Most scholarship on violence in urban communities accepts the Weberian association between legitimate violence and the state. Under this assumption, extrajudicial violence is interpreted as a symptom of legal cynicism, which is fomented by a negligent or illegitimate state apparatus. How, then, do we explain communities in which extrajudicial violence and legal authority are seen as legitimate simultaneously? Drawing on ethnographic observations of interactions among an armed group, residents, and police officials in a poor zone of Medellín, Colombia, I found that residents routinely appealed to the armed group and police to supply security and redress grievances. This indicates that structurally induced problems of police corruption and legal cynicism cannot fully explain the patterns of enduring violence I observed. Residents and police situationally endorsed and authorized violence specialists and extrajudicial punishments as legitimate elements of the local security system. In doing so, community members played a key role in constructing violence as an acceptable practice for enhancing security and placating locals who had been assaulted. This study augments the state-centric literature on urban violence with social psychological theories of legitimation. It leverages rare in situ data on violence to advance an interactional, meaning-based perspective on a longstanding problem in poor urban communities.


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pp. 1174-1195
Launched on MUSE
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