Online Toolkit

Part 4 - Key Concepts, Models, and Tools


When thinking about violence, it is easy to fall into the error of thinking just about physical violence (killing) or sexual violence (rape), which are its most visible and intense manifestations. That is because violence is too regularly conceived as reduced to the classical idea of inflicting physical damage to other people or their properties. However, violence occurs in many forms – some are easy to identify, others are less obvious, but all can inflict pain and damage.

"Violence consists of actions, words, attitudes, structures or systems that cause physical, psychological, social, or environmental damage, and/or prevent people from reaching their full human potential."

The three forms of violence

  • Direct violence is physical, making it the easiest to see. It is the kind of behaviour that is carried out with the clear intention to harm someone.
    Examples: torture, war, rape, or wife-battering.
  • Structural violence is the indirect violence caused by an unjust structure. Generated by the system itself, it shows up as "unequal power and consequently as unequal life chance." It prevents you from accessing resources (land and water) or services (education and healthcare).
    Examples: poverty, hunger, and death by avoidable reasons such as malnutrition, discrimination, and lack of access to education, employment or healthcare.
  • Cultural violence is related to people's attitudes, feelings and values. Attitudes of hostility and feelings of hatred, fear or mistrust, play a crucial role in legitimising and justifying violence, both direct and structural. Cultural assumptions may generate social discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, or ideology, leading to intolerance, motivating one to direct and/or structural violence, and even becoming the source of violence itself. As it is a mental process, it is a less visible way of violence, and perhaps the most difficult to address.
    Examples: racial discrimination and religious intolerance.
    Ethnic cleansing is an example of all three: a violent behaviour, allowed by the system, and justified by people's attitudes and their dehumanization of "the others." It is an example which shows why it is so important to be aware that there are other forms of violence besides the direct one, and that they are intimately related to each other. In order to prevent and overcome violence, all violent dimensions need to be addressed in an appropriate way.

(Adapted from the matrices formulated by Toh Swee-hin and Virginia Cawagas)
Form of violence    
Drug abuse
Domestic violence
Violent crimes
Civil war
Violent crimes
Physical human rights abuses
Physical human rights abuses
PowerlessnessLocal inequality
National inequalities
Global inequalities
Socio Cultural
Low self-esteem
Prejudice &
(racism, religious intolerance, etc)
Prejudice &
Enemy images
Prejudice &
Enemy images
Nuclear power radiation
Chemical or bio- warfare

The Three Structural Elements of Conflict

Johan Galtung elaborated an innovative way of thinking about conflicts, violence and peace, by looking deeper into the structural and cultural roots of both conflict and violence. According to him, a conflict can be identified as a dynamic process with three structural elements: context, attitudes, and behaviours, which are constantly changing and influencing one another (see the illustration on the right).

The distinction between the three dimensions of violence - direct, structural and cultural violence, just like the three structural elements of conflict, can be illustrated through a triangle, showing that they are also immersed in a very complex relationship in which they influence, and are influenced by each other.


The most common reaction to violence is more violence. Human history is full of wars and conquests, yet there are many different ways to respond to violence. The most conventional is by counter violence (an eye for an eye), but there is growing recognition of the value of nonviolence.

"Non-violence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate."
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

This fundamental human aspiration, developed as a comprehensive theory by Mahatma Gandhi, can be identified in examples throughout history. Nonviolence is a philosophy and a way of life that rejects the use of the different kinds of violence. Nonviolence has proven to be a way to bring about change, and as a counter-violence strategy, in modern times, it has proven to be a powerful tool for protest and social change. It is a strong but unarmed fight against injustice. Nonviolent strategies include protests, demonstrations, labour or industrial strikes, boycotts, and protest activities – like marches, prayers, sports, education, theatre and music. These activities can be very powerful as they may not directly alter the situation, but they can alter public opinion. It can help expose violent systems, and express the power and dignity of people, both to themselves and to the international community. In recent years, young people have also started using new technology (especially social networks) to mobilise for non-violent action.

Did you know that Non-violence and Nonviolence are different?

• Non-violence means the absence of violent action.

• Nonviolence, has an active meaning - to live consciously focused on truth and love. Mahatma Gandhi practiced 'principled nonviolent' living. It is a proactive moral philosophy that places human relationships at the centre of life, based on truth and love. Through principled nonviolence, individuals use inner moral courage (a state of mind) in action, to rise above physical force. It is a living philosophy that sees the common unity between individuals.