Violence

Edmund Leach

  • The Anthropology of Violence edited by David Riches
    Blackwell, 232 pp, £25.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 631 14788 8
  • Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilising Process by Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning
    Blackwell, 313 pp, £19.50, August 1986, ISBN 0 631 14654 7
  • Sport, Power and Culture: A Social and Historical Analysis of Popular Sports in Britain by John Hargreaves
    Polity, 258 pp, £25.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 7456 0153 7
  • At the Dawn of Tyranny: The Origins of Individualism, Political Oppression and the State by Eli Sagan
    Faber, 420 pp, £17.50, April 1986, ISBN 0 571 13822 5

As the bombs go off in Belfast, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, New Delhi, Beirut or wherever and the police start shooting ordinary citizens in order to preserve the peace, the television watcher develops a clear visual impression of what the word ‘violence’ signifies in contemporary English. To apply the same term to the ritual obscenities of bottle-throwing soccer fans somehow seems misplaced. David Riches is aware of this incongruity. His symposium contains 11 papers by 11 different authors drawn from the Proceedings of an ESRC-funded conference held at St Andrews University in January 1985. The violence under discussion is not a concept which readily translates from one cultural milieu to another. The English of the present day take it for granted that violence is a ‘bad thing’, a characteristic of law-breakers and terrorists: policemen and soldiers who may appear to be acting in much the same way are seldom described as violent. But at other times in our history and in other countries at the present day violent action has been differently assessed. Montaigne in his celebrated essay on cannibalism noted that the procedures for extracting confessions in 16th-century France seemed every bit as barbarous as those reported of the Tupi-speaking cannibals of coastal Brazil. Despite Riches’s valiant attempt to pull it all together, the range of themes covered in these essays, which include circumcision among the Gisu of Uganda, cannibalism by dead ancestors as a cause of death among the Piaroa of Venezuela, bull-fighting in contemporary Spain, shoot-ups in Northern Ireland, erotic films in Japan, and much else, is altogether too wide. A narrower view of what violence is about is to be preferred.

The Elias/Dunning and Hargreaves volumes go to the opposite extreme. Both are concerned almost exclusively with sport in Great Britain and a very large part of both texts is devoted to football violence, especially among spectators at soccer matches. Some of the generalisations which emerge (such as the emphasis on masculinity) seem quite plausible but would need to be modified if the half-time female ballet dancing of American College football were taken into account.

Mainly on the strength of a two-volume work published in 1938 (Uber den Prozess der Zivilisation), there is a cadre of Dutch and German academics who consider that Norbert Elias is the greatest living sociologist. In 1930 he was Karl Mannheim’s assistant at Frankfurt. He subsequently held posts in Paris, London, Leicester and Ghana and, most recently, at Bielefeld. His very Germanic, 19th-century ideas of long-term social progress have never caught on in Britain, however. An English version of Volume One of Prozess was published in 1978 under the title The Civilising Process: The History of Manners. Volume Two, with the title The Dynamics of the State, was promised for the autumn of 1979, but it finally appeared only in 1982, with the title State Formation and Civilisation. The book now under review is a collection of previously published essays, the English versions of which are mostly post-1966, though much of the argument seems to belong to a much earlier period. Three are by Elias alone; four claim a joint authorship, Elias/Dunning; five are by Dunning, though in one of these he had collaborators. The same team is responsible for an essay in the Riches volume which is almost identical in content, though the words are different and it carries a different title.

Dunning, who teaches sociology at the University of Leicester, was once a pupil of Elias; he remains a devotee, but the focus of his interests is rather different. Elias originally used the history of changing styles in what he calls ‘sport-games’ (defined in a footnote as ‘football, rugby, tennis, cricket, golf etc’) to illustrate his theories about the progress of civilisation. Dunning is interested in the sociology of sport as an end in itself. In the present text he returns repeatedly to the topic of football hooliganism. The Hargreaves book, though less obsessional, follows much the same line. Both books emphasise that there is nothing new about rowdy football, but with the media getting support from Mrs Thatcher on the need to preserve law and order, the publishers (Blackwell’s in both cases) must feel that they are onto a good thing.

The individual essays in the Elias/Dunning volume were designed for widely different audiences, but on their central theme of football violence they are very repetitive. Most other varieties of sport and leisure are almost completely ignored. Only British sports are considered. This leaves out some very striking cases of controlled sporting violence, such as bull-fighting, with its long history from Minos to modern Spain, American football, baseball, carnival. One very unimpressive essay by Elias is concerned with fox-hunting, but there is little or no reference to shooting (birds or mammals), fishing (large fish or small), stag-hunting, coursing after hares, horse-racing (the traditional ‘sport of kings’), boxing, rowing, sailing, athletics, swimming, car-racing (surely an exciting sport?), tennis, golf. There are three preposterous brief references to cricket. Leisure activities which are not contests between rival teams of players – attending a disco, for instance, or watching television or DIY house repairs or growing vegetables – are ignored. Thus the reference to ‘leisure’ in the subtitle is quite inappropriate.

Those who are interested in Elias rather than Dunning will need to have a reasonably clear understanding of what is meant by the expressions ‘the civilising process’ and ‘figurational analysis’. The latter term is explained at pp. 154ff. but the reader who is not already an Elias fan is given little assistance with the former. The baffled but curious should read Zygmunt Baumann’s ‘The Phenomenon of Norbert Elias’ (Sociology, January 1979). Very roughly, Elias’s ‘civilising process’ thesis claims that in the course of history the ruling classes among civilised peoples have attached greater and greater value to ‘law and order’ and become less and less tolerant of open aggression against members of their own society. For the most part those who are ruled have treated this shift of values as psychologically acceptable. There is no reference to Freud, but a review of the first edition of Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) included the following passage: ‘Civilisation is only made possible by individual renouncements. The instinctive life of man is one of unbridled aggression and egoistic self-satisfaction. The whole structure of Culture has been designed to put prohibitions and curbs upon him.’ For Elias, as for Freud, the principle is general – sport is dragged into the argument simply by way of illustration: e.g. Roman gladiators fought one another to the death with no holds barred, while modern boxers fight with padded gloves and are required to conform to a set of rules designed to ensure that no one gets seriously hurt. But Elias’s illustrative examples are carefully selected; he does not mention that for several centuries, in Rome and Byzantium, chariot-racing rather than circuses was the most popular ‘sport-game’. The supporters of rival teams formed politically influential fan groups but the rules of the game itself seem to have been at least as intricate and ‘civilised’ as those of contemporary soccer.

One reason for British scepticism is that the thesis is impervious to test. Elias first formulated his theory precisely at the time when Hitler was refuting the argument on the grandest scale. Elias actually discusses this very issue, but while he admits that the case of the German Nazis provides evidence that ‘this type of social development’ – Elias’s ‘civilising process’ – ‘could be reversed,’ he proceeds quite unabashed as if his general theory were universally valid. It is equally odd that this same general theory should now be advanced once again at a time when terroristic violence crowds in on the ordinary citizen from every side. Presumably the authors would claim that we only find such violence unacceptable because we have become more civilised.

The ‘Quest for Excitement’ in the title is linked to the proposition that in ‘advanced industrial societies’ ordinary members of the public are protected by bureaucracy from major crises (for example, famine, plague) and have been trained to exercise self-control when minor crises threaten. Indeed ‘self-control’ has become part of the individual’s built-in personality structure. ‘Social rituals and ceremonies at weddings and funerals ... hardly provide any longer, as those of simpler societies often do, for conspicuous excitement in public.’ Phew! Where had these authors got to on the occasion of Churchill’s funeral or the two very recent royal weddings? Anyway, they apparently assume that, in the past, sport-games gave vicarious excitement to both players and spectators. The modern, tamer, more rule-regulated version of such sports leaves the spectators frustrated. Hooliganism is then a cathartic substitute for the brutalities that are now forbidden. Well, that is possible, but there were/are other ways of gaining vicarious excitement besides watching or participating in a football match. Before 1868 you could watch a public execution and at almost any time between 1818 and 1848 you could risk your neck (or transportation to Australia) by attending a radical political meeting. The likelihood that you would then be classed as a hooligan was high. The principal magistrate who authorised the ‘massacre’ of Peterloo in 1819 was, I regret to say, a relative of mine. And so also today. Anyone who watches an NGA picket line in Wapping or an anti-apartheid rally in Handsworth risks getting involved in a battle with the police.

The ‘figurational analysis’ theme is reminiscent of Malinowski’s ‘institution’ as expounded posthumously in his A Scientific Theory of Culture. The sociologist should study ‘figurations’, complexes of groups of persons filling special roles within a particular material context in accordance with rules which delimit freedom of action but do not determine it. Thus, in a game of Association Football, there is a code of conduct adjudicated by the referee; one of his most important tasks is to ensure that the agreed limits to physical violence between the players are not exceeded. The referee’s rules do not affect the spectators in any formal way: nevertheless there is a well understood set of rules, supported in some cases by the police, which delimit what is permissible by the spectators. Hooligans are those who refuse to accept such restrictions. ‘Figurational analysis’ requires that the investigator study the various ‘segments’ among the spectators as well as the players and then consider how the whole set of such sub-groups is either knit together into a single pattern or fragmented into sub-sets of rival fan groups at war with one another and also with the over-arching wider society.

This is not, one would suppose, a particularly original position, but the Elias/Dunning ‘figurational’ schema differs from Malinowski’s ‘institutional’ approach in that it emphasises development over time. Dunning, in Chapter Eight, entitled ‘Social Bonding and Violence in Sport’, displays this alleged development as a structuralist opposition, though structuralism is not part of his vocabulary. If Figure 8.1, ‘Social dynamics of violence generation under conditions of segmental bonding’, is compared with Figure 8.2, ‘Social dynamics of violence limitation and recourse to instrumental violence under conditions of functional bonding’, it will be found that not only are the ten boxes in each of the two ‘figurations’ linked in an almost identical pattern but that the contents of the boxes in 8.1 are in every case the binary opposites of those in 8.2. A more contrived and useless exercise would be hard to imagine.

In turning to football to find examples of the taming process in civilisation, Elias seems to have originally concerned himself almost entirely with the players; Dunning, responding to the pressures of the times and to the willingness of the SSRC/ESRC to support research into ‘hooliganism’, pays more attention to the spectators. Admittedly the first half of his final essay, ‘Sport as a Male Preserve’, is concerned with the macho behaviour of the player members of Rugby Union football clubs, but football hooliganism is then discussed as if it were a quite separate phenomenon, exclusive to Association Football, involving the ‘display of aggression between opposing fan groups’, and in his other essays Dunning is almost wholly preoccupied with the spectators at Association Football matches. For the most part, football hooliganism is seen as an expression of differences in social class values. Thus Chapter Nine, ‘Spectator Violence at Football Matches: Towards a Sociological Explanation’, claims that the hooligans are characteristically members of ‘communities of the “rough” working class’. Dunning does not explicitly assert that the relatively genteel spectators at Rugby Union football matches never resort to hooliganism, but it is implied that this is so. He might possibly explain this supposed difference by saying that the level of permitted violence among the players in the rugger game is much greater than that among the players in the soccer game. Reference to Dunning’s notes on this essay shows that he claims that this pattern has been a characteristic feature of football violence ever since the beginning of the century.

It is wonderful what you can discover if you know the answer before you do your research. Dunning’s newspaper-cutting file must be highly selective. I can assure Dr Dunning from personal experience that in the early Thirties it was entirely predictable that the main occasions for hooliganism in the streets of London would be the nights following the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and the Oxford/Cambridge rugger match at Twickenham. The ‘hooligans’ in question were far from being members of a single social class, but a sufficient proportion of them had the clothing and accents of ‘gentlemen’ to induce the police to be absurdly tolerant.

John Hargreaves teaches sociology at Goldsmiths’ College, London. I am personally irritated by his repeated use of such jargon expressions as ‘bourgeois hegemony within the power bloc’ but, taken as a whole, his book is much more satisfactory than the Elias/Dunning volume with which it has much in common. First, being written as a single text by a single author, it has far less redundancy of argument. Secondly, although football hooliganism is prominent, it is not exclusively so. Hargreaves’s grasp of 19th-century social history seems far superior: he discusses the treatment by the media of a wide range of stereotyped individuals and not just football heroes – for example, George Best appears in both volumes, but John McEnroe only in Hargreaves. Gender distinctions are discussed in both books but while Elias/Dunning have little to say on the subject other than that ‘sport is a male preserve,’ Hargreaves discusses the theme at length with considerable insight. He also talks about race, a topic which seems to be completely taboo for Elias/Dunning.

With Sagan’s book we come to Freud but not, as it turns out, the Freud of Civilisation and its Discontents. The titles of Eli Sagan’s earlier books, Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form and The Lust to Annihilate: A Psychoanalytic Study of Violence in Ancient Greek Culture, suggest that when the publishers puff his new volume as ‘an original and provocative work of popular anthropology’, it will be Roberty Ardrey’s theory of an innate human tendency to aggression that will be pushed into the foreground, particularly as Sagan is an avowed Freudian and Freud also believed in an innate human aggression, acquired, believe it or not, when man first stood upright and exposed his genitals. But it is not like that. Sagan’s primitive man’ is quite a chummy sort of chap bonded to his neighbours by ties of kinship. It is only when the political community gets too large for this ‘everyone-is-related-by-kinship-to-everyone-else’ formula to work that the élite segregate themselves from the rest and tyrannise over their inferiors through the devices of slavery and other forms of arbitrary political oppression. There is a nice plausibility about this theory, though it does not receive much support from such limited evidence as is provided by ethnographic history. Perhaps this is because the ethnographic history of primitive peoples is virtually non-existent; or perhaps the theory is completely wrong.

As in his earlier books, Sagan’s psychoanalytic assumptions are given prominence. In this regard he is a follower of Margaret Mahler, who in turn is a disciple of Anna Freud. Sagan presumes that the individual’s psychological development from birth to maturity follows a regular biological programme (which is likely enough), but he then further assumes that human societies are analogous to human individuals in that they can be considered as isolates which have a built-in tendency to develop in a particular way over a long period of time. For this view there is no justification whatsoever.

The societies which Sagan rates as ‘primitive’ are in a stage of social infancy; the modern Western world is a human society in its complex maturity; in between there were, until very recently, societies which represented the beginnings of ‘complexity’ – the adolescence, as it were, of human society. It is at this stage that human societies become nasty and it is on societies of this type that Sagan, in this book, fixes his attention. His knowledge of ethnographic literature is evidently very narrow, so he finds it easy to exemplify by a small number of stock examples the supposedly clear-cut contrast between the non-oppressive forms of political domination found in his kinship-based ‘primitive’ society and the class stratified forms of oppressive ‘complex’ society. The Nuer of the Southern Sudan, as described by Evans-Pritchard, serve as a prototype for a kinship-based ‘primitive’ society, and the Kingdom of Buganda, as described by Speke in 1862, as a prototype of emergent ‘complex’ society. Other examples of emergent ‘complex’ societies are in Polynesia (Tonga, Tahiti and Hawaii) at the end of the 18th century.

All these examples seem to me unfortunate. If the Nuer are a ‘primitive’ society (which I do not accept), then the contrasted ‘complex’ society should preferably be close at hand and described by the same observer. Evans-Pritchard’s The Azande: History and Political Institutions (1971) is the obvious choice. Had Sagan come across this book, he would have been nonplussed. The Azande political system was certainly ‘complex’, and Evans-Pritchard emphasises the relative unimportance of kinship ties. But the difference is only relative, the contrast is not sharp. Political oppression only comes into the story when the Azande state, already in existence with its privileged Avongara aristocracy, has to come to terms with slave-trading Arabs and colonialist Europeans.

And this is what is wrong with Sagan’s analysis. He assumes quite explicitly that the Buganda Kingdom was ‘almost totally isolated’ prior to 1860, and that what Speke observed and described was the ‘traditional’ Buganda society. Yet Sagan himself provides evidence that the Buganda were trading with the Arabs of Zanzibar as early as the 1780s. The illustration on the cover and the scene entitled ‘Human sacrifice at Mutesa’s court’ are packed with material objects and items of costume which are of European origin. They were not brought there by Speke.

Speke was no doubt the first European to visit Mutesa’s capital but what he observed was Mutesa’s already Europeanised reaction to this unprecedented event; he did not observe ‘traditional’ Buganda behaviour. As far as I can judge, ‘traditional Buganda society’ is an ethnographic fiction. All the evidence suggests that the political forms had been changing rapidly and continuously from the earliest times for which there is any convincing historical record.

The same applies to Sagan’s Polynesian examples. Few events in ethnographic history have been more fully described than the visit of Captain Cook to Hawaii in January/February 1778. But what was it that was being described? Certainly it was not anything that could sensibly be described as ‘traditional Hawaiian society’. The Hawaiians were faced with a totally unprecedented situation. They attempted to mould the historical reality to fit their expectations by treating Cook as a deity (Lono), but even in Polynesia gods do not come ashore every day of the week! By the time the expedition left Hawaii Cook was dead and nothing was ever to be the same again. But is that really surprising? In our own Western history nothing is ever the same again. Why should the societies of Polynesian islands have been any more static before the Europeans arrived than they became afterwards?

The Polynesian materials discussed by Sagan on the basis of the original 18th-century records have recently been the subject of extremely detailed and perceptive analysis by the Chicago anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Valerio Valeri. Although some of this material has been in print since 1979, Sahlins’s first contribution is mentioned by Sagan only in his bibliography, where it is described as ‘an unpublished, undated manuscript’, while Valeri’s contributions are not mentioned at all. Sahlins and Valeri show, among many other things, that the static ‘traditional’ past is mythological. Wherever we encounter ‘historical’ evidence the picture revealed is of a rapidly developing society. Part of this development was a response to outside influences, but partly it seems to have been generated by competitive forces within the system itself. In 1778 Hawaii had presumably been more or less isolated from all other social systems for several thousand years; I can discern no evidence whatsoever that there had ever been a stable ‘traditional’ form of society in the pre-Cook era. At any rate we have no idea as to what sort of society it might have been.

Sagan takes the exactly opposite view. When Speke got to Buganda it was at precisely the same stage of self-generated evolutionary development as Tonga, Tahiti and Hawaii in the late 18th century. This allows Sagan to make direct comparison between institutions reported by Speke for Buganda and institutions reported by various missionaries and sea captains for the Polynesian islands. In this way everything is found to fit perfectly with the psychoanalytic theory of social and cultural development expounded in the final 35 pages of the book. This is summed up by the author as: ‘The energy that drives the whole history of the world is the force of the psyche struggling to fulfil its developmental destiny. The struggle is essentially an internal one against the energy of repression. The two great elements of developmental drive and repression, at eternal war with each other, dominate political life now as much as in the days when the first lonely chief emerged out of the kinship-system world.’ But surely any author who imagines that the Kabaka of Buganda in 1862 could provide a reductionist image of ‘the whole history of the world’ must be quite singularly lacking in a sense of humour.