The concept of symbolic violence was first introduced by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to account for the tacit almost unconscious modes of cultural/social domination occurring within the every-day social habits maintained over conscious subjects.
Also referred to as "soft" violence, symbolic violence includes actions that have discriminatory or injurious meaning or implications, such as gender dominance and racism. Symbolic violence maintains its effect through the mis-recognition of power relations situated in the social matrix of a given field.
For example, in the process of reciprocal gift exchange in the Kabyle society of Algeria, where there is asymmetry in wealth between the two parties the better endowed giver "can impose a strict relation of hierarchy and debt upon the receiver." Symbolic violence, therefore, is fundamentally the imposition of categories of thought and perception upon dominated social agents who, once they begin observing and evaluating the world in terms of those categories — and without necessarily being aware of the change in their perspective — then perceive the existing social order as just, thereby perpetuating a social structure favored by and serving the interests of those agents who are already dominant. Symbolic violence is in some senses much more powerful than physical violence in that it is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals, and imposes the specter of legitimacy of the social order.
Rehnquist's reliance on this image of the perpetrator as a rabid animal that is foaming at the mouth helps to justify the violence of Payne's death sentence while it also obscures that violence. The majority opinion in Payne, like the prosecutor's arguments before the jury, hinges on contrasting little Nicholas to Pervis Payne, juxtaposing Nicholas's smallness and vulnerability to Payne's murderous and inhuman power. The smaller and more innocent the victim, the stronger and more guilty the defendant appears.... A jury reaches a death sentence, for example, only after a series of ritual events that distinguishes a sentence of death from an act of murder against a citizen.—Jennifer K. Wood 
- Bohman, J. 1999. 'Practical Reason and Cultural Constraint' in R. Shusterman (Ed.) Bourdieu: A Critical Reader, Oxford: Blackwell.
- Wood, Jennifer K, "Refined raw: The symbolic violence of victims' rights reforms," College Literature, Winter 1999, found at BNet FindArticles.com. Retrieved September 22, 2008.