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Our scientific approach

By Jacques Semelin for the Steering Committee
Sciences Po Paris
(Center For International Research and Studies)

French version : Notre approche scientifique

«Writing history… aims at calming the dead who still haunt the present,and at offering them scriptural tombs.»

Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History , New York and Chichester, Columbia University Press, 1988.


The Evolution of the Perception of Violence

Our perception of violence and its very definition are closely linked to modern sensitivity. What is considered violent in the 21st century may not necessarily have been four centuries earlier. Similarly, what is perceived as violent today in a particular country may not necessarily be so in another. How we perceive violence is subject to significant historical and cultural variations. Expressions such as "mass murder", "mass crimes", or "mass rape" appeared in the mid-20th century. Acknowledging this evolution, the OEMV adopts the more general term of "mass violence".

The Emergence of the Term "Genocide"

The term "genocide" was coined by lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944. It was then applied to international law, giving rise to the Convention for the Prevention and Repression of the Crime of Genocide , adopted by the United Nations on December 9, 1948. Following World War II, the term crystallized the horrors of Nazi crimes, especially the extermination of European Jews. From then on, the word "genocide" gradually spread into colloquial speech to designate absolute evil, the crime of crimes against non-combatant populations. Journalists, activists and academics spoke of "genocide" in reference to almost all conflicts of the second half of the 20th century, in which there were large numbers of civilian victims, from Cambodia to Chechnya, including Burundi, Rwanda, Guatemala, Colombia, Iraq, Bosnia, Darfur and many more. This concept was also used retroactively with reference to various massacres: that of the inhabitants of Melos by the Greeks (in the 5th century B.C.), that of the Vendéens in 1793 during the French Revolution, that of the Native Americans in the USA, that of the Armenians in 1915, as well as the organized famines in Ukraine, various cases of deportation of populations in the former USSR under Stalin, the extermination of Gypsies and homosexuals by the Nazis, or even the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course, this list is not comprehensive.

Problems of Classification and Definition

The use of the term «genocide» when referring to very different historical situations raises many objections and fuels heated debate. This has led to an apparently inextricable classification problem, concerning the diverse and vague meanings attributed to the term. Nonetheless, the incrimination of genocide remains relevant in view of the 1948 Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Undoubtedly and in spite of its ambiguity, this document represents a fundamental contribution by international lawyers. It bears witness to the emergence of a universal conscience opposing the outrageousness of mass crimes. Indeed, the 1948 Convention appears all the more important since social scientists have been unable to agree on a common definition of genocide. Shedding light on their different approaches is among the main objectives of the OEMV.

The Difficulty of Choosing the Appropriate Term

One of the reasons for these disagreements is linked to the fact that since Lemkin’s pioneer work, genocide studies have mostly developed at the crossroads of law and social sciences. This constitutive overlapping of the normative nature of international law with socio-historical analysis necessarily generates considerable conceptual difficulties. It triggers intense argument, both in the areas of science and of memory. It has led to an unfortunate inflation of the use of the word "genocide" by multiple actors across the world, characterizing the instrumentalization of the term on behalf of politics or identity. Therefore, our team preferred not to call this project a "Genocide Encyclopedia". We also chose to avoid expressions such as "Encyclopedia of Crimes against Humanity" which would emphasize the legal aspect of the project. Ultimately, the term "mass violence" gradually emerged as a matter of consensus, as it is sufficiently neutral and general to cover our object of study.

From The Concept of Genocide to That of Mass Violence

With "mass violence" we are refering to human phenomena of collective destructiveness that are primarily due to political, social, religious or cultural causes. This category excludes natural disasters and technological accidents. Moreover, it does not coincide with armed combat inherent in war, but rather with all violence directly or indirectly affecting civilians, either in times of war or of peace. The OEMV does not cover all systems of political, economic or racial domination and coercion. It will not suffice for a country to be subjected to a dictatorial regime, a colonial power, a racial segregation system, or to have experienced one of these, in order for the events linked to such policies to be recorded and discussed here. These situations of institutional violence combined with significant forms of symbolic violence do not necessarily give rise to mass murder.

Rather than studying situations of domination, the OEMV is specifically focused on the process of destruction that may be generated by such situations or by the dynamics of war leading to mass killings. On the whole, the substance of the OEMV is not the myriad ways of enslaving or imprisoning men, or even of occasionally torturing or killing them in order to remind them who decides of their fate. Rather, it focuses on the countless ways of having them killed en masse, either directly or indirectly. It is in this sense that the expression of "mass violence" is most relevant.

The Massacre as a Lexical Reference Unit

The concept of mass violence has the advantage of implying different modes of operation of human destructiveness. Thus, it most certainly includes the notion of massacre, defined as a usually collective form of the act of destruction of non-combatants (including combatants who have been disarmed). The term "massacre" has established itself as one of the main lexical reference units in this field of study. One of the OEMV’s goals is to identify the propagation of massacres affecting a country or a region during a particular historical period and, thus, to retrace the processes of mass violence that is to be qualified – or not – as genocide. However, the term "massacre" cannot designate every form of group violence, such as ethnic or religious riots, deportation or planned famines. Therefore, once again, the use of the term «mass violence» seems most appropriate to describe the diversity of lethal behavior.

The Use of a Quantitative Threshold

The discussion of numbers is always difficult, especially as in many cases, a precise evaluation of the number of victims proves to be impossible. Hence, it is important to use a quantitative variable – which is always approximate – in conjunction with qualitative criteria linked to the country’s context, to the period involved, but also to our own contemporary sensitivity. The constant difficulty of the evaluation of the number of victims led us to make an important practical decision regarding the web site’s layout. Indeed, we avoided structuring the site according to a hierarchical organization of cases, which would necessarily be arbitrary and might have provoked intense controversy. Consequently, we opted for a structure that is as neutral as possible, mainly access through geography. Thus, the data can be accessed through two main channels: either by clicking on the geographical map or the nominal list of countries. In a few cases, phenomena of mass violence attain such amplitude that they cross borders and become transnational. Most such cases occurred in the declining Ottoman Empire, in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Europe. Hence, the indexes concerning such cases can be found in the category "Thematic Issues".

About Our Contributors

Particular attention was given to the drafting of methodological recommendations that all potential contributors must take into account. In this sense, the OEMV is not based on the spontaneous participation of Internet users. The knowledge gathered here comes from the best specialists of a historical case or a theoretical issue, most of who are researchers and academics. Furthermore, each contribution is peer-reviewed. We take great care in avoiding that any political entity or community instrumentalizes the content of this publication. Readers are encouraged to consult the list of members of the Steering Committee and the International Academic Advisory Board. Of course, we welcome the participation of scholars from all over the world.

A Comparative and Cross-Discipline Approach

The OEMV is an essential tool for the development of comparative research. To compare does not mean to treat different events in the same way, even though some points of convergence between certain cases may be established. On the contrary, through the chronological indexes contextualized in reference to different countries, each case presented in the OEMV retains its specificity. Conversely, the fact that all the cases are gathered together in the same database and share the same methodological framework, allowing the reader to navigate from one case to another, facilitates the spread of knowledge. In this sense, comparing allows differentiation. The OEMV has proved innovative in yet another way through its fundamental openness to a cross-discipline approach. Indeed, the phenomenon of «massacres» appears so intrinsically complex that it necessarily calls for a multi-disciplinary approach, not simply historical, but also psychological, anthropological or political. The composition of the Steering Committee and the variety of theoretical papers presented here bear witness to our determination to use multiple analytical approaches in order to enhance our understanding of the most destructive forms of behavior.

The Importance of our Readers’ Support

Being well aware of certain deficiencies of the OEMV in its present form, we are open to all constructive suggestions. For instance, many historical cases have not been addressed yet. They are obviously part of our future plans for the development of the OEMV. Similarly, we intend to have contributions concerning a particular country translated into its vernacular language. All this requires time and resources, and we therefore hope to have access to the means necessary in order to meet these goals.

However, our choice of not charging for access to this site makes its future uncertain. Consequently, our enterprise depends in part on private donations which will not only allow its objectives to be met, but will also allow it to endure. The OEMV should be considered a universal public service.

To support the OEMV, please consult our Donate page

Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence® - ISSN 1961-9898