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David Wästerfors can't stop thinking about violence

A painting of two dudes fighting

Physical violence is rarely something people think about or act out. Even violence specialists - people with a propensity for violence and a capacity to cause devastating damage - are belligerent only a fraction of their time awake. Sociology professor David Wästerfors is an anomaly. He has thought about violence a lot.

This fall, Professor Wästerfors published some of his thoughts in the book Violence: Situation, Speciality, Politics, and Storytelling. He does not claim to give a final answer to what violence is. Instead, as the title reveals, he reviews violence from four perspectives. One of them deals with those part-time violence specialists. Looking at a range of research explaining why and how some people become particularly violent, Wästerfors finds it necessary for researchers to get close to the often male-dominated cultural settings that produce violence specialists to study them properly.

David Wästerfors
David Wästerfors is a sociologist and writer with rich experience in fieldwork and analysis. His research is often at the intersection of cultural sociology, social psychology and criminology.

Statistically, perpetrators of violence are usually young males from marginalised neighbourhoods. Yet, the majority of young men from poor areas are not violent. By considering violence as situational, Wästerfors proposes we expand our understanding of violence beyond gender, class, age, and ethnicity. "Violence then emerges more clearly as a social phenomenon, and explanations can become more exact and less reliant on clichés," he writes.

With "Violence as politics", Wästerfors reviews research on state violence and organisations using physical force to realise political ambitions. All modern politics include violence, he writes. Even purportedly peaceful governments can call on law enforcement or the military to force people into submission. "States not only attempt to obtain a monopoly on violence but also strive to avoid having to use it if this is possible. Politics – the management of, or attempts to manage, the state – instead become a 'continuation' or an extension of this state monopoly on violence."

Violence in pop culture tends to be unrealistic. In reality, it is often brief and disorderly and scares people off rather than entices them to join. Either way, it is an effective storytelling device. "One of the most effective ways of getting people to stop, look, and listen is to display or manifest violence – irrespective of whether this is achieved with fists and kicks, words and gestures or pictures, stories, and theories," Wästerfors writes.

How we talk about violence says a lot about its social contexts. Wästerfors writes that we use only a few different narratives to justify and inspire violent acts against people and animals. However, the same is true for those who worry about violence. Even though certain narratives promote violence, others can unite people against it.

Download Violence: Situation, Speciality, Politics, and Storytelling for free at

Read more about David Wästerfors's research on his personal page.