COE 1999 : SEMINAR Men and Violence

The representation of Men's Violence
 against Women in the Arctic

EuroPROFEM - The European Men Profeminist Network 


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European Council of Europen - Human Rights

Section Equality between women and men

Seminar : Men and Violence Against Women

Strasbourg, 8 October 1999 - Palais de l'Europe - France


The representation of Men's Violence
 against Women in the Arctic


Bo Wagner Sørensen, University of Copenhagen (Denmark)


"Men in Transition": 

The Representation of Men's Violence Against Women in the Arctic


My professional interest in male violence against women dates back to 1988 when I began my ethnographic fieldwork in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. The town has a population of 13,000 people, which is about one fourth of the total population of Greenland. My main focus has been on discourses on violence against women - that is, how local people and regional specialists talk about, write about, contextualise, represent and explain this phenomenon in Greenland and the Arctic in general (Sorensen 1990, 1994, 1998). The dominant public discourse revolves around rapid and extensive social and cultural change as the key explanation. The Inuit are thus represented as a population "in transition," caught between their traditional world and the modern world, and suffering from "acculturative stress" (Bjerregaard & Young 1998) or "the loss of a sense of identity and self-worth" (Griffiths 1996:12). Bjerregaard and Young try to assess the general mental health and well-being of the Inuit, stating that: "The Inuit are subject to immense psychosocial stress as their communities undergo profound social and cultural changes. In most Inuit communities, the last 40 years, which represent little more than one generation, have been a period when the traditional life irrevocably gave way to western life styles" (Bjerregaard & Young 1998:149). According to this epidemiological perspective, high rates of violence and other social problems are symptoms of an underlying socio-cultural alienation. In short, violence against women is seen as one of many "social diseases" that ultimately spring from conflict-ridden societies out of balance (cf. Sorensen 1999a). The gendered nature of violence is often not reflected upon.  I find this regional emphasis on socio-cultural change and its preoccupation with historical causation both interesting and disturbing, and it seems there is a certain potential in trying to look into the relationship between expert and local representations, but also to compare regional traditions of representing male violence against women. Do different regional representations spring directly from diverse empirical realities? If not, how can they be explained? What are the implications of a "Greenlander men in transition" approach?



Local representations


Domination by nation-states, including "enforced," rapid modernisation and its impact on indigenous peoples, is part of a master narrative which is not only used by specialists, but also sometimes invoked by local people. However, people in Nuuk seem to make use of two main explanatory approaches depending on context (cf. Sorensen 1998:164).


When they comment on actual local cases of wife beating (I use this term as a shorthand for men's violence to known women), they never put the case in a larger theoretical or (gender) political perspective, whereas the personality and drinking behaviour of both parties usually come up. Some cases are generally construed as "wife beating," which is a term that entails notions of illegitimacy and reproach. Other cases are met with indifference and "dismissal" on the grounds that "this is their way." Phrases such as "they fight" and "it takes two" are also common. The overall picture is that people in Nuuk do not take sharp issue with men's use of physical "force" in intimate relationships. Interestingly, women and men do not differ in this regard. In any case, people focus on individual agency when dealing with known cases of so-called "domestic violence."


On the other hand, when people try to reflect on and explain violence against women in Greenland in general, they often turn to the master narrative as a main explanatory framework, invoking the rapid development, the unbalanced society, and the loss of the Greenlander soul. Some proceed along more gendered lines of thinking, arguing that women have been more able to cope with modernisation, among others because they are raised to be more flexible than men.


The gender-oriented versions, however, are usually just as much an excuse for men's abuse and violence as the seemingly gender neutral epidemiological perspective. It is often argued that the Greenlander man has been more directly confronted with Danish dominance and competition in workplaces, politics, etc., in the course of history. His traditional authority as a "proud hunter" and a breadwinner has been undermined, and he is left humiliated and bereaved of identity and status (Petersen 1994). The dominant discourse on gender and gender relations in today's Greenland revolves around female winners and male losers (cf. Sorensen 1998b). In her article, "Superwoman and the troubled man", a Greenlander woman concludes: "It is understandable that the Greenlander man feels inferior, powerless, and even ridiculous. He has no way to deal with his anger and his pain! He feels no one takes him seriously. So, inevitably, all these powerful and overwhelming feelings are taken out on the Greenlander woman. In short, that is why she is the victim of violence and murder in Greenlander society today" (Petersen 1994:140).


Such sweeping and emotional generalisations which make use of accumulated historical pain in order to explain today's violence against women could easily be deconstructed and repudiated, but this is not the place. It is of interest that the positioned argument has a clear political address even though Greenland has had Home Rule since 1979, which secures a high degree of self-government. It is also of interest that a gender-oriented perspective in the Greenlander setting is usually not equivalent to a feminist perspective. It serves instead as an historically deep-seated excuse for male violence. The responsibility for violence is externalised. Violent Greenlander men just act out the anger and pain accumulated through generations.


Both local people and experts/scientists, who are often, but not exclusively, non-locals, can thus be seen to share an understanding of violence as a symptomatic reaction to circumstances beyond control. However, historical injuries and sufferings are never brought up in everyday discourse on violence where personality, behaviour, attitude, drinking pattern, and family background are keys to third parties' evaluations of the situation. Family ties and friendship with either the man or the woman are, of course, also important in this connection. Anyway, the everyday discursive practice is a far cry away from the master narrative. This does not mean that violent men are not often excused on the grounds of being drunk, being jealous, etc., or because of their wives' "unseemly" behaviour. On the whole, however, violent men are not totally relieved from personal responsibility.


Regional traditions


Greenland tends to be represented as "our" cultural other. Depicted as a strange and exotic field, it seems to both attract and call for special treatment. Before I went to Greenland for the first time I had no reason to question the emphasis on historical change in the regional literature. I also had no reason to question the assumptions, which were more often than not presented as facts, about how the rapid change had affected people. However, living in Greenland for four years has made me increasingly sceptic of the idea that social phenomena or problems in Greenland are so unique that they call for special explanations (cf. Sorensen 1999b on alcohol use and abuse). I therefore argue in favour of some sort of common ground approach that can make use of insights gained from other parts of the world, and not just other indigenous peoples in the Arctic and elsewhere.


The problem with regional traditions is that they tend to be self-centred and self-referential. Writing about the development of anthropological ideas, Ardener states that "anthropology at the creative stage consists of the transmuting of a certain kind of experience into a certain kind of text. For a time, only the actual or a similar experience can produce such texts. Later, however, people become skilled in imitating the texts themselves. What was once life becomes simply genre. (...) Within a genre texts generate texts" (Ardener 1985:52). The process from life to genre is endemic in all kinds of textual production. However, it seems likely that a numerically small regional field like eskimology will be more prone to reproduce the regional genre which is reflected in the so-called master narrative.


Societies under stress


In a recent article, McWilliams (1998) writes about violence against women in "societies under stress", emphasising that the term itself requires some clarification. She mentions that it could include societies that are undergoing a process of modernisation; those experiencing the effects of colonisation; or those in which civil disorder, terrorism, or war has occurred. Her main focus is Northern Ireland, but she refers to a wide range of cross-cultural studies. McWilliams (1998:138) concludes that in societies under stress, there are fewer options for women and fewer controls on men. Women are exposed to "extra" abuses.


McWilliams article is reflective and her points well argumented. On the face of it, her article could be a case in point as regards Greenland which is a former Danish colony (since 1721) whose colonial status was abolished in 1953 when Greenland became an integral part of the Kingdom of Denmark, thus giving Greenlanders equal status to Danes. When Greenland Home Rule was established in 1979, the Greenlander population achieved a high degree of self-government. Today's Greenland may thus be characterised as a micro state. Anyway, Greenland has been colonised, and the population has experienced the process of modernisation during the 1950s and 1960s, especially, with local variations. If we take seriously the possibility of "extra" abuses in Greenland, how do we go about it? The term "extra" seems to imply comparison; either between two moments in the historical span of Greenland, or between Greenland and other cultures and societies.


The first option shows in much literature on Greenland which operate within a traditional/modern or before/after framework. These studies, of course, reflect socio-cultural changes, but at the same time they have not been able to explain or substantiate the exact relationship between social change and specific social problems. One is left with the general impression that social change is inherently stressful to Greenlanders. The second option is less common, and mostly implicit in the regional literature. I will look at both options in turn.



History and modernisation


Part of the problem with the representation of Greenlanders and Inuit as populations in transition, caught between two worlds, and marked by stress and loss of sense of identity and self-worth, has to do with under-theorised concepts of history and culture.


In a comment on history and social change, Ortner problematises the conventional historiographic approach: "To answer (...) questions with the word "history" is to avoid them, if by history is meant largely a chain of external events to which people react. History is not simply something that happens to people, but something they make - within, of course, the very powerful constraints of the system within which they are operating" (Ortner 1994:403). Hastrup remarks in the same vein: "No people is simply a victim of history, even though many peoples may have been victimised by particularly forceful notions of history" (Hastrup 1992:10-11).


Ortner makes a useful distinction between action and re-action which can be applied to the two main approaches to men's violence against women: the actor-oriented and the symptom-oriented approach. While the former focuses on social actors engaged in motivated social practice, the latter focuses on how individuals and/or groups re-act to the (assumed) effects of external forces.


Another related problem is that it is often taken for granted that "traditional society" is squarely the true Inuit society, whereas "modern society" is introduced from outside and therefore not fully compatible with Inuit cultural values. Cultural essentialism is evident. As an analytic tool, the traditional/modern dichotomy tends to freeze difference into stereotypes. It should also be mentioned that change has not come overnight, and that different generations of Greenlanders have been raised under different conditions. To speak of the Greenlander man, for example, therefore represents a gross simplification. It is also a fact that wage work among Greenlanders is not an exclusively "modern" or recent phenomenon. As early as in 1860, about 12,5 per cent of the West Greenlander population were dependent on income from employment in the Royal Greenland Trade Department (Marquardt 1993:97-98).


Cohen directs a harsh critique against the early predictions of the effects of "modernisation" and "development": "They both assume that people can have their culture stripped away, leaving them quite void, then to be refilled by some imported superstructure. They assume, in other words, that people are somehow passive in relation to culture: they receive it, transmit is, express it, but do not create it" (Cohen 1985:36). Now as always, people appropriate foreign goods, knowledge, ideas, forms and institutions; the foreign is domesticated and infused with local meanings. We therefore cannot assume that we know what social change means to local people. Some historical anthropologists therefore distinguish between happenings and events, according to which events are those happenings that have been experienced and registered locally as socially significant.


Cross-cultural comparison


Nuuk and the other Greenlander towns and settlements that I am familiar with can hardly be described as communities under stress if this implies a lack of cultural continuity and norms. I would characterise Nuuk as a highly moral community in many respects, and I believe that most local people would agree, but at the same time, people do not always live up to their own moral standards in their everyday life. However, if one has an epidemiological approach, each deviation from a Danish or West European standard tends to be read as a symptom of a society out of balance. When statistics show that the Greenlander population consume more alcohol and have higher crime rates than the Danes, they add implicitly to conventional thinking about "children's diseases" in a society in transition.


As exotic as the Greenlander/Arctic scenery may be, it seems to me that studies of social problems within this region would profit from engaging the general theoretical literature. The regional symptom-oriented approach is geared towards historical causation which, ironically, seems to imply a strategy of essentialising emotions, and introspection (cf. Abu-Lughod & Lutz 1990). Perpetrators of violence are thus believed to be in despair. Acts of violence, in turn, are perceived as the result/outlet of bottled-up feelings of frustration and anger.


Such an idea of emotions is based on the model of "heat of emotional fluid in a bodily container," which seems to have a basis in bodily experience (Lakoff & Kovecses 1987). This does not mean, however, that we should take this popular model at face value. Instead, we should look at the role of emotional discourses in social action (Lutz & Abu-Lughod 1990). This would imply asking, for instance, who feels entitled to express anger when and towards whom. Power and control, which are key concepts in the general literature on violence against women, are conspicuously absent in most writings about violence in the Arctic.


If women in Greenland are exposed to "extra" abuses, which there is reason to believe - at least if we compare Greenland with Denmark - it is largely due to the fact that violence is tolerated and condoned to a large degree. It has to do with local social practice at all levels.


The problem revisited


Men's violence against women in Greenland is basically not different from men's violence elsewhere. Some people may give explanations that are culture specific in the sense that they refer to local, positioned perspectives on the phenomenon. And ideas about causation are also based on social experience which means that they are not free-flowing, but tied to a certain cultural space. Local discourses may thus offer important insights as they are tied up with social practice and have material implications.


The empirical data on violence against women in Greenland seem to suggest that the phenomenon is simultaneously seen as a problem and minimised. According to the so-called master narrative, men's use of violence is excused and externalised; according to the discursive practice of everyday life, men are held responsible, but only partly so because of many locally perceived mitigating circumstances. The same ambivalence is reflected in the practice of local authorities. "Domestic violence" tends to be trivialised; it is a way of life. The split between public and private violence means that local authorities fail to protect women in their own homes. Instead, violence is protected by privacy. All in all, the ambivalent stance towards men's violence against women seems to make fertile ground for (the continuation of) a practice of violence.


The same ambivalence on the part of both ordinary people, experts and authorities seems characteristic of Denmark and many other countries. The difference may be in degree rather than in kind. Most of the talk and reflections on violence I heard in Nuuk also had a familiar ring. The conflicts of interest between husbands and wives which Dobash and Dobash (1998) present on the basis of studies in the UK make perfect sense in a Greenlander context as well, and so does their statement: "The right to punish wrongdoings, like the exercise of authority and power, is vested in husbands and not wives, thus allowing men to be violent simply because of their position" (Dobash & Dobash 1998:145).


Eroticised violence (cf. Lundgren 1995, 1998) is also part of the Greenlander practice even if, at first glance, men's violence seems to concentrate on gender boundary maintenance, control and discipline. However, these endeavours are likely to have a component of passion and eroticism. Fantasies of power are fantasies of identity, and according to Moore, "sexuality is intimately connected with power in such a way that power and force are themselves sexualised, that is they are inscribed with gender difference and gender hierarchy" (Moore 1994:149).


There are also clear parallels to be drawn between gendered and ethnic violence. Both have to do with the process of "othering." Jenkins, who has dealt with ethnic conflict in Northern Ireland, suggests that: "Verbal abuse and violence are concerned with the beating of ethnic boundaries through the enforcement of definitions of what the ethnic "other" is or must do. Power is at the heart of the matter. (...) Violence and its threat (...) have been somewhat underestimated as a routine mechanism of control and a strategy for achieving goals. Violence to others, up to and including killing, may - in addition to all of its other dimensions - be the ultimate form of categorisation“ (Jenkins 1997:65). According to Jenkins, violence really is "putting them in their place" (Jenkins 1997:106). I believe that Lundgren (1995, 1998) is working along the same lines of thinking when she shows how men in a fundamentalist Christian setting in Norway undertake the task of constructing or moulding their wives by means of violence according to their ideas of true femininity. During the process, the women's own definitions of - and space for - femininity are gradually reduced until they are erased and "killed" as individual women.  

Once again, there are clear parallels to Greenland, where violent men are preoccupied with trying to correct and mould their wives according to their models of an ideal wife and woman. Ironically, they try to "kill" the very same personality that may have attracted them in the first place.


When it comes to everyday rationalisations and motives for using violence, Greenlander men also do not seem to differ radically from men elsewhere (cf. Dobash & Dobash 1998). A man in his thirties expressed no doubt whatsoever that he had to silence his wife - if necessary with violent means - if she kept on pushing and nagging. By stepping out of line and not respecting his "case closed" attitude, she asked for it. She was responsible for the violent outcome. When I (naively) argued that the situation seen from her perspective might appear somewhat differently, thereby questioning his authority and right to punish, I was ignored and silenced as well. In his self-representation, he was the reasonable arbiter of right and wrong.


This man's way of rationalising is just one example out of many which all point to the fact that many men in Greenland - and elsewhere - think that they are entitled to set the scene, set certain standards and rules and make sure they are kept. If a woman should happen to thwart or challenge her husband's tactical pre-emptions (cf. Riches 1986), he will put her in her place, and she will be held responsible according to the well-known logic of blaming the victim.


My interviews with battered Greenlander women showed that their men often turned to violence in order to shut them up and putting them in their place. One of the women summed up her husband's violent attacks in simple words: "He is obsessed with being right always." Another woman said that her husband had disapproved of her being too clever, outspoken and eager to discuss all kinds of matters. He had felt threatened and provoked by her disposition. Another female interviewee said that many men, perhaps most men, beat to show the woman that they are stronger than she is, without any other particular motive. Men's efforts to silence, control, intimidate and discipline their wives in every way were recurrent in the interviews.




I have tried to question a certain regional tradition and representation, according to which men beat their wives because they are in a transitional, stressful phase between traditional and modern society. According to this epidemiological perspective, poor mental health among the Greenlanders and the Inuit accounts for violence against women and other social "diseases." My intention is not just to problematise the dominant representation of violence in Greenland and the Arctic, but to contribute to a more general discussion of the relationship between social change and violence.


It is telling that men's violence in the Arctic is usually expected to call for a special explanatory framework. On the face of it, this would seem to indicate an empirically grounded approach. However, this is not the case as people in general are not accorded agency. Consequently, the perpetrators of violence are not seen as motivated social actors, but rather as victims of externally inflicted change. A grounded approach must ask the questions: What do men (in specific socio-cultural settings) gain from using violence, intentionally and unintentionally? How is violence possible in the first place?


People who speak and write within the Arctic regional genre seem to be on the look-out for factors that may explain violence and "trouble" in general, and precisely because they are informed by structural-functionalist thinking they have to come up with very good - or "deep" - reasons as to why such "anti-social" and "irrational" behaviour takes place. Instead they might have treated violence as values acted out. Interestingly, such a perspective seems closer to the discursive practice of everyday life among people in Nuuk.



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