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How might anthropologists understand the relationship between happiness and violence?

A relationship between happiness and violence appears contradictory. This relationship however is not one of opposing terms existing in relation to the absence of the other. Rather, the two are often intertwined where experiences of happiness are often backdropped by violence, an emerging theme in anthropological literature on violence. In an anthropological context, happiness is a concept that has often been distinguished into two key approaches. Anthropology adopts thinking from philosophy to demarcate this distinction where a hedonic approach to happiness implies, “the core meaning of happiness is momentary pleasures” (Thin 2012: 25). The second is the eudaemonic approach which focuses more on “the evaluative interpretation through which we appreciate our whole lives” (Ibid) or the idea of living a fulfilled and meaningful life. These approaches are also culturally contingent, which makes ethnography fundamentally necessary in understanding the complexities of happiness.

Ethnography similarly becomes necessary in making sense of violence and the particular ways in which it connects with happiness. Like happiness, violence can too be understood in a variety of ways, where one foundational facet is through embodiment and embodied violence. This form describes the personal experience of violence and will be explored initially through the implications of dark tourism. I will argue how the desire to engage with violence can contribute to feelings of fulfilment and eudaemonic experiences. This will follow with an analysis of military and reserve experiences, examining how the embodiment of violence in these contexts is comprehended through the simultaneous embodiment of happiness as a coping strategy. I then turn to structural violence, a form of violence which regards the different structures that create unequal life chances for particular people (Galtung 1969). This will be discussed in relation to the partners and spouses of army reservists, highlighting the prominent gendered impact of military reliance on heteropatriarchy that removes agency and enforces problematic gender expectations, particularly impacting women. 


When analysing embodied forms of violence, dark tourism becomes an intricate example of the complex relationship that happiness and violence share. Desjarlais and Throop define embodiment as “the bodily aspects of human beings and subjectivity” (2011: 89) where the body is "a locus from which our experience of the world is arrayed " (Ibid). Embodied violence is then the idea that the body becomes a site through which people experience violence differently and how this comes to change across time and culture. A person’s expectations, assumptions and feelings will change according to their own social demographics – including race, class, sexuality – and influence their interpretation of violent contexts. Robb (2009) and Bruner (1996) have both written about experiences of dark tourism building on Lennon and Foley’s work as well as Clark’ (2006) idea of ‘trauma tourism’ that include “both places with violent legacies and those at which violence is an ongoing reality” (Robb 2009: 51) such as assassination sites, mass graves or detention centres. These theorists discuss issues associated with dark tourism such as the essentialisation of violence through marketing where “atrocity becomes a recreational attraction” (Ibid 54), the drive to use violence for financial gains as well as the issue of representation. Dark tourism is therefore inherently problematic in its conflation of leisure intentions and lack of control over visitor interpretations of historical or ongoing violence. However, despite this, dark tourism has in specific contexts also had the power to create spaces where the embodiment of violence can facilitate feelings of a fulfilled and meaningful life, or in other words, eudaimonia. 


Bruner’s work highlights this facilitation however it must be recognised that this experience of embodiment is extremely complex as it is characterised by simultaneously balancing both sadness and a sense of fulfilment in the process of comprehending the anguish and injustice of slavery. Bruner discusses how many African Americans travel to Ghana to visit Elmina Castle “in a quest for their roots… it is for them a transition point between the civility of their family in Africa and the barbarism of slavery in the New World” (1996: 291). Elmina Castle was formally used as a staging area for the mid-Atlantic slave trade most prominently used between 1700 and 1850 and has become a significant space where diaspora Blacks go to embody the violence experienced by their ancestors. As this experience embodies a deeply personal relationship to violence through ancestral legacy and is simultaneously characterised by sadness and the happiness of fulfilment, achieving a sense of fulfilment is not an overtly ‘happy’ experience. Momentary feelings of pleasure and joy can therefore be completely absent in certain experiences of achieving eudaimonia. In this context, it is precisely through balancing the embodiment of sadness and violence in a personal and sincere way that allows meaning and fulfilment to be experienced. Throop’s idea of ambivalent orientations to experiences of happiness is used to describe the virtuous suffering of Yapese communities in the Federated States of Micronesia, however, is also significant in understanding ancestral embodiment. As with Throop’s work, happiness for the Black diaspora similarly exists as an “ambivalent object of concern” (2015: 46) as embodying violence is characterised by pain that ultimately transcends the confinements of what happiness can be. 


The Black diaspora embody the sadness of their ancestor’s pain which allows them to experience an ambivalent form of happiness through establishing a meaningful connection with ancestors. This ambivalent happiness is predominantly evidenced in “the sense of strength and pride many African Americans feel at the recognition that their ancestors must have been strong people to have survived these inhuman conditions” (Jones 1995: 1 cited in Bruner 1996: 292) who by process, are also engaging with “a necessary act of self-realisation” (Report 1994: 3 cited in 1996: 291). This self-realisation, the experience of fulfilment of oneself, can be brought to life in a series of interviews conducted by Curtis Brown. Amber Brown, an African American woman explained how in connecting with ancestries of slavery have granted “her a sense of self that had previously been absent” (Brown 2022). Jackson, an African American man, similarly shared how there is a surge in Black people connecting with ancestry “as a way of bolstering their identity… a lot of Black people are getting catharsis by identifying these connections… providing people with opportunities to get tangible examples of their historical resilience” (Ibid). This feeling of fulfilment and pride establishes meaning for a community whose history has often been overlooked in a context where the America continues to view slavery as a ‘Black tragedy’ rather than a national or global one (Bruner 1996: 303). Slavery is however a global tragedy that a plaque at Elmina Castle continues to remind us; “may humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold this” (French 2021, 233). Engaging with violence in this way has significant relation to the journey towards greater self-fulfilment in a world that grapples with the ongoing reality of colonial legacies. 


Embodied violence is similarly highlighted in military experiences examined by Basham (2015, 2020) and Catignani (2020). Embodying violence for military personnel means embodying an array of complex emotions that become deeply entangled within a military context. The array of emotions experienced are complex as war is often perceived as a period of intense violence, death, and trauma that simultaneously run alongside periods of intense boredom. This follows Basham’s idea of ‘waiting for war’ that goes hand in hand with the omnipresent anticipation of death. War is consequentially as much about violence as it is about emotion evidenced in how soldiers embody certain emotional coping mechanisms to aid their experience of perpetual boredom in a context where death and danger are also ever-present possibilities (Basham 2015). These strategies correlate with the hedonic approach to happiness through military uses of humour, conversations about sexual endeavours, and taking an interest/pleasure in combat. The use of humour provides momentary pleasures of joy predominantly for military men who joke around with one another – often at the expense of women. Men tell stories of sexual conquests, which allow them to ‘let off steam’ and are used to derive feelings of happiness and pleasure amidst a context of violence. Men also use humour to distract from complex feelings of war by making jokes about servicewomen’s alleged sex lives, creating a sense of happiness through the unity and inclusion created by and for men via the rejection of women. Military officers also provide ‘rest and recuperation’ services for military men in brothels as another way to obtain pleasure despite their violent context. Humour and pleasure are therefore massively gendered in military spaces that are extremely masculinised and deem femininity as problematic, and consequentially "deriving pleasure from combat is often regarded as ‘normal’ for military men" (Basham 2015: 129). Basham includes several different vignettes from servicemen in her ethnography including one from Terry, a male officer in the Royal Air Force. Terry explained how, “you realise how good it was by the number of human emotions that you experienced. When in just one day you can go through utter sadness… to things being the funniest things you’ve ever seen or laughed about, to [the] sheer terror of ‘I think I’m actually going to die’… you reflect on that and actually it’s a really positive experience” (Ibid 134-135). This feeling of war being a ‘positive experience’ was shared by many servicemen, affirming how certain contexts of violence can still garner forms of happiness despite the darkness that characterises war. 


Basham and Catignani’s work on British army reservists and their spouses or partners similarly highlight how different forms of happiness can be derived from contexts of war and violence. As with Basham’s work above, the embodiment of violence comes hand in hand with the embodiment of emotions that army reservists take on to make sense of or cope with their violent context. However, the nuance with army reservists is that they are the force of last resort for national emergencies where non-deployment is therefore often the norm for most. The change in the nature of violence that reservists experience and have to anticipate consequentially also changes their relationship to happiness. Hedonic approaches are consequentially not used to mitigate feelings of boredom and the potential for imminent danger as they are often not deployed. Instead, the happiness embodied by army reservists is better characterised as a form of ‘serious leisure’ where violence is still a potential but a distant one. This nuance in the way that violence comes to be embodied shapes the way reservists consequentially embody emotion and happiness differently than deployed military personnel would. Basham and Catignani build on Parker’s work to describe serious leisure as "a concept applied to voluntary activities in which participants must persevere and commit, have self-developmental opportunities, are part of a unique ethos and culture, and form strong identifications with, and pride in, their chosen pursuit” (2000 cited in 2020: 102). Basham and Catignani use this concept to argue that this is a better way to conceptualise the experience of reservists as they enjoy many pleasurable feelings in doing this service. Basham and Catigani’s ethnography draw on key comments made by reservists to further highlight this such as, Damien who mentioned how “reserve service appeals to many because ‘that’s their excitement. That’s the bit that fills that gap, void in their life” (2020: 107). Mark similarly mentioned, “do you want to go away and train with your friends for the weekend… or do you want to spend time with the family at home? Now, I would say nine times out of ten the Army wins” (Ibid). This experience of pleasure correlates with a eudaemonic approach to happiness as being part of the army in this way gives military people a greater sense of fulfilment in their lives in filling the ‘void’. This void is fulfilled in such a way that army reserve work often trumps all other commitments including familial obligations and sometimes even jobs. This prioritisation advocates the extent to which engaging with military services and potential war contribute towards creating a more meaningful life. In the embodiment of the potential for violence therefore also comes pleasure that is derived from the embodiment of leisure experiences within a context that is shaped by the possibility of war. 


In comparison to embodied violence, structural violence is more complicated as it is often covert and relates less to the personal experience of direct violence. Structural violence may therefore be experienced by people even in the absence of overtly obvious contexts of violence. This form of violence is best defined by Paul Farmer who describes “the social structures – economic, political, legal, religious and cultural – that stop individuals, groups and societies from achieving their full potential” (2006 cited in Qureshi 2013: 210). Farmer’s definition is drawn from Galtung’s work who has pointed to several different distinctions that should be made in understanding the way violence works. Galtung’s fourth distinction that states, "whether or not there is a subject (person) who acts" (1969: 170), helps prominently with conceptualising structural violence as it asks, "can we talk about violence when nobody is committing direct violence, is acting?” (Ibid). This refers to how in most cases of structural violence there may not be any specific person involved in its direct infliction, where violence is instead “built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequentially as unequal life chances" (Ibid 171). Scheper-Hughes’ work also builds on this in her discussion of how structural violence has become ‘normalised’ and ‘naturalised’ into public consciousness (2004 cited in Qureshi 2013: 210), demonstrating the way this form of violence often becomes represented covertly. However, this form of violence is nonetheless present as Basham and Catignani’s work comes to reveal. 


As discussed above, Basham and Catignani’s ethnography highlights the experience of British army reservists, however a fundamental part of their work further includes the experience of reservist’s partners and spouses. Foundational to their work is the argument that "selfless commitment has become an orthodoxy in military, political and academic discourse" (2020: 100), which has a surplus of implications for the infliction of structural violence on partners left at home. These implications are consequentially gendered as over 85% of reservist’s partners are women (Ibid). This ethnography therefore reveals that the happiness produced in one context of violence – British army reservist training – may perpetuate structural violence in another, notably in the reduced agency of majority female partners and spouses. This structural violence stems from how war preparations are framed as both necessary and as a sacrifice that protect the state and moral order in society. This not only normalises but also legitimises reservist duties and is what contributes to a justification for their abstention from obligations at home. The performances of sacrifice that characterise war preparations therefore massively “rely on everyday performances and articulations of militarism and heteropatriarchy to prepare for and wage war" (Basham and Catignani 2020: 99) that become uncritically accepted as necessary. The concept of war itself also has a gendered history, where Basham and Catignani suggest that “the conception that war is inevitable is based on masculinised assumptions about human nature that have been perpetuated partly by the historic exclusion of women from the public arena” (Basham 2016 cited in 2020: 101). The normalisation and justification of war preparations coupled with the ongoing exclusion of women in the public sphere are therefore key in allowing the ongoing perpetuation of problematic gendered expectations. Feminist scholars, Lutz (2009), Enloe (2000) and Peterson (2018) have contributed to this argument to suggest that the ’military normal’ is co-constituted by heteropatriarchy and would not function without its continual reinforcement. Consequentially, because war preparations are “reliant on gendered designations that reinforce militarism" (Enloe 2000: 100) mascunlised happiness and female structural violence are simultaneously reproduced. The masculine embodiment of war preparations and violence perpetuates structural violence by being reliant on domesticating expectations of a woman’s ‘role’. 


This comes to life in a conversation Adam, an army reservist, had with his wife where she mentioned, “my extended family is coming down, are you around?’ ‘No, I’m not. I’m away having an Army weekend’, thankfully… I mean, unfortunately!" (Basham and Catignani 105, 2020). Reservists can therefore be absent from familial expectations because heteropatriarchy allows them to be, and it is unquestionably justified. Partners and spouses are forced to accept that military duties become priority in a world where the possibility of war is ever-present – a masculinised assumption – that diminishes their agency. This highlights the prominent political and cultural structures that stop these individuals from ‘achieving their full potential’ as this predominantly female group are domesticated in having to largely take on the responsibilities of the home that their husbands become exempt from. This is prominently highlighted in Miller’s work on shopping and female labour who draws on feminist critiques of “housewifery as unvalorised labour… the basic asymmetry of housework and the exploitation of female labour" (1998: 22). The labour performed by partners and spouses at home awards masculinised members and disempowers women through the continuation of their subjugation into gendered expectations. Agency is therefore massively diminished, and their labour remains unvalorised which is the product of military fulfilment being reliant on the recurrence of heteropatriarchy. 


This essay has highlighted how anthropology can use ethnography to understand the relationship between happiness and violence and how it manifests differently in different contexts. I first analysed how the embodiment of violence in contexts of dark tourism can often create feelings of fulfilment and strength, despite the intensity of violence being embodied. Embodied violence was also explored through military and reserve work and how the simultaneous embodiment of certain emotions demonstrates how happiness is often used as a tool in violent contexts to mitigate complex feelings or contribute towards fulfilment. I ended with a discussion about structural violence and the ways that militarism and consequentially the happiness enjoyed by reservists, relies on the perpetuation of heteropatriarchy. Heteropatriarchy essentially limits the agency of partners and spouses left at home, who are predominantly women, to take on a domesticated role involving unvalorised labour that entrenches into problematic expectations of gender. 



Works Cited


Basham, V. 2015. Waiting for War: Soldiering, Temporality and the Gendered Politics of Boredom and Joy in Military Spaces, Emotions, politics and war / edited by Linda Ahall and Thomas Gregory. Routledge, 128-140. 


Brown, C. 2022. Family trees fill in the gaps for Black people seeking their ancestral roots. NBC News (available on-line:, accessed 21 April 2022).


Bruner, E. 1996. Tourism in Ghana: The Representation of Slavery and the Return of the Black Diaspora. American Anthropologist 98, 290-304.


Catignani, S. & V. Basham 2020. Reproducing the military and heteropatriarchal normal: Army Reserve service as serious leisure. Security Dialogue 52, 99-117.


Desjarlais, R. & J. Throop 2011. Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 40, 87-102.


French, H. 2021. Shatter Zones. In Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War H. French(ed) , 233-238. (1st edition). New York: Liveright Publishing Company.


Galtung, J. 1969. Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research 6, 167-191.


Miller, D. 1998. Making Love in Supermarkets. In A Theory of Shopping D. Miller(ed) , 15-72. (1st edition). Oxford: Polity Press.


Qureshi, A. 2013. Structural violence and the state: HIV and labour migration from Pakistan to the Persian Gulf. Anthropology & medicine, 20(3), 209-220.


Robb, E. 2009. Violence and Recreation: Vacationing in the Realm of Dark Tourism. Anthropology and Humanism 34, 51-60.


Thin, N. 2012. Social happiness: Theory into policy and practice. Bristol: Policy Press.


Throop, C. 2015. Ambivalent happiness and virtuous suffering. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5, 45-68.

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