Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, issue 2, Volume i, Volume II, published 2nd March, 2009.

3.2 Alpha/beta deep structure
and four types of structural violence

by Johan Galtung

icon copyright H.Gavaghan for an essay by J. Galtung, 3.2 alpha/beta deep structure
Helen Gavaghan©

I had wanted to give the following essay the title, "Structural violence: a Socratic lecture", but the author said, "no". What follows therefore, title above and all in this essay, is exactly in the author's own words. Commissioned, edited and proof read by Helen Gavaghan.

IS THE DEEP structure in our mind, working its way into reality through speech and action; is it "out there" working its way into us through observation; or is that a chicken-egg problem? Let us cut that knot by simply assuming that there are two deep, even primordial structures, both written in the language of geometry: the pyramid and the circle. Like decision-making from above, and from togetherness.

If all bilateral relations are either vertical or absent, we get a hierarchy, the geometrical metaphor being a pyramid. Our term (1) is an alpha structure, with a lonely topdog on top of the steep pyramid. If all relations are horizontal, equitable, we may coin the term equiarchy, the geometrical metaphor being a circle, like for a "round table". Our term is a beta structure. No T, no U. Only E's around.

With no relations at all we get anarchy, no structure. And with relations of all kinds we get polyarchy. The alpha-beta interplay generates a tetralemma of four structures; itself a deep structure.

And deeper down is a neither vertical nor horizontal structural dimension: from thin (anarchy) to thick (polyarchy) structures (2), with sets of elements weakly or strongly connected. We may also talk about understructuration and overstructuration. Interestingly, thin structures define "universalism with specificity" in Parsonian sociology (actually from Weber and Sorokin). High level alienation comes easily. Multi-stranded polyarchic structures define "particularism and diffuseness". There is more to hang on to, which opens for more individuation. We relate, hence we exist (3).


Thus, alpha vs beta is not a dichotomy. They can both be weakly or strongly articulated, yielding the four combinations anarchy, hierarchy, equiarchy and polyarchy. We shall pursue the combinations below, synchronically as social geography, diachronically as history.

To repeat: two structural archetypes have been identified, the pyramid or alpha structure, and the wheel or beta structure. Alpha is vertical and can connect large numbers of elements interacting; Beta is horizontal, but if we assume the interacting capacity of any actor to be limited and that all interact with all, then the number of actors will have to be limited. For N elements N-l links are sufficient to connect alpha; for beta we need N/2(N-1) links, or N/2 times more links. For N=10 we get 9, vs 45. Alpha is long on elements and short on links, beta is long on links and short on elements.


In social systems the actors are human beings; in world systems states or nations. The alpha pyramid organizes humans hierarchically in large organizations, bureaucracies, corporations, and the beta wheel horizontally in kinship, friendship and neighbourhood groups. Alpha would organize states and/or nations in systems headed by "hegemons" like super- and regional powers, and beta in communities of neighbouring countries like ASEAN, the Nordic Community before EU membership for some, and the European Community.

As mentioned, alpha and beta can be combined in four ways, also indicative of four very different types of structural violence.


Figure 1: The Pyramid, the Wheel, Both-And, and Neither-Nor

The Pyramid, the Wheel, Both-And, and Neither-Nor

Thus, anarchy negates both too dominant, too much, and too tight.

The chart is an effort to guide our thinking in coming to grips with how much structuration is too much, and how much is too little, in other words two major forms of structural violence. Too thin, too thick, where is the quantum satis? The circle in the centre stands for neither too much, nor too little; too much and too little being defined as different types of mal-structures or structural violence.

If we move northwest from that point we get into the region of repressive, exploitative, conditioning and even incapacitating hierarchical structures; perhaps the best known forms of structural violence, vertical structural violence (4). Problem: too dominant.

If we move northeast the structuration is polyarchic.&##2;The individual is inserted both in dominant hierarchies and in tight primary groups. Even if beta may compensate for alpha inhumanity, and even if they are complementary, alpha for production and beta for reproduction and consumption, there may be a problem: too much.

If we move southeast relations are tight, numerous, as hot as love and hatred. We have referred to the structure as "equiarchy". The problem could be: too tight, horizontal structural violence.

And if we then move southwest we get into a totally different type of problem: de/understructuration, lack of structure, anarchy; too little, too loose. The person might like it for some time and then feel suspended in a social vacuum, or a world vacuum for a state exiting from, or being pushed out, of the system, with no voice.

Thus, structural violence is a theme with four variations: too dominant, too much (overstructuration), too tight, too little, too loose (understructuration). A good individual or state configuration would avoid all four, by settling in the middle, or by rotating among them, sensitive to the yin-yang rhythms; not losing sight of the four positive aspects: link-saving, balancing, equating, individuating.


To make this more concrete let us look at two cases, womens' emancipation and less developed countries (LDC) emancipation.

The vertical, hierarchy exploitation of women in patriarchy, and of LDCs in (neo-)colonialism, have rightly dominated thought, speech and action. But hidden in the deep alpha-beta interplay there are three more types of structural violence, to be uncovered.

Alva Myrdal's famous study, Women's Two Roles is a study in polyarchy. Women gain access to higher levels of alpha, and possibly also manage to horizontalize somewhat the family structure, only to discover that they are embedded in two very demanding structures, beta and alpha, not only one. From exploitation to over-inclusion.

They may withdraw into horizontal cooperatives and communes rich in solidarity, woman clubs and parties high on coffee, cakes, hugging and tears, only to discover that they have become marginalized. From exploitation and over-inclusion to over-exclusion.

They extract themselves from exploitative extended and nuclear families and ultimately retire from alpha, only to discover that they have become lonely, in a one person household, often an aging woman. From exploitation and over-inclusion/-exclusion to under-inclusion.

What is worse, to be exploited, overused, marginalized, lonely? A wrong question. All these structural violences are avoidable. Thus, use woman solidarity and beta to counteract alpha; there is joint work after family laundry machines killed the age old pattern of doing laundry together. Horizontalize both alpha and beta, bring them closer to the center of the diagram, bring in cooperatives and communes for mutual aid and sustenance. And/or: find ways of rotating on a daily, weekly, monthly, annual basis from one to the other, milk alpha for what it is worth and put it into beta - -. All four have something to offer; but taken alone they become oppressive.

Same story for the LDCs. What did Japan and the "tigers" South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore do? Neither alpha only, in a world hierarchy dominated by North-West, nor beta only, marginalizing in an East-Southeast Asia community, but both. The result was some over-inclusion at a very high alpha level exploiting others, leading to some exclusion, some isolation and loneliness as bigger LDCs start looming high:China, India, later Indonesia. And other LDCs in Latin America, Africa and Asia have not been able to follow the tiger trail but seem to get stuck in negotiating the exploitative hierarchy.

Much can be said about these two cases; the story picked up here is only the aspect contained in the alpha/beta interplay. The general story is very much a yin/yang tale. Here is my own story, how I cope.

Of course big alphas, states, corporations, universities, have much to offer. Keep the membership, do your part even if at times the terms of exchange are unfair, like being a citizen in return for the state fighting US wars. Lecture for corporations, universities. But do not sell your soul; your only residence when you seek the loneliness of anarchy, indispensable for the reflection needed for a researcher who searches again and again (but never retire lest you become tired again and again). Then, search the company of family, friends, neighbors and colleagues for equal exchange, do your part or more. Sometimes this will coincide with immersions into alpha and you get a polyarchy calendar with alpha hierarchy and togetherness, beta, some of the latter being about life in alpha. But that easily becomes gossipy and obsessive. Balance with equiarchy and anarchy.

The high point in the structural landscape is that middle point. But walking around the summit, down in the valleys, getting the best from the four structures before they get you is not bad either. It only presupposes consciousness of deep structures under the surface.


How did this structural violence discourse actually come into being? For vertical structural violence it was rather obvious. Three years in Latin America in the 1960s, and several research trips to Rhodesia - Zimbabwe later on in the same decade, highlighted the enormity of suffering, up to massive deaths, hiding behind words like "misery", "hunger", "social injustice". Of course, human beings may be exposed to harm and hurt that is not avoidable, like death "by aging", or to nature's violence beyond the power of human beings to counteract (so far). But dying from misery looked so avoidable, why not do something about it! The key word was avoidable. The suffering was due to human agency, directly or indirectly; hence avoidable.

"Directly" would mean as act of commission, and if the act is harmful to human beings, including oneself, then the term "direct", "personal", or generally "actor", violence seemed appropriate.

"Indirectly" means that it is avoidable, but nothing is done. Acts of omission sustain the violence. In law the distinction between intended and unintended killing, murder vs manslaughter, is useful. The term "indirect", or structural, violence seemed appropriate.

How about intended vs unintended violence? Acts of omission can be both(5); but acts of commission are intended. With neither inaction nor intent human beings can still enact structures, or "behave them". "Structural violence" was used precisely because words are said and things are done as enactment of the norms of the structural niche, and that structure is exploitative. Internalization, not intention. Everybody in that niche is supposed to speak and act like that, was jemand tut, niemand tut. With no need for thought, there is no intent to harm and hurt. And that is a major reason why a soldier is not understood as a murderer but as a professional killer, only doing a job. "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die". (6)


So the term "structural violence" was coined, shifting the focus from the actor to the social and/or world structure. However, this does not exonerate the person. Even if structural violence comes out of the day-to-day, minute-to-minute workings of the structure, as a non-intended by-product, there is always the possibility of bringing some of that operation to a halt or changing the course of the stream of acts. The failure to do so is an act of omission that might serve to attribute guilt, but in Western law not so much as for acts of commission even when omissions have much more harmful consequences.(7)

This is not "institutionalized violence", like a vendetta. In that case there are strong institutionalized norms urging that harm, even killing, be done; leaving the person with no choice. That type of killing is intended so it qualifies as "direct violence". It is also avoidable: the person can refuse to kill, and exit from the vicious cycle even if the price may be high, like for any desertion.

Nor is structural violence the same as "institutional violence", "structure" being a broader concept than "institution"; like in "world structure", "social structure". But as applied to, for instance, the family, the concepts may coincide.

Nor is it "social injustice" (low correlation between ascribed and achieved), or "inequality" (high dispersion of assets). There is no assumption to the effect that structural violence is vertical only, hitting some more than others. The concepts of political repression and economic exploitation point in that direction, but they do not exhaust the idea of structures harboring violence.

Structural violence can also hit everybody equally, like the examples of horizontal structural violence given above, the "too tight, thick", and the "too loose, thin" structurations. But, the higher the consciousness, the more the actors can do about it.

How about the mere fact of living in a structure at all, meaning having to attune one's actions to those of others, doing what is expected, and preferably even expecting oneself to do what one expects that others expect one to do? Of course such more or less complementary expectations limit the freedom of action, one reason why Japanese in the "too much", northeastern corner of Figure 1 would be expected "to get away from it all", escaping to some South Pacific island caves or jungles, exposed to self-expectations only. Das Unbehagen in der Kultur? Really? Maybe Struktur, rather?

The idea of vertical structural violence was in exploitative structures from which people died, like in Third world countries, and in repressive structure under which they languished but did not die, like in the "socialist" countries. If they did, then direct violence was at work. The idea of horizontal structural violence came from families and such inter-nation systems as multi-national states. That they can be "too tight" and feel like prisons of individuals getting on each other's nerves, and of nations under a dominant nation is obvious parts of reality. But they can also be too loose, too anarchic, as the highly atomized societies of today indicate.

In short, the jump from over- to understructuration made by Japanese overexposed to expectations may have been of short duration. Sooner or later they may search for that balance point in the middle, for themselves, and for the social construction in which they live. The hermit's perennial "too little" is hardly a general solution.

Social structures are human constructions, like architectonic constructions. As such they can be deconstructed, and reconstructed, as is being done all the time. Vertical structures can be made more horizontal, for instance by introducing a beta type general assembly for everybody at work, in school, or in the family.

Too tight may then become a problem, or even too much. A long-lasting search for that elusive balance point may be on. In other words, there is nothing deterministic in the concept of structural violence, in the sense that people are condemned forever to live in any structural prison. To the contrary, there will be cries, or at least sighs, from the corners or the bottom layers of the structure where the shoe really pinches, or from anywhere if the violence is more horizontal. But there are veils hiding structural realities, like people believing that their suffering is only due to their own personal shortcomings. Moreover, in the vertical case those hit less or even benefiting from the structure often resist any change. And in the more horizontal case of over-demanding families complaints may be met with the counter-complaint, "why can't you take it when the rest of us do, such is family life, such is the human condition".

Does the concept of structural violence exhaust the idea of unintended violence? No, and there is no such assumption. Thus, the notion of "cultural violence" (8) already goes beyond the structural and sees violence as embedded in culture, but with a legitimizing rather than physical function, working on the mind rather than on the body, doing violence to the mind in the sense of preparing that mind to do violence unto others. And maybe other concepts may be more fruitful, opening new perspectives on violence and its reduction. (9)

But structures will remain as agents of violence. And they are sui generis, of their own kind. For three of the types of structural violence this is obvious: too much, too tight, too little/too loose. There is nobody to blame. For the fourth type, too dominant, it may be argued that those on top can be blamed as they have the resources. And against the cultural violence defense that "hierarchy is an iron law of nature" there is much social transformation to the contrary.

1. For the use of the terms alpha and beta, see Johan Galtung, On the Social Costs of Modernization, Discussion Paper, Geneva, UNRISD, 1995.

2. "Thick" and "thin" are the terms used by the late anthropology pioneer Clifford Geertz for descriptions.

3. This is apparently contrary to the liberation of the individual associated with destructuration. But in a structural vacuum the liberation is lonely, like a Leibnizian monad. It is inside that monad that Descartes is thinking, coming to the absurd conclusion that cogito, ergo sum. But no structure means no links, no relations, and no relations mean social death if we define life in terms of the density of webs of relations. Memory may even survive the biological death central to Western thought.

4. See, as an example, Johan Galtung, "The Dominance System", in The True Worlds, New york, The Free Press, 1980.

5. And if intended an act of omission shades over into an act of commission, the inaction being the limiting kind of action, not merely static behavior. From a legal point, however, intent behind an act of omission may be difficult to prove.

6. The poet would have been more honest (but less quoted) had he said "their but to kill and die".

7. Gandhi's non-cooperation and civil disobedience (adding breaking laws considered wrong) enter here as acts of commission designed to undo such wrong structures as the British empire. To Gandhi even low level participation was cooperation, negative and something to be negated.

8. See Johan Galtung, "Cultural Violence", Journal of Peace Research, vol. 27, no. 3, 1990, pp. 291-305.

9. See Johan Galtung, Peace By Peaceful Means,(London, New York, New Delhi:SAGE,1996),Part I.

This essay may be printed for scholarly purposes. Please acknowledge author and publication. It may not be widely distributed and copied as an email attachment. Invite others to visit the site. The page was first finalised 3 pm gmt, 2.3.09 and its layout reviewed 12/7/11 with no alteration to editorial content.


GavaghanCommunicationsScience, People & Politics©. All rights reserved.