State violence

The state is both agent and site of violence. As agent it may deploy repressive force against protesters and strikers, and engage in violent policing. As site, the contestations over access to the state and state resources have given rise to an informal system of patronage politics, which drives processes of factionalism. Networks of patronage are also often linked to networks of violence. Violence here takes multiple forms, including the use of state institutions of coercion, collective violence, and targeted assassination. Colonial histories matter here – colonial states were always constructed in processes of conquest, dispossession and violence. Research will investigate several varieties of violence by and within the state, including for example, how state forces may enable or collaborate with other actors engaged in violence; but also how the party-state nexus may be implicated in the production and mediation of violence.

The overarching question: How does the state structure, enable, permit and generate violence, how does violence structure the state, how are colonial histories present in current practices, and in what ways is the state present in violent encounters – even intimate ones?

Socio-Economic Transformations and Violence

Large-scale socio-economic and political transformations taken to be processes of ‘development’ or ‘modernisation’ – industrialisation and deindustrialisation, urbanisation and urban ‘renewal’, infrastructure projects, decolonisation and democratisation – are frequently accompanied by violence. As a key exemplar of such processes, mining involves large-scale social disruption, dispossession of local communities, and destruction of natural resources such as water, soil and clean air. It is frequently accompanied by intense violence – violence against local communities and leaders, violence within communities, and state repression of resistance. It not infrequently involves violence between different elite factions – rival chiefs, rival politicians, rival companies – over who will benefit most. Then there is also the ‘slow violence’ of degraded environments and destroyed communities.

The overarching question: How are ‘development’ and ‘modernity’ implicated in violence, including the ‘slow violence’ of environmental destruction, and how does violence shape ‘modernity’ – including democracy, citizenship, subjectivity and the self?

Violence and Collective Action

Violence regularly accompanies collective action such as protests, strikes and demonstrations. Certain forms of collective action that are prevalent in South Africa are explicitly violent – vigilantism and xenophobic attacks, for example. Violence bubbles up through and around organisations. Research will be undertaken on movements and the dynamics of violence within them, and between them and authorities. This will include exploring the ways in which repertoires and discourses of violence travel through organisations and over time, simultaneously shifting shape, rationales and targets, as well as the dynamic interaction between violent and non-violent modes of collective action. How subjects are mobilized into taking part in such action, will also be explored.

The overarching question: Why are collective actions and movements so frequently accompanied by violence, and what is the interplay of history, social structure and the stance of authorities, with collective and organisational dynamics and subjectivities within movements, in producing, shaping or limiting this violence?

Communities and Violence

Daily life in poor communities is frequently driven by violence. One form of violence may contribute to another, or mutate into other forms, in a process of ‘concatenation’ across different structures of power and social sites, such as elite formation, patriarchy, inter-generational relations, politics, the family, schools, churches, the field of crime and punishment, and so on. Individuals may experience various kinds of violence, sometimes as victims, sometimes as perpetrators. Moreover, much of our research tends to focus on physical forms of violence – against bodies. A great deal of violence in this instance however, is tacit – that is, it consists of a background threat or potentiality that has concrete effects on relationships and transactions. The relationship between illegal immigrants and police officers, for example, may be structured by an implicit threat of violence. In such cases, the actual resort to direct violence may be perceived as failure, since the threat of violence should be sufficient to discipline behaviour. Affluent communities may also outsource some forms of violence to private security companies, while concealing other forms in private homes. Deep ethnographies will explore the experience, making, meaning and impact of violence, its relation to the making and unmaking of the social order, the connections between different kinds of violence, and between violence and larger structural forces on the one hand, and subjectivities and the self on the other.

The overarching question: How does the concatenation of violence work – how is violence embedded in communities, individual practices and local institutions, how does it travel and mutate across different sites, and how is it related to the making and unmaking of order?

Interpersonal Violence

Violence against women and other marginalised groups remains extremely high in South Africa, despite young men constituting the largest cohort of both perpetrators and victims of violence. Research would explore these various forms of interpersonal violence in the context of the erosion, defence and reconfiguration of patriarchy, masculinities, womanhood, sexualities and gendered intimacies. The activation and importance of gender in specifying differential forms and outcomes of violence compels us to think critically about the ways that social structure, ideology and identity bleed into performances of masculinity in the context of both the apparently instrumental means, but often also in the expressive ends of widespread violent crime in South Africa. While focusing on enactments of violence we are also interested in examining how patriarchy, for example, frequently entails a tacit threat of violence against women (and men) who transgress informal codes in the home or in public, especially in changing racialised and classed contexts. With regard to violent crime, we are concerned with the polymorphic nature of violence that suggests that elements of instrumentality, class, race, gender, generation, etc. are all present simultaneously, thereby illuminating how time, space, place and subject blur to produce enactments of violence in complex ways. Advancing knowledge on these confluences requires more theoretically inflected explanations than contemporary epidemiological accounts are currently able to provide.

The overarching question: How do aspects of social structure, socio-culturality and historicity become incorporated into subjectivities, to the extent that they are constructed as naturalised and ‘individually-owned’ aspects of selfhood or personhood; how are these animated, transmitted and recursively constituted within interpersonal violent encounters, and how do they reciprocally reproduce aspects of social structure, socio-culturality and historical re-inscriptions?

Interactional Studies of Violence

Relying primarily on ‘naturally-occurring’ data (e.g. video materials, big data), this thrust within the project is based on utilising a range of large data sets, genealogical, discursive, ethnomethodological and conversation analytic methods to understand the moment-by-moment progression, escalation or de-escalation of violence within social encounters as sites of empirical data. Amongst other possible sources, data will include recordings of social protests, interpersonal violent encounters, police violence, crime statistics and incidents of collective violence.

The overarching question: How does violence occur in situ, in the moment of enactment; what are the interactional dynamics, processes and practices that give expression to its escalation or de-escalation, and how do these dynamics, processes and practices act as instantiations of the convergence of subjectivities and social structures, each mutually reinforcing each other?

Embodied Enactments, Affective-Discursive Practices, and Violence

This thrust explores subject formation and performance in relation to violence in the contexts of affective practices, embodied enactments, spatial configurations, meaning-making, and economies of morality. Some of the possible links between the capacity for mentalization, empathy, processes of identification and disidentification, ethical concern, and aspects of subjectivity that inhibit enactments of violence will also be explored. Here, we contend that we may develop more complex understandings of the translation of macro-determinants of violence within moments of direct violence, as well as an appraisal of the mobilization of individual subjects within violent interactions, using phenomenological accounts, discursivity, affective analytics, embodiment theory and deep ethnographies of violence. At the same time, research will explore ways in which violence is productive, reshaping individual and collective subjectivity, agency and the ‘sense of the world’. Aspects of shifting positioning vis-à-vis perpetrator and victim identities, as well as witness and bystander positions may be interrogated, for example.

The overarching question: How does violence circulate through, and become reproduced by, variegated economies of morality, affective-discursive practices, subjecthood, and embodied performances to yield violence as a visceral subjective expression of broader social fractures, often in spectacular displays, and also formative of new subjectivities?

Responses to Violence

Violence has a deep impact on social structures, relationships, victims, perpetrators, subjectivities and the constitution of personhood. People may adopt different strategies in relation to perceived or actual threat. They may aim to enlist very different kinds of resources and forces in order to escape or manage a violent environment – such as the state, local agents, the supernatural or discursive and political attributions of legitimate or illegitimate perpetration or victimhood. Such strategies may expand or accelerate violent practices within communities or organisations, or reduce or block pathways of violence.

The overarching question: What is the impact of violence on individuals and communities, how do they respond, and how do their responses accelerate or block the diffusion of violence?