Systemic violence and structural violence are closely related terms. Systemic violence refers to institutional practices or procedures that adversely affect groups or individuals psychologically, mentally, culturally, economically, spiritually, or physically. In a school context, such violence is an unwanted interruption of the student’s learning process and the quest for full human potential. Structural violence refers to the kinds of harm that social structures in general may perpetrate upon individuals. In educational settings, the institution may cause new inequalities or reproduce previous inequalities held over from the student’s prior life or school experiences.
Both kinds of violence occur regularly in colleges and universities worldwide. Systemic violence can occur when persons in authority limit the human potential of a student. For example, when academic advisors steer minority students into easier nonprofessional majors such as general studies (instead of the pre-med path), it effectively limits the potential earning power of those students. Structural violence happens when students are marginalized inadvertently by policies or social customs within the university, thereby introducing new inequalities or reproducing previously held disadvantages. With both types of violence, the student injuries can be overt, in the case of physical violence, or they can be hidden psychological and emotional violence.
Almost always, college staff members, professors, and administrators claim their actions are intended to serve the best interests of the students. They never claim to intentionally do violence to any of their students, who are more likely than ever to be treated as “consumers” of a college education. Despite such claims, the intention of their actions is secondary to the outcome. Administrators and other officials claim not to act out of nefarious intent, but the outcome can still be a violent one for the student.
Systemic or structural violence is often committed by the powerful, those protected by the law. Their acts are directed at those with little power in an effort to maintain existing social arrangements. More broadly, their actions can be understood as a deprivation of basic human rights. All people have a basic right as well as a basic need to live without violence. Because violence is socially constructed, it can be reduced significantly, if not totally eliminated. Violence in this broader perspective amplifies the effects of emotional, social, psychological, economic, and religious violence over more overt physical kinds of violence.
Sheer demographics ensure that in many college classes, minority students will account for a slim proportion of the total students. This imbalance is especially significant for those students who come from a predominately minority neighborhood or high school where they did not experience such marginality. For them, such marginalization is a new phenomenon. For other students, this marginalized setting is a continuation of earlier life experiences, when they were in the minority at a white majority school. If such conditions are coupled with an instructor who is intimidated or insensitive to stereotypical remarks or actions, the marginalization of the student increases.
In addition, if faculty members fail to use technological advances in the classroom that may enhance learning by accommodating a diverse range of learning styles, such an action may do violence to some students. By clinging to “lecture-only” formats, for example, instructors treat students as passive recipients who have no voice in what they learn or how they learn it. Passive teaching practices avoid the affective domain, stressing knowledge that is academic but not emotional.
Further, a trend toward standardization of curricula and assessments is a form of systemic violence that assumes that all students can and should be able to perform at the same level at the same time. Such standardized tests are culturally biased according to many studies.
Another factor sustaining marginality is the bureaucracy surrounding financial aid. Understaffing in this vital department means that the amount of time that can be spent with each individual student is severely limited. This barrier is especially frustrating for students whose ability to attend college is critically dependent on receiving financial assistance in a timely manner. Prompt payment in such cases may determine whether the student attends college or not.
Additionally, many social activities at the college level are centered on Anglo-American culture. Although groups such as Black United Students (BUS), Black Accountants, and Black Engineers serve vital socializing roles, they tend to encourage separation between African American and Anglo-American students.
The cost of a collegiate education in this country is growing at a faster pace than the U.S. economy as a whole. To slow the pace of tuition hikes, administrators have cut back on personnel, equipment, and fringe benefits. In particular, the fiscal crisis has strained the university police forces that are given the task of protecting the student body from harm. Cutbacks in security (among other factors) have enabled school shooters such as Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech and Steven Kazmierczak at Northern Illinois University to enter classrooms with weapons and begin killing or injuring scores of students within a matter of minutes. The aftermath of such a shooting is deeply painful for the entire college community. The community lacks the will to move forward with the business of the college, and there is a pervasive fear that the campus is unsafe. There is also widespread mourning for the lives lost and the sense of security that has been shattered in the wake of the tragic event.
As the fiscal crisis deepens, colleges are feeling pressure to reach out to prospective students not traditionally viewed as qualifying for the college experience. Prisons, halfway houses, drug rehabilitation centers, mental health centers, and homeless shelters–once viewed as off limits for recruiting–are now seen as potential revenue streams for the cash-starved college. Agreements between these entities and the college are justified in the name of public service and community involvement. However, as schools recruit from such nontraditional sources, they are likely to encounter a broader stream of public life, including persons acculturated to a street culture that is far removed from the middle-class standard expected in the college environment. Such individuals may have been socialized to more violent means of resolving disputes rather than peaceful ones, and conflicts involving these students can develop that end in overt physical violence.
The effects of systemic or structural violence can be observed in students while they are still enrolled at the university. For example, to compensate for being marginalized, students may show increased sensitivity and self-consciousness concerning matters of race and may report feelings of inferiority and malaise. Some have a more angry reaction, becoming totally absorbed in blaming the system. These students may show open hostility, acts of defiance, or angry withdrawal.
Hoping to channel their response to marginalization in another direction, some students may seek emulation and identification with the dominant culture at all costs, including trying to “pass” as a member of the dominant culture. Another role frequently sought out is that of an emissary, an interpreter, or a go-between for both cultures.
The most violent outcome of all could be the situation where the marginal student comes to accept a permanently marginal status within a marginal culture. Conditioned since birth to the existence of both cultures and having had shared experiences of dealing with both cultures during the developmental years, the end result of the college experience for such an individual is the continuation and reinforcement of such prior beliefs, thus creating a marginal person who exists in a marginal culture and is totally accepting of this outcome.
Humanistic sociology is one area from which collegiate educators and administrators can draw useful alternatives to counteract the violence that is so intimately woven into the fabric of institutions of academe. Humanistic sociology can help educators develop a broader view of their work and can assist them in creating a more healthy school environment, both physically and emotionally. Humanistic sociology emphasizes a nurturing and positive environment that can promote cooperation and creativity. Schools that promote values of empathy, tolerance, and compassion create an atmosphere that might reduce or eliminate systemic or structural violence. In cases where violence may persist, this approach examines how justice may be maximized for all parties.
- Aronson, E. (2000). Nobody left to hate: Teaching compassion after Columbine. New York: W. H. Freeman.
- Breese, J., & Grant, K. (2004). Policy implications from a study of marginality: Theory and African American students. Free Inquiry in Creative Sociology, 32(2), 169-178.
- Finley, L. (2006). Examining school searches as systemic violence. Critical Criminology, 14, 117-135.
- Finley, L., & Hartmann, D. (2004), Institutional change and resistance: Teacher preparatory faculty and technology integration. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 12(3), 319-337.
- Watkinson, A. (1997). Administrative complicity and systemic violence in education. In J. Epp & A. Watkinson (Eds.), Systemic violence in education: Broken promises (pp. 3-24). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.