Rain pelted the side of the empty school building, drowning out all other sounds. In the distance I could see lightning strike across the rolling green hills. The weather couldn’t have fit the situation better. For even though the classrooms were vacant, they were far from empty—they held the corpses of over 800 people killed in the 1994 genocide perpetrated against Tutsis in Rwanda. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers—even babies—lay on tables where students’ desks might have stood. Some held flowers, likely put there by memorial staff; others clutched rosaries, perhaps left from their last moments.

As a Ph.D. student studying genocide, the faces of the bodies in the Murambi Genocide Memorial in southwestern Rwanda will haunt me. Some faces were twisted in pain or frozen in a scream; others were obscured by arms held up in defense against their killers.

How could people do this to one another? This question guides the studies of many genocide scholars, including my own dissertation work. Because even more disturbing than the Murambi Memorial is the fact that the genocide in Rwanda, in which over one million people were killed, is not an isolated event. As much as we would like to think otherwise, genocides are not rare.

The Crime of Genocide

Inside the Murambi Genocide Memorial in southwestern Rwanda. Photo © Hollie Nyseth Brehm.

The term “genocide” was coined in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, making it a relatively new crime in terms of social definition. It was created by a Jewish-Polish lawyer named Rafael Lemkin, who, after fleeing persecution in Poland, realized no word existed to describe what he saw during the Holocaust. He combined the Greek word genos, which means people or nation, and the Latin suffix –cide, which means murder.

Lemkin lobbied tirelessly for this newly named crime to be recognized as such at the international level. After several years, the United Nations adopted the term, first in the form of a resolution and then in a convention (a binding treaty for all that ratify it). The eventual treaty, often called the “Genocide Convention,” took force on December 9, 1948. Drawing upon Lemkin’s definition, the Convention explains genocide as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, as such…”. Many scholars disagree with elements of this definition (for example, some argue that political groups should also be included), and the debate could fill pages. What’s important to know is that scholars generally agree genocide involves the intent to destroy a social group.

Though the Genocide Convention was passed with the catchphrase “Never Again,” genocides have continued. Some captured international attention and are commonly recognized as genocides by activists and scholars (like the genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda or the Khmer Rouge’s murder of over 1.5 million people in present-day Cambodia), while other genocides are less widely recognized, in part because their classification as genocides is debated.

To be clear, all of these genocides have been crimes of international law. Yet, despite the magnitude and prevalence of this crime, criminologists have largely neglected the study of genocide (for some exceptions, though, see the work of Joachim Savelsberg, John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond, and Alexander Alvarez). Perhaps this is because genocide is often seen as a unique crime. However, while genocide’s magnitude and severity distinguish it, genocide shares many characteristics with other crimes. For example, its high rate of participation is shared by crimes like speeding and shoplifting, while its temporal instability is akin to that of terrorism or rioting. Similarly, the targeting of people because they belong (or are seen as belonging) to a group is found in hate crimes, while the involvement of the state in genocide can be compared to crimes like nuclear weapon possession. More comparisons could be made, but the general point is this: genocide is a crime, and while other crimes cannot be equated with genocide, they are comparable along various aspects.

And while much criminological research remains to be applied, criminologists have begun to join conversations with historians, political scientists, sociologists, and others trying to understand why genocides take place. Together, they have identified numerous preconditions of genocide.

Preconditions of Genocide

Decades ago, genocide seemed to happen without warning. But, what initially seemed incomprehensible and unpredictable has become better understood over time. As a Rwandan government official told me, “Genocide doesn’t come like rain.” That is, it isn’t unpredictable like the rainy season’s random downpours; instead, years of discrimination and planning precede genocide. It is very complex, involving a combination of many factors that result in a distinct social situation in which genocide might take place. Scholars have identified a number of these factors, ranging from psychological to societal and state factors and, more recently, international ones. These are briefly considered below, but it is important to note that these categories are not strict—they are, instead, meant to help organize the intricacy. In addition, none of the factors listed are sufficient to cause genocide; rather, genocides occur due to a confluence of factors.

Psychological and Individual Factors

It’s tempting to think those who perpetrate genocide are psychologically deranged. However, in psychological studies, the most enduring finding is that people who commit genocide are “normal.” This finding stems from several experiments, such as Stanley Milgram’s well-known studies of obedience, in which Milgram sought whether “psychologically average” people would shock others at lethal levels. Almost everyone complied with his requests to shock others when he varied situational factors, such as the proximity of an authority (the researcher) or the presence of someone else who verbally refused to administer shocks. Milgram’s experiments showed that the situation and context matter.

Genocide scholars have extended these findings to argue that the actions of most people who perpetrate genocide are subject to social constraints and influence—the perpetrators are not psychologically ill. In her study of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust, political theorist Hannah Arendt noted that Eichmann was disturbingly normal. Other social scientists have profiled people who participated in genocide and noted that, in terms of age, occupation, and even family life, they seemed “average.”

Recent examination by criminologists has begun to show that even “average” follows certain social patterns, though. For example, Christopher Uggen, Jean-Damascène Gasanabo, and I are currently studying the age and sex of those who participated in the Rwandan genocide. By and large, we find that the perpetrators were overwhelmingly men, and while they were generally older than people who commit other crimes (like homicide), their ages follow an age-crime curve like that of many other crimes. This illustrates that the individual determinants of crime also matter in the case of genocide. Nevertheless, while individuals and their actions are key to understanding genocide, neither can be understood without social context.

Societal and Group Factors

Many times, news media portray genocide as a result of tribal warfare and ethnic conflict. A number of scholars have looked closely at the make-up of societies that experience genocide, and some do believe that more diverse societies are more likely to experience genocide—the “diversity breeds conflict” argument. Other research, including my own, has shown the opposite: diverse societies are not more prone to genocide. Instead, how diversity is reflected in the structures of society matters. For example, Barbara Harff, a political scientist, shows that societies in which the ethnicity of rulers is a point of contention are more likely to experience genocide. Thus, in Rwanda, the Hutus controlled the government in the years prior to the country’s genocide, while Tutsis were excluded from virtually all positions of power. Not only did this inequity result in power struggles and civil war, it instilled a deep-seated ideology of difference and mistrust within the society.

Genocide is always perpetrated by more than one person, so social scientific research on groups is relevant. As sociologist Joachim Savelsberg notes, Edwin Sutherland’s classic ideas about learning to commit crime in groups can be applied to genocide. These ideas can be extended, since societal-wide “learning” in genocides often takes place through propaganda campaigns to dehumanize certain groups, and they can be considered in terms of singular acts (researchers have found, for instance, that people learn both to commit and how to commit torture in groups).

State Factors

More often than not, societal-wide campaigns are implemented by agents of the state. When John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond studied the genocide in Darfur, they found that the national-level government played a large role in generating ideologies directed against groups. These ideologies influenced socially constructed identities, provided a vocabulary that reinforced an “us vs. them” theme, dehumanized groups of people, and eventually influenced the actions of individuals.

For this and several other reasons, many scholars believe that genocides cannot happen without the will and power of the state. Even if a state turns a blind eye, its inaction lends an aura of authority to those perpetuating a genocide. Accordingly, studies have identified various characteristics of states that influence the occurrence of genocide. Upheaval (such as a civil war, regime change, or even resource scarcity) is, by far, one of the biggest predictors, perhaps owing to leaders’ perceptions of threats to society-wide strain and uncertainty. The type of government also matters. Genocides don’t tend to occur in democracies, in part due to government checks and balances and in part due to the freedoms associated with such societies. Genocides also usually don’t occur in resource-rich countries, though this isn’t necessarily the case (Nazi Germany was hardly resource-poor).

In addition, states’ colonial histories are significant, though the effects of colonialism are difficult to disentangle. They are reflected in many aspects of life. In the case of Rwanda, for example, sixty years before the 1994 genocide, colonial Belgium introduced identity cards based on ethnicity. The cards still affected daily life in the years leading up to the genocide. Lastly, the highly structured, modern bureaucratic nature of the state also influences the occurrence of genocide. As Max Weber noted, bureaucratization (the rationalization of processes through hierarchy, continuity, impersonality, and expertise) is a defining quality of modernity, and it has resulted in organizations and states that are able to reach their goals in a more effective manner. Efficacy can have a dark side.

An International Approach

In recent years, genocide scholars have widened their lens to examine the international aspects of genocide. At one time, rulers could destroy swaths of people and be heralded as heroes and conquerors by many, while most other inhabitants remained ignorant of the conquest for years. Today, the world is a much more interconnected place. The Genocide Convention itself illustrates that there are now global norms about what people and states can and cannot do.

As one official told the author, “Genocide doesn’t come like rain”—that is, it doesn’t just appear in an unpredictable deluge. Photo outside the Murambi Genocide Memorial © Hollie Nyseth Brehm.

Interconnectedness reaches beyond ratifying treaties, though. States that remain interconnected through trading and membership in political organizations seem to have lower odds of genocide. The precise mechanisms for these effects are still understudied, but more and more social scientists are reinforcing this finding. Inter-state relationships may create global checks and balances that rein in serious misconduct, in the same way democratic checks and balances seem to lower individual countries’ chances of genocide. They create ally ties, so states have other countries to answer to (and for).

Global norms also matter for interventions in genocide. The 2005 World Summit proclaimed that states have a Responsibility to Protect. Essentially, states hold a primary obligation to protect their own citizens from genocide and other grave human rights violations. Since states often perpetrate these crimes, the Responsibility to Protect also holds that the international community has the responsibility to halt genocide and similar crimes if another state fails to protect—or actively endangers—its own population.

Even if we can now start to understand the situations and factors that combine to influence the occurrence of genocide, responding to (or even preventing) genocide is a different story. There are many potential responses to genocide, ranging from immediate intervention to try to halt the violence—like trade embargos or armed intervention—to humanitarian aid aimed at alleviating immediate suffering. There are also judicial responses: courts were created after the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and, in 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was created with to prosecute perpetrators of genocide (often by applying standing legal logic in innovative ways). In fact, the President of Sudan is currently wanted by the ICC, accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the genocide perpetrated in Darfur.

These only scratch the surface of potential responses to genocide, and responding to genocide itself is rather new. As you can guess, it’s also quite political. Who has the authority to respond to genocide, whether it’s an international governmental organization, a humanitarian organization, or even an individual country, is still heavily debated. Regardless, though, social science can inform responses to genocide and will be an important player in seeking to better understand this crime and effective responses.

Overall, it’s not easy to understand why the crime of genocide takes place, but it is possible. What once looked like something unpredictable is becoming better known as a criminal response to a combination of psychological, societal, state, and even international factors. We still have a long way to go, but social scientific work represents enormous progress toward the ideal of a world that does not need any more memorials like the school I visited in Murambi.

Recommended Reading

Helen Fein. 1993. “Accounting for Genocide after 1945: Theories and Some Findings,” International Journal on Group Rights. One of the first (and only) sociological studies of preconditions of genocide; many of its findings inform research conducted today.

John Hagan and Wenona Rymond-Richmond. 2009. Darfur and the Crime of Genocide. A powerful example of how social scientific research can be used to prove that genocide is taking place.

Barbara Harff. 2003. “No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust? Assessing Risks of Genocide and Political Mass Murder since 1955,” American Political Science Review. The findings of this article are now used in global models predicting the occurrence of genocide.

Joachim J. Savelsberg. 2010. Crime and Human Rights: Criminology of Genocide and Atrocities. An accessible look at how criminology can inform (and learn from) the study of genocide and grave human rights violations.

Eric D. Weitz. 2003. A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation. Uses four cases to explain why the 20th century saw some of the most systematic and deadly genocides.


Hollie Nyseth Brehm is in the department of sociology at The Ohio State University. She studies international crime, transitional justice, and the representation of atrocity.