Sociology of Victims (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Under what circumstances and by what methods is a group identified as a distinctive "other," an alien "other," and an inferior "other" to be excluded from membership in that society and then exterminated? How and why are certain people placed "outside the universe of moral obligation" to paraphrase sociologist Helen Fein's aphorism? Several sociological theories help explain such victimization.
In the 1940s, Hans Von Hentig, a German criminologist, launched the study of the relationship between criminals and their victims. Hentig argued that much of what victims do or who they are leads to their victimization; crime is a product of an interaction between offender and victims, he said. The field of victimization was thus born. The earliest victimization studies were heavily influenced by Freudian psychology, which argued that victims yearned, and were in some way responsible, for their victimization. A good example of such an approach was scholar Bruno Bettelheim's analysis of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. However, the concept of "blaming the victim" for horrific acts at the hand of a perpetrator has been rejected by most scholars.
In his 1976 book Blaming the Victim, William Ryan also discussed this contention. According to sociologist Erich Goode, contemporary criminologists are much more careful to make a distinction between the terms blame and cause. Victims may be selected by offenders in part because of what they do or who they are, but they should not be blamed for their victimization. Blame is a heavily value-laden term, whereas cause denotes a much more objective, determinable sequence of events, according to Goode.
For example, young women are more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than older womenhis is a causal, not a moral statementut younger women must not be blamed for being raped. The same is true with poorer households. They are more likely to be burglarized than more affluent households, but to assign blame to poor people for these statistics would be incorrect
The same reasoning is true with regard to victims of genocide and mass violence. They are victimized based on who they are and what they have done or become, but they should never be blamed. Surprisingly, several prominent Holocaust scholars have "blamed" the Jews themselves for their plight during World War II. Bettelheim blamed Anne Frank and her family's passivity and naivety for their fate. Raul Hilberg blamed Jewish lack of resistance on their historically passive and nonviolent nature. Younger scholars and more militant members of such victim groups as Armenians and Native Americans point out that such passivity will not happen again. They tend to emphasize resistance and revenge.
Stigma and Social Identity
Sociologist Erving Goffman in his classic Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (1963) applied the term stigma, a Greek word (stigmata) with heavily religious overtones to physical, racial, or sociological categories. According to Goffman, stigma refers to "bodily signs designed to expose something unusual and bad about the moral status of the signifier. The signs were cut or burnt into the body and advertised that the bearer was a slave, a criminal, or a traitor blemished person, ritually polluted, to be avoided, especially in public places" (Goffman, 1963, p. 1).
While Goffman does not specifically relate this "stigma" to genocide or the Holocaust, the conclusion is obvious: he could easily be talking about Jews who were branded in Auschwitz with numbers or told to wear the "Yellow Star"; Armenians who were branded by the Turks; Cambodians who were distinguished by blue or yellow kerchiefs or by dark tans (implying those who worked in the sun as opposed to intellectuals and bureaucrats); Hutus and Tutsis who were distinguished by their identity papers; and numerous other marks of distinction of victims of genocide.
The stigma marks the discredited with a visible sign that the bearer must be avoided; that he or she is polluted; and that death will result from physical or sexual contact. Often, these "deviants" are members of racial or religious minorities that have historically been isolated and marginalized as well.
Theories of Victimization
There are many theories to explain victimization. A few of the most salient include Marxist-economic theories; radical conflict theory; and labeling theory.
The targeted group is seen as an economic threat, such as with the Jews and the Armenians. In both the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide, persecution took place in two phases. First, contact was limited. For example, Jewish doctors and lawyers could no longer represent or treat German clients or patients; Jewish physicians and managers were terminated from their jobs. Second, small businesses and factories were taken by force and given to non-Jewish "Aryan" owners. Such pauperization was rationalized as "payback" for all "offenses," real or imagined that the victim group had instigated. For example, during Kristallnacht, on November 9, 1937, not only were hundreds of Jewish synagogues, shops, and factories destroyed, but the insurance policies that should have covered such crimes were paid by the Jews as well.
Radical Conflict Theory
The victim group may not perceived as wealthy or powerfuluch as the Jews, Armenians, or city-dwelling Cambodiansut the opposite, as weak. The genocide of the natives in Central and South America, the Aborigines in Australia, or the Maoris in New Zealand are examples of a class struggle of the strong defeating and exterminating the weak and defenseless victims of colonial and imperial conflict.
Sometimes called interactionist or symbolic interactionist theory, this theoretical approach is based on three premises. First, people act on the basis of meaning that things have for them. Second, this meaning grows out of interaction with others, especially intimate others. Third, meanings are continually modified by constant interpretation.
Labeling theory emphasizes target audiences, "moral entrepreneurs" (people such as ministers and politicians) who promulgate moral "panics," and promote the stigmatization of victim groups. Major proponents of this theory include not only Goffman but Howard S. Becker, John Kitsuse, and Kai Erikson.
Attitudes toward the Victims: The Contribution of Erich Goldhagen
Scientists are constantly amazed on how ingenious humans are in marginalizing, labeling, and victimizing others. The reactions toward the victims are also worth noting. Former Harvard University professor Erich Goldhagen has delved into the many ways that perpetrators have reacted to their victims throughout history. The various reactions ranged from indifference to amused gawking to deep involvement with murderous intent. There were a vast array of reactions, both ideological and social.
Conclusions: A Two-Step Solution
Why are people victimized? Some feel it is due to ideological concepts such as racism and anti-Semitism; others believe it is due to social pressure and conformity. In Becoming Evil, James Waller undertakes a wide-ranging analysis of these various theories. Other social scientists have embraced a "two-step solution," combining both ideology and obedience to orders.
According to this theory, ideology is the animus that starts genocide but then second elements kick in, such as obedience to orders, peer pressure, careerism, and conformity. All the myriad sociological, organizational, bureaucratic, and psychological motivators take over, under what Goldhagen calls the "foot in the door" theory: Once the killing starts, it takes on a momentum of its own and is difficult to stop.
In short, ordinary human beings become extraordinary killers in a very short time. People can live together peacefully for decades, even centuries, and then suddenly become lethal killers, such as with the events that took place in Bosnia in the early 1990s. Scholars may never uncover a satisfactory answer to this kind of victimization.
SEE ALSO Explanation; Political Theory; Psychology of Survivors; Psychology of Victims
Blumer, Herbert (1969). Symbolic Interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Charny, Israel W., ed. (1999). Encyclopedia of Genocide. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio.
Goffman, Erving (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Goode, Erich (2001). Deviant Behavior, 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Porter, Jack Nusan, ed. (1982). "Introduction." Genocide and Human Rights: A Global Anthology. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.
Porter, Jack Nusan (1999). "Genocide Prediction." In Encyclopedia of Genocide, vol. 1., ed. Israel W. Charny. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio.
Porter, Jack Nusan, and Steve Hoffman (1994). The Sociology of the Holocaust/Genocide: A Curriculum Guide. Washington, D.C.: American Sociological Association.
Rosenbaum, Ron (1999). Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil. New York: Harper Perennial.
Von Hentig, Hans (1948). The Criminal and His Victim. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Waller, James (2002). Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jack Nusan Porter