Peace and Violence


Johan Galtung: Direct, structural, and cultural forms of violence and peace

Often referred to as the “Father of Peace Studies,” Norwegian theorist Johan Galtung has developed a three pronged typology of violence that represents how a confluence of malleable factors merge in particular cultural/historical moments to shape the conditions for the promotion of violence (and, by inference, peace) to function as normative.[1]  

  • Direct Violence represents behaviors that serve to threaten life itself and/or to diminish one’s capacity to meet basic human needs. Examples include killing, maiming, bullying, sexual assault, and emotional manipulation.  
  • Structural Violence represents the systematic ways in which some groups are hindered from equal access to opportunities, goods, and services that enable the fulfillment of basic human needs. These can be formal as in legal structures that enforce marginalization (such as apartheid in South Africa) or they could be culturally functional but without legal mandate (such as limited access to education or health care for marginalized groups). 
  • Cultural Violence represents the existence of prevailing or prominent social norms that make direct and structural violence seem “natural” or “right” or at least acceptable. For example, the belief that Africans are primitive and intellectually inferior to Caucasians gave sanction to the African slave trade.  Galtung’s understanding of cultural violence helps explain how prominent beliefs can become so embedded in a given culture that they function as absolute and inevitable and are reproduced uncritically across generations. 

These forms of violence are interrelated and mutually reinforcing. Galtung provides a representation of these intersecting forces in the following commentary on slavery: 

Africans are captured, forced across the Atlantic to work as slaves: millions are killed in the process—in Africa, on board, in the Americas. This massive direct violence over centuries seeps down and sediments as massive structural violence, with whites as the master topdogs and blacks as the slave underdogs, producing and reproducing massive cultural violence with racist ideas everywhere. After some time, direct violence is forgotten, slavery is forgotten, and only two labels show up, pale enough for college textbooks: “discrimination” for massive structural violence and “prejudice” for massive cultural violence. Sanitation of language: itself cultural violence.[2] 

Applying Galtung’s typology to studying religion

Galtung’s typology provides a helpful vehicle to discern the complex roles that religions play in all three forms of violence as well as in their corresponding forms of peace. The formulations of cultural violence and cultural peace are especially helpful and relevant. In all cultural contexts, diverse and often contradictory religious influences are always present. Some will be explicit, but many will be implicit. Some influences will promote and/or represent socially normative beliefs while others will promote and/or represent marginalized convictions.  

For example, in Galtung’s illustration cited above, religions functioned to both support and to challenge the moral legitimacy of the transatlantic slave trade and religions continue to function to support and to thwart structural and direct forms of contemporary racism. Similarly, religions currently function in particular ways to shape and support as well as to challenge prominent economic theories and their policy manifestations. In a final example, normative cultural assumptions about gender roles and sexuality in particular social-historical contexts are always shaped as well as contested by diverse religious voices and influences. One has to simply look for these voices and influences in any context and about any issue to find the ways that religions are embedded in all aspects of human agency and experience.    


[1] Johan Galtung, “Cultural Violence” in Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 27, No. 3. (Aug., 1990), pp. 291-305. 
[2] Galtung, p. 295.