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Questioning crime: social harms and global issues
Questioning crime: social harms and global issues

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2.2 Johan Galtung and structural violence

In 1969 Peace Studies scholar Johan Galtung published a paper arguing that the insidious nature of inequality and harms that occur from them mean that they should be referred to as a form of ‘violence’: he referred to situations where harmful outcomes result, even if not the result of a direct act of violence from an individual or group to another, as ‘structural violence’, arguing:

There may not be any person who directly harms another person in the structure. The violence is built into the structure and shows up in unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances…

(Galtung, 1969, p. 171)

Galtung discussed structural violence through a range of contexts and examples, but his classical one was ‘that if people are starving when this is objectively avoidable, then violence is committed’ (Galtung, 1969, p.171). Thus through this perspective, people living in housing or geographical locations known to be at more risk from hurricane damage, and/or being vulnerable to being unable to escape unscathed (physically, psychologically or in terms of longer term life-chances), and/or less able to challenge the political or economic system which may be underpinned by racism and other social inequalities, then they are affected by structural violence. Galtung (1969, p. 173) further argued that ‘[s]tructural violence is silent, it does not show – it is essentially static, it is the tranquil waters’ – thus it refers to the often unnoticed or taken for granted structures and affected livelihoods, but that need to be acknowledged and tackled to achieve a real peace.

Galtung’s arguments, which continue to be influential, have clear implications from a zemiological perspective. However, the arguments also have salience for some criminological perspectives too. In the next two sections you will look, in turn, at a criminological and then a zemiological perspective on understanding Hurricane Katrina and in terms of seeking justice in relation to it. In the first of these, the role of existing or potential legal avenues concerning crimes of negligence and potential compensation will be examined. In the second, you will look at how a social harm focus takes an alternative perspective, enabling consideration of the wider implications of the harms of structural inequality.