Johan Galtung’s Triad of Violence

As we have already seen in previous reflections, violence has many faces. It can hurt and kill, it can insult and exclude.

Violence can occur through action – biting, scratching and hitting – but also through words.

Violence can be directed against people, but also against animals, nature or things.

To gain a deeper understanding of violence, let’s get to know and use Johan Galtung’s triad of violence.

Who is Johan Galtung?

Johan Galtung was born in 1930 in Oslo, Norway. He is a sociologist and mathematician, but above all he is one of the founders and protagonists of peace and social conflict research.

In 1959 he founded the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo, the first peace research institute in Europe.

He has been involved in more than 40 conflicts as a mediator, for example in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the North Caucasus, Ecuador and Guatemala.

He worked for various UN organisations for many years.

In 1987, he received the Alternative Nobel Prize, in 1993 the Gandhi Prize. His prodigious output includes more than 100 books and over 1000 published articles. His work as a thinker, writer, lecturer, consultant and activist has an immense impact on peace studies.

Galtung introduced several new concepts, among them the triangle or triad of violence, which we will discuss here, as well as the term “positive peace” and the concept of “social defense”.

He has also developed a method of conflict transformation that we will learn about when we look at Interventions.

Galtung’s concept of violence

Let us first look at what Johan Galtung means by violence.

For Galtung, violence occurs….

“… when people are influenced in such a way that their actual somatic and mental realisation is lower than their potential realisation”.

If we express it as a formula, it could be like this:

Violence = actual or mental realisation < potential realisation.

Here, Galtung distinguishes between three forms of violence:

– Direct or personal violence

– Structural violence

– Cultural violence

He has also related them visually in his triangle or triad of violence.

The Triad of Violence

The three forms of violence are interdependent and occur together. Violence can erupt in any “corner” of the triad and is then easily transferred to the other forms.

When structural violence becomes institutionalised and cultural violence becomes internalised, the danger increases that personal and direct violence will also take root, according to Galtung.

Galtung has also generated other triads following the same logic of identifying the direct or personal, structural and cultural dimensions. Later on, we will elaborate on the triads of conflict and peace.

Visible – Invisible

We will now turn the triad of violence around so that we can imagine it as an iceberg.

Violence is an iceberg of which only one part is visible.

At the tip of the iceberg we find the visible and manifest expressions of violence which in turn express the symptoms of the hidden dimensions of violence, the structural and cultural dimensions.

Let us now look at each pole of Galtung’s Triad of Violence.

Direct/personal violence

The type of violence in which there is an actor (a person or a group) is called personal or direct violence. Violence without a clearly identifiable and visible actor is called structural or indirect violence. In both cases, individuals may be killed or injured, beaten or wounded in the double sense of the words. But while in the first case – in direct violence – these consequences can be traced back to specific individuals as actors, this is impossible or very difficult in the second case: here there is no one who can directly harm another; structural violence is embedded in the system and manifests itself in unequal power relations and, consequently, in unequal life chances.

– In direct violence, victims and aggressors are usually clear.

– Direct violence is visible and therefore measurable.

The general forms of direct violence are:

  • Physical violence
  • Sexual violence
  • Verbal violence 
  • Digital violence
  • Psychological violence
  • Economic violence
  • Violence against things
  • Violence against nature

Often, we only observe and try to combat the expressions of direct violence without analysing its cultural and structural causes, but in doing so we only treat the symptoms and thus the cycles of violence will repeat themselves over and over again.

Structural Violence

When asked when and how he came up with his “theory of structural violence” as an extension of the classical concept of violence, which was a breakthrough for peace research, Johan Galtung tells his friend and futurologist Robert Jung the following: in the evening, he was sitting on the roof of the Gandhi Institute in Varanasi (India) thinking about the relationship of poverty as a consequence of imperial oppression. On this occasion, he came to a mainly new insight into the nature of state power.

Structural violence refers to violence through organisational or social structures.

Examples of structural violence: discrimination, lack of equal opportunities, social inequality, inequality between the South and the North, but also within countries, climate injustice, etc.

In this regard, political and economic power structures, the international financial system, the relevant legal framework (constitution, legislation, regulations and their degree of implementation), access to public services, resources, access to a functioning judicial system and the role of the state must be analysed.

Violence does not necessarily have to be felt by the victim, i.e. in some cases certain individuals or groups of individuals are victims of this structural violence, but they do not see themselves in a victim role.

Elements of structural violence are

  • Repression
  • Exploitation
  • Social and ecological injustice
  • Rich-poor gap (at the global and the national level) 
  • Legal framework, financial system
  • Access to resources, services, justice… 

But each element will have different forms and expressions according to the dominant ideologies or “…isms” in the current context and/or those that have been present throughout the history of a society. And this brings us to cultural violence.

Cultural violence

Cultural violence refers to any characteristic of a culture that can be used to legitimise direct and/or structural violence. This form of violence is purely ideological, it does not kill or hurt anyone, at least not directly, but it helps to justify direct or structural violence. Cultural violence is often expressed in a kind of ideology.

The extreme right-wing ideology of “natural inequality” (“Herrenvolk”) can be cited as an example of cultural violence.

Key elements of cultural violence that we need to explore – often with a magnifying glass because we are not aware of them – in order to be able to understand and intervene on the root causes are above all:

  • Social norms
  • Values and beliefs 
  • Empirical and formal science
  • Art
  • Language
  • Education
  • Religion 
  • Ideology (… isms)
  • Paradigms
  • Worldviews

A very simple yet powerful exercise to begin to explore the cultural violence present in our context is to identify sayings, proverbs, limiting beliefs, social norms, clichés that are often deeply rooted in a society and have been unconsciously transmitted from one generation to the next.

Vicious circle

For Galtung, the triad of violence is a self-stabilising vicious circle because violent structures and cultures produce and reproduce direct violence.

Triad of Gender-Based Violence

Let’s look at gender-based violence as an example.

The different expressions of direct violence such as symbolic, economic and patrimonial, physical, psychological and sexual violence threaten the needs for survival, identity, well-being and freedom.

Structural violence is expressed through structures that impede the satisfaction of these needs and maintain political and economic power relations.

Cultural violence legitimises structural and direct violence. As an exercise, we invite you to adapt and ground this triad to your specific context and/or relate to a a specific topic, for example, gender-based violence and climate injustice.

Other expressions of violence

Violence is present and expressed in many different ways.

Here are some examples of expressions of violence to which you can apply the Triad of Violence to deepen your understanding, especially in relation to the cultural and structural dimensions of violence.

When working with groups, you can ask them – depending on the thematic emphasis and/or context – to identify the elements of each pole or dimension of the Triad of Violence in relation to specific expressions of violence. 

Some examples of types of violence that can be worked on:

  • Gender-based violence
  • Violence against nature
  • Violence against other species
  • Violence in our everyday communication
  • Violence in the media
  • Digital violence
  • Economic violence
  • Human Mobility: Migration, Refuge, Internal Displacement 
  • Violence in social mobilisation actions
  • Violence within activism spaces / social movements
  • Racial discrimination
  • Corruption
  • Self-inflicted violence: suicide
  • Climate injustice
  • Youth violence
  • Organised crime
  • Genocide …
Review of the Triads of Violence

We invite you to revisit the triads you worked on during the workshop on an individual level and/or with your learning team.

Based on your deeper understanding of the Triad of Violence, you can complete, refine and/or correct the triads about climate justice.

Optional reading

To deepen your understanding of Galtung’s Triad of Violence, you can read the following text: