Symbolic violence: The stealthy aggressor


Violence is a form a communication. Not a desirable one, to be sure, but inevitable as long as mankind lasts.

We know what physical violence looks like because it leaves visible marks. By comparison, symbolic violence may seem harmless: after all, no blood is shed. Blood, however, is tangible, it can be wiped off; not so the effects of symbolic violence, which linger and fester–invisible, insidious.

Symbolic violence is a recurring theme in the social theory of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. One may agree or disagree with his postulate that “all pedagogic action is, objectively, symbolic violence insofar as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary [sic] by an arbitrary power.” (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture)  In other words, schools, as purveyors of the dominant culture ideology, are the primary vehicles for exercising this type of violence. Education, for Bourdieu, is a natural conduit for indoctrination, but symbolic power is also wielded by means of “capital”: economic (i.e., wealth), cultural (titles and qualifications), symbolic (honor and prestige), social (connections).

In my interpretation of Bourdieu’s concept, symbolic violence occurs when society’s dominant groups (or institutions) use their capital to maintain power over those with less capital (e.g., women, minorities, immigrants), thereby securing their future as the rightful inheritors of a social order that is validated by the dominant discourse. In so doing, they continue to reproduce the social inequalities embedded in the system.

None of this is explicit, deliberate, or even conscious: It is considered a natural state of affairs by the ruling classes, which is to be expected, but also–surprisingly–by those subjected to their domination. Having been fed the same narrative since birth, the underprivileged become complicit in maintaining the status quo, questioning their own abilities rather than the legitimacy of the existing power structure. (Bourdieu &  Passeron, 1970, La Reproduction)

Bourdieu’s analysis, to me, is quite relevant in the therapeutic setting, especially as it pertains to hidden patterns of interaction in couples and families, metacommunication, upended hierarchies, and skewed power relations, to name but a few.

Although symbolic violence was never listed as one of the presenting problems during my clinical apprenticeship, it was frequently acted out in session with one family member “taking the voice” of another. (Minuchin & Fishman, 1981, Family therapy techniques)  In the language of family therapy, taking someone’s voice is an attempt to silence that person, and thus an act of symbolic violence. When your partner ignores you, excludes you, dismisses you, devalorizes you, how do you react? If you are neither heard nor seen by the person closest to you, do you still exist? What happens to your sense of self, your identity?

Symbolic violence, which must remain covert in order to be perceived as legitimate, is common in relationships where the power differential between partners is significant; it also manifests itself in contentious divorce proceedings. For example:

A husband exercises power over his soon-to-be ex by portraying her, with poise and eloquence, as lazy, volatile, greedy, and therefore undeserving of his money. The wife tries to defend herself, but his depiction of her is so unjust that she cannot find the words and falters. In that vulnerable, powerless state, she begins to wonder if, perhaps, her husband’s remarks are justified.

A young married professional woman, mother of a toddler, is a model of efficiency at work and at home. Born to parents whose substantial economic capital enabled her to pursue advanced degrees, she carries within her the prerogatives that come with membership in her country’s dominant culture. Her husband, equally competent in his field and a doting father, hails from another country and earns less than his wife. As self-appointed decision-maker, she doesn’t seek input from her husband. Instead, she takes his voice–without malice, but simply because her viewpoint is the “right” and only viewpoint: the one that mirrors the hierarchy of power relations that she internalized from a young age.

A divorced husband runs into his ex-wife in a shop. She greets him, not warmly, but with civility. He looks away, keeping his head turned, without responding. She shrugs and moves on. By not acknowledging his former wife, the mother of his children, the man communicates his contempt symbolically: You are nothing to me, I do not see you, I do not hear you, therefore you do not exist.

How do we help a victim of symbolic violence?

– Symbolic violence needs to be identified, named, and exposed as the serious and very real form of aggression that it is.

– The partner who is subjected to symbolic violence must resist attempts to be silenced by regaining his/her voice and continue to challenge the status quo.

– The partner who exercises symbolic violence has to be willing to examine his/her own role in the power dynamics of the relationship.

Not a small undertaking, I know. But it’s a start, wouldn’t you say?

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