Perspectives on Mass Violence: Peace and Conflict Studies and Genocide Studies Compared


This week's compelling guest blog compares the fields of Conflict Studies with Genocide Studies, its intriguing differences and similarities and the general lack of cross-pollination between them, even though they both deal with questions of collective violence and individual participation in violence. 

This blog has been written by jurist and social scientist Kjell Anderson, an interdisciplinary scholar specialized in the study of mass violence and mass atrocities. He has conducted human rights and conflict-related research in the African Great Lakes region, South Asia, and Oceania, including work at universities, international organizations, think tanks, NGOs, and international courts. He holds PhD and LLM degrees in InternationalHuman Rights as well as MA and BA degrees in Conflict Studies. He is the author of 'Perpetrating Genocide: A Criminological Account', a comparative, interview-based study of genocide perpetrators and perpetration.

Research into mass violence is often fragmentary – beyond disciplinary ‘compartmentalization,’ there is often a disconnect between those who study armed conflict (peace and conflict studies) and those who study genocide (genocide studies).[1]  While there may be good reasons for distinguishing between these phenomena, the lack of coherence between fields arguably means that many researchers into conflict and genocide draw from a limited knowledge base, thus reducing our capacity for understanding the roots of collective violence.

In this piece I will compare, and contrast two academic fields concerned with mass violence: conflict studies and genocide studies.  I will examine points of divergence and convergence and consider the benefits and challenges involved in integrating the study of genocide, war, and other forms of mass violence.

Before we approach this comparison, it is useful to consider a counter-argument: that separating conflict studies and genocide studies is reasonable and beneficial. One might posit that pluralism in academic approaches can contribute to innovative research.  If all scholars studied mass violence from the same perspective, there might be a lack of original insights.  Moreover, different approaches might make perfect sense in studying “mass violence,” which is itself an amorphous concept, representing an array of forms of violence from Indian electoral riots, to the war in Yemen, to The Holocaust.  Even within genocide studies, there is arguably a tendency to discuss “fairly different phenomena.”[2]

The most significant difference between genocide and other forms of mass violence is that, in genocide, the perpetrator group seeks the complete destruction of the victim group, rather than more limited political objectives.  However, there is much thematic overlap between conflict studies and genocide studies.  Both genocide and war involve hierarchically organized and institutionalized violence in service of political objectives.  Moreover, both genocide studies and conflict studies address similar research questions such as:

  • What are the political and economic precursors for violence? Does poverty increase the likelihood of violence?
  • What are the roles of ideology and propaganda in fomenting violence?
  • How is violence mobilized? Why do individuals join armed groups and participate in violence?
  • How do organizational culture and group norms develop within armed groups and how do these groups socialize individuals to commit violence?
  • How and why do individuals experience post-traumatic stress as victims of violence, or as participants in violence?
  • How can mass violence be predicted and prevented?
  • What steps are necessary to rebuild societies after mass violence and to ensure the non-recurrence of violence?
  • How should the law respond to mass violence? What is the efficacy of juridical approaches in the prevention of mass violence?

Typically, war, genocide, crimes against humanity, and other forms of violence occur alongside each other.  One would be hard-pressed to identify cases of genocide that occur absent a war.  In the Rwandan Genocide (1994), for example, there was a civil war between the (interim) Government of Rwanda and the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), a genocide of Tutsis at the hands of the government and its allies, crimes against humanity targeting Hutu opponents of the regime, and opportunistic crimes (such as looting) committed by individual perpetrators without any direct connection to the larger context.  The multiplicity of violence in the Rwandan Genocide is not unique, rather it is typical of the complexities of mass violence.

However, it often seems that genocide studies and conflict studies exist as parallel, largely self-contained fields, even while being concerned with many of the same issues.  Consequently, genocide scholars and conflict scholars are sometimes ‘reinventing the wheel’ and approaching research problems as though they are entirely new, even while they may have been addressed extensively by other fields.  There are however, some scholars who transcend both fields, such as Lee Ann Fujii, Christian Scherrer, Barbara Harff, and Ted Gurr, as well as institutions that bring together research on all forms of mass violence, such as the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide studies (Amsterdam) and the Center for the Study of Mass Violence at Rutgers University (New Jersey).

Genocide Studies: historicist and legalistic paradigms

In its early days, genocide studies was largely defined by historicism and legalism.  Raphael Lemkin, the originator of the term “genocide” created the field of genocide studies in his own image – as a jurist with an overriding interest in the history of genocide.  Lemkin was shaped by The Holocaust, but he was equally concerned with the Armenian Genocide, and at the time he died (1959), he was in the process of preparing a comparative “World History of Genocide” based on cases ranging from antiquity to modern times.[3]

Within Genocide Studies there is often a conflict between legalist definitions of genocide as a crime,[4] and socio-historical definitions of genocide as a social practice.[5]  Legalist paradigms represent genocide as a crime with individual criminal responsibility, and, consequently genocide is defined by its actus reus (criminal acts) and mens rea (criminal intent).  The Bosnia v. Serbia case at the International Court of Justice dealt with more collective dimensions of the crime of genocide, under the rubric of the law of state responsibility, but the overriding focus of legal analyses of genocide is on individual criminal responsibility, particularly the presence or absence of genocidal intent.  Socio-historical conceptualizations of genocide, in contrast, often seek to gather similar cases for comparison; conflict among scholars often centers on the inclusion or exclusion of categories of protected groups beyond the ethnic, national, racial, and religious groups included in the convention.

Conflict Studies: Causes and Conduct of War

Conflict studies is also characterised by definitional debates, particularly over the meaning of the term “peace,” which is generally defined as the absence of armed conflict (negative peace) and/or the presence of conditions that will prevent future armed conflict (positive peace).[6]  However, rather than being a weak point, the contestation of core definitions in conflict studies and genocide studies offers space for critical perspectives to flourish.

Conflict studies is not shaped by the legalist paradigm in the same way as genocide studies.  War, per se, is not a crime, unlike genocide, though certain acts in war are criminalized, as is the unlawful resort to war (aggression).  Thus, the focus of conflict studies is more squarely on notions of just war, as well as the causes and prevention of war, rather than its inherent prohibition.  In fact, the body of law that deals specifically with the conduct of war, namely international humanitarian law, is focused on minimizing the humanitarian consequences of war rather than renouncing war as such (although the renunciation of war is represented in many international treaties, most significantly the UN Charter).  The lack of a legalist paradigm in conflict studies arguably shifts the focus to the causes and prevention of violence rather than the normative discourses central to genocide scholarship.

Genocide studies is a younger field than conflict studies.  The largest scholarly association on genocide – The International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) – was only formed in 1994, while the International Peace Research Association dates from 1964, thirty years before the IAGS.  This lengthier pedigree is represented in the relative depth of peace and conflict studies scholarship, compared with genocide studies.  However, in recent years genocide scholarship has moved away from the normative arguments of earlier generations of genocide scholars, and into critical, empirical research, such as the micro studies of genocide by Straus and Bergholz.[7] Although it is difficult to come up with exact figures, it appears that peace and conflict studies is also a larger field than genocide studies, with more academic programs, and larger conferences than genocide studies.  Perhaps, this is understandable, given the relative scarceness of genocide when compared with war.

Interdisciplinary insights

Both genocide studies and conflict studies are sprawling, inter-disciplinary fields exhibiting theoretical and conceptual diversity.  In some sense, the genesis of the fields of peace and conflict studies and genocide studies was itself an attempt to create greater conversation and cohesion between approaches. Disciplinary isolation means that methods and concepts are sometimes “rediscovered” between disciplines studying the same phenomena.  Ethnographic methodologies (such as interview-based research) are reconstituted as oral history, and then again, as narrative criminology. Interdisciplinarity provides spaces amenable to the cross-fertilization of knowledge.  Yet, for cross-disciplinary concepts to be brought to bear on critical issues there must also be a real understanding of the how ideas are situated within their discipline.

Historical analyses are prevalent in both genocide studies and conflict studies, yet both fields seek contemporary relevance by incorporating recent and even current episodes of violence in analytical frameworks and datasets.  This contemporaneous nature poses challenges for research methodologies; it is often difficult to gather accurate data on ongoing violence for logistical, political, and security reasons.  Conflict studies scholars often employ large comparative datasets to assess correlates of violence, but this does not completely mitigate the challenges of gathering data on ongoing violence.

This piece has outlined some of the differences and similarities between conflict studies and genocide studies as fields examining mass violence.  Both fields have significant thematic overlap and definitional debates, are interdisciplinary in scope and focused on contemporary events. However, genocide studies is a younger field that is shaped more by the legalist paradigm than conflict studies. None of these points of divergence are true obstacles to developing integrated approaches to studying mass violence.  As noted at the outset of this piece, there are benefits to be gained from bringing together genocide studies and conflict studies, both in terms of sharing theoretical insights and empirical data.  Moreover, there are crucial gaps in our understanding of the interrelationships between forms of violence.  There are also risks involved in integrative approaches: conceptual ‘blurring’ may occur where scholars ‘talk past each other’ applying the same term to different phenomena.  For example, genocide may also involve ostensibly non-violent acts such as the forcible transfer of children.  Are perpetrators in contexts such as Canadian residential schools similar to individuals who are directly involved in violent acts? However, with appropriate conceptual rigour, integration between conflict studies can contribute to a more complete understanding of mass violence.


[1]  This could equally be true of other forms of mass violence and political violence, such as specialists in ‘ethnic riots.’

[2]  Scott Straus, “Second-Generation Comparative Research on Genocide,” World Politics 59, no. 3 (April 2007), 479.

[3]  Dirk Moses, “The Holocaust and World History, in The Holocaust and Historical Methodology, edited by Dan Stone (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012), 276-280.

[4]  See: the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

[5]  See for example, Daniel Feierstein, Genocide as Social Practice: Reorganizing Society Under The Nazis And Argentina's Military Juntas (New Brunswick, NJ, Rutgers University Press, 2014).

[6]  See, for example, Johan Galtung, Theories of Peace: A Synthetic Approach to Peace Thinking (Oslo: International Peace Research Oslo, 1967).

[7]  Scott Straus, The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006); and Max Bergholz, Violence as a Generative Force: Identity, Nationalism, and Memory in a Balkan Community (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).