Sat | Mar 17, 2018

Herbert Gayle | Light on violence

Published:Tuesday | January 24, 2017 | 4:46 AM

1. Gangs, murders, repeat killers

Jamaica has a real problem with social violence, and this has affected the way we are treated in the region and further abroad. In Jamaica, almost everyone has experienced violence in some way, and most of us would like to do something to help this country that we love so much. In 2000, a team from Scotland Yard visited our faculty (Social Sciences) at the UWI and impressed upon us that “one of your very best graduate students must come to England and do one of the many programmes there in violence studies and return to assist your country with its terrible violence problem, and hopefully, by helping yourself, it will help us, too, in England”.

The Scotland Yard team, baffled by Jamaicans’ involvement in black-on-black violence in London, even promised assistance and facilitated my training in England. I returned in 2007 to embark on this lonely journey to assist Jamaica in reducing its social violence. This series, ‘Light on Jamaican Violence’, was created to help especially those who dare to do something to act from a point of knowledge.

Those of us who study social violence focus on gangs, murder-suicides, repeat killers, and domestic violence. This requires us to be trained in areas such as neurobiology, forensics, masculinity, politics, and danger detection. The few of us in the world who are crazy enough to combine these studies with anthropology are called anthropologists of social violence. This means that we study violence from up close; some of us even live with gangs.

We crazy anthropologists of social violence must also love our country very much and have a passion for young people – including the ones who are violent, especially if they can be saved.

The core of my work across the Caribbean, Central America, USA, and Europe has been focused on gangs. Note though, that all forms of social violence are connected. In this series, I shall cover some very basic, but also technical, issues of violence and will do my best to make it easy to digest. Knowledge is better than gut feelings! We all know that while some gut feelings are good, others are an indicator that we need to use the toilet.


Violence occurs in a wide range of cultures and in a variety of social situations. It is not restricted to any single kind of culture, class, or race. Half a million people have been killed every year in the last decade. Violence is a global issue. In the Western world, violence has become most visible in inner cities because of its frequency and severity. Nonetheless, the matter of media coverage or public perception is also an important factor.

The World Health Organization defines violence as the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against one group or community, which either results in, or has a high likelihood of resulting in, injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.

Violence occurs in many different forms – from threats at one extreme through to homicide at the other. Any discussion of violence must take into account that three parties are usually involved: the performer, the victim, and the witness.

Definitions of violence are often of those who witness it or who are victims of certain acts. Yet for us to understand and explain violence, we must also study the motives of those who perform it. In fact, we violence experts are trained to focus on the performer or perpetrator rather than the victim. The logic is that if we can understand the motive of the performer, we are better able to reduce the problem and help reduce the number of likely victims.


2. Who is labelling violence?

 Most acts of violence are not considered a crime. However, when a person thinks of violence, he or she does not only think of the harm done, but also that the action is illegitimate. Yet ‘physical hurt done to others’ counts as violence only in certain contexts. To illustrate this point, the State can execute grievous harm, and this becomes termed as part of government or political organisation instead of violence. This is especially if the violence was used to bring about social order.

Whenever the term violence is used, we must, therefore, ask the questions: who is labelling it, and what is the social position of the person or persons doing the labelling? In Jamaica we publicly label inner-city youth as troublemakers. The result has been that physical force used against them is often treated as something other than violence since it is thought that such treatment is necessary to maintain social order. Similarly, inner-city youth who use physical force against the police describe their actions as ‘resistance against Babylon’. In this context, they see themselves as the victims trying to escape oppression. Clearly then, violence is a concept that can be manoeuvred into an ideological ambience (Riches 1986).

The nature of violence is problematic. The practice of violence is highly visible to the senses. This often has an impact on the way accounts of violence are relayed to the listener. The discharge of violence is also highly unpredictable, both in terms of the actual physical harm done and in terms of how a sequence of violent acts develops. This means that very few persons actually study violence carefully. In fact, most persons who write about violence do so from distant observation or from an ‘armchair’

3. Which is more dangerous?

In the Second World War, nine million people died each year. About 12 million children die each year due mainly to the action of middle-class policymakers around the world. So which is more dangerous? Structural violence usually leads to direct violence! The children we cause to be hungry do not always hold their tummies and cry. Some fight back violently!

4. Here are some of the forms of violence you will see in an inner-city community:

Political: on the grounds that the victim belongs to the opposing political party; also public violent protest aimed at getting the attention of government.

Economic: drug-related violence associated with trafficking of especially cocaine and marijuana; hustle-related harm done to persons who attempt to stop armed youth from achieving economic goals; contract violence, the use of mercenaries; ‘Matey War’ involving women fighting each other for the trophy of a money-earning male.

Turf/community war: corner crews (youth organised for the purpose of friendship and protection rather than to commit crime) attacking other groups due to the fact that they feel that their community has been threatened.

Gang: three or more young persons operating together for a period exceeding three months, or with some degree of permanence, organised hierarchically (have a leader, second-tier command, and a ‘happy to act’ base) who compete with another or other such groups violently for power and/or money.

Domestic: spousal, internal family conflict, and child abuse.

Interpersonal: Violence on a personal level: ‘Tenant War’ (violence between persons living in a tenement situation), or ‘Family War’ (violent conflict between families due mainly to insult, or physical injury to a family member by someone from another family living in proximity to each other.

5. Four forms of violence we need to worry about:

 - Direct violence: intended to harm or hurt, carried out by violent actors. It is visible, graphic and destructive and is the form that is most feared.

- Structural violence: customary, structured, often unintended, mostly invisible, sometimes everyone is involved. Structural violence can be the result of frozen or past direct violence such as slavery, colonialism, economic exploitation, patriarchy.

- Cultural violence: the legitimisation of the first two as good and right, setting violence within the frame of morals – the absence of a moral frame to reduce it. It is often invisible, but with clear intent to harm or even to kill.

- Institutional violence: This occurs when a group thinks it is their duty to harm others. The police and soldiers are not the only ones here. Anyone can feel it is his duty to treat another person with violence for the common good of a group or even the victim. Some parents and religious leaders are involved here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Herbert Samuel Gayle (PhD, London; MSc, BA, UWI) is a social anthropologist who specialises in social violence (gangs, murder-suicide, repeat-killers, and domestic violence). His career centres on research and lecturing at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus (Jamaica). He has over two decades of experience living with and studying youth gangs and transnational criminal organisations in the Caribbean, Central America, USA, and Europe and has influenced policies in three Caribbean states to reduce social violence. He has been interviewed by over 20 international media houses, including the BBC and the Associated Press. Dr Gayle is also a methods expert, trained at the advanced level in all four approaches: qualitative, quantitative, integrated, and participatory and action research. As a violence expert and youth advocate, Dr Gayle has done public lectures, motivational presentations, workshops, and seminars in over 30 countries. He has done over 60 major studies and has published a number of books, chapters, and articles.