On Structural Violence and Social Justice

By Mustafa Rasheed

As calamity upon calamity falls upon humanity in the form of intense hurricanes, mass shootings, genocides, terrorism, and the threat of nuclear weapons heightened by US-North Korean tensions, I will be posting a series of short essays I had written for Dr. Eric Montgomery’s Introduction to Peace and Conflict class at Wayne State University. The essays address broad trends and issues relating to the nature of war and peace in the global discourse. The essays revolve around the course’s central text, Peace and Conflict Studies: Third Edition by David P. Barash and Charles Webel.

The following essay addresses the definitions of structural violence and social justice and examples pertaining to political, economic, and social topics. Aside for technical revisions, there has been no substantial revision from the paper. I wish to thank Dr. Eric Montgomery, Ph. D and Cultural Anthropologist at Wayne State University.  The opinions and any errors herein are, of course, solely mine.


In today’s international landscape of conflict, many rush to inquire what is going on rather than why. To the unaware eye, it may seem absolutely mind-boggling to understand why any leader would inflict pain and death upon their own people. While such actions are nevertheless egregious, it is vital to comprehend the reasons to why atrocities happen. While overt and physical violence are apparent, a greater portion of violence, structural violence, is occurring largely unnoticed in today’s world. According to Peace and Conflict Studies: Third Edition, “Structural violence usually has the effect of denying people important rights, such as economic well-being; social, political, and sexual equality; a sense of personal fulfillment and self-worth; and so on”(Barash & Webel 7). Barash and Webel continue to write that “a society commits violence against its members when it forcibly stunts their development and undermines their well-being” (Barash & Webel 7). One must wonder, why would a society commit structural violence against itself? To understand why structural violence occurs, a discussion about social injustice needs to take place. While Barash and Webel define what “social justice” is, as a society that adheres to a majority group’s governing ideologies, “social injustice” would be its opposite. Social injustice would occur if there is conflict in ideologies whether it be political, economic, or social. Due to this conflict, social injustices are subjective as a just society to one group may be an unjust one to another. Conflicting governing ideologies in society, social injustices, are often the origin of structural violence.

Social injustice leads to a group committing structural violence all the time, in political, social, and economic arenas. On October 1st, 1949, Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China. In order to seek his own perceived just society, Zedong eliminated party politics by establishing a one-party state. By achieving what he perceived as social justice, a major part of society absorbed the social injustice that resulted of the power of the one-party state and experienced structural violence in the form of famine and poverty as Mao sought to accomplish his goals. Structural violence can also be the result of economic conflict. As the United States and the Soviet Union clashed between capitalism and communism, each perceiving the other as socially unjust, many were on the receiving end of structural violence due to the proxy wars fought between the two superpowers. Wars in Vietnam and Korea resulted in the dislocation of many Vietnamese and Korean citizens. Many were also exposed to disease due to bombings and chemical weaponry. Lastly, social injustice can lead to structural violence from a social standpoint, even outside of war. In the 1980s, there was a growing concern amongst members of the gay community in the United States regarding the AIDs epidemic. Due to the shame that came with the disease, and the fear of the LGBT community, governments failed to properly address the crisis in the form of structural violence. According to “Rewriting the Script on Reagan: Why the President Ignored AIDs” by Michael Bronski, Reagan’s “appalling lack of leadership and vision — which led directly to enormous setbacks for HIV/AIDS research, discrimination against people with AIDS and the lack of any comprehensive outreach for prevention or education work, thus adding to the already-staggering tally of deaths”.  The subjective and interpretive nature of social injustice undoubtedly condones and encourages structural violence.

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