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A sociologist describes the conditions of genocide. What conditions are necessary and sufficient to determine whether an episode is a genocide? What are conditions that either reinforce or diffuse a genocide?

Sociologist Helen Fein has spent the better part of her life studying genocide. Why does it occur? How can we tell if an episode is a genocide or some other sort of violence?

She identifies a set of conditions that are both necessary and sufficient to determine whether an episode is a genocide. She also raises a series of questions to help policy-makers, activists and researchers understand the conditions that reinforce or diminish the risk of genocide.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Genocide

If the following conditions are met, a genocide is underway.

There is or has been sustained attacks by the perpetrator to physically destroy group members.

  • There have been a series of attacks leading to deaths of people in the targeted group,
  • Different tactics are used to maximize the number of target group members killed (such as rounding them up, isolating and concentrating them),
  • Other means, besides direct killing, may be used, such as poisoning air or water, imposing starvation, forcibly preventing births or involuntary transfer of children,
  • The duration, sequence of events and number of victims points to a sustained effort to destroy the group as a whole.

The perpetrator is a group under more or less organized leadership. Evidence for this includes:

  • Perpetrators are members of the armed forces, paramilitary or informal militia,
  • There is a continuity of leadership or membership among the perpetrators. Perpetrators may be recruited in similar ways.
  • The perpetrating forces were authorized by the state to exist,
  • The forces were responsible to an agency of the state, army or ruling regime,
  • The perpetrators were organized or garbed in such a way that it indicates government responsibility.

Victims are selected because they were members of the targeted group.

  • Victims are not individually charged with crimes,
  • Victims are chosen on the basis of some state designation of group membership (for example, identity cards), on the basis of their own group membership criteria or on the basis of physical, cultural or linguistic features,
  • Victims are chosen based on their position within a group (for instance, intellectuals, priests, etc.),
  • The basis for identifying the victim group as a group is ethnicity, race, nationality or religion,
  • Victims were preselected for killing (for instance, stripped of citizenship or civil rights, segregated or marked in some way, etc.).

Victims are defenseless or are killed even if they surrender.

  • The victim group is not armed (or, only has a small subgroup that is armed) and cannot physically resist the attackers,
  • The level of armament among the victims is insufficient to wage war against the attackers (or even insufficient to protect themselves from being seized by the perpetrators),
  • Victims (if they were armed) are killed even after they surrender and unarmed group members are systematically killed.

The destruction of the group members shows an intent to kill and was sanctioned by the perpetrator.

  • Deaths of victim group members cannot be explained as an accident,
  • There is evidence that the destruction was repeated by design and had a foreseeable outcome (destruction of the victim group),
  • There is evidence that orders or authorization were given for the destruction,
  • The authorization came from up the chain of command,
  • There is evidence that the pattern of attacks and destruction was planned or organized,
  • Individuals or groups who carry out the attacks were not punished.

Reinforcing Conditions

Genocides do not happen in vacuums. A whole host of conditions can reinforce (or diminish) genocides. Helen Fein identifies several different types of conditions and poses a series of questions that may help policy-makers, activists and researchers identify situations where genocide has become a dangerous risk.

Punishments for Killing Victim Group Members

  • Are there rules in place to punish or exonerate individuals who kill, rape or torture members of the victim group?
  • Are there institutional mechanisms to enforce these rules?
  • Are there any examples of punishments against individuals who have attacked members of the victim group or failed to protect the victim group?
  • Are members of the perpetrator group punished if they do not participate in attacks against the victim group?

Ideologies and Beliefs Guiding Genocides

  • Is there evidence of ideologies, myths or social goals that encourage destroying the victim group? For instance are there religious traditions of contempt and collective defamations, stereotypes and derogatory metaphors that label the members of the victim group as inferior (e.g., vermin, disease) or superhuman (Satanic, omnipotent)?
  • If the perpetrator admits to the destructive acts, how do they label them? How are they justified?
  • Does the acknowledgment, labeling or justification change depending on the audience?

Contexts of genocide

Perpetrator-victim relations: what were the relations between the victim and perpetrator group like before the violence?

Conditions of the state and society: what was/is the historical or political context of the acts? There are some historical and political contexts that are associated with different genocides, like post-revolutionary states, states losing control or territory, expanding states and empires, war within and between states or periods where state power is being centralized.

Social-psychological contexts: some frames of mind are associated with genocide, including social and personal disorganization and crises of culture and meaning.


Bystander responses: what kind of responses did bystanders (like other states, international and regional organizations, media, broader publics, etc.) have to the perpetrators and victims?

Victim's responses: how do the victims understand and respond to the situation?

Interactions: What effects have bystander reactions had on the victims or perpetrators?


Effects on the victims: What have been the effects on the victims, both during the attacks and after? Is there evidence of personal and social disorganization or post-traumatic stress? Is there any evidence of enduring trans-generational consequences?

Effects on the perpetrators: How has the genocide affected the perpetrators?

  • Could the effects be foreseen or calculated? Have they been calculated?
  • Have the perpetrators acknowledged the genocide?
  • Have they offered or agreed to offer restitution to the victims?
  • Has the acknowledgment or denial of the genocide had any effect on the larger society?

Effects on the world system: Have the recognition (or lack of recognition) and sanctions of the genocide had any effect on other states or peoples?

Data and Methods:

Data sources:

Primary and secondary sources on genocide and genocide research.

Funding sources:

  • Social Science Research Council,
  • Macarthur Foundation Program in International Peace and Security Studies,
  • Program on Nonviolent Sanctions of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.
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Fein, Helen. 1990. “Genocide: A Sociological Perspective.” Current Sociology 38:1-126.

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