un site de ressources pour la paix

Iréné est un site de ressources documentaires destiné à favoriser l’échange de connaissances et de savoir faire au service de la construction d’un art de la paix.
Ce site est porté par l’association
Modus Operandi

En librairie

Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


Fiche d’analyse

, Grenoble, octobre 2014

Foucault and Galtung on structural violence

With the French thinker Michel Foucault’s conception of power and domination, a reinterpretation of Galtung’s famous concepts of structural violence and positive and negative peace is called for. When Foucault forces us to consider power as productive and when the aim of social justice is problematized, how do we then address the issue of structural violence as an object of transformation?

Mots clefs : Elaborer des méthodes et des ressources pour la paix | Agir pour la transformation sociale | Agir pour la transformation des conflits

With the framework of structural violence provided by Norwegian sociologist, mathematician and founder of peace and conflict studies Johan Galtung, we are able to address issues of systematic oppression as expressions of violence. The connection, distinction and interaction of kinds of violence enable the peace researcher to approach conflicts on their roots rather than solely on their visible effects. Few years after the development of this vocabulary, when French thinker Michel Foucault develops his notion of power, possibilities were opened for reinterpretation of the notion of structural violence. The kind of power that Foucault analyses in society is, however, for Foucault not an inherently bad phenomenon like violence is for Galtung. As Foucault openly states, “I don’t believe that there can be a society without relations of power”1. On the other hand, Foucault is very critical of the danger of ending in a ‘state of domination’. The questions thus appear: when do power relations become relations of domination, and what are the measures and entries of analysis made possible by such power relations?

After taking a closer look at Galtung’s definition of violence and his distinction between personal and structural violence and negative and positive peace, respectively, I will move on to engage with Foucault’s notion of power and its relation to the state of domination. These two analyses will lead to a discussion of parts of Galtungs framework that Foucault makes us problematize. In returning to the notion of structural violence in Galtung, it becomes clear that we ought to reconsider and investigate further positive and negative aspects of power relations.

The Missing Subject: Personal and Structural Violence

In order to address the specific question of structural violence, Galtung in his article “Violence, Peace and Peace Research” understands the more general notion of violence as being present “when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations”2. That is, when individuals or groups are being prevented either directly (physically) or indirectly (systematic closing down of possibilities in society) from outliving their potentials as human beings, we can speak of violence. The negation of such a situation would indicate a state of peace.

Thus, in order to achieve peace we must understand better what violence is. For Galtung a central question seems to be: does the absence of armed conflict and physical repression entail a society that we would normally say is in peace? It is the negative answer to this question that has led to his famous distinction between negative and positive peace. Whereas the former refers to a state of affairs where an overt or personal violence, i.e. physical and psychological exploitation, punishment, denial, etc. is negated, the latter refers to the positive affirmation of social justice, which understands an absence of structural violence, i.e. “the systematic constraint on human potential due to economic and political structures”3. Note that ‘negative and ‘positive’ aren’t normative evaluations of the kinds of peace in question but rather refers to the negative and positive definitions: negation of personal violence and affirmation of social justice, respectively.

Interesting for present purposes is especially Galtung’s analysis of the grammar of violence. When violence is spelled out it consists of three parts: a subject, an object and an action. In the case “the dog bites the woman”, the subject is the dog, the object is the woman, and the action is the act of biting. It is Galtung’s thesis that the above distinction between personal and structural violence is determined by whether there is an acting subject or not. The truncated violence of the missing subject is in other words denoting what we ought to understand by the case that the violence is structural: its origins don’t have a subjective but rather a structural (economic or political) character. By continuously sustaining unequal power relations by (groups of) people, violence is entrenched in the social structures of society and works to exploit, marginalize, fragmentise, etc. the structurally oppressed. Thus, structural violence is indirect in its shape, i.e. no identifiable subject, and an expression of systematic and objective oppression, independent of feelings and beliefs.

Law and Norm, Juridical and Disciplinary Power

To discuss different aspects of more or less open violence was never Foucault’s primary concern. Though the word does appear at times, it is only dealt with more intensively when described as ‘domination’. In order to understand the remarkability of his discussion of this concept and the vital role it, I argue, plays in the Foucauldian legacy, a short introduction to the Foucauldian notion of power seems necessary.

In the history of thought up until Foucault, analyses of power have generally focused on power as possession and repression. This juridico-discursive view of power is quite close to our everyday usage of the term: to be ‘powerful’ is indeed understanding a possession of power, which can be used to repress others. The essential language of this approach to power is that of prohibition and negation: ‘do not steal’, ‘do not engage in sodomy’, etc. On this view, power is as archetype possessed by the sovereign and is exercised through the law, which is enforced every time somebody goes beyond legitimacy4.

Quite the opposite can be said of disciplinary power, which becomes a main object of analysis for Foucault throughout his scholarship. This kind of power creates a complex web of “changeable, reversible and unstable” strategic relations5 and hence cannot be possessed but circulates among subjects and creates modes of subjectivity. Rather than a negative relation to the act in the prohibition of the law, its instrument is the norm and the creation of certain ways of being a subject: ‘do wear this kind of clothing’, ‘do talk in this and this way’, etc. The norm is, rather than directly punishing subjects, setting up an ideal, which becomes an imperative for conformation. Only insofar as individuals conform to the norm are they rendered intelligible, understood as co-subjects. At the same time, however, the norm forces the subject to redirect the imperative of disciplinary power to apply to the concretely lived life of the subject. The subject thus adopts the norm as ‘my norm’, creating an individual relation to the norm. The entrenchment of the norm coincides with this appropriation by the individual: disciplinary power works by means of a dual imperative of conformity and creativity6.

Everything is Dangerous: Domination

Disciplinary power is first and foremost a descriptive notion that makes us able to address certain social phenomena as expressions of this dual imperative of conformity and creativity. In fact, “relations of power are not something bad in themselves, from which one must free one’s self”7. Rather than passing a moral judgement on the notion of disciplinary power, Foucault underlines that “[p]ower is not an evil (…) [p]ower is strategic games”8. Disciplinary processes can thus work towards a greater future. As Foucault scholar Cressida Heyes argues, “[o]ne of Foucault’s key insights was that disciplinary power, at the same time as it manages and constricts our somatic selves, also enhances our capacities and develops new skills. These capacities can be part of a struggle for greater freedom”9. The application and modes of power at play is what determines its possibly violent character.

That being said, Foucault at times describes his oeuvre as pessimist activism. The claim is as mentioned not that all power relations are bad, but rather that “everything is dangerous”10. If we are not constantly checking the applications and strategies of power, they may indeed deteriorate to violence: the state of domination. Though Foucault never engages systematically with the notion of domination and its relation to power, in the interview The Ethic of Care for Self as a Practice of Freedom he gives a rather precise definition:

“When an individual or a social group manages to block a field of relations of power, to render them impassive and invariable and to prevent all reversibility of movement – by means of instruments which can become economic as well as political or military – we are facing what we can call a state of domination”11.

This is the danger of power: its perversion until unrecognizability. The moment power leaves its essential properties of being “changeable, reversible and unstable” so that the relation is blocked and made static, we can speak of a state of domination – a state of affairs where an asymmetrical fixation of power is installed and the margins of liberty become limited12.

As an example of such a state of domination, Foucault himself considers the general oppression of women by the patriarchy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this conjugal relation, the woman could of course do a lot of things within the frame to put pressure on her husband: being unfaithful to him, refuse him sexually, etc. This was, however, notably only within the frame of subject domination. Her ‘tricks’ to try to loosen the grip of domination were never enough to bring about a reversal of the fundamental power relation13. Her position as inferior to the man frames her possible actions in a way that she can never change, reverse or make unstable, thus making the direction of the gaze of power static.

The state of domination does in this way create a space for a normative evaluation of societal structures, ultimately silencing accusation of Foucault for being a relativist constructivist. If this is true, then why does Foucault seem to spend so little energy on the state of domination in his overall critical project?

I believe this question forces us to consider his methodology. His approach to the constitution of social structures and power relations is not from the standpoint of domination, which is the visible result of social processes, but rather to ask for the multiple causes that responded to certain needs in the miniature workings of power relations. The operation is thus not to ask how for example the bourgeoisie imposed certain dominant relations to the exploited classes through history, but rather to ask how agents on a much lower level (families, parents, social entrepreneurs, etc.) established structures to respond to immediate and non-coherent needs, and then on top of that analysis show the way these agendas have been co-opted and transformed by the bourgeoisie to be economically advantageous and politically useful14.

Thus to return to the question of the little presence of the question of domination in Foucault, it is clear that one ought not to approach the over-all phenomenon of domination by targeting the ‘dominators’, i.e. people that benefit from relations of domination, but rather inquire into the origins and constituents of domination – not asking ‘who is dominating?’ but ‘why domination, at this particular time and space?’ ‘Which discourses legitimize this relation, how have they come into being, and which possibilities of local resistance do they offer?’ Since domination has its analytical roots in disciplinary power, the target is not the possessors of power, because such a mind-set is senseless in the disciplinary power framework, but rather the very contingencies by which certain strategic relations have come to render some power relations static.

Goals and Defintions: A Foucauldian critique of Galtung

Foucault’s inquiry into the operations of power and domination forces us to reconsider Galtung’s framework of structural violence. This comparative analysis can be taken far, but I will in the following constraint myself to the elaboration of two central points: the definition of structural violence and structural peace as identified goal.

The general definition of structural violence seems to be the same in the two authors: the defining feature for structural violence according to Galtung is its truncated form without a subject, just as Foucault insists on the non-possessability of disciplinary power. On top of this common ground, Foucault adds the essential feature of disciplinary power that it is a productive power, producing imperatives for actions. With the vocabulary of disciplinary power it is possible to approach the issue of reproduction of social exploitatory structures over time. We can explain how the human potential, which Galtung takes as a standard for measuring violence, is not a given constant that can be repressed (this is the vocabulary of juridical power), but that this human potential is itself an object of scrutiny with the purpose of optimisation. The demand on people to live up to ever-greater imperatives not only risks being a means to domination, but as Heyes argues has liberating potentials. Human potentiality is thus not only potentially restricted but in its most radical sense created by disciplinary power, problematizing Galtung’s definition of structural violence. When for example criminals enter the prison cells, a variety of tools are used to ‘re-educate’ and ‘re-qualify’ these people with the identified goal to re-introduce these people in society again. In turn, a lot of possibilities are taken away from them. Their human potentiality is optimized, it is done efficient, but they don’t enjoy the same rights as everybody else outside the prison. Is this an example of violence according to Galtung? The answer is absent.

The introduction of Foucault in the framework of structural violence also leads to reconsider the project of structural peace as identified goal. With Galtung it becomes clear that we ought not only to aim at a society without personal violence (negative peace) but also to work for structural peace, which is positively defined as social justice. Two points are entailed from this conclusion. Firstly, on this view social justice is defined as the negation of structural violence: what is socially just is a situation where there is no “systematic constraint on human potential due to economic and political structures”15. Suddenly the positively defined peace is not so positive anymore, begging the question: what is the positive goal that we should work for? One may argue that a just society not only works against systematic constraint on human potential but also positively for its flourishing – a point that the creative part of Foucault’s disciplinary power can account for.

A second conclusion is regarding the conception of social justice as an end point. By setting social justice as an ultimate goal of dealing with structural violence, we are by this abstraction moving the discussion away from the concrete structural violence and how it is manifested at a certain time and space. By virtue of this abstraction, the overall aim of social justice can, as Galtung himself points to16, be an end that justifies any kinds of means. The struggle against structural violence may induce personal violence or new forms of structural violence. Hence, the aim of social justice gives little imperative as to how one deals with a given state of domination, what concrete steps should be taken, and by which means a critique can take place. As Foucault notes, everything is dangerous. What are the means by which we can check and contain structural violence, and how does it institute itself in society? Galtung’s framework offers little explanation hereof.

It is exactly such objections, Foucault’s methodology of looking away from the appearing phenomenon of domination can accommodate. Since disciplinary power is not the possession of any subject, the target for critique of structural violence not an identifiable person or group of people. Foucault’s methodology offers a way to target the power strategies that make out the founding features of domination. To do away with structural violence, which is the aim of Galtung, is in this view to target the symptom rather than the disease, though remembering that, staying in the analogy, we are all potentially ill.


In sum, with the distinction of structural violence as different from overt, personal violence, Galtung provides a framework to understand systematic oppression. In accordance with Foucault, the origins of this kind of violence are not the particular subject but the norm, the social structure. For Foucault, this state of domination is a perversion of the more fundamental phenomenon of disciplinary power with its dual imperative of conformation and creativity. As such we are given an entrance into the possibly dominating, possibly liberating, notion of power: everything is dangerous since a state of domination is always possible, but if checked and sustained, relations of power can express greater exercise of freedom.

On the basis of this dual imperative of conformation and creativity in the workings of power, two lines of critique are opened. Firstly, we are led to reconsider Galtung’s standard of ‘human potential’ since these are themselves the object of enhancement and optimisation, and secondly we ought to be critical of the project of peace as the quest for abstract social justice. It seems that this social justice is in fact not as positively defined as Galtung claims, begging the question what one is to fight for both abstractly (what do we mean by social justice?) and concretely how one deals with a state of domination both in order to contain present phenomena of structural violence and in order to avoid replacing one kind of violence with another.


1Foucault 1984: p. 129

2Galtung 1968: p. 168

3Galtung 1968

4Foucault 1976b: p. 83ff

5Foucault 1984: p. 123

6Foucault 1976b: p. 94ff

7Foucault 1984: p. 129


9Heyes 2007: p. 7

10Foucault 1983

11Foucault 1984: p. 114

12Ibid. p. 123

13Ibid. p. 123f

14Foucualt 1976a: p. 100ff

15Galtung 1968

16Galtung 1968: pp. 177-183

Fiches associées