How to study violence?

The answer from Bergamo, Italy

 Don Weenink

16 June, 2018

Reading time: 5 - 8 minutes 

There are many ways to study violence. The differences between them are most obvious when we consider the various kind of data that are used. But research data are never already there. What kind of data are produced by violence researchers? The prevailing material consists of discursive responses to discursive stimuli: the survey. However, there is a striking distance between this type of information and the reality of violence. Therefore, we take a special interest in data that allow for more close-up investigations of violent interactions. One obvious way to produce such data is to get out of the office, hang around and talk to people who use and experience violence, either as perpetrators, as victims or both...


The method seems deceptively simple, but it requires a lot of social-scientific expertise to identify the issues that matter in a wealth of unstructured information. This method is usually called ethnography, and it aims to generate descriptions of the practices and the experiences of the people under study.

Ethnographies have a strong record of providing illuminating insights. Why so? This is because there is only a limited amount of prior structuring involved in the generation of data. The most important intellectual work involved in the analysis of ethnographic data is to produce theoretically meaningful insights, while allowing for surprises that emerge from the rich and complex material. In fact, the most fascinating ethnographic studies turn serendipities into theoretical game changers.

So, there is a lot to gain when we use ethnographic data to study violence. But what has Bergamo to do with this? In this pretty Italian town, a bi-yearly conference takes place (http://www.etnografiaricercaqualitativa.it/) which is entirely devoted to this research strategy. Our team was, with four presentations by Laura Keesman, Rozalie Lekkerkerk, Floris Mosselman and Phie van Rompu, strongly present in the two sessions on Cultures of Combat, convened by David Brown, George Jennings (both at Cardiff University) & Lorenzo Pedrini (at Milan-Bicocca).

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What then, did we take from Bergamo back to Amsterdam? The discussions in the Cultures of Combat sessions pointed to the importance of bodily experiences and bodily know-how. Ethnography can bring us closer to the embodied reality of violence, to the how of doing violence. This is not to say that we can study violent action directly by hanging around with people. Apart from ethical concerns, it is not realistic to expect meaningful observations of violence as it happens on the spot because violent action happens very fast and lasts only for a short while. However, being there and getting to know people as they engage with daily practices at the places where they encounter violence is key to understanding how they engage in and experience violence. A promising ethnographic strategy is watching video footage of violence together and talk about them, thus stimulating to verbalize what is usually not expressed in words. What do they see when looking at violence? What is needed to do violence? How to do violence? What is good violence? What is bad violence? The closer we get to the embodied experience and know-how of those who engage in violence, the better our understanding of violence will be. Be ready for surprises.


flag yellow lowThis project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 683133


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