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Robin Nelson sitting in her office

Robin Nelson sitting in her office

The Anthropology of Emotional Violence

To better understand humanity, Associate Professor Robin Nelson says anthropologists need to pay attention to the kinds of violence that don’t always leave a mark.

To better understand humanity, Associate Professor Robin Nelson says anthropologists need to pay attention to the kinds of violence that don’t always leave a mark. 

Robin Nelson is a biological anthropologist and associate professor who utilizes evolutionary theory in studies of human sociality and health outcomes. She  recently wrote a paper for Current Anthropology about the way violence is defined in anthropological research called “The Sex in Your Violence: Patriarchy and Power in Anthropological World Building and Everyday Life.” To further discuss her research, she sat down for an interview. 

What’s the story behind this evocative title and how the research came about?

Well, the title is a reference to a line from the Bush song “Everything Zen” from 1995, so it’s dating me a little bit, but the research itself started about two years ago. I was putting together a conference with a few of my colleagues about maleness, masculinity, and violence in anthropological research. One thing we wanted to tackle was the fact that physically violent acts are more likely to be committed by men, but we don’t necessarily have any evidence that this is some kind of biological trait that makes men predisposed to violence, even though that’s a common trope or assumption. At the conference, we had folks from all walks of academic life there with different kinds of experience with gender violence, physical violence, and war.

This conference was kind of a spark, sending me down this path of thinking with how we look at and define violence in anthropology. Historically, white men were the ones deciding what anthropologists studied. So, if you look at how we define violence and the kinds of violence that “matter” for a lot of anthropologists, it’s physical violence—who is harming whom; who is murdering whom; who was assaulting whom; who was raping whom. Even in my past research on sexual violence, I noticed people don’t really feel like sexual assault matters until it’s rape.

For this paper, I noted that there were all these other non-physical acts that impacted people’s lives: emotional violence, exclusion, isolation, financial violence—meaning when people are withholding funds from you. These types of non-physical violence were actually destroying people’s lives yet they were not considered to be of note historically or today because it wasn’t something you could easily measure.

If our job as anthropologists is to understand humanity and the cultural and biological contexts of human evolution and behavior, we need to pay attention to the kinds of violence that don’t always leave a mark, both in the past and today.

Categorizing behavior that’s not physical violence as violence is sometimes met with skepticism. How are you able to contextualize so people understand?

We see this quite a bit where folks say, “Oh come on, it isn’t that bad right?” But, if a behavior is redirecting what you do every day, if you are having to hide your behavior, if you’re having to lie to people about what’s going on in your life, it’s violence.

Since my work is generally in health and health outcomes, the piece of data that makes it real to people is how this impacts life expectancy. How does this impact your ability to carry a pregnancy to term? How does this impact your mental health? If we know that all of those things are negatively impacted by these non-physical forms of violence, we need to consider them.

Even when you’re talking about the gender wage gap, this is relevant. Wages cut away at a woman’s ability to maybe leave an unhealthy marriage or partnership or to leave an unfair job. It keeps them from retiring. Using the term violence is calling attention to the idea that this has long-term implications. It’s not a one-off. It’s not finite. These are big, big problems, and I think we have a hard time acknowledging that the everyday traumas women experience can be as detrimental as—and can feel like—a physical assault.

Traditionally, so much of anthropological research deals with bones and fossils. How could this reframing act as a pivot point in how research is conducted? 

Bones have taught us a lot about people, even things like compassion and humanity. We’ve found skulls from 1.9 million years ago where somebody had no teeth and it was clear somebody was helping them prepare their food. So I would never say we’ll stop learning new lessons from bones.

But I will say our ability to understand human behavior has to get more sophisticated. As our field is increasingly diversified in terms of gender, in terms of identity, in terms of class, we need to figure out the parts of the puzzle that we are missing.

The best case scenario would be if this shapes how anthropologists construct their testable hypotheses about people’s health. Instead of just looking at whether someone has diabetes or heart disease, they also assess mental health or ask questions about the relationships in people’s lives. I want anthropologists to construct questions that get at power dynamics. My dream is that this would encourage folks to ask more complicated and nuanced questions and questions that are harder to answer, frankly.

Is the goal to go back and track this type of violence historically, or is this an effort moving forward? 

Moving forward. This wasn’t a data study, it was a theory piece, which was actually interesting. In a lot of fields, not just anthropology, women don’t get to write theory. Men write the theory and women do the data collection. That’s how you show your rigor as a woman scholar.

If you look back, you can actually start to see the emergence of this type of violence in anthropological literature when more women joined the professorial ranks. We started hearing about emotional violence and coercive control like stalking, or a partner going through your phone calls, and the anxiety and long-term trauma that results. It makes sense because what we experience shapes so much about what we think is valuable and worthy of study and attention. Some of this violence is just violence that doesn’t happen to men in the same way or as often, so they don’t see it as easily.

I was very proud of this piece, but also nervous because it felt like a departure from what I’d done previously. There is something comforting about data—being able to say, “Look, I have the numbers to show you.” Thankfully it’s been well-received; I know some colleagues have said they’re going to teach it in their theory classes and that’s been exciting to hear.