Life experiences and pathways to violence: exploring meaning-making and the externalisation of trauma

  • Sahar Shahid

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    This research involves an in-depth exploration of the connections between salient experiences and the use of violence across the life course. The study’s originality arises from examining aggression in destructive and ‘constructive’ capacities. Importantly, it draws out the ‘meaning-making’ of life experiences in a sample of young people who expressed violence, thereby advancing the Cycle of Violence research.

    Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of semi-structured life course interviews was employed to develop insights into responses to childhood adversity, and to illuminate
    pathways to violence. The study was designed to recruit individuals aged between 16 and 25 years from two settings: a boxing club where people engage in a ‘socially acceptable’ form of violence (n=9); and a prison establishment to represent life courses that involve destructive behaviours (n=1)*.

    Three key findings were identified. First, destructive violence consistently represented externalised trauma for the participants. Second, three pathways to violence were observed, distinguishing why some participants engaged in violence following adverse
    or traumatic life experiences, whilst others did not: (i) engagement in destructive and later constructive violence, associated with the experience of anger, external blame
    attribution and the use of violence as a means to reassert power; (ii) engagement in constructive violence, associated with experiencing anger and internal blame attribution, changing one’s behaviour as a means of self-protection, and empowerment
    through boxing; (iii) engagement in constructive violence, associated with an absence of anger in relation to life histories, and boxing as a means of empowerment. Third, key turning points were detected from as early as adolescence occurring through relational contexts, and positive experiences and activities that enhanced emotion regulation. Boxing featured significantly in these turning points where individuals acquired greater control over their emotions and behaviour, which reduced harmful violence.

    The Cycle of Violence literature has been extended by evidencing the need to incorporate contextual factors and wider ecological perspectives in order to enhance understandings of trauma, and to target youth violence. The mechanisms through which
    boxing may have reduced the use of destructive violence can be understood through the Polyvagal Theory and the concept of neuroplasticity. Future research and practice should consider the potential of pursuits and activities that promote emotion regulation and positive aspects of relational connectedness as part of rehabilitative or preventative interventions aimed at supporting traumatised or at-risk youth.

    *Further data gathering in the prison environment was and remains not possible due to Covid-19 restrictions.
    Date of Award2022
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorCarlo Tramontano (Supervisor), Lorna O'Doherty (Supervisor) & Sarah Brown (Supervisor)

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