Summary of "Primal Violence: Illuminating Culture's Dark Side"

Summary of

Primal Violence: Illuminating Culture's Dark Side

by Wolf B. Emminghaus, Paul R. Kimmel and Edward C. Stewart

Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: "Primal Violence: Illuminating Culture's Dark Side," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 126-149.

The authors propose a new paradigm for understanding, and so then managing or preventing, the primal violence of ethnic and religious conflicts. They claim that traditional political and economic approaches have not been effective in explaining the extreme violence of recent conflicts . By primal violence the authors mean "destructive conflicts originating primarily from cultural differences."(p. 126)

In recent times the world has been shifting away from nation-states and toward cultural states, or states based upon a common people or ethnicity. In many places national allegiances have been superceded by cultural allegiances, weakening people's attachment to their nation-state and strengthening their attachment to their cultural groups. Groups are formed by processes of inclusion and exclusion. Stressing inclusion leads to a more neutral view of outsiders. Stressing exclusion leads to a more hostile view of outsiders.

The authors explain that "primordial violence occurs when peoples are mobilized in support and defense of their primordial sentiments," that is, the thing that unite them as a people.(p. 128) Primordial sentiments may arise from language, customs and traditions, race, ethnicity, religion or region. Furthermore, "peace in the political and economic sense is not desired by the initiators of primal violence. Their interest is in total domination of territory, resources, and people, in being able to control the future of the loser's world."(p. 128) The goal of primal violence is the elimination or unconditional surrender of the opponent.

A New Paradigm for Cultural Analysis

Primal violence is best understood through cultural analysis. The authors propose a three-part model, the Cultural Trilogy model, to explain how personal culture develops and functions. Individuals develop a personal culture through their social and physical experiences. The content of that culture is however shaped by language, customs and traditions, race, ethnicity, religion and region. "Although the locus of personal culture is the individual, the nature and quality of its cultural meanings are socially constructed."(p. 128)

The first part of the model consists of time-factored activities, or life-sustaining activities. This is part is typically the domain of sociology. Each part of the model can in turn be broken down into three elements. This first part then also has three elements. The first element is interpersonal culture, which includes life-keeping activities in the present. Such activities include sleeping, eating, sex, and entertainment. These activities usually occur in the context of intimate associations, such as the family. Generally people are most interested, and spend the most time on, these sorts of life-keeping activities. When people feel that their nation-state cannot provide for their life-keeping activities, they are more likely to turn toward some other, cultural ,source.

The second time-factored element is political culture, which includes life-building activities in the far past and future. This sphere of activity includes national celebrations, crises, and elections. Individuals may have multiple identities in this arena: civic identities corresponding to their nationality, and cultural identities corresponding to their primordial sentiments. Constructing national identities by appeals to the past risks arousing primordial sentiments, and so strengthen cultural identities. Primal violence is more likely to occur when cultural identities supercede civic identities .

The third time-factored element is the technical-economic culture, which includes life-building activities in the near future. This is the sphere of the workplace. There is little occasion for primordial sentiments in this area of life. The authors note that "the more affective political and interpersonal cultures can be rationalized and integrated through the technical-economic culture."(p. 131) Rationalization is more likely when people generally share a common cultural identity. When cultural differences are great, then the workplace may not be effective in reconciling people's personal and political lives.

The second part of the model consists of psychological analysis of culture, or the perceptions, beliefs, practices and procedures. This is part is typically the domain of psychology. The surface culture includes all the perceived aspects of a culture, such as language, food and dress, and art. The deep culture refers to the concepts and abstract universals which underlie the surface culture. Deep culture takes the form of styles of thinking, constellations of values and systems of knowledge. The dark side of culture emerges when individuals' experiences of pain are transformed by the deep culture into righteous anger directed against an Other who is seen as the oppressor. Procedural culture connects the surface and deep culture. The procedural culture consists of activities and processes such as communication styles, problem-solving and decision-making styles, and negotiation styles.

The third part of the model consists of the social organization of culture. The authors list six basic elements in this organization: ethnicity, race, language, customs and traditions, religion, and region. Primordial sentiments may arise regarding any of these elements. The authors note that "primordial sentiments exercise a pervasive influence on personal culture that is difficult for the individual to detect because they generate an internal sense of normality (e.g., in the use of one's native language)."(p. 136) People with common primordial sentiments may develop primordial bonds. Such bonds to can give rise to both positive (e.g. humanitarian) and negative (e.g. nativist) behaviors.

Sentiments of ethnicity arise from shared bloodlines, physical resemblance, shared customs and traditions and a sense of shared fate. Sentiments of race focus on physical features of individuals, such as skin and hair color, hair texture, and facial features and body shape. Language is often a primary marker of cultural identity, and is the element most closely related to an individual's deep culture. Customs are the rules and norms that govern collective living and have their greatest effect on interpersonal culture. Traditions provide precedents and interpretive frames to guide proper behavior. Tradition has its greatest impact on political culture. "Religion springs from the anguish of humans over the impermanence of their lives and the inequality among individuals, their commitment to the sanctity of life, and their fear of death."(p. 138) Religions give rise to ideas of morality, ideal human relations, and an afterlife. Cultures are also shaped by the region they inhabit, and the resources that region provides.

Primal Violence

Primordial sentiments can be used constructively, to produce the stable identities which are the precondition for mutual respect and cooperation. Primordial sentiments can also be used destructively, producing unstable identities which lead to bigotry and primal violence. The authors argue that "the formation of cultural identities about primordial sentiments without the parallel or subsequent development of civil identities has led to primordial violence in today's world."(p. 140)

Individuals learn to make judgements in terms of their own culture's values and procedures. The authors explain that "in addition to learning that there are differences between one's own cultural group and other cultural groups, children also learn that the values, norms, and procedures of their people are natural and therefore better than other people's values, norms, and procedures."(p. 141) One's own culture and people are felt to be superior, while other peoples are seen as inferior. Primordial bonding also tends to unite people with common primordial sentiments, and to separate them from others with different sentiments.

People are less likely to attack different groups when they are satisfied and secure in their life-keeping activities. "Rather than being preoccupied with the dangers and uncertainties of the present and the ills and injustices of the past, peoples with a positive future (political culture) based on a satisfactory present (interpersonal culture) within their national state can work together toward political and economic goals and visions."(p. 142) Here individuals 'identification with their culture is balanced by identification with the larger civil society.

Physical or psychological insecurity can weaken people's civil and political identification, and shift their identification more toward their primordial sentiments and interpersonal culture. "Pain, fear, humiliation and frustration are followed by anger and a desire for revenge and inflicting pain that leads to primal violence in such cultural states."(p. 142) Negative views of the opposing group intensify and become entrenched.

The authors identify another factor which promotes war: leaders and scholars who believe that war is a natural or even inevitable extension of diplomacy, and is a viable option for securing resources and compliance from an opponent. Wars fought for such strategic reasons can escalate into cultural conflicts and primal violence. In the modern era, even strategic wars tend to inflict serious suffering and insecurity on civilian populations. The pain of war has great potential to arouse and strengthen primordial sentiments.

The authors argue that legitimating violence (as merely diplomacy by other means, for instance) poses a dilemma for societies. Good fighters make bad citizens. The authors not the people who engage in primal violence "often make bad citizens (as we see now in Afghanistan and El Salvador) while good citizens (who value cultural pluralism and civic identification) often refuse or fail to participate in primordial violence."(p. 145) The authors also point out that there are no clear winners with primal violence. Generally everyone comes out worse off, and with the potential for further violence remaining high.


Adopting the cultural trilogy model for the analysis of violence raises a number of issue for further investigation. Which is more likely to intensify cultural identification: the lack of like-keeping resources or a perceived decline in resources? Which of the six basic social elements are likely to support a turn toward violence in times of insecurity? How do the civic societies of national states manage their citizen's suffering or insecurity? What conditions promote patriotism? Which conditions promote bigotry?

The authors hope that their model will also be of practical use in preventing and managing conflicts, and in building peace. The cultural trilogy model "can help structure the dialog among contending parties so that each can see where their activities, beliefs, and emotions fit in the paradigm and where the activities, beliefs, and emotions of their adversaries belong."(p. 147) Improved mutual understanding may then lead to more productive dialogue.