Why Study Violence?

December 13, 2013

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

For years Lee Ann Fujii of the University of Toronto has focused in depth on a subject that most people would prefer to avoid: graphic displays of violence. A 2013-2014 Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, Fujii’s current research examines violent incidents in three disparate geographical regions in order to form a theory of why people participate in killings and atrocities within their own communities.

The three episodes that Fujii examines are a 1992 massacre of Muslim men in Bosnia, the mob lynching of a black man named George Armwood in Maryland in 1933, and the killing of a prominent Tutsi family during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Though these occurrences span both time and geography, Fujii’s research shows how each instance constitutes what she calls a performative violent display—an act of violence intended to communicate a message to various audiences. How do violent displays differ from ordinary violence? Fujii argues that violent displays shift and transform social reality, opening a space for participants to act in ways they normally would not and fostering opportunities for participants to enact and define new identities. Violent displays, she argues, leave a mark.

The chilling, barely legible photo above captures the crowd gathered at the 1933 lynching of George Armwood in Maryland. In this episode, Armwood was accused of assaulting an elderly white woman. Though he was arrested and jailed by the state police, a group of white vigilantes stormed the jailhouse in order to abduct him. They dragged him from the jail, beat and stabbed him, and ultimately hanged him from a tree. The mob burned Armwood’s body post-mortem. Given that Armwood had already been arrested and would have been quickly convicted under the judicial system of the Jim Crow South, what compelled this mob to take matters into their own hands and enact this gruesome extra-lethal violence upon Armwood? As Fujii explains, this spectacle allowed participants to communicate the racial order to multiple audiences—including both white and black residents of the Eastern Shore, the police and other agents of the legal system, state authorities in Annapolis, and themselves as actors in the spectacle.

In order to better understand the roots of community violence and develop more effective policies to curb it, Fujii argues that it is crucial to examine how violence reconstructs meanings and how it alters social and not just physical reality. During her time in residence at the Russell Sage Foundation, Fujii will complete a manuscript draft of a book examining these micro-level violent processes and how they shape the societies that carry them out.

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