Political Violence

Due to a lack of consensus on key indicators and conceptual implications, the term political violence is used to refer to various violent acts, such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, rioting, terrorism, insurgency, civil wars, coup d’état, dictatorship and revolutions. Moreover, the term is historically bound, often based on ideology, and varies among (social and political) groups and across geographical area. This diversity and disaggregation of the study of political violence resulted in concept ambiguity. The analytical problem lies within the lack of useful concepts for academic and policy purposes. Three thresholds for conceptual clarity can be identified: neutrality/univocality, communicability and discrimination. The challenge within the study of political violence is to define concepts abstractly in theoretical terms and identify differentiation criteria or thresholds that captures the phenomenon being studied. Communicability and explanatory power is increased through standardization of definitions and concepts.

Violence is a central theme in political science, the discourse reveals a variety of definitional strategies that embark on or emphasize certain normative or ideological propositions. The Cambridge Handbook of Violent Behavior and Aggression (2007) states that academic definitions of violence vary and emphasize ‘’different aspects of motivation, impact, and action and [differ in] psychological, social, and political meaning.’’ Three types of definitions can be distinguished, namely wide, restricted and legitimate definitions. Violence is defined in different terms, namely ‘violence in terms of violation’, ‘violence in terms of physical force’, and ‘violence in terms of illegitimate force’.

The different definitional strategies can be distinguished in practically three schools of thought. First, definitions that aim to equate physical and psychological violence are regarded as wide, ethical or expansive definitions. This approach aims to define violence in terms of violation of basic human rights.

Second, definitions that aim to equate state and non-state violence are regarded as restricted or observational definitions. This approach narrows down the wide definition by focusing on the observational act of psychical violence.

The third and last definitional strategy aims to define violence in terms of legitimacy and are regarded as legitimist, narrow or orthodox definitions. This approach narrows down the restricted definition and distinguishes between defense of the established authority (as ‘force’ or as legitimate violence) and against the established authority (as ‘violence’ or illegitimate violence).



Attacks on property, when damage or theft of property is the main goal


when unorganized disorder leads to damage to property

Violent confrontation

when members of opposing political groups fight with one another


Clashes with the police, when protestors interact violently with the police

Injuries and death

Violent attacks directed against persons, when one political group attacks another group, or members of the elite or the public, causing injuries or deaths


Random violent attacks, when organized violence is directed against persons, regardless of their political or social identities


Armed seizure of places or people, including armed trespassing, holdups, and hijacking.

On Political Violence

Selected Literature