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What is Structural Violence?

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

This Monday, people across the US will celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day to mark the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, which spoke out against racial discrimination in the American legal system.

As we celebrate the leaps and bounds that we have made as a country against racial discrimination and other forms of structural violence, it’s important that we acknowledge the structural violence that still exists in the US.

The Civil Rights Movement did not erase structural violence. This week on the Art of Trauma-Informed, we’re going to explore the concept of structural violence.

The Definition of Structural Violence

Originally coined in 1969, the term structural violence refers to a form of violence where one or several social structures or institutions harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.

The structures in question include social, economic, and political systems that create disadvantages and risks for certain populations. Examples of structural violence include:

  • racism and colorism

  • ableism

  • classism and income inequality

  • ageism

  • heteronormativity (including sexism, homophobia, and transphobia)

  • fatphobia

  • anti-Semitism

  • Islamophobia

Structural violence perpetuates health inequalities and contributes to higher mortality rates in vulnerable populations. Unsurprisingly, the theories surrounding structural violence are closely linked to the social determinants of health.

Dissecting Structural Violence from the Inside-Out

Structural violence does not exist in a vacuum: it is created through persistent violence across communities and institutions. In the trauma-informed model, we view structural violence as the culmination of other types of social violence in order to explore the power we have to challenge structural violence across every level.

Individual Violence

Individual violence includes acts of social discrimination, which can be physical or emotional. Examples include:

  • bullying

  • physical aggression

  • microaggressions

  • micro-assaults

  • social exclusion

Individual violence refers to specific moments of violence between individuals. We can think of individual violence as “violence that harms an individual.”

Community Violence

When we look at instances of individual violence on a larger scale, we can see how it develops into community violence. We can similarly think of community violence as “violence that harms a community.”

Community violence happens when a community is exposed to intentional acts of interpersonal violence, such as sexual assaults, gang violence, or public shootings. These acts of violence can happen suddenly, or they may be anticipated.

Institutional Violence

The next level is institutional violence, where institutions possess organizational traits which:

  • are inherently violence

  • promote moral abandonment

  • normalize structural oppression

You can think of institutional violence as the violence that institutions enact on people. This violence is usually covert—because it is normalized, people may struggle to see why it is harmful.

For example, one manifestation of medical racism as institutional racism is the phenomenon of “correcting” for race. The spirometer, a tool used to diagnose respiratory disease, uses correction factors of up to 15% for Black individuals.

These correction models may make it difficult for patients of color to receive necessary treatments while disregarding the long-term health impacts of historical trauma such as slavery and forced labor.

Systemic Violence

Institutional violence leads to systemic violence. Systemic violence encompasses the inequalities and continued or worsened disadvantages to marginalized populations through social customs or official policies.

Systemic violence is worsened when those in power limit the power or potential of oppressed groups. They may do this intentionally or unintentionally, but the impact remains the same.

Environmental, economic, racial, and gender injustice intersect to create systemic violence that disproportionately impacts individuals who belong to multiple marginalized groups.

Structural Violence

Built upon and surrounding all of these forms of violence is structural violence, where social structures, institutions, and policies do harm through the prevention of basic needs and social exclusion.

Structural violence occurs when inequity is perpetuated through discriminatory beliefs and power structures, such as racism, ableism, sexism, etc.

Understanding Structural Violence Empowers Us to Push Back

Most people would agree that structural violence is bad. The issue is that many of these people remain silent when faced with opportunities to correct or self-correct. We also tend to struggle to address historical trauma and structural violence with an air of cultural humility, responsibility, and accountability.

By understanding how insidious structural violence is in our lives, we can acknowledge how we contribute to the problem while addressing how we can heal and repair it.

The society we are born into is racist, sexist, ablest, and more. It is not our fault that we take on the ideals of the society we exist in. However, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the harmful ideals and norms we carry with us and work towards unlearning the beliefs that harm others and ourselves.

Having these conversations is a big part of creating the change we want to see regarding structural violence. If you want to explore this topic with a trauma-informed community, consider joining us for Intentional Conversations, which will return in February 2023.

1 Comment

Irene Macabante
Irene Macabante
Jan 12, 2023

Great article. Just one issue with it: the term "non-white" is problematic as it centers whiteness. Could you use a more positive, inclusive term such as "people of color"?


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