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The Logic of Political Violence

Kalyvas (2006, p. 20) noted that violence has been treated as being synonymous with distinct topics such as ‘war’, ‘revolution’, or ‘conflict’. Violence is a complex phenomenon, and its scale and dynamics are usually context-specific. Kalyvas (2006, p. 7) described this variation and complexity, by stating the following: “wars, and their violence, display enormous variation — both across and within countries and time“. In addition, the famous Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz (1976, p. 609), noted on the complexity and variation of violence that “the conduct of war is determined by the nature of societies, as well as by their times and prevailing conditions“.

Acknowledging the complexity of the concept of political violence, the purpose of the following article is to dissect such a notion, with the ultimate aim of decoding the possible logic behind the use of violence. In this view, the article will approach the study of political violence as a dynamic process, since a similar method has the advantage of allowing the researcher to investigate “the sequence of decisions and events that intersect to produce violence“ (Kalyvas, 2006, p. 22). As such, the article will investigate the concept, logic and variation, aims, and production of violence.

Image 1: Unknown (n.d). Carl von Clausewitz, 1780-1831, German [Portrait].

The Concept of Violence

The concept of violence has long been studied from different angles, which is proof of the complexity of the nature of the concept. Kalyvas (2006, p. 19) noted that “though it may be an intuitive concept, violence is a conceptual minefield [...] as a multifaceted social phenomenon, it can be defined very broadly and stretched way beyond physical violence“. However, in the most basic sense of the word, according to Kalyvas (2006, p. 19), “violence is the deliberate infliction of harm on people“. Due to the fact that violence forms an important part of the world, the phenomenon has been studied through the prism of various academic disciplines. For example, interpersonal violence is studied in the field of criminology, while interstate or intrastate violence is analysed in the fields of international relations, security studies, and political science. In addition, violence has also been investigated in the field of sociology, with a large focus on ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and the inequalities between genders (Walby, 2013).

Each of these fields addresses violence through different analytical frameworks and the actors involved in the analysis also differ. In addition, each perspective studying conflict tends to determine different approaches to conflict resolution (Mars, 1975). However, the focus of the Political Violence 101 series is on violence pertaining to politics, in other words, violence with a political undertone. Consequently, the World Health Organization’s definition will be used when referring to political violence, which is described as “the deliberate use of power and force to achieve political goals“ (Sousa, 2013, p. 173).

Image 2: Lauvrik, H. (2019, May 15). Johan Galtung at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) in 1968 [Photograph].

As a starting point for understanding the concept of political violence, the article will detail the argument provided by Johan Galtung, who sought to detail the variation and complexity of studying, comprehending, and conceptualising the topic. Galtung, referred to as the father of peace studies, aimed to define violence by dissecting the concept and providing six distinctions. Firstly, he distinguished between ‘physical‘ and ‘psychological‘ violence, continuing to state that “under physical violence human beings are hurt somatically, to the point of killing“ (1969, p. 169). Secondly, he drew a differentiation between the ‘negative‘ and ‘positive‘ approaches to violence, referring to the fact that “a person can be influenced not only by punishing him when he does what the influencer considers wrong, but also by rewarding him when he does what the influencer considers right“ (1969, p. 170). The third contrast was drawn in relation to the ‘object side’, by which Galtung (1969, p. 170) referred to “whether or not there is an object that is hurt“. Then, the fourth distinction was taken in terms of the ‘subject side’ by which Galtung (1969, p. 170) referred to “whether or not there is a subject (person) who acts“.

The latter differentiation proved important because it further distinguished between ’personal/direct violence’ and ’structural/indirect violence’. Direct violence was defined as “the type of violence where there is an actor that commits the violence“, while in the case of indirect violence, there is no such actor present (Galtung, 1969, p. 170). With regards to indirect violence, Galtung noted that its manifestation will depend on the available resources, and whether they are distributed unevenly amongst society. As such, Galtung noted (1969, p. 171) indirect violence is present if “the power to decide over the distribution of resources is unevenly distributed“. The fifth distinction by Galtung (1969, p. 171) was made between ’unintended’ and ’intended’ violence, arguing that “this distinction is important when guilt is to be decided“. And finally, the sixth differentiation was between ’manifest’ and ’latent’ violence: the author argues that “manifest violence, whether personal or structural, is observable“, while “latent violence is something which is not there yet might easily come about“ (Galtung, 1969, p. 172). Taking Galtung’s typology into account, violence studied in the context of political violence usually includes direct violence. As such, Kalyvas (2006, p. 20) included the following forms of direct and intentional physical violence: “pillage, robbery, vandalism, arson, forcible displacement, kidnapping, hostage taking, detention, beating, torture, mutilation, rape, and desecration of dead bodies“.

Image 3: Frei, C. (2020, October 14). James Natchtwey is the subject of the film, ‘War Photographer’ by Christian Frei [Photograph].

The Logic and Variation of Violence

The practices, levels, types, and variations of violence vary greatly across case studies. For example, Gumz (2001) theorised that violence depends on the organisational structure of society, while Anderson (2004) and Bartov (1992) argued that violence is influenced by political actors and their respective political ideologies. Anderson (2004) based his findings on five diverse insurgent movements, namely the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, the FLMN of El Salvador, the Karen of Burma, the Polisario Front of Western Sahara, and a group of young Palestinians fighting against Israel in the Gaza strip. Bartov (1992) on the other hand based his findings on an analysis of Hitler’s Third Reich, specifically assessing how the soldiers and army used violence. Like Bartov, Shepherd (2002) conducted his analysis on the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany, and made a similar finding that the variation in violence was largely connected with strategies of both local and national leadership.

Weinstein (2003) took a different approach and investigated how rebel groups employed violence. The study did not focus on any particular subject: instead, case studies were mentioned where the findings could be applied. Weinstein argued that the type, form, and intensity of violence produced by rebels was largely due to the resources available to them. In the author’s own words, he argued: “differences in how rebel groups employ violence are a consequence of variation in the initial conditions that leaders confront“ (Weinstein, 2003, p. 7). Weinstein’s main finding was that “rebel groups that emerge in environments rich in natural resources or with the external support of an outside patron tend to commit high levels of indiscriminate violence; movements that arise in resource-poor contexts perpetuate far fewer abuses and employ violence selectively and strategically“ (Weinstein, 2003, p. 7).

Image 4: Morrison, S. (2019, June 26). Rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army making their way to a camp in southern Sudan [Photograph].

In addition to the above-mentioned scholars, interest has also been paid to decoding the logic of violence in different contextual settings. For example, Besley, Persson and Kalyvas studied the logic of violence during civil wars, drawing on multiple case studies. Besley and Persson (2011) conducted a quantitative analysis based on disaggregated data from the Armed Conflict Dataset (ACD) to explain how violence is employed during civil wars. The authors found “that peace, repression (one-sided violence), and civil war (two-sided violence) become ordered states depending on a common underlying latent variable which is shifted by shocks to the value of public goods, wages, aid, and resource rents“ (Besley & Persson, 2011, p. 1440). As mentioned above, Kalyvas (2006) also studied the logic of violence in the context of civil wars, specifically running an empirical test of the findings on the Greek Civil War. Kalyvas (2006) concluded that violence during the civil war cannot be reduced to irrational factors, due to the fact that violence has its own underlying rationale and logic. For example, Kalyvas argued that selective violence and indiscriminate violence are employed during civil wars at varying times. The author further posits that the logic behind the use of violence will tend to be indiscriminate in territories under fragmented control while violence will be selective in territories under near-hegemonic control (Kalyvas, 2006).

Another interesting argument was raised by Boukhars (2020), who specifically analyzed the logic of violence produced by violent extremist groups in Africa. Boukhars (2020, p. 117) found that violence in conflict-prone countries in Africa is driven largely by four factors: “(1) the degree to which VE [violent extremist] groups rely on local support to maintain the insurgency; (2) the dynamics of in-group/out-group differentiation and corresponding hostility; (3) inter-group rivalry and looming power shifts; and (4) the strategies of counterinsurgency employed by governments“.

Image 5: Voronov, V. (2020, January 5). Journey into hell: A reporter remembers Moscow’s assault on Grozny in 1995 [Photograph].

The Aims of Violence

Kalyvas (2006, p. 23) noted that the logic behind the use of violence by various political actors to achieve their respective goals may include the following: “intimidation, demoralization, polarization, demonstration, radicalization of the public, publicity, the improvement of group morale, the enforcement or disruption of control, the mobilization of forces and resources, financing, the elimination of opposing forces, the sanction of cooperation with the enemy, and the provocation of countermeasures and repression“. Then, Sousa (2013, p. 173) referred to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) description of the aim of violence, which noted that “political violence is the deliberate use of power and force to achieve political goals“. For example, in rebellions, violence is often used by rebel groups to challenge the incumbent government’s power, while at the same time, violence is also used by the state to entrench its own power (Weinstein, 2003). Similarly, in the context of civil wars, groups opposing the state are explicitly challenging the state’s monopoly on the use of force (Kalyvas, 2006). In both rebellions and civil wars, political violence is used with explicit political objectives.

In an effort to further dissect the aims of violence, it is useful to refer to different types of violence employed during the conflict. As a point of departure, the article will briefly explain three types of violence as identified by Kalyvas (2006), namely coercive violence, selective violence, and violence which serves no instrumental purpose. Firstly, coercive violence, according to Kalyvas (2006), is usually carried out on the basis of strategic and tactical value, as the author notes that “targeting a person to eliminate a particular risk is tactical but using this act of violence so as to deter others from engaging in similar behaviour is strategic“ (p. 27). Lessing (2015) also mentioned coercive violence in the setting of criminal wars, by which he offered two sub-types of coercive violence in his study of cartel violence, basing his findings on both quantitative and qualitative data taken from Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil. The first sub-type was ‘violent lobbying’ referring to events where “cartels target political leaders in order to induce changes in de jure policy“ (Lessing, 2015, p. 1497). On the other hand, the second sub-type was ‘violent corruption’, where “cartels target enforcement agents in order to intimidate them and reduce the price of bribes“ (Lessing, 2015, p. 1490). The second type of violence identified was ’selective violence’, which according to Kalyvas (2006, p. 6) may entail the “production of violence in a systematic and predictable way“. An example of this would be if the state uses violence selectively to deter defections in its military (Kalyvas, 2006). Finally, the third type refers to violence which serves no instrumental value or purpose. Kalyvas (2006, p. 24) referred to such violence as ‘nihilistic’ or ‘anomic’. Examples of these types of violence include identity and sectarian violence, where “violence is directed against persons exclusively on the basis of who they are“.

Image 6: Stringer/ AFP/ Getty Images. (2019, March 18). A Syrian force’s artillery observer looks through a scope as smoke plumes rise on the horizon, near Hama, on April 1, 2017 [Photograph].

The Production of Violence

As the article has shown thus far, violence is a complex phenomenon, it can be produced by various actors. Kalyvas (2006) noted that violence can be produced multilaterally/bilaterally, or unilaterally. The former refers to violence produced by two or more competing actors, while the latter refers to violence produced by one actor. State terror is an instance of violence which is produced unilaterally by the state. Kalyvas used the example of the Spanish inquisition to illustrate the logic behind the use of violence produced by the state, quoting a Spanish inquisitor who stated the following in 1578: “We must remember that the main purpose of the trial and execution is not save the soul of the accused but to achieve the public good and put fear into others“ (Kalyvas, 2006, p. 30). In contrast to unilaterally produced violence, multilaterally produced violence involves two or more actors. Kalyvas (2006, p. 30) termed this sort of violence as ‘reciprocal extermination’ which is produced in the context of intrastate conflicts, also referred to as civil wars. As such, violence is “produced by at least two political actors who enjoy partial and/or overlapping monopolies of violence“ (Kalyvas, 2006, p. 31).

The production of violence as either unilateral or multilateral has strategic implications. For example, in the case of violence produced multilaterally, “political actors need to anticipate their opponents’ strategy and the likely effects of their violence on civilians“ (Kalyvas, 2006, p. 31). In contrast, when violence is produced under a unilateral provision, it is a direct expression of the intentions of the actor responsible for initiating the violence and as a result, violence is produced more indiscriminately usually lacking strategic depth (Kalyvas, 2006).

Image 7: Hedayat, M. (2014, April 4). A funeral in war-ravaged Syria [Photograph].

As mentioned above, violence can be either produced unilaterally or multilateral: therefore, it is important to mention examples of the actors involved in the production of violence. In particular, Kalyvas drew a distinction between the state and non-state actors (Kalyvas, 2006). Drawing from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ALCED) extensive list of agents who produce violence, the following actors were identified: state forces, rebel groups, political militias, identity militias, rioters, protesters, civilians, and other forces. ’Other forces’ included private security firms or hired mercenaries (ACLED, 2021). Williams (2008) offered more insight by specifically analysing violent non-state actors (VNA’s) and included seven types in the study: warlords, militias, paramilitary forces, insurgencies, terrorist organisations, criminal organisations, and youth gangs. Williams (2006, p. 8) raised an interesting point by noting that the ‘role of violence’ is what distinguishes violent non-state actors from non-governmental Organizations (NGOs). Indeed, the author states that “although the definition of VNSAs has violence at the core — violence is what distinguishes VNSAs from the NGOs and advocacy networks that are increasingly considered as part of global civil society — different organizations not only use different levels and forms of violence, but also use it for different purposes“.

Summy (1992) provided a useful explanation to understand this distinction in the description of the three spheres of political action. The first is the ‘conventional sphere of state politics’, which includes the parliament; secondly, ‘the violent sphere’ includes non-state actors who employ direct violence; and third, in ‘the non-violent sphere’ actors challenge conventional politics through participatory democratic means. Consequently, VNAs operate in the violent sphere while NGOs operate in the non-violent sphere. As such, the actors take contrasting approaches to challenge convention, the former employing violence while the latter pursues peaceful activism (Summy, 1992, p. 15). Smidova (2021) took a similar analytical approach as Williams (2008) by also focusing the study on non-state armed actors. The author mentions various types of actors, their motivations, their objectives, and the objects of their violence. First, rebels are motivated by either political or ideological goals, with the objective being regime change while the object of violence is the state. Second, militias are motivated on political grounds, largely with the goal of changing the status quo while the objects of violence are dependent on the situation. Third, warlords are motivated largely on economic grounds, while the objects of violence are most often civilians. Fourth, mercenaries are motivated explicitly by the prospect of economic gain while the objective differs depending on the customer, but most often the targets are civilians (Smidova, 2021, p. 38).

Image 8: Cuttica, F. (2015, December 12). Rebels from the Eastern Bloc of the FARC exercise in the early mornings with their rifles. These could be the last days in the jungle for the rebel organisation that has been at war with the Colombian government for 51 years [Photograph].


The article set out to decode the concept of political violence by looking at the different components of the concept to analyse the logic behind the use of violence. It showed the complexity and variation of the concept in the existing scholarly literature, detailing how this variation affects the aims, logic, and production of political violence, greatly varying across space and time. Therefore, the first article of the series provided the theoretical knowledge needed to understand what lies ahead in the second article, which will investigate the varieties of political violence, posing the following question: What counts as political violence?

Bibliographical References

ACLED. (2021, January 1). Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project Codebook. Retrieved from

Anderson, J. L. (2004). Guerrilla: Journeys in the Insurgent World. New York: Penguin.

Bartov, O. (1992). Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich. New York: Oxford University Press.

Besley, T. & Persson, T. (2011). The logic of political violence: The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 126, 3, 1411-1445.

Boukhars, A. (2020). The logic of violence in Africa’s extremist insurgencies: Perspectives on Terrorism, 14, 5, 117-129.

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research: Journal of Peace Research, 6, 3, 167-191.

Gumz, J. E. (2001). Wehrmacht Perceptions of Mass Violence in Croatia, 1941–1942: Historical Journal 44, 4, 1015–38.

Kalyvas, S. (2006). The logic of violence in civil war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lessing, B. (2015). Logics of violence in criminal war: The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 59, 8, 1486-1516.

Mars, P. (1975). The nature of political violence: Social and Economic Studies, 24, 2, 221-238.

Shepherd, B. (2002). Hawks, Doves, and Tote Zonen: A Wehrmacht Security Division in Central Russia, 1943: Journal of Contemporary History 37, 3, 349–69.

Sousa, C.A. (2013). Political violence, collective functioning, and health: A review of the literature: Med Conflict Survival, 29, 3, 169-197.

Smidova, A. (2021). Anti-government non-state armed actors in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Brno: Masaryk University.

Summy, R. (1992). Democracy and Nonviolence: Social Alternatives, 12, 15-19.

Von Clausewitz, C. (1976). On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Walby, S. (2013). Violence and society: Introduction to an emerging field of sociology: Current Sociology, 6, 2, 95-111.

Weinstein, J. (2003). Inside Rebellion: The Political Economy of Rebel Organization. Ph.D. dissertation. Harvard: Harvard University.

Williams, P. (2008). Violent non-state actors and national and international security. Zurich: International Relations and Security Network.

Visual Sources

Cover image: The First Quarter Storm Library. (2022, May 7). Repression has been the consistent logic of the Martial Law regime [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Image 1: Unknown. (n.d). Carl von Clausewitz, 1780-1831, German [Portrait]. Retrieved from

Image 2: Lauvrik, H. (2019, May 15). Johan Galtung at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) in 1968 [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Image 3: Frei, C. (2020, October 14). James Natchtwey is the subject of the film, ‘War Photographer’ by Christian Frei [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Image 4: Morrison, S. (2019, June 26). Rebels from the Lord’s Resistance Army making their way to a camp in southern Sudan [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Image 5: Voronov, V. (2020, January 5). Journey into hell: A reporter remembers Moscow’s assault on Grozny in 1995 [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Image 6: Stringer/ AFP/ Getty Images. (2019, March 18). A Syrian force’s artillery observer looks through a scope as smoke plumes rise on the horizon, near Hama, on April 1, 2017 [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Image 7: Hedayat, M. (2014, April 4). A funeral in war-ravaged Syria [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Image 8: Cuttica, F. (2015, December 12). Rebels from the Eastern Bloc of the FARC exercise in the early mornings with their rifles. These could be the last days in the jungle for the rebel organisation that has been at war with the Colombian government for 51 years [Photograph]. Retrieved from


Oct 16, 2022

Excellent introductory article, well-written and interesting. The topic of this series is very complex but, already from this first article, it is clear that you will be able to deal with it in the best possible way. Great start! I look forward to reading the next articles.


Very interesting introduction! As the first article of a 101 series, it provides a sound theoretical framework to base the coming analyses, while also offering a glimpse into the complexity of the literature on the topic. I am looking forward to reading the next articles!

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Deretha Bester

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