Sociology of Perpetrators

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Sociology of Perpetrators

There are many approaches that sociology can take in the explanation of genocide; in fact, every field of sociology may contribute, from the study of social deviance (of Nazi leaders, e.g.) to the sociology of knowledge (how knowledge is gained and promulgated, and how definitions and explanations are socially structured and defined).

Sociology has been underutilized in the study of genocide; its many perspectives could add significantly to the field. A standard textbook such as Sociology in Our Times by Diana Kendall (2000) reveals how sociology can contribute:

  • The social structure and interaction of everyday life during genocide;
  • The racial, class, and stratification systems of genocide;
  • The impact of genocide on families and kinship patterns;
  • The relationship and impact of education and religion on genocide;
  • The diverse cultural reactions to genocide and mass killings;
  • The politics and economic impact of genocide;
  • Health and medical aspects of genocide;
  • Population, migration, and refugees after genocide;
  • Social change, technology, and social movements.

Sociological Applications

The first dilemma studies of genocide have had to address involves definition, application, and intention, that is, questions related to the sociology of knowledge. Jack Nusan Porter posed these questions more than twenty years ago when he suggested that genocide had been applied to all of the following: race-mixing, drug distribution, methadone programs, birth control, abortions, the medical treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland, the closing of synagogues in the former Soviet Union, and the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. All have been labeled as forms of genocide. In other words, when one needs a catchall phrase to describe oppression or mistreatment, the more electric term genocide is often invoked in order to gain media attention and international political intervention.

A second area to which sociology can contribute is in defining the social, structural, and ideological components of genocide. Again, Porter has described a three-point triangulation of racist ideology, technology, and state bureaucracy as major elements. These elements range from sophisticated to crude, but all are vital to any process of genocide.

A third sociological perspective is a predictive one. What are the social conditions that increase the likelihood of genocide, and conversely, what are the conditions that make genocide less likely and lead to peaceful societies?

Furthermore, at what point does genocide occur? There are three distinct times. One is during wartime conditions. Another is during colonialization and decolonialization, that is, when a society is conquered and subdued, or later when it vanquishes a colonizer. Both periods are problematic for minorities. Both instances pose extreme danger. And finally, during tribal, ethnic, and racial conflicts, such as those that occurred in Kosova, Burundi, and Rwanda.

Comparative Sociological Approaches

Sociology's comparative approach is quite valuable in conjunction with political, historical, and economic perspectives in widening human understanding of genocide. Comparative analysis does not diminish the uniqueness of any one genocide, but instead recognizes the basic commonalities of all genocides and genocidal acts, namely that people at various times in history and throughout various parts of the world, regardless of race, religion, or national origin, behave quite similarly when confronted with genocide. If and when there is an exception, it may prove the rule, as the saying goes, and it should prompt further investigation.

Most research has focused on a two-case analysis, usually the Holocaust and another, such as the genocide of Armenians or Native Americans. The best and earliest examples appear in the work of Vahakn Dadrian (1974), who analyzed the common features of Armenian and Jewish genocides from a victimological perspective, and Helen Fein (1978), who compared the Turkish genocide of 1915 to the German Holocaust that occurred from 1939 to 1945. Some areas require more in-depth analysis, in particular:

  • Stigma, that is, the methods by which victims are demonized and placed outside the realm of the moral universe, to use Fein's felicitous phrase, and also the presentation of self in various genocides. This concerns not only the way victims respond—with acquiescence, retreat, depression, or resistance—but how one internalizes the threat to one's self posed by genocide.
  • Reaction of victims, from passivity (a common reaction of victims, not just during the Holocaust or the Turkish genocide of Armenians, but among later genocides) to resistance (rare yet important in most genocides) to going into hiding (which may in fact be an example of passivity or resistance.)
  • Rescuers, bystanders, and perpetrators.
  • Factors leading to genocide: societal, political, economic, military (wartime conditions), colonization and decolonization, tribal conflict, to name just some.
  • The aftermath, including post-traumatic stress, compensation, tribunals, legacies, and remembrance/memorialization.

As this list suggests, any attempt to characterize an act of genocide as entirely unique limits the scope of one's findings. Much more important is research of a comparative nature. Such research is essential not only for theory-building, but also in order to prevent future genocides.

Postmodern Theories of Genocide

Last but not least, sociology can help scholars develop new theories. Sociology was late to study genocide, but it has attempted to make up for lost time. Several postmodern sociological approaches have given new life to the field. A new emphasis on sex and gender illuminates how genocide affects diverse people. For example, does genocide impact women, gays, and other outsiders differently than heterosexual men? Postmodern theories reject an androcentric, male-centered viewpoint.

Theories that reject a strictly Eurocentric or Western perspective and embrace a more global viewpoint might prove useful if one does not swing too far in observing political correctness. Finally, some recent postmodern theories, with their emphasis on media interpretation, argot, texts, and cultural studies, could open up new vistas for scholars and students in the study of genocide.

SEE ALSO Explanation; Political Theory; Psychology of Survivors; Psychology of Victims


Chalk, Frank, and Kurt Jonassohn (1990). The History and Sociology of Genocide: Analyses and Case Studies. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Dadrian, Vahakn (1974). "The Common Features of the Armenian and Jewish Cases of Genocide: A Comparative Victimological Approach." In Victimology: A New Focus: Violence and Its Victims, ed. Israel Drabkin and Emilio Viano. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath.

Fein, Helen (1978). "A Formula for Genocide: Comparison of the Turkish Genocide (1915) and the German Holocaust (1939–1945)." Comparative Studies in Sociology 1:271–293.

Fein, Helen (1996). Genocide: A Sociological Perspective. Sherman Oaks, Calif.: Sage.

Kendall, Diana (2000). Sociology in Our Times. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Porter, Jack Nusan (1982). Genocide and Human Rights: A Global Anthology. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America. Newton, Mass.: Spencer Press, 2002.

Porter, Jack Nusan (2003). The Genocidal Mind: Toward a Sociological Construct. Newton, Mass.: Spencer Press.

Jack Nusan Porter

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Sociology of Perpetrators

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