Why non-violence education matters today: the work of Norbert Elias and Judith Butler in the context of inter-cultural Othering

As the world becomes smaller through changing migration patterns, the challenges to live in mutual acceptance increase. Nations previously impervious to the influx of asylum seekers and refugees find themselves in the same struggle as those who have historically been a migration haven. Take the recent example of Chile, for instance, a small country that in the past 5 years has seen 1.5 million migrants move through its borders, mostly from Haiti and Venezuela. The implications of this influx in educational settings are best summarized by a Chilean student: 

Now, there are some ways in which structural and cultural violence can also happen in the classroom. […] Nowadays we have Haitian children in the classroom and there are no ways for them to keep in contact with their culture and their language. In Chilean classrooms they need to speak Spanish and there isn’t a space in which they can develop their language or reflect on their culture. This is structural violence and also cultural violence because we may think this is normal, like he or she is a foreign or an immigrant and they have to speak Spanish. There isn’t a law or practice in the classroom that can help this situation

This example encapsulates the main issue of this blog post: the need for non-violence education in countries where a) inter-cultural violence has become legitimized and prevalent and b) non-violence education is largely absent from school curriculum and from the general conversation on conflict resolution. Instances of violence perpetrated against migrants are certainly not unique to Chile: a recent paper by Kara Dempsey reveals the same issues in three EU member-states and a study by Arnoso et el.,(2021) researched issues of gender and domestic violence in Spain, linking it to inter-cultural conflicts. 

Source: https://www.euston96.com/en/interculturality/

The work of Butler and Elias on non-violence

First, let us define and understand two concepts that are a key part of this blog post: Other and Othering. A term that originated with European philosophers in the 1860s, an Other is anyone who is seen as different and does not conform or fit within the social norms of a given group. Consequently, Othering is the act of labelling and reducing a person to a subaltern status, thus effectively excluding them. This has wide ranging implication in issues of gender and sex, race, politics and in what concerns us here, education. 

In his 1965 book The established and the Outsiders  German sociologist Norbert Elias describes how a group of newcomers experience exclusion and discrimination at the hands of those already living in their community. Not because they were poorer, less educated or lived in uglier houses, but because of an unspoken shared belief by those “established”, in their superiority and their right to stigmatise those who did not belong. As a result of this belief, and of what Elias calls a “power differential”, the “outsiders” find themselves the victims of wide array of violent acts. 

This notion of Otherness and its relationship with violence is further explored by Judith Butler (2020) who coined the concept of “grievability” while posing the question: what exactly makes some lives worthier (more grievable) than others? She links this idea to our exacerbated Western individualism, which has led us to believe in, and act on the notion of self-dependency, rather than on one of inter-dependency. She illustrates this by going back to the earlier representations of humans and which later became deeply ingrained in the works of important European philosophers such as Rousseau and Kant: always male, always an adult, always self-sufficient (Butler, 2020). Yet, as she highlights, not only is the world not male, but we were not born into adulthood: we have all been children, we have all depended on someone for comfort, well-being and opportunities.

Further expanding on this, Butler posits that we seek and cling to those who offer sameness: the ones we recognize as belonging to our same domain or sphere. We value our own lives, and those of whom we acknowledge as belonging to our social groups while justifying violent acts against those who are outside – the Others. This in turn creates a power differential and inequality anchored in structures and cultural values that justify it. What is missing, I argue, is the awareness of our inter-dependency from a number of different dimensions: political, economic, and spiritual so such inequality can be challenged and changed.

Source: https://www.mobilitypartnership.org/blog/plea-stop-othering-people-poverty


This is what brings me to the argument in favour of non-violent education in Western classrooms: my ongoing doctoral research, a participatory project that relies on the theories and concepts I have put forth, seeks to identify violent classroom practices, such as discrimination, exclusion, and any other type of Othering, as well as non-violent strategies to tackle these. Ongoing analysis reveals that in in fact, the strategies suggested by the participants – all of whom are trainee teachers – aim at one common element: overcoming individualism by fostering collaboration and solidarity. 

These are linked to the development of inter-cultural awareness; as one of the project’s participants highlights:

“…to understand other people is to search information about their cultures so we can be more tolerant .To really understand why communities do certain things,[…]. With our students we can have class activities in which we learn about other people’s cultures[…], learn why people do specific actions and teach them to be more accepting of others, especially when they are different.  Of course, each culture is unique. If other people see what we do, they might disagree with us but it is very important to be tolerant and accepting.”

Gaston Bacquet is a 2nd-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, where he is also an associate tutor and dissertation supervisor at the School of Education. His research, which uses participatory methods, seeks to bring non-violent perspectives and strategies into teacher programs in the Global South.

Check out his work here:

ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-9802-7249

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gaston-bacquet-59a38b9b/

ResearchGate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Gaston-Bacquet-2

University profile: https://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/education/staff/gastonbacquet/#


Arnoso, A., Arnoso, M., Elgorriaga, E. (2021), The Intercultural Role of Attitudes Towards Violence Against Women Among Moroccan Immigrants, Violence Against Women 28(12-13), 3073 – 3095.

Dempsey, K. (2020), Spaces of Violence: A typology of the political geography of violence against migrants seeking asylum in the EU, Political Geography 79, 1-10

Butler, J. (2020), The Force of Non-Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind. Verso

Elias, N. (1994)[1965], The Established and the Outsiders. Sage

Miller, J. (2008). “Otherness”. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. (p. 588–591). SAGE Publications. 

The Other, The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, Third Edition, (1999) p. 620.

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