Sociologist Studies Mass Murder to Predict and Prevent Genocide

September 28, 2014

Sociologist Studies Mass Murder to Predict and Prevent Genocide


This year marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of devastating 100-day genocide in which upwards of one million people, mostly ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, died at the hands of Hutu extremists. The beginning of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, April 7, has been designated by the UN General Assembly as the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda.

Hollie Nyseth Brehm, assistant professor, sociology, is the lead author of a new study finding that perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda were most likely to be males in their mid-thirties.

“We were surprised that perpetrators of genocide in Rwanda were, on average, 34 years old,” said Brehm. “Much research in criminology would point toward much younger participants—late adolescence and early twenties—in most any form of crime.”

While working with Rwanda’s national genocide prevention commission, Brehm obtained access to the country’s court records. Those records hold information about who participated in the genocide. Working with colleagues Christopher Uggen at the University of Minnesota and Jean-Damascene Gasanabo in Rwanda—the only team in the world with access to these data—Brehm analyzed almost two million Rwandan convictions.

In studying the genocide, Brehm and her team found that men between the ages of 18 and 45 were responsible for 75 percent of the Rwandan atrocities, representing a demographic slice that does not reflect the age or gender distribution of Rwanda’s larger population. Brehm and her colleagues suggest that this subpopulation might be more likely to commit genocide because, in contrast to traditional explanations of age and crime that emphasize aging out of crime, “perpetrators often believe they are acting to protect their family or nation from outsiders who are dangerous or even subhuman.” Furthermore, the “violence has been framed as ‘work,’ which has age-graded overtones and a clear link to adult role behavior.”

The full study, “Age, Sex and the Crime of Genocide,” is under review for publication, though Brehm has presented its results at national and international conferences.

Going forward, Brehm plans to use these data to better understand other elements of the genocide as well as transitional justice in Rwanda.

Brehm’s research focuses on the fundamental questions of why and how atrocities occur and who commits them. She is equally interested in the process of transitional justice after atrocities, including how societies rebuild, how international actors respond to the violence, and the lasting effects of mass violence.

“Although countries have continually vowed to prevent genocide and mass violence, pictures of piles of bodies, endless rows of faces behind barbed wire, and starving children in refugee camps fill news media around the world and remind us that genocides continue to occur with alarming frequency," said Brehm "This violence has often appeared to be incomprehensible, chaotic or even psychopathic. Yet, like other social processes, genocide is structural and systematic. Although each genocide is unique, there are also discernible patterns among genocides, much like civil wars, hate crimes or terrorism. “

Brehm emphasizes that there is much more work to be done to fully understand genocide’s risk factors. “We are hopeful,” she said, “that learning more about who commits genocide may be useful in targeted interventions.”

As a PhD student, Brehm studied genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Darfur, focusing on factors that influence community-level rates of genocide, which involved case-study interviews in each country.

Brehm is an affiliate member of Ohio State’s Mershon Center for International Security Studies and the Criminal Justice Research Center. She is a volunteer with the Center for Victims of Torture, a Core Member of I-Activism and a school board consultant.

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