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Studies of Genocide Face Challenges

Social research is never easy, but studying genocide and other types of mass violence can present particular challenges. In addition to the usual challenges of gathering reliable, representative evidence, studies on genocide face additional challenges:

Definitional challenges: Because the term “genocide” is an emotionally and politically loaded term, researchers and policy makers are apt to disagree as to whether it applies in a given circumstance. So, it is not always clear whether research on an instance of mass violence is actually research on genocide. In some cases, authors are willing to stretch the meaning of genocide while in other cases authors coin alternative terms to describe the mass atrocity. With the exception of studies of the Holocaust and Rwanda, authors generally have to argue that the mass murder under investigation actually counts as a genocide.

Political challenges: The opprobrium associated with the label of genocide gives perpetrators good reason to try to hide or destroy evidence of their actions. Additionally, because an accusation of genocide can short circuit efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement, organizations with information that could be used to prosecute genocide perpetrators may be unwilling to share that information.

Danger to researchers: If the violence is ongoing, researchers may be unable to gather information without putting themselves in danger.

Bias and lack of transparency: Because genocide is a conflict between groups, some researchers have noted that victims may be likely to assume an assailant was a member of another group even if they were not sure. Additionally, members of a victim group may be likely to overestimate some characteristics of the conflict while members of the perpetrator group may be likely to underestimate the same characteristics. Additionally, in circumstances where the violence is still in progress, eye witnesses may be unlikely to provide information for fear of retaliation.

Concern for victims: Another concern in studying genocide, especially if the researcher is gathering information from survivors, is for the welfare of the victims. Retelling experiences of atrocity can be emotionally damaging for survivors. Some may be unwilling to provide information in an effort to “put it behind them.”

Dimensions of Research on Genocide

There is no single approach to understanding genocide. Studies differ on a range of dimensions:

  • Method,
  • Analysis,
  • Purpose,
  • Audience,
  • Data.

Each different combination of these dimensions gives us a different perspective on genocide. Below we describe each of these dimesions.

Method

Genocide studies and studies of other types of mass violence may be either comparative or non-comparative. Non-comparative studies often seek to describe a particular situation or event. The general question is “what happened here?”

Comparative studies examine different instances of genocide or mass violence and attempt to determine what they have in common and how they differ. In genocide research the goal of comparative studies is often to identify a set of characteristics or conditions that explain or may even predict genocide. Often, the author’s explicit goal is to identify situations in which genocide is likely to occur so that the atrocity may be prevented.

Analysis

Methods of analysis may be statistical or non-statistical. Statistical approaches to studying genocide have three key characteristics:

  • They seek to gather large amounts of representative data (rather than examine a single case in great detail),
  • They use various statistical procedures to identify patterns within the data,
  • They interpret the findings (a good statistical study does not just present the numbers and expect that they automatically make sense).

Statistical analysis is not limited to individual survey analysis. It can also be used to good effect on databases created from documentary sources. In this case, rather than each individual being a case, each episode of genocide is considered a case. The goal in studies of this sort is not to identify the details of individual episodes of genocide or mass violence, but to use large data sets to identify patterns in genocide and mass violence generally.

However, finding representative and unbiased data on genocide can be very difficult. So, many studies present information or evidence without being able to carry out statistical analysis. This is not necessarily a defect as statistical analysis is inherently limited in the degree of detail is can provide. Non-statistical approaches may be able to get at a level of detail and interpretation not available through statistical approaches.

Finally, statistical methods of sampling and data analysis are not necessarily used to the exclusion of other methods. For instance, one study of the violence in Rwanda combined methods, using surveys plus microcomparative methods that drew on documentary evidence to understand how the violence unfolded at the local level.

Purpose

The purpose of the study shapes its focus, content and methods. Many studies have multiple purposes—for instance describing a particular situation in detail, but then relating it to other instances of mass violence in order to draw more general conclusions. In large measure, however, different studies can be distinguished by their primary purpose.

Descriptive: These are studies that seek to provide details on a limited set of situations. They may focus on a single episode and provide rich detail or use statistical methods to describe overall patterns.

Diagnostic: Studies of this sort go a step beyond description to determine if the characteristics of the situation meet the criteria to be considered genocide. The purpose of the diagnosis may be to argue that an event meets a legal definition, but may also be geared to assess the relative merits of competing explanations.

Explanatory: Explanatory studies are concerned with identifying the larger patterns and processes behind an episode. While the goal is sometimes to formulate a general theory of genocide, in other cases the purpose may be to identify motivations behind genocide or simply make sense of why a particular episode occurred.

Predictive: Other studies seek to identify general characteristics and conditions that may help predict when genocides are likely to occur. While some explanatory studies also seek to be predictive, not all do. A study can seek to explain why a particular genocide occurred without trying to formulate general principles for predicting other genocides.

Audience

Studies can be written for any number of audiences. Some studies may be carried out initially for highly specific audiences or organizations. Other studies seek to address multiple audiences at once. Often, however, the primary audience was either the legal community, local communities or general/scholarly audiences. In some cases, the primary audience may be policy makers in the international community. However, because government officials are often influenced by public opinion in their home countries (at least in the West), these studies also frequently target the general public at the same time. Also, because almost all the studies examined here were written by scholars, the scholarly community was generally a major target.

Data

Several challenge face researchers who seek to gather information from individuals. In the case of genocide and other types of violent conflict, many of the individuals who could have provided key information are dead. Other individuals were involved in carrying out the violence and so are unlikely to give accurate information (if they provide information at all). Additionally, if the conflict is ongoing, then individuals who provide information may be in danger of reprisal or the danger to researchers may be too great. Drawing evidence from eyewitnesses may be preferred, but even this information may be biased or incomplete. High quality research takes pains to secure representative samples and take account of potential sources of bias.

Eye-Witness: One strategy for gathering data is to interview survivors. Survivors who have fled to refugee camps are one source of data. Several studies (including studies of IDP camps in Darfur, Darfurians who had fled to Chad and refugees in Sierra Leone) use different sampling strategies to gather representative samples of eyewitnesses to the violence in refugee camps. Other data samples include survivors still living in an area where the violence occurred or is occurring and surveys of perpetrators currently held in prison. In other cases the eye witness may be the author who draws on his own experience to tell the story.

Physical: In some cases, the challenge is to discover what happened in a particular situation (for instance, a single instance of mass murder). Absent documentary and eyewitness evidence, forensic analysis may be used to formulate a picture of the event. For instance, it may be clear that many people were killed, but the question remains whether the deaths were a result of a battle or a massacre. In this case, forensic analysis examines evidence from the physical remains to determine the likelihood that the evidence “fits” different accounts of the event.

Documentary: Historical studies usually draw on primary documents to create an account of the episode. Studies that use eye witness testimony as their primary data source may also use documentary evidence to supplement their information. When the information from documentary sources is used to build a large data set, the authors may be able to use statistical methods to analyze the data.

Secondary: Some studies draw primarily from existing empirical or legal studies and reports. The aim of these studies is often synthetic—to make general or theoretical observations or argue for one approach to legal interpretation over another.

Multiple Sources: It is not unusual for studies to draw on more than one source of information. Generally, statistical studies that draw on individual accounts will set their findings in the context of secondary research. In other cases, an author may use multiple methods in order to get a richer account of a situation.

Study Characteristics

In the table below, we present a breakdown of the different studies examined for this analysis by dimension. The link to the keytext included in the table is to only one of the keytexts created from the study. Links to other keytexts from the same study are listed at the bottom of the keytext.

Study

Method

Analysis

Purpose

Audience

Data

Amnesty International Report 2004

non-comparative

non-statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness

Amowitz Kim 2004

non-comparative

statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness

Amowitz Reis 2002

non-comparative

statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness

Baraybar and Gasior 2006

non-comparative

statistical

diagnostic

legal

physical

Bassiouni 1996*

non-comparative

non-statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness,
multiple sources

Chirot and McCauley 2006

comparative

non-statistical

explanatory

general/scholarly

documentary,
secondary

De Waal 2007

non-comparative

non-statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness

Depoortere et al 2004

non-comparative

statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness

El-Bushra 2003

comparative

non-statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness

Fein 1990

comparative

mixed

predictive

general/scholarly

documentary,
secondary

Fein 2007

comparative

mixed

predictive

general/scholarly

documentary,
secondary

Hagan 2003

non-comparative

non-statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness

Hagan 2008

non-comparative

statistical

diagnostic

legal

eye witness

Hagan, Rymond-Richmond and Parker 2005

non-comparative

statistical

diagnostic

legal

eye witness

Harff and Gurr 1988

comparative

statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

documentary

Jennings and Swiss 2000

non-comparative

statistical

descriptive

local community

eye witness

Kiernan 2007

comparative

non-statistical

explanatory

general/scholarly

documentary

Komar 2008

comparative

statistical

descriptive

legal

eye witness

Levene 2005

comparative

non-statistical

explanatory

general/scholarly

documentary

MacKinnon 2006

non-comparative

non-statistical

descriptive

legal

secondary

Moses 2008

comparative

non-statistical

diagnostic

general/scholarly

documentary

Petersen and Tullin 2006

non-comparative

statistical

diagnostic

general/scholarly

eye witness,
multiple sources

Rummel 1995

comparative

statistical

explanatory

general/scholarly

documentary

Schabas 2007

non-comparative

non-statistical

diagnostic

legal

secondary

Straus 2006

non-comparative

mixed

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness,
multiple sources

Taylor 2002

non-comparative

non-statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

documentary

UN HR Commission 2005

non-comparative

non-statistical

descriptive

general/scholarly

eye witness

Vehnamaki 2006

comparative

non-statistical

diagnostic

general/scholarly

secondary

Waller 2008

comparative

non-statistical

explanatory

general/scholarly

documentary

*The report itself was not analyzed for this project. Rather, this is the report on data collection.



Keytexts used to create this overview:
Women and Children Are Particularly Vulnerable to Violence in Darfur

Baath Party Groups Commit Human Rights Abuses in Southern Iraq

Characteristics of War-Related Sexual Assault in Sierra Leone

Forensic Anthropologists Identify Humanitarian Rights Victims in Bosnia

Commission Faced Challenges Gathering Information on Humanitarian Law Violations in the Former Yugoslavia

Motives for Genocide

Darfur May Change the Way We Understand Genocide

Survivors Are in Danger in Darfur IDP Camps

Violent Conflict Changes African Gender Relations

Defining Genocide Sociologically

How to Know Genocide When We See It

How Rape Became a Crime against Humanity

Strategy for Genocide in Darfur

Faces of Genocide in Darfur: Hamid Dawai

Faces of Genocide in Darfur: Ali Kushayb

Violence in Darfur Comes in Waves

Faces of Genocide in Darfur: Abdullah Mustafa Abu Shineibat

Six Reasons Why the Violence in Darfur Constitutes Genocide

Genocide in Darfur

Features of Genocides and Politicides Since 1945

Genocides and Politicides Since 1945

Action Research: Gathering Local Knowledge on Local Instances of Sexual Assault

Common Ideologies Foment and Justify Genocide

Defining and Refining the Crime of Genocide

How Do Genocide Perpetrators Identify Their Victims?

Genocides Share Nine Common Features

What Counts as Rape in International Crimes?

Civilization Can Mean Genocide for Indigenous Peoples

Evidence of Evil in Darfur

How to Get the Facts in Darfur

The Level of Totalitarian Power Explains Why Governments Kill

Distinguishing Genocide and Crimes against Humanity

Hardliner Responses Set the Stage for Genocide in Rwanda

Local Dynamics Shape Rwandan Genocide

Civil War, State Influence and Ethnicity Lead to Genocide in Rwanda

Culture Changes the Form of Violence in Genocide

Patterns of Rape in Darfur

Genocides and Politicides Differ Based on the Motivations of the Perpetrators

Human Brains Are Hard-Wired for Good and Evil

Genocidal World Views Can Create Killers

Danger in Distance: Psychological Distance Increases the Risk of Genocide

How Organizations Make Murderers

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