (Galtung, 1990, p. 291)

2 "[S]tereotypes are the cognitive manifestation of prejudice", whereby "prejudice represents the affective or emotional reaction to social groups", as defined by Jones (2002, p. 4).

3 "An enemy image is a projected, stereotyped and dehumanized image of the Enemy." (Holschuh, 2013, p. 5)

4 Aggression can be defined as behaviour that is intended to harm. (Carlson, Marcus-Newhall, & Miller, 1989)

5 The predictive power of attitudes is supported by meta-analytic studies. (Glasman & Albarracín, 2006; Kraus, 1995)


©2002-2021 All rights reserved by the Undergraduate Research Community.

Research Journal: Vol. 1 Vol. 2 Vol. 3 Vol. 4 Vol. 5 Vol. 6 Vol. 7 Vol. 8 Vol. 9 Vol. 10 Vol. 11 Vol. 12 Vol. 13 Vol. 14 Vol. 15
High School Edition

Call for Papers ¦ URC Home ¦ Kappa Omicron Nu

KONbutton K O N KONbutton