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Dutch people are understanding the term ‘violence’ to mean more and more

When do we say violence was used in an incident? The answer may seem obvious at first. But interim results from a study by Jolien van Breen show that Dutch people are labelling events in increasingly broad contexts as violent.

Think of ‘violence’ and you will probably think of obvious examples such as murder, manslaughter and war. But if an elderly woman is verbally abused in the street, does that also fall under the definition? Jolien van Breen is researching how we as a society view ‘violence’. The initial results seem to indicate that the Dutch are understanding the term ‘violence’ to encompass more and more. They look in particular at the victim: if this person belongs to a vulnerable group, a link with violence is more likely to be made. This is one of the interim results after six months of research within a new NWO project on societal perceptions of violence.

Different scenarios

Van Breen is researching people’s understanding of the term violence in two ways. First, by using AI to search through 80,000 Dutch newspaper articles from the past decade, analysing in which contexts the word ‘violence’ is mentioned. Second, in an experiment among the Dutch population where the researchers are looking at what criteria people use to decide whether a particular incident can be considered violent. ‘People read brief descriptions of incidents and then have to determine the extent to which they consider them to be a form of violence’, says Van Breen. ‘This always involves the same scenario, but with one detail changed each time. Does that affect the extent to which people label the incident as violent?’


‘For example, we use a scenario where someone is assaulted, and the difference is whether the victim suffers serious or minor injuries. Or we have a scenario where someone is assaulted, and the difference is whether that person is a man or a woman. Or someone who is elderly or someone whose age is not mentioned. And all those small differences affect how people ultimately judge that scenario.'

Violence and social inequality

The first results − which have not yet been published in a scientific article − show that Dutch people are more likely to make an association between violence and social inequality. Then the description of the victim plays a big role. A link with violence is more likely to be made with women or members of a vulnerable group.

The research project is now halfway through and will collect more data early next year. Van Breen hopes to be able to expand the research at a later stage. ‘In this study, we are talking specifically about changes to how we think about the concept of violence. And the idea is that this has to do with shifting social norms and societal trends. But we have not yet been able to make that link explicitly. That’s what I want to do research more.’

Photo: KirstenMarie/ Unsplash

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