Counting Violence

Mads Dahl Gjefsen | 14 January 2013 | 2 responses

WWII is the only event in the 20th c. that made it into Steven Pinker's "top 10" list of the most deadly events in world history. But how do we count the violence brought about by the use of the atomic bomb?

Is violence declining? Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker’s recently published 800-page volume (1) says yes. The book presents a stunning collection of graphs and statistics from the Mesolithic to the present, arguing that we are currently living in the least violent time in history. Data on everything from war casualties to attitudes towards the spanking of children seem to point in this direction. One explanation for the long-term improvements, Pinker says, is the gradual ordering of societies into democratic states and the rise of liberal economies. As Harvard Government Professor Michael Sandel has pointed out, Pinker’s book thus not only demonstrates that violence is declining, but also implicitly claims that the Western world is leading the way towards moral progress.

Pinker’s numbers might seem persuasive, but his analysis is nevertheless based on a historically situated understanding of what violence means and who gets to define it. STS scholars would say that his account is highly contingent upon constellations of rationalities, political thought and changing technologies. Understanding these factors is crucial if we want to interpret trends in violence and morality.

What knowledge categories are at play when Pinker presents demonstrable improvements in women’s rights, declining numbers of racial lynchings, declining use of corporal punishment in schools, and increasing support for animal rights? We all immediately endorse these trends, but we should also keep in mind that the very act of measuring them retroactively imposes contemporary categories of what constitutes a problem onto previous ideas about justice.

The notion of reflexivity is key for understanding the relationship between categorization and change. Take the idea of child abuse, for example. Ian Hacking has demonstrated how this concept gradually became established as a legal, medical and pedagogical category, and how this categorization in turn gradually allowed for more efficient countermeasures. For example, once spanking became labeled as child abuse it not only facilitated procedures for generating new knowledge about this phenomenon, but also created new dynamics around formalized social sanctions. Understanding the work involved in establishing an issue as a commonly perceived social problem is a fundamentally important supplement to historical quantification of phenomena. Forgetting this is to close off our view to new forms of suffering, inequality and violence.

Perhaps the most striking of Pinker’s statistics is related to the decline of war. Pinker claims that armed conflicts seem to be less frequent, and to generate fewer casualties. This may seem surprising in light of the horrors of the 20th century’s World Wars, but when adjustments are made for death tolls in relation to world population, only one event from the last century, World War II, makes it into the list of the ten most devastating wars or massacres in recorded history.

Pinker’s explanations for this trend include the idea of “gentle commerce,” where conditions for trade are seen as giving states less incentive to wage war. In his view, factors such as openness to foreign investments, the ability of citizens to enter into contracts, and their dependence on voluntary financial exchanges all contribute to making “the pacifying effects of commerce” robust.

So where is the flip-side to Pinker’s liberal coin? Is the success of trade measured in reduction of body counts, or are there other consequences, other negatives, that should be taken into account as well? Pinker’s structural analysis stops at violence. It does not go into global inequalities or the ways in which workers’ lives are affected by the enrollment of populations into the game of free trade. Nor does it problematize the potential impacts of economic differences on quality of life or life expectancy or take into account the potential environmental impact of trade dynamics. Here we begin to see the consequences of thinking about violence as something that is limited to the intentionally inflicted harm on individual bodies. This definition distracts our attention away from alternative conceptions of dominance and harm, such as structuralized suppression and mechanisms of social reproduction. Within the millennial timespan of Pinker’s account, the idea of individuals (and their bodies) as the fundamental and sacred unit of political thought in the age of the nation-state, is a rather recent emergence.

The concerns raised here are not about faulty methods. It is simply that, as with all numbers, Pinker’s quantification of violence gives only a partial perspective. Counting starts with deciding what needs to be counted, and what can be left out. When we take numbers as a basis for action, as an argument for what is desirable, or, in this case, as a confirmation that we are indeed becoming more moral, we are moving into risky ideological territory. In this sense, Pinker’s book can be used as a springboard for arguing the social relevance of STS and its ability to capture the conditioning of knowledge categories.


  1. Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking Penguin.

Keywords: quantification, reflexivity, classification

Suggested Further Reading:

  • Hacking, Ian. 1999. “The Case of Child Abuse” in The social construction of what? Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 125 – 162.

» 2 responses to “Counting Violence”:

  1. Margo B. (Full names available only for logged-in users) says:

    Thank you, Mads, for your insightful analysis of Pinker’s book through the STS lens. Since French forces were deployed to Mali on January 11, French authorities have increased the terrorist danger level in Paris. Walking by the Notre Dame on my way to the Sorbonne now I must make my way between three soldier dressed in camouflage carrying rifles. Even though I know that they are there for my protection, I cannot help feeling afraid passing them. France is not officially “at war,” but just taking a morning walk or taking the metro can make one feel that violence can break out at any time. After Breivik in Norway and Sandy Hook shootings, elementary schools and summer camps become sights of horrific, perverse violence. Even though violence against individual bodies may be statistically lowered, how do we account for these examples of extreme violence that pervade every corner of millions of people’s quotidian experience by their sheer possibility? — Margo Boenig-Liptsin

    • Mads Dahl G. (Full names available only for logged-in users) says:

      I think you are pointing to something important, Margo, namely the “cost” of security from violence as Pinker defines it, for example through the powerful display of military power in countries involved in ambiguously defined armed conflicts, and the strange sense of imminent danger that one might feel as one’s surroundings become ever more affected by attempts to guarantee the safety and predictability of everyday life.

      On another note, the extreme examples of violence that you mention definitely contribute to my gut instinct of distrust of Pinker’s main claim – that we are becoming more peaceful. But my main issue is with the way he explains this trend with reference to the emergence of nation states and free trade, while neglecting the possibility that just these factors have also opened up for new ways of reproducing social inequality and skewed resource distribution around the world, and thus potentially replaced incentives of warfare with more sanitized and legitimate means of suppression.

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