In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Genocide

  • Introduction
  • The Idea of Genocide
  • Interdisciplinary and Disciplinary Perspectives
  • The Holocaust
  • The Armenians and Rwanda
  • Violence against Social Classes and Political Groups
  • Colonial Genocide
  • Forced Removal and Sexual Violence
  • Sexual Violence and the Gendering of Genocide
  • Social Participation in Genocide
  • Subaltern Genocide
  • Resistance and Rescue
  • Representing Genocide and the Problem of Denial
  • International Policies
  • The West

Sociology Genocide
Martin Shaw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0029


Genocide is now understood as a major type of collective violence, with a distinctive place in the spectrum of political violence, armed conflict, and war, of which it is usually seen as a part. However the idea of genocide dates only from the 1940s, when in the space of four years after its introduction (in a critique of Nazi occupation policies during the Second World War), it became the subject of a major international convention. The concept quickly become central to political and cultural discourses about violence, but the developed academic study of the phenomenon took some decades to develop, before finally taking off around the end of the Cold War. The rapidly expanding field is interdisciplinary, with major contributions from historians, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, legal scholars, and others. It has highly contested parameters, including the definition of the phenomenon, the universe of cases, the appropriate explanatory frameworks, and so on. It is also considerably politicized, with significant disagreements over how the academic study of genocide should be related to the development of international policies for its prevention. The field’s growth came initially through the extension of understandings of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, which by the late 20th century was known as “the Holocaust,” to other cases, both historic (such as the Ottoman extermination of the Armenians) and contemporary (such as the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides). However, it has since expanded to consider phenomena quite different from the Holocaust in scale and form, such as the diverse and long-drawn-out pattern of genocide during European colonization of the non-Western world. At the same time, the transformations of political violence and war in the post–Cold War world have led to new divergences over the applicability of the genocide idea to recent events. Recent cases, such as the former Yugoslavia, have raised questions about the relationships of population removal and sexual violence to genocide. Because of these tensions, the growth of the field has been accompanied by theoretical, paradigm, and political differences. This bibliography attempts to capture these features of a fast-moving academic field and to provide the reader with a way to explore its essential literature.

The Idea of Genocide

This area of study is more preoccupied than most with definitional issues. Lemkin 1944 originally proposed that genocide was the multimethod destruction of the social as well as physical existence of national groups, but this understanding has been modified in various ways. The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (see United Nations 2000) maintained the core of this broad approach, slightly enlarging the range of groups while listing killing as only one of five types of genocidal act. This became the legal and political standard of genocide, and it has sometimes been used as a benchmark in academic studies. However, it has been criticized both for omitting political groups and social classes from the list of groups and for omitting specific mention of the forcible removal of populations, historically the main method through which population groups have been destroyed. After the early academic synthesis of Kuper 1981, writers in the emerging field of genocide studies widened the range of protected groups, either by adding to the UN list or by adopting more generic definitions (e.g., Fein 1990, Chalk and Jonassohn 1990, and the edited volume Andreopoulos 1994). Schabas 2000, however, resists this approach. These writers simultaneously narrowed genocide to physical and biological destruction, or “mass murder,” an approach maintained in Sémelin 2007. More recently, however, there has been a return to Lemkin’s broad definition of “destruction,” and Shaw 2007 proposes a sociological restatement of this idea.

  • Andreopoulos, G. J., ed. 1994. Genocide: Conceptual and historical dimensions. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    This volume gathered essays by most of the early scholars of genocide, providing an entry point to the definitional debate in that period.

  • Chalk, F., and K. Jonassohn. 1990. The history and sociology of genocide: Analyses and case studies. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    An ambitious early synthesis of the conceptual and historical issues, noteworthy for its definition, which emphasized that target groups are not defined objectively, but subjectively by the perpetrators.

  • Fein, H. 1990. Genocide: A sociological perspective. Current Sociology 38.1: 1–126.

    In the course of the first general review of the literature on genocide, Fein proposed a sociological reworking of the UN definition, reinterpreting “intentional” as “sustained purposive action” and reinterpreting the protected groups as “basic kinds, classes, or sub-families of humanity, persisting units of society.”

  • Kuper, L. 1981. Genocide. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

    This historically wide-ranging book was the first major academic work on the history and sociology of genocide, notable for its emphasis on colonialism as a context of genocide and for introducing the concept of “genocidal massacre.”

  • Lemkin, R. 1944. Axis rule in occupied Europe. New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

    In this volume on destructive Nazi occupation policies during the Second World War, Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide,” giving it a broad definition as “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group” through a coordinated attack on its social and cultural as well as physical existence.

  • Schabas, W. A. 2000. Genocide in international law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The most comprehensive treatment of genocide from a legal point of view, and a careful guide to the issues.

  • Sémelin, J. 2007. Purify and destroy. London: Hurst.

    An ambitious and wide-ranging study, upholding a narrow definition of genocide as the “total eradication” or mass murder of a group, and making a clear distinction between genocide and massacres.

  • Shaw, M. 2007. What is genocide? Cambridge, UK, and Malden, MA: Polity.

    A sociological restatement of Lemkin’s original broad concept of genocide, which criticizes the “Holocaust standard” for genocide and the idea that “ethnic cleansing” can be clearly distinguished from genocide.

  • United Nations. 2000. 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In Documents on the laws of war. 3d ed. Edited by A. Roberts and R. Guelff, 181–194. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    In this Convention, the UN defined genocide as a range of “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,” listing killing, physical and mental harm, social conditions likely to lead to physical destruction, preventing births and transferring children as the acts that may constitute genocide. The text of the Convention is also available online.

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