What causes one human being to kill another, not for anything the victim has done but simply because the victim belongs to a particular religion, ethnic or communal group? Such behavior confounds rationality, and analysts are forced to focus on either identifying the broad macrophenomena and the structural-cultural factors that correlate with genocide or on specifying the psychological processes that might contribute to genocide.
The most frequently cited precipitating factors or facilitating conditions that correlate with genocide and ethnic violence are political unrest and economic upheavals. The Holocaustertainly the best known genocides usually "explained" by reference to the political dislocations resulting from World War I, especially the ensuing breakup of political empires, the punitive Versailles Treaty, a weak Weimar Republic, and the economic depression that gripped the world but which was particularly acute in Germany. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire (which gave rise to the Armenian genocide) and the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the USSR (which was followed by ethnic cleansing in Bosnia) provide further illustrations of macro-events contributing to genocide.
Beyond this, genocide occurs most frequently in plural societies in which there are diverse racial, ethnic, and/or religious groups that exhibit persistent and pervasive communal cleavages. A strong overlap between such cleavages and political and socio-economic inequities, plus a history of conflict between the diverse groups, also encourages genocide and ethnic violence. Genocide rarely occurs in political regimes that are not totalitarian or authoritarian. This was evident during the Holocaust and in the recent genocides in the Balkans and Africa (Rwanda-Burundi, the Sudan). The isolation and secrecy that accompany totalitarian regimes that lack a free press are major contributors, enabling elites to manipulate internal tensions and turn them toward violence. Such structural-cultural factors form the foundation for another category of explanation.
The richest and most varied explanations of genocide are found at a more personal level, all focusing on the psychology of the genocidalist. The psychoanalysis of genocidal leaders such as Hitler has led some scholars, such as Alan Bullock, to focus attention on their tendency toward neurotic-psychopathic personalities. The argument here is that certain people have a deep-seated and psycho-pathological need that leads them toward genocide, either through the elite manipulation of masses or the actual, personal commission of genocide. Other scholars, including Theodor Adorno and Bob Altemeyer, focus on the extent to which an entire society can exhibit patterns of behavior, such as child-rearing or authority relations in school, that result in certain kinds of psychodynamics, such as the authoritarian personality, that encourage genocide.
The work of scholars such as Daniel J. Goldhagen still accept explanations of genocide that are painted in such broad cultural terms, but most social psychologists and historians, including Stanley Milgram and Christopher Browning, find the situation more complex, arguing that situational factors can turn even an ordinary person into a genocidalist. The fundamental assumption for these scholars is a median personality around which a great deal of variance occurs. Analysts in this school focus on external stimuli and understanding how situational or contextual effects can trigger genocide in ordinary people.
Studies of social cognition find all political behavior strongly influenced by how people think about themselves and the social world, especially how people select, remember, interpret, and use social information to make judgments and decisions. Attitudes, schemas and social representations all offer ways in which the definition of social identities of self and others might be conceptualized, and provide the building blocks upon which more detailed theories of socio-political identity and prejudice are built. Such approaches include social role theories focusing on the "internalized role designations corresponding to the social location of persons" (Stryker, 1987, p. 84) and stress the shared behavioral expectations that become salient. Such explanations have been offered to explain the traditional "I was just following orders" excuse for genocide. Robert Jay Lipton's intriguing 1986 study of Nazi doctors turned the concept of social roles upside down by asking: How could doctors and health officials, dedicated to saving lives, utilize their knowledge to perfect killing? The answer desire to protect the German body politic from infestation by inferior and diseased untermenschenuggests how traditional social roles can be utilized to lead people to genocide.
Other social psychologists focus more on the cognitive process of drawing boundaries and categorizing individuals in conflict situations. Social-identity theory and self-categorization literature suggest that perceptions of competition for scarce resources reinforce ingroup/out-group distinctions but are not necessary conditions for in-group favoritism and inter-group discrimination to occur. The social identity theory employed by Michael A. Hogg and Dominic Abrams and based on Henri Tajfel's "minimal group paradigm" has found that in situations of group decision making, people tend to favor their own membership group over out-groups, even when these groups are artificial laboratory constructs and competition for resources between groups is absent. Previous perspectives in group psychology, exemplified by the work of Muzafer Sherif, explained group differentiation in terms of real or perceived competition between in-group and out-groups, but Tajfel's research suggests that the mere formation of otherwise meaningless groups may produce in-group favoritism. Tajfel argues that groups provide their members with positive self-esteem, and that group-members are therefore motivated to enhance their image of the in-group in relation to relevant outgroups.
The Self-Categorization Theory of Group Formation
A 1987 study by John C. Turner and Michael Hogg suggests that the formation of psychological groups is driven by the cognitive elaboration of one's self-identity in comparison with others and implies mechanisms for the formation of political preferences. The salient level of self-categorization and the determination of which schemas and categories are evoked by a given political object or objects will interact to shape a person's political preferences in relation to that political object. The key assumptions of Turner's self-categorization theory of group formation suggest that self-categorizations are hierarchical. In other words, the category of "human being" functions as the most inclusive and superordinate group level, below which in-group/out-group categories based on social comparisons of gender and ethnicity or other dimensions form an intermediate level categorization, and there are subordinate level categories that distinguish individuals as unique.
Turner's framework assumes that the cognitive representation of the self is a multi-faceted affair, and that different portions of that self become salient in different contexts. The theory hypothesizes that factors enhancing the relevance of in-group/out-group categorizations increase the perceived identity between self and in-group members, thus depersonalizing individual self-perception on the stereotypical dimensions that define the relevant in-group membership. This makes the depersonalization of self-perceptions the critical process underlying group behavior, such as stereotyping, ethnocentrism, cooperation and altruism, emotional contagion, collective action, shared norms, and social influence processes.
Members of groups who are perceived as different from the self will tend to be seen in terms of stereotypes. Self-categorization theory builds upon social identity theory by arguing that the self-categorization with a cognitive representation of the group results in the depersonalization of self and the homogenization of both the in-group and the out-group, based on dimensions that reflect the prototypicality or stereotypicality of members of each group. Thousands of experiments underlying social identity theoryor instance, those conducted by A. Gagnon and R. Y. Bourhisave consistently shown that individuals will identify with the in-group, support group norms, and derogate out-group members along stereotypical lines, even when there is no individual gain at stake. The introduction of "superordinate goals," which is posited as a solution by some realistic conflict theorists, can be seen instead as the cognitive reclassification of social identity by individuals into another social identity category.
This cognitive reclassification of groups may provide the key to ending genocide, prejudice, and ethnic violence; Serbs and Croats can think of themselves as Yugoslavs. Preliminary empirical work suggests cognitive categorization may affect all participants in genocide, not just genocidalists. Kristen Renwick Monroe's work on rescuers, published in 1996 and 2004, and James Glass's 1997 study of genocidalists have noted the importance of cognitive classifications during the Holocaust. A 1997 study by Lina Haddad Kreidie and Kristen Monroe found similar categorization and dehumanization in communal violence in the Middle East. Historical literature on slaves within United States also points to the process of declassification and recategorization as critical before people feel justified in the mistreating and eventual killing of other human beings. This comparative work suggests that if we can declassify people, we also can reclassify them in an upward manner. The process, in other words, works both ways. Further work to determine how this recategorization process works may provide an answer to the implicit question underlying most analyses of genocide: How can it be stopped?
SEE ALSO Genocide; Philosophy
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Kristen Renwick Monroe
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