Utilitarian Genocide

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Utilitarian Genocide

The pioneer genocide scholar Vahakn Dadrian introduced the concept of "utilitarian genocide" in a landmark 1975 article, "A Typology of Genocide." He identified five "ideal types" of genocide, based mainly on the primary objective of the perpetrator:

  • cultural genocide, aiming at assimilation;
  • latent genocide, a by-product of war;
  • retributive genocide, localized punishment;
  • utilitarian genocide, to obtain wealth;
  • optimal genocide, aiming at total obliteration;

As examples of utilitarian genocides, Dadrian cited the atrocities committed against Moors and Jews in the course of dispossesing them of businesses during the Spanish Inquisition, the forced removal and "decimation" of the Cherokees in the U.S. southern state of Georgia in 1829, and the ongoing enslavement and killing of Indians in Brazil.

Even though some contemporary scholars use expressions such as "economically motivated" or "developmental genocide" instead of the actual term utilitarian genocide, there is broad agreement that (1) these terms basically cover systematic persecution and mass killings in order to obtain and/or monopolize access to land and to resources like gold or lumber; (2) generally, this type of genocide has been committed by European settlers or their descendants, with direct or indirect state authorization, against indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and Australia; and (3), utilitarian motives are often mixed with or bolstered by racism and dehumanizing images.

Most scholars also agree that the destruction of indigenous peoples still continues, especially in Latin America. A case in point is the nearly total extermination of the Aché (Guayaki) Indians in Paraguay during the 1970s.

The subsequent scholars who have adopted either the term utilitarian genocide or its basic propositions include Irving Louis Horowitz, who in 1976 noted that "the conduct of classic colonialism was invariably linked with genocide" (pp. 19B20). Helen Fein, in 1984 used the synonym developmental genocide, that is, "instrumental acts to rid of peoples outside their [the colonizer's] universe of obligations who stood in the way of economic exploitation" (p. 5), and in 1987, Roger Smith observed that "the basic proposition contained in utilitarian genocide is that some persons must die so that others may live" (p. 25). In 1990 Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn included genocide "to acquire economic wealth" in their typology of four types of genocide based on the primary motive of the perpetrator.

Even though the term utilitarian genocide is relatively new, it has long been acknowledged that utilitarian motives have played an important part in the destruction of groups, particularly in the New World. In his classic account of Spanish policy towards the Native population of the Americas, The Tears of the Indians, Dominican cleric Bartolomé de Las Casas wrote about two stages of extirpation: "the first whereof was a bloody, unjust, and cruel war they made upon them, a second by cutting off all that so much as sought to recover their liberty, as some of the stouter sort did intend. . . . That which led the Spaniards to these unsanctified impieties was the desire of Gold" (pp. 3B4).

SEE ALSO Amazon Region; Genocide; Indigenous Peoples


Chalk, F. and K. Jonassohn (1995). The History and Sociology of Genocide. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Dadrian, Vahakn (1975). "A Typology of Genocide." International Review of Modern Sociology 5:201B212.

de Las Casas, Bartolomé (1972). Tears of the Indian. New York: Oriole Chapbooks.

Fein, Helen (1984). "Scenarios of Genocide: Models of Genocide and Critical Responses." In Toward the Understanding and Prevention of Genocide, ed. I. W. Charny. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Horowitz, Irving Louis (1976). Genocide, State Power and Mass Murder. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books.

Smith, Roger (1987). "Human Destructiveness and Politics: The Twentieth Century as an Age of Genocide." In Genocide and the Modern Age, ed. I Wallimann and M. Dobkowski. New York: Greenwood Press.

Eric Markusen
Matthias Bjørnlund