Harmful Societies: The Importance of the Social Harm Approach

Harmful Societies: The Importance of the Social Harm Approach

Simon Pemberton

‘When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another, such injury that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call this deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death …when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live … forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, to remain in such conditions, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual … which seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than  of commission.’ (Engels,1845/1987: 127)

Students often ask me where they should find an example of a social harm study and they are often baffled when I reply ‘Engels’.  Of course there are more recent examples. But for me, the analysis presented by Engels in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845/1987) is one of the original, if not the original, social harm analysis. Engels not only described in forensic detail the harms visited on the proletariat in the Great Towns as they underwent immense social and economic transformation during the Industrial Revolution, but crucially he understood these harms as entirely preventable, a product of social relations that could be organised very differently to meet the needs of the many and not just the few. Engels correctly identified the disease, squalor and deprivation endured at this point in time, not to be ‘natural’, but an ‘inevitable consequence’ of the laissez-faire mode of capitalism that dominated 19th-century England.  In many respects, these concerns draw a current generation of social scientists to the social harm approach, allied to a desire to develop analyses that more accurately document the ways that the organisation of our societies serve to injuriously interrupt human flourishing.

If we are to take anything from Engels, his analysis demands that we subject to critical scrutiny the presentation of habitual harm as ‘natural’.  Let us consider a couple of examples.  Last year in the UK, it is estimated that 40,000 deaths were ‘brought forward’ due to air pollution (Royal College of Physicians, 2016).  Moreover, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggested that there were 43,900 ‘excess winter deaths’ in 2014/15 in England and Wales (ONS, 2015). In addition, it is estimated that 13,000 (Great Britain) lives are lost from lung disease or cancers contracted via the workplace (HSE,2014).  The scale and magnitude of this harm is extraordinary; but few column inches are spared over these widespread injuries or political careers forged from campaigning on these issues.  Why? The presentation of these injuries is critical and as Steve Tombs (2015:36) points out, language plays a significant role in the ‘naturalisation’ of these deaths:

‘Excess winter deaths’, ‘deaths brought forward’ and ‘fatal injuries’ each seem to combine the technical and the prosaic, but in neither respect does the language signify the extraordinary phenomena to which it refers. None conveys a source, nor any sense of agency or structure, nor responsibility regarding the deaths at issue.’

Tombs is correct; language has a beguiling effect.  It serves to decontextualize injury, denying the social contexts through which harms are produced thus reducing them to ‘chance’ events, with causation attributed to the biological ‘lottery of life’.  For example, ‘excess winter deaths’ are indeed attributable to underlying health conditions; however this is of course only part of the story.  Omitted from this story are the chronic levels of fuel poverty in the UK that force individuals to decide whether to ‘heat or eat’; fuel poverty rates that are being driven by escalating domestic fuel prices and the profits of private energy companies; allied to the chronic disinvestment in the UK’s social housing stock meaning that many homes are thermally deficient.  The point is that these deaths are not about the cold per se, rather a multiplicity of political and policy decisions as well as a whole set of economic interests that profit from the status quo.  A status quo that mean that some people in our societies lack the means to heat their homes to such an extent it irreparably damages their health.

In my recent book Harmful Societies (2015) I sought to contest the extent to which structural harms and injuries are viewed as intractable features of our societies.  Adopting a social harm perspective I sought to argue that many taken for granted injuries are in fact preventable or at the very least the rate of these injuries should be viewed as a ‘given’.  Even if we accept the argument that capitalism is an inherently harmful mode of organisation; we might also observe that similarly placed societies appear to produce different levels of harm and injury. If this is the case and harm varies dramatically between capitalist forms, the argument that: ‘…This is capitalism! We benefit greatly from it and any injuries that result are unfortunate unintended consequences of the social progress it brings’ – does not frankly hold water.

To explore these assertions comparative rates of homicide, suicide, infant mortality, obesity, road traffic injuries, obesity, poverty, financial insecurity, long working hours, youth unemployment and social isolation were examined across 31 OECD countries.  As part of this analysis the 31 nation states were grouped into Harm Reduction Regimes: Neo liberal, Liberal, Post Socialist Corporatist, Southern Corporatist, Meso Corporatist, Northern Corporatist and Social Democratic. Groupings were based on the harm reduction features of each nation state, contrasting forms of regulation; welfare systems; criminal justice systems and social solidarity. It might be unsurprising that considerable differences existed between states, as well as the regimes in relation to these harms.  A clear pattern emerged.  The neo liberal regime, the regime that is closest to delivering the ideological model of the ‘free market/minimal social state/strong state’ form, without exception appears to be the most harmful, whereas the social democratic regime were the least harmful forms. Why? The analyses presented in Harmful Societies appear to point to three facets of social democratic societies that significantly reduce the production of structural harms.

  1. i) Solidaristic Societies that exhibited high levels of trust and low levels of inequality appear to perform better in relation to many harms. Social solidarity plays an important role in protecting populations from harm for a number of reasons. First, on an interpersonal level, those societies that have higher levels of solidarity appear to demonstrate greater levels of respect for others. Conversely, societies that are dramatically unequal prove to be the generative contexts for interpersonal harms, such as homicide, where fragmented societies exhibit higher levels of harm. Second, solidarity ensures greater levels of empathy for others, and militates against producing ‘bystanders to harm’. Thus, solidaristic societies are likely to produce the support necessary to create and sustain harm reduction systems, more so than those that are heavily individualistic. Individualistic societies that reify competition and the unfettered enjoyment of freedom demonstrate greater levels of social disorganisation. Greater degrees of social chaos ensue when numerous individual atoms pursue their own interests with little regard to the unforeseen consequences of their (in)actions or decisions. Chaotic societies are harmful societies, as the relatively unfettered exercise of freedom not only granted through the market, but also in all aspects of social life, such as workplaces, healthcare, education and public spaces, can have a host of injurious consequences. Road traffic deaths are an example of this, insofar as motorised travel is often viewed in capitalist society as the ultimate expression of individual freedom, yet the unfettered exercise of this freedom is incredibly harmful. Therefore those societies that have sought to limit the speed of motorised vehicles through road design, law enforcement and education appear to be able to organise urban spaces in ways that reduce road traffic deaths.
  1. ii) Decommodified societies serve to recognise the worth of human beings as distinct from the contributions they make to wealth accumulation and consequently succeed in restricting the production of capitalist harm. In crude terms, those societies that appear to have developed more universal and generous welfare systems perform better in relation to a number of harms, not only militating against the production of injuries, such as poverty and financial insecurity as we might intuitively expect. However, these systems also appear to reduce the prevalence of a number of physical harms, such as infant mortality and homicide addressing the contexts that appear to produce these harms.

iii) Societies that place greater fetters on the extraction of surplus value tend to produce less exploitative and, therefore, less injurious modes of production. The impulses of capitalist logic to continually ‘sweat’ the labour relation to extract greater levels of surplus value, left unrestrained, provide the generative contexts that explain the variance of many harms. Fetters appeared to come in two principal forms. First, trade union representation in the workplace produces more humane working conditions. The impact of worker representation has a direct impact in relation to long working hours, so that those nation states that have longer working days tend to have low rates of worker representation. The impact of unionism appears to be broader; for example, poverty, higher rates of union membership appear to reduce these harms, as a result of the impact of collective bargaining on wages on the extent of ‘in-work’ poverty. Second, state intervention through regulatory law and agencies can also have the effect of fettering the exploitative function of capital. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess the impact of state regulatory systems with little comparative data available in relation to regulatory activities. It is interesting to note, however, the harm reduction function of state regulatory activities in relation to the role of regulations that limit the length of the working day, or the impact of redundancy regulations that militate against the harms for young people resulting from the loss of a job.

Through documenting contrasting levels of harms between different capitalist societies, Harmful Societies sought to challenge the notion that social harms are unavoidable ‘accidents’, ‘facts of life’, or ‘quirks of fate’; rather, as we have seen, the forms that societies take have a significant impact on rates of harm. Those capitalist societies that are the least harmful are those that cling most dearly to the various constituent parts of the ‘social state’ in the face of the restructuring logics of neoliberalism. In an era of austerity, it is these harm reduction structures that are under attack. It is therefore imperative that the social harm approach articulates the defence and expansion of these structures; otherwise the scale of collateral harms that may result will be grave, a legacy that will extend well beyond the current generation.

Engels, F. (1845/1987) The Condition of the Working Class in England, London: Penguin.
HSE (Health and Safety Executive) (2014) Health and safety statistics for Great Britain 2013/2014
ONS (Office for National Statistics) (2015) Excess Winter Mortality in England and Wales: 2014/15 (Provisional) and 2013/14 (Final).
Pemberton, S (2015) Harmful Societies: Understanding Social Harm, Bristol: Policy Press
Royal College of Physicians (2016) Every Breath We Take: The lifelong impact of air pollution. London: Royal College of Physicians/Royal College of Physicians of Child Health
Tombs, S (2015) ‘Book Review: Harmful Societies’, Criminal Justice Matters, 101 (1) 36-37


Simon Pemberton is a Birmingham Fellow currently researching aspects of social harm caused by states and corporations, as well as social structures, in particular the harms caused by inequality. Simon is also Co-Head of the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Birmingham. He tweets @socialharm