May-June 2008 Issue • Volume 36 • Issue 5

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Sociology and Genocide Studies

by Jack Nusan Porter, International Association of Genocide Studies

Genocide, like evil, is a "hot" commodity in today’s world. It may be one of the fastest growing fields, or at least the one most intriguing to students. I am the treasurer of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), the largest organization in the world dedicated to genocide research and prevention. IAGS was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by several prominent people, including presidents of colleges and elected officials.

At our last IAGS conference in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina in July 2007, we had over 500 presentations, from more than 25 countries. Half of the presenters were graduate students who attended for free, courtesy of the Bosnian government. IAGS membership has doubled in the past two years to more than 400. The ratio of presentations to membership is astounding and perhaps unique. This is unbelievable growth for an academic organization. The IAGS was founded in Berlin in 1993 at a luncheon with Israel Charny, Robert Melson, Roger Smith, and Helen Fein. Our current president is former State Department official Greg Stanton; and our vice-presidents are theologian Steve Jacobs (University of Alabama) and anthropologist Alex Hinton (Rutgers University). Our first president and previous president were sociologists, Fein and Charny, respectively.

The IAGS conferences are usually held in locales where genocide has occurred. The next is planned for Kigali, Rwanda. The biggest problem is the high cost of airfare to Rwanda or Armenia or Cambodia. Alas, we will not run out of places where evil takes place. But this is what attracts young (and old) people to our conferences: The desire to do good in the world. By seeking to end or at least mitigate genocide, one can make a difference. People-to-people diplomacy can make a difference. It is an exciting field and the young people who come to our conferences bring an exciting element. The world is in a better place because of them.

Beginning of Genocide Studies

Genocide studies were founded by sociologists and other social scientists, mainly social psychologists and therapists. The founder of the field who coined the word genocide was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish jurist and linguist with a strong sociological focus. Like the IAGS, in addition to his scholarly work that defined the field, he actively lobbied the United Nations to sign an international convention outlawing genocide until his death in the 1950s. Most countries signed it except the United States; it was not until February 19, 1986, after nearly 20 years of advocacy by the late Senator William Proxmire (D-WI), that the United States finally ratified it (Power 2002; Charny 1999).

Helen Fein, Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Genocide, is considered the American founder of modern comparative genocide studies. Her groundbreaking book, Accounting for Genocide, won the ASA Sorokin Award in 1979. In addition, she also wrote Genocide: A Sociological Perspective, and later edited Genocide Watch in 1992. I taught the first course in the sociology of genocide in 1978 at the University of Lowell (today University of Massachusetts-Lowell) under the mentorship of a sociologist of the Armenian genocide, Levon Chorbajian. Other sociologists in the field include: Vahakn Dadrian, arguably the pre-eminent scholar in the field; and Leo Kuper, University of California-Los Angeles, author of Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century (1981) and The Prevention of Genocide (1985).

By its very nature, comparative genocide is cross-disciplinary. Social scientists such as Joyce Apsel, Israel Charny, William Gamson, Anthony Oberschall, Alex Hinton, Herbert Hirsch, Ervin Staub, R. Charli Carpenter, Scott Strauss, Colin Tatz, Kurt Jonassohn, Bill Helmreich, Irving Louis Horowitz, Nechama Tec, and Jacques Semelin, developed an array of fields in the social sciences and have made important contributions.

The Changing Field

But the discipline is constantly changing. Since my anthology, Genocide and Human Rights: A Global Anthology came out over 25 years ago (the first anthology in comparative genocide) the field now has its own textbooks (Jones 2006). It has moved beyond bickering over the definition, though the United Nations’ definition is still the one used most often. Today, we are ready to see any kind of mass killing—no matter how small, no matter if the intent was to kill the entire group or tribe, no matter if it is labeled genocide or not—as genocide. Governments fight over the label because it would mean they might have to intervene. President Clinton during genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and President Jimmy Carter during Cambodia are excellent examples of leaders resisting the label genocide for political purposes.

New fields such as gendercide, wherein victimizers single out either men or women to kill or rape, have grown exponentially in recent years (Jones 2006, 2004). Sexual minorities such as homosexuals, transvestites, lesbians, and women stigmatized by "genocidal rape" are also victims of genocide. Political categories (communists in Indonesia or Kurds in Iraq, for example) should also to be considered genocidal victims (Porter 2006, 1991).

With the existence of international tribunals to bring these perpetrators to justice, the field is turning its attention to human rights violations. The "court of public opinion" is so important because nations need to hear that they are responsible and the victims need to hear our support so as to be vindicated and healed. These are exciting and dangerous times and I am proud to be a part of comparative genocide studies.

For more information, see the International Association of Genocide Scholars at www.genocidescholars.com and Genocide Watch at www.genocidewatch.com. To contact the author, email jacknusan@earthlink.net.

References

Apsel, Joyce and Barbara Harff, eds. 2007. Essays in Honor of Helen Fein.
New York: International Association of Genocide Scholars.

Charny, Israel W., ed., 1999. Encyclopedia of Genocide (2 volumes).
Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Jones, Adam, ed. 2004. Gendercide and Genocide. Nashville, TN:
Vanderbilt University Press.

______. 2006 Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction. London and New York: Routledge.

Porter, Jack Nusan, ed. 1982 Genocide and Human Rights: A Global Anthology. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

______. 1991. Sexual Politics in Nazi Germany. Newton, MA: The Spencer Press, 1991.

______. 2006. The Genocidal Mind: Sociological and Sexual Perspectives. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/University Press of America.

Power, Samantha. 2002. ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide, New York: Basic Books.

 

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