Discursive Violence Discussion


In this activity students will discuss, in groups, discursive violence by responding to a specific prompt situated in different, real-world scenarios where discursive violence is taking place.

Class: Anthropology 269: The Anthropology of Objects


(1)  For students to understand how Western societies that commodify, display, categorize, and define themselves by other cultures’ art refuse to acknowledge they are reaping the benefits of indigenous people’s oppression and objectification.

(2)  For students to understand how indigenous people talk back to this kind of power. 

Introduction/Setup: Professor Addo and her teaching assistant, Vonds, reviewed discursive violence and connected back to the previous class. There was a discussion about how discourse can be used as a form of violence by the dominant group. The discussion was very active with students informally debating with each other and helped to set an active tone for the main activity.  After the discussion, Professor Addo showed 15 minutes of the film In and Out of Africa and told students to look for instances of objectification, commodification and misinterpretation and how these all were acts of discursive violence against the community who made the objects. 


  1. Before Class. Students read Christopher Steiner’s chapter Authenticity, Repetition and Aesthetics in Unpacking Culture: Art and Commodity in Colonial and Postcolonial Worlds.
  2. Introduction. Professor Addo explained that the students would now have the opportunity to extend the idea of discursive violence and culture commodities to possible scenarios they might encounter. The students were given the instructions to focus their responses on how they might react to the scenarios and how they could help people see the discursive violence that was taking place.

The Activity:

  • Professor Addo divided the class into five groups. To do this, she simply had the students number off. She then had the students gather in their groups around the room.
  • Each group was then given one of five scenarios to structure their conversation around. Each group received different scenarios with the same overarching prompt.
  • The members of the group thought silently about the prompt for a few minutes.
  • Then the discussion opened up within the groups for about 7-10 minutes.
  • Each group then reported to the class in response to the prompt and their scenario.


Prompt: You and one or two other people encounter the same African mask on a wall. One person says: “this is beautiful, it shows genius in how the lines are drawn, the designs etched, etc.” You say, “There was a raffia hanging off the side of the mask, so this is an incomplete object, by its own cultural standards.” Another person in the group says, “Why should we care that it’s incomplete—it’s beautiful enough to have attracted artists like Picasso to mimic the aesthetic of simple lines and primitive forms in his masterpiece paintings.” 

How would you respond if you had such an encounter in the following places:

1) At a cocktail party full of rich, fancy people in tuxedoes and ball gowns; you are looking equally good, by the way

2) At work—you and a coworker are looking at a brochure someone else brought into the office with images of African art from a local museum

3) At home, with family—you are gathered around the dinner table and your sibling shows off an image of the mask, taken from a museum gallery he/she visited

4) At a museum—you overhear some young people (about your age) talking about the object and you begin to chat with them about it

5) Hanging out with friends—they ask what you are studying in ANTH 269 and you tell them and show them the image of the object you about for your museum paper last week 


The purpose of the activity was to give students the opportunity to discuss, in real scenarios, the idea of discursive violence perpetuated through the commoditization of culture. Professor Addo hoped structuring the discussion around viable scenarios would help students understand the subverted nature of discursive violence and how the students can speak up to help others understand when discursive violence is occurring.

Submitted by Dr. Ping-Ann Addo, Associate Professor of Anthropology, UMass-Boston