Structural Violence


Dietrich Fischer – TRANSCEND Media Service

Early in 1969, Johan Galtung was working at a Center for Gandhian Studies in Varanasi in India.

One evening, he sat on the flat roof of the building thinking of the homeless people sleeping in the street, children crying from hunger, and sick people waiting to die, with nobody caring for them. It struck him that this is a form of violence as much as violent crime or war, even if nobody walks around with a gun intentionally shooting people. They suffer because of gross inequality, of an unjust structure of society.

He created the term structural violence for such phenomena, in contrast to direct violence. Later he added the concept of cultural violence–the intellectual justification for direct and structural violence in education, the media, literature, films, art, monuments celebrating war “heroes”, etc.

Gernot Köhler and Norman Alcock (in “An Empirical Table of Structural Violence”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 343-56, 1976) sought to estimate the relative size of direct and structural violence. They observed a positive correlation between per capita income and life expectancy across countries, which increases rapidly at first, and then makes only small gains as income increases further. It is clear that increasing the annual per capita income from 100 to 200 dollars extends life expectancy considerably more than increasing it from 20,000 to 20,100 dollars. If per capita income had been equally distributed across all countries, 14 million lives could have been saved during the year 1965. They did not have data on income inequality within countries, so this is a low, conservative estimate of the extent of structural violence.

During the same year, about 140,000 people died in all international and civil wars. Therefore, structural violence is at least one hundred times greater than direct violence. Charles Zimmerman and Milton Leitenberg (in “Hiroshima Lives On”, Mazingira, Vol. 9, 1979, Nairobi: United Nations Environment Program) pointed out that structural violence is equivalent to 236 Hiroshima bombs being dropped on the children of the world each year. However, because the suffering is diffuse, not concentrated in one place at one time, it is ignored by the media and society.


Dietrich Fischer, born in 1941 in Münsingen, Switzerland, got a Licentiate in Mathematics from the University of Bern 1968 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from New York University 1976. 1986-88 he was a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at Princeton University. He has taught mathematics, computer science, economics and peace studies at various universities and been a consultant to the United Nations.

Excerpted from Dietrich Fischer’s Stories to Inspire You – TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Sep 2015.

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