What is grievance?

The trigger for this project was our observation of a phenomenon whereby grievance is both generated and harnessed in the pursuit of commercial profit or other gain. For instance, newspapers that whip up a sense of grievance in their readers and use it to write yarns and sell papers back to them. We’re calling this the “grievance industry” and we’ll be analysing examples of this as part of the Project.

But as Stephen and I fleshed out this and other related ideas, we quickly realised we needed to define exactly what we meant by “grievance”.

We started by listing specific examples of what seemed self-evidently to be grievances. Some are quite tangible: you are aggrieved because someone punched you in the face, someone cut you off in traffic, or someone broke into your house and stole your stuff. In these cases an identifiable second party’s actions directly cause your sense of grievance. There are also examples where the perpetrator and the action are less specific: your power bills keep going up, or you are fundamentally disadvantaged by societal power structures.

Then we looked into the origin of the word. Grievance is a Middle English word, out of the Old French grever which means “to burden”; aggrieved is from the Old French aggrever which means “to make heavier”, which is itself out of the Latin aggravare meaning “heavy”.

Knowing this etymology helped us to shape our conceptualisation of grievance for this project. And so we speak of grievance as a weight or burden carried by an individual, caused by the real or perceived wrongdoing by another person, group of people, or entity of non-specific people (such as a company, the state, “the system” or “society”). It then follows that an aggrieved person, carrying the weight of grievance, will seek to unburden themselves of that weight. As such, we see grievance as a two-part process of injury and attempted redress.

The Grievance Project is about unpacking what causes us to feel aggrieved, how we deal with those grievances, what influences these processes, and how they are changing.