Violence work: Creating and Contesting Colonial Authority on the Ground in Africa through Everyday Violence

June 2023 to May 2028
colonial violence
Research fields
Cultural Sciences
History and Archaeology
Law and Political Science

VIOLENCE WORK is a groundbreaking study of everyday violence in Belgian Central Africa—Burundi, Congo, and Rwanda (19th-20th C). Though colonial violence has been studied widely, few have explored how everyday violence enabled colonialism and allowed it to persist. This project combines hitherto neglected source materials and a novel conceptual entry point—violence work(ers)—to foreground the everyday violent practices crucial to creating and maintaining the colonial state. The project’s core claim, and main innovation, is that violence work was not performed exclusively by formal violence workers—the men in uniform—but rather by a range of actors (colonizer and colonized) in- and outside the state. Everyday violence work includes not only direct acts of physical violence (e.g. whipping) but also other forms of punishment, such as incarceration and coercion through the threat of violence, as well as subtler forms of aggression forcing compliance (e.g. harassment) and the ways these different levels of violence reinforced each other. This inclusive definition enables an unprecedented, comprehensive view of the enforcement practices that colonial rule depended on.

VIOLENCE WORK opens up new questions about the centrality of violence in theorizing, creating, and maintaining colonialism and the colonial state. This first in-depth, multi-sited, transnational/regional comparative study of everyday colonial violence will undergird further research on how colonial legacies persist and interact with local and new repertoires of violence work, contributing to dismantling persistent colonial myths about these regions and their inhabitants as inherently violent. The online database will be a crucial tool for future researchers and open up many new avenues of research. Its major innovation of a pluralistic approach to everyday violence work will reinvigorate the debate not only about colonial violence but also, ultimately, about colonial states and nation-states more broadly.