The Psychologising of (Structural) Violence, by David Pavon Cuellar, in Mexico

I found the following blog post via the: OccuPsy Facebook group

My interest in violence:

It addresses a theme i’m currently interested in. The relationship of direct violence (inter-personal) to indirect violence (extra-personal). But why am i interested in this?

I’m interested in looking at different concepts of violence. What is the paradigmatic understanding of violence? Is violence simply the process that ends in human harm? Does it originate in a human will? Or is violence more neutral – describing an aspect of a process by which anything is destroyed, or ‘violated’?

I assume that violence describes a concrete process, even if the agent of this process is abstract.

How do we understand violence in respect to agency and determination? Is there a distinction to be made between violence as intended and not?


  • The violence of glacial erosion left its mark on the topography of the Scottish Highlands.
  • John would do almost anything to avoid Tim making good on his threat of violence.

I’m drawn to discussing violence as merely the destructive aspect of a (concrete-physical) process. Thus, when violence is discussed we have to ask whether it tells the full story or whether it is always embedded in a creative, restrictive, or destructive dynamic, such as subordination, liberation, transformation, extermination, transgression, mutation, etc.

Key words: Neutral – Contingent – Intention – Embedded – Structural – Determined – Harm – Experience – Automatic – Neutrality – Objectivity – etc.

The article:

In the article, Cuellar criticises the “psychologising” of violence. For Cuellar (and Jan De Vos in particular) psychology IS psychologisation:

“Psychologizing is making something psychological so that it can then be conceived, explained and treated psychologically.”

He discusses the example of violence, expressing how it’s structural basis is wrongly “psychologised”. Before looking at this i want to look at how Cuellar defines violence, and if this differs from my own definition.


What does Cuellar understand by violence?

“What we call “violence” is something that is observed in the most diverse situations: in the war of one country against another, in the extermination of a people, in homicides committed by organized crime, in the police torture of a suspect, in the different forms of repression or political persecution, in the physical mistreatment of a woman by her partner or even [sic] in the punch that a boy gives to one of his companions, but also in insults or humiliations that someone can receive from another person , or in the discrimination or segregation of a person because of his skin color or for any other reason”

In each of these cases:

[D]amage is deliberately inflicted on certain subjects, injuring them or affecting them in some way, both in their physical or physical integrity as well as in their moral dignity or in another aspect of their person. This is violence and it is something that psychologists often deal with.

In summary, for Cuellar, violence is:

  1. deliberate damage
  2. to a subject or group of subjects
  3. negatively affecting aspects of their “person”: i.e. physical, corporeal, or moral integrity [“violation”].

The processes this is observed in include:

  • war, extermination, homicide, torture, repression, persecution, physical abuse, verbal abuse (insults, humiliation), discrimination, and segregation.

Note: Cuellar diverges from my understanding of violence; he sees violence as deliberate, negatively affecting only “subjects”, and in particular, their “person”. Whereas i see it as describing anything that diminishes something’s power

This is typified by the two different definitions in Oxford English Dictionary:

  1. Behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. 
  2. Strength of emotion or of a destructive natural force.

Cuellar’s definition is closer to “1”, whereas mine is closer to “2”.

There’s a substantive difference here, because “1” already implies a bound “person” that has an integrity that can be violated. Whereas “2” is more physical, it describes violence as the strength of one force that acts destructively on another.

How is violence “psychologised”?

Now, when we turn to our psychological knowledge when dealing with violent situations, what usually happens is that we give in to the temptation to psychologize violence. How do we psychologize it? Describing it as the act of an individualized subject and explaining it by the antisocial personality traits of this subject, either by their internal motivations, by their drives or their emotions, or also by their attitudes or representations of reality, by their inability to tolerate frustration or control their impulses, or, in the best of cases, by their relationships with the environment or with their peers.

Psychology colonizes the problem. It absorbs it in its entirety. The violent phenomenon is completely assimilated to a psychological phenomenon. This psychological phenomenon has its causes and conditions within itself. It’s as if there’s nothing left of him anymore. It ignores everything else, everything that is determinant beyond psychology, as is the causality and conditioning of social, cultural, economic, political or historical. It abstracts, in particular, from the very origin of a large part of violent situations, from their starting or from their unleashing in structures, that is, from what we call “structural violence”.

For Cuellar, psychologisation happens when the object – e.g. violence – is described as originating in, and determined solely by, an individualised subject. The violent “act” is associated with the subject’s psyche – personality factors, desires and drives, emotions, representation of reality, self-control etc. This is psychologising because it dismisses the structural, environmental and social determinants of the object – violence – for purely psychological determinants – constructing violence as the product of a psyche that “has its causes and conditions within itself”.

Importantly, Cuellar says that through this process, psychology “colonises” the problem. Thus we can see a critique of psychology whereby the discipline exerts hegemonic control over the articulation of a problem, and in this way makes it harder to address. It puts the responsibility for the problem on to the individual, and simultaneously deprives the individual of the possibility to address its structural determination.

Structural violence:

Cuellar takes his model of structural violence from (the possibly dodgy) Johann Galtung.

The concept of “structural violence”… refers to a violence, generally constant and systematic, exerted by the great structures of society, by its institutions, by its systems and by its forms of organization, distribution and operation. For Galtung, this violence is not necessarily direct or deliberate, and it is also difficult to detect… it is the most fundamental and original… and… provoke[s the other] forms of violence.

This structural violence is not necessarily “deliberate”. So here, Cuellar goes against the earlier definition. It is also not immediately evident. However, it is primary, and provokes secondary (interpersonal) forms of violence.

[If we compare this structural violence, to the “psychologised” violence above, we see a similar dynamic to what Marx describes as a fetish, in which the appearance of violence (its individual-psychological character) is different from its essence (its structural origin). This brings up the question of whether “psychologising” as a colonial project (based on pschology’s wrong methods) is the best explanation. Does Cuellar resort a bit too quickly to blaming psychologisation on ideological hegemony, or colonisation through institutional-paradigm-control, and omit the structural basis of psychologisation itself?]

Examples of structural violence:

  1. Racism (presented as evident, but no reason given for its prevalence)
  2. Poverty (conceived as an ‘unjust distribution’)

NB. In the conclusion he says the “socioeconomic structure… exploit[s] the poor and discriminat[es]” based on race.


“The concealment allows the reproduction of what is concealed.”

“We see well, as I had emphasized before, that the self-criticism of psychology necessarily implies a double critique of its ideological operations and its functions in the socioeconomic system, that is, in the case we are dealing with, of the operation by which it hides the structural violence and the reproduction function of the system through such concealment. This is how the self-criticism of psychology unfolds in a critique of the neoliberal capitalist system and the way in which it uses psychology to conceal and perpetuate itself.


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