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Scholar reviews genocide studies

Sonia Rao | Friday, October 6, 2006

The study of genocide has been in constant flux, from the term’s definition to research approaches, Scott Straus, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said in a lecture at the Hesburgh Center on Thursday.”[It’s a] beautiful day and a terrible topic,” he said, referring to the contrast between the weather outside and the thorny theme of his lecture.Straus analyzed the developments in the field of genocide studies, highlighting how the “second generation of scholarship on genocide” differs from the first, as well as discuss the limitations of these new developments in his lecture entitled “New Directions in the Comparative Study of Genocide.” He noted that there has been a “three-fold increase” in recent years of books published on genocide, attributing this increase to events in the 1990s, namely genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, which served to generate interest in human rights. “This field is moving in many different directions at once … even though [the topic of genocide has] a very narrow focus,” he said. In demonstrating the different directions of genocidal research, Straus cited six books by various authors which he referred to as the “core of second-generation literature” – those that underscore the values of the newer perspective on genocide. While he discussed individual merits of each book, Straus argued that the core literature illuminated problems faced by the genocide researcher, including “conceptualization, case selection and hypothesis testing.” The problem of conceptualization in genocide research lies in the fact that “not one of these authors [of the core of second-generation literature] uses the same definition of genocide,” he said. Straus said the lack of a concrete definition leads to problems in case selections, as one definition may apply to the Rwandan case but not the Holocaust and vice versa. Furthermore, because of the difficulty in defining genocide and pinpointing examples, Straus said it becomes difficult to comparatively study genocide using different cases. “If you only think there are only four cases or six cases [of genocide] … it’s very difficult to do a quantitative study [on the topic],” he said. “This field does not lend itself to cross-quantitative work.” This difficulty leads to problems in hypothesis testing, Strauss said, as “people are looking at the same cases and coming up with various explanations.” To combat the problems of studying genocide, Straus suggested that studies be focused on “negative cases” – that is, cases in which genocide does not result. In addition, he suggested treating genocide as “a continuous variable,” meaning to assume genocide occurred in all cases rather than arguing its existence in certain cases over others. “The legal definition of genocide is so vague that it’s very difficult to come up with a zero point [that defines when the term can be used],” he said.