Sociology As The Science of Slow Violence

Via Global Dialogue (a newsletter from the International Sociological Association), South African sociologist Jackie Cock explains how the task of sociology is to expose what she calls slow violence:

“The social structures and processes which shape our experience are often hidden or obscured by conventional beliefs, powerful interests, and official explanations. One of the most dangerous of these is how violence is usually understood as an event or action that is immediate in time, and explosive in space. But much destruction of human potential takes the form of a “slow violence” that extends over time. It is insidious, undramatic and relatively invisible. By slow violence I mean what Rob Nixon calls “the long dyings,” a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Both environmental pollution and malnutrition are forms of this slow violence. Both instances are relatively invisible and involve serious damage which develops slowly over time.

Food is where many issues converge – inequality, climate change, globalization, hunger, commodity speculation, urbanization, and health. Food is not usually associated with violence except in relation to riots and the social protests which, in 2008, took place in some 30 cities around the world in response to dramatic price increases. However, malnutrition involves a form of “slow violence” because its damaging effects on the human body are often hidden and involve an erosion of human capacities and potentials that occurs gradually over time. This is most dramatically evident in the one billion of the world’s people who are malnourished or the reality, in contemporary South Africa, that one in every four children under the age of six shows signs of stunted growth (both physical and intellectual) due to chronic malnutrition.”

How this matters for sociology?

“The potential of sociology for human emancipation goes beyond “exposure” to “explanation.” Both examples of “slow violence” cited here have social causes as well as social consequences; in the case of environmental pollution the externalization of environmental costs by a powerful corporation, in the case of malnutrition the operation of a food regime focused on profit rather than human need.

“Slow violence” is not a class-blind concept. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to the slow violence of malnutrition and of environmental pollution. They often struggle alone as atomized individuals. But demonstrating how individual experience is shaped by broader social processes is part of C. Wright Mill’s rich legacy. The “sociological imagination” implies sociologists engaging with “ordinary men” (sic) in the real world (and, I would urge, with the basic issues such as access to nutritious food and clean water).””

Obviously, this concept of slow violence is very similar to that of structural violence, that is, violence that is based in unequal social structures and that are often at the root of the much more studied mass and/or interpersonal violence. However, mass and interpersonal violence is often explained without reference to causal factors rooted in structural violence. That is what is needed.

Of course, structural violence is often sustained through what Bourdieu called symbolic violence but also powerful ideological apparatuses incarnated in culture and social institutions. Take this, for instance:

“The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider. Today, the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country. Study after study has exposed the myth that America is a land of opportunity. This is especially tragic: While Americans may differ on the desirability of equality of outcomes, there is near-universal consensus that inequality of opportunity is indefensible. The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity.

Perhaps a hundred years ago, America might have rightly claimed to have been the land of opportunity, or at least a land where there was more opportunity than elsewhere. But not for at least a quarter of a century. Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories were not a deliberate hoax, but given how they’ve lulled us into a sense of complacency, they might as well have been.

It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According toresearch from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia.”

How did this happen? Persistent racial and gender discrimination, of course, but something else as well, for Stiglitz:

“In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades — and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job.

Young people from families of modest means face a Catch-22: without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.”

Stiglitz argues that Americans are beginning to see the myth of social mobility but I am not so certain. There is no groundswell for change. There is no class-based social movement. In the meantime, structural / slow violence (of which crushing student debt is only a more contemporary form) continues.

More than this, Jordan Weissman argues that inequality in the US is worse than in Europe, as illustrated by this:

As he notes:

“That said, there’s a case to be made that U.S. income inequality is in fact exceptional, and not just because of its severity. I was reminded of that last night, when I saw this graphic from a 2008 report by the OECD making its way around Twitter. In broad terms, what it tells us is that in many developed countries, a rising tide has truly lifted all boats, with the wealthy rising a bit faster. In the United States, the tide is lifting up the rich, while drowning many of the poor.


That’s what’s so frightening about the way the U.S. economy was changing even before the Great Recession. It’s not just that the rich saw their finances improve faster than everyone else’s. It’s that many Americans were seeing the value of their work, and in some cases their standard of living, decline. And that makes us at least a little bit special, in a very unfortunate way.”

Changes in the economy – digital capitalism – also contributes to this summarized in four expressions: thin margins +vast volumes + huge revenues → inequality + poor employment.

“First, margins. Once upon a time, there was a great company called Kodak. It dominated its industry, which happened to be chemistry-based photography. And in its dominance, it enjoyed very fat profit margins – up to 70% in some cases. But somewhere in the depths of Kodak’s R&D labs, a few researchers invented digital photography. When they put it to their bosses, the conversation went something like this. Boss: “What are the margins likely to be on this stuff?” Engineers: “Well, it’s digital technology so maybe 5% at best.” Boss: “Thank you and goodbye.”


Then there’s volume, which in the online world is astronomical. For example: 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute; more than 100bn photographs have been uploaded to Facebook; during the Christmas period, dispatched a truck filled with parcels every three minutes; to date, more than 40bn apps have been downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store. And so on. Margins may be thin, but when you multiply them by these kinds of numbers you get staggering amounts of revenue.

These vast revenues, however, are not being widely shared. Instead, they are mostly enriching the founders and shareholders of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. Of course, those who work at the heart of these organisations – the engineers, developers and the executives who manage them, for example – are richly rewarded in salaries, stock options and lavish perks. But these gilded employees constitute only a minority of the workforces of the big tech companies and most of their colleagues have decidedly more mundane terms of employment – and remuneration.

Then there’s the question of employment, a topic on which the big technology companies seem exceedingly sensitive. Facebook, for example, is given to engaging fancy consultants to produce preposterous claims about the number of jobs it creates. One such “report” claimed that the company, which at the time had a global workforce of about 3,000, indirectly helped create 232,000 jobs in Europe in 2011 and enabled more than $32bn in revenues. And Apple, stung by criticism about all the work it has outsourced to Foxconn in China, is now driven to claiming it has “created or supported” nearly 600,000 jobs in the US.

The really tough question that none of these companies really wants to answer is: what kinds of jobs exactly? Anyone seeking an insight into this would do well to consult a terrific report by Sarah O’Connor, the Financial Times‘s economics correspondent. She visited Amazon’s vast distribution centre at Rugeley in Staffordshire and her account of what she found there makes sobering reading.

She saw hundreds of people in orange vests pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle because “the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time”. They walk between seven and 15 miles a day and everything they do is determined by Amazon’s software. “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” one manager told Ms O’Connor. “It’s human automation, if you like.””

That too is slow violence.

2 thoughts on “Sociology As The Science of Slow Violence

  1. Pingback: The Global Sociology Blog - Sociology As The Science of Slow Violence | MrWagner-Sociology |

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