In the twentieth century, 40 to 60 million defenseless people were massacred in episodes of genocide. The 21st century is not faring much better, with mass murder ongoing e.g. in Myanmar and Syria. Many of these cases have been studied well, both in detailed case studies and in comparative perspectives, but studying mass murder is no picnic. Scholars have also examined how conducting research, including ethnographic fieldwork, archival investigation, and oral history interviews, can affect the researcher in profound ways. Among a broader set of difficulties that obstruct research on this wretched subject, two stand out in particular: political constraints and psychological attrition.
All social research operates in a dense political field. Of all the political actors constraining research on mass murder, states stand out. They often have a vested interest in misrepresenting the truth, because for many, the memory of a genocide (or its denial), is part and parcel of their collective identity. States that consider themselves heirs to perpetrator regimes, such as Turkey, Russia, Indonesia, China, or Serbia, make great effort to influence the scholarship on episodes of mass violence. They deny access to archival collections and libraries, intimidate and prohibit them from conducting field work. (The opposite is also possible: governments may try to foster or manipulate research by funding politically useful research, by pushing for the establishment of academic chairs at home or abroad, or by offering scholarships.)
Having to contend with the taboos, restrictions, prescriptions, and outright threats of authoritarian regimes keeps scholars working on these topics under permanent threat. Researchers bold enough to travel into these societies to visit sites, uncover evidence, interview witnesses, and have got to fear the security services and intelligence agencies of these states. One consequence of this discouraging atmosphere is that, in general, less research is carried out on those instances and episodes of mass murder, an undesirable blind spot due to the importance of the events. (Some researchers ingratiate themselves with the authorities for privileged access.) A second consequence poses a methodological dilemma: due to such constraints, does one launch a sting operation, like undercover journalism? Or does one use informants, fixers, and mediators on the ground? Does one pay the possible interviewees for taking the risks?