Anthropology and Genocide

4 Novembre, 2007
de Lame Danielle


Writing on anthropology and genocide, or possibly on the anthropology of genocides, is to me the unforeseen outcome of thirty years dedicated to the study of Rwanda. That what I, as a Belgian social anthropologist, write on genocide happens to be informed by the long observation of an African country and its rural people is, as far as I am concerned, simply one of the unexpected turns a professional career can take. It is, however, my choice to stress that the genocide that happened in Rwanda in 1994 is testimony to the banality of Africa, to its belonging to our world, and not testimony to the resurgence of exotic primitiveness and tribal feuding. This needs to be stressed because the very word “Africa” has become the bearer of popular Western fantasy to such a degree that it erases all the particularities we are prone to acknowledge of our own, Western countries. Yet in each of the many countries that form the African continent, people strive to improve their lives or make sense of their despair, and they do so according to their own contemporary and more or less cosmopolitan world view. If, then, I became acquainted with the specifically organized form of violence that is genocide through the Rwandan case, it seems necessary to disentangle what is common to genocides from what is particular to the local forms genocidal mobilization can take, and from the local world view that can give violent deeds their inherent meaning. This is part of the anthropologist’s job as I see it.

In this article, I shall first provide an overview of the emergence of social anthropology. In the process, I shall draw some hypotheses as to why violence remained very much at the periphery of the discipline. As stigmatization under essentialized categories is the common denominator of genocides, I shall then discuss the so-called colonial creation of ethnicity and examine the links between ethnicity, identity, and popular mobilization. Identity, indeed, appears as both instrumental and ideological as it mobilizes social groups and individuals and, at the same time, prevents any analysis of complex facts. Agency must be taken into account and contextualized if genocide is to be understood and prevention, effective. In the specific case of genocide, the State—or fractions of it with access to the State apparatus—leads organized crime. They do so under particular circumstances and through specific means that social and political scientists should identify. I shall go into more detail on this. When prevention has not succeeded, anthropologists can still be present as analysts of socially detrimental economic and political realities that can quite rapidly re-entrench themselves under a new guise. They could also analyze the work and instrumentalization of “imaginaires” (collective mental representations) that revolve around social reconstruction and are embedded in brokerage processes between a country and the outside world.

From anthropology and violence to anthropology of violence

Today, social anthropology may be broadly described as a scientific discipline dedicated to the study, based on empirical observation in contexts of interculturality, of human societies as they relate to their resources. Interculturality, originally resulting from the pre-colonial and colonial context from which the discipline emerged, has become one of its methodological tools. As is the case with all sciences, social anthropology and its manifold antecedents are embedded in the more general historical context of their production. Social anthropology evolved within social circles where violence was considered anti-social, and talking about it bad taste. As a consequence, the successive trends of social anthropology—evolutionism, functionalism, diffusionism and structuralism—did not provide the researcher with either the theoretical framework or the methodological tools to make violent practices an object of study in the Durkheimian sense of “seeing social facts as things.”

Only after the dynamics of social change had come to the fore in anthropological studies—largely thanks to the impulsion of the Manchester School of Anthropology and its leader of the time, Max Gluckman, a legal anthropologist—did conflict become subject to them. Statist studies were progressively abandoned—an unfinished process—while empirical data became more comprehensive and its analysis began to reflect the ambition of writing “from the people’s point of view,” as Geertz put it. These new approaches were bound to make social anthropologists more open to borrowing methodological tools from other disciplines and adjusting them to their professional field. Political science, economics and history, among other subjects, provided researchers with new insights, while the perception and description of violence remained problematic. In order to understand this attitude, we now have to take a look at other aspects of history.

Indeed, while the circumstances of the anthropological encounter had changed, most of its objects of study had become subjects moving towards political independence, while fundamental demands for respect fostered and sustained peoples fighting for autonomy. The violence of the colonial situation progressively weighed on the collective conscience of Western anthropologists whose work had been part of the colonial encounter (Pels and Salemink, 1994) by providing administrations with handy ethnic classifications, or by constructing a history that would justify alliances with local power-holders (Newbury and Newbury, 2000; Vansina, 2004). Politicians and leaders often make use of this biased history to mobilize people within the context of competition for resources. To give but one example, attaching ethnicity to a specific territory, as has been done by colonial administrations and by the most a-historical trends of ethnography, provides decolonized countries with tools to justify access to national resources (either natural or acquired by the State from international donors). While autochthony often held religious connotations in the past, it is currently at the ideological core of xenophobia and genocide.

Other distortions of reality resulted from attempts to match the observation of reality with the theoretical trends of the day. From colonialism’s dawn, White fantasies over local dangers overstressed the merits of colonial conquest while preventing the long-term spread of knowledge and mutual understanding. Imposing colonial rule went hand in hand with cultural alienation, occulted local values, and local customs rendered incomprehensible, or at best, re-interpreted in a way that served colonial and missionary interests. The decolonization process made the resentment that colonial violence had engendered, explicit, and in so doing, often created new bias. For example, taking local forms of violence and cruelty into account as a normal matter for study remained, and to some extent still remains, a taboo, as reactions to Turnbull’s book on the “Mountain People” have shown. It seems some people feel Africa as a whole should have remained what old trends in anthropology and travel stories had made it into: an idyllic space for projecting fantasies, one leading to the fake joys of exoticism.

Violence and the problem of identity

Many countries have tended to idealize their reconstructed past for nationalist purposes (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983). Historically, countries that had recently gained their independence were no exceptions: the legitimate quest for national pride often led to a merging of history with myth. Rigidified ethnicity was instrumentalized again, this time by local politicians in their quests for political hegemony. Ethnicity and other totalizing, essentialized identities, are especially effective in mobilizing people, as they are perceived as all-encompassing and often legitimized by reconstructed versions of an idealized past with which they are paired. As many cases exemplify, contradictions do not hinder this mobilization: responsibility for the “creation” of quasi-racial ethnic groups is put on the shoulders of the colonizer, while a mythic, local pre-colonial history can be created to justify the domination of one group over the other. With natural resources becoming scarce, and with economic competition becoming more intense in a monetarized economy, the quest for the past is very much a quest for the future, with autochthony becoming central in the argumentation of access to resources bound to a territory: natural resources, for sure, but also international funding.

While empirical studies and the study of social dynamics and conflicts began to fill more space in anthropological studies, with local interpretations of reality, social inequality and the effects of development policies coming to the fore, the cultural embeddedness of violent social practices of various kinds were, and still very much are, shunned in social sciences. When they are considered within the scope of studies, reactions can differ. Practices such as the genital mutilation of women cause public outcry, but are seldom studied within the scope of holistic studies that would help better understand the practice in order to combat it. Events such as genocides are treated in a much sounder way and without hesitation within an international legal framework, but the very horror they cause leads to tautological explanations that very often do not take the whole social and international context into account.

Yet the legal approach does not make a broad and complex approach superfluous, especially when one wants to foster a better perception and understanding of the circumstances leading to the specific kind of organized violence that is genocide, and possibly prevent its implementation. Organized outbursts of violence are still seldom studied as products of local interpretations of socio-political events influenced by worldwide economic forces. This is where anthropology can contribute to mutual respect and understanding, as long as we recognize the dark sides of humanity as equally shared among all of us. While in the past, some travelers and ethnographers confused total otherness with methodological distance, current anthropology stresses the need for intersubjectivity. This can only happen between mutually understandable “others,” as they manifest themselves, for better or worse, in their social practices and the expressions of their thoughts.

Europe has known terrible massacres and several cases of genocide. The process leading to genocide is foreign neither to the Americas nor to Asia. We can then conclude that the risk of genocide is universal under certain circumstances. Similarly, if we look at the history of our civilizations and various cultures, nowhere can we find a place spared by violence. Why would Africa be an exception? Certainly, violence varies in intensity according to time, place, social inequalities and political strife. Moreover, while structural circumstances can be quite similar from one place to another, what triggers violence depends on the local perception and construction of those circumstances; its implementation is channeled according to local cultural views and social networks and assumes specific forms. Most anthropologists and historians concede that no human society lives in isolation. Culture is, so to speak, a toolbox that human societies build and use to make sense of their lives and manage their world; culture reflects contacts with the outside in many ways that anthropology groups under the label of “creolization” (Hannerz, 1992) while insisting on the originality of each local synthesis.

This makes the empirical approach necessary in order to make the study of violence, war and genocide less exotic; by the same token, it will also be more complex. As anthropologists and historians alike have become aware of instances of political instrumentalization of the past, their task has become more demanding, with accuracy taking moral overtones (Vansina, 2004). However, neither ethnicity nor the violence inherent to the colonial encounter can account for civil wars and genocides taking place forty years after decolonization (Lemarchand, 1994). What is omitted from such simplifications is current agency: the State apparatus’ momentous instrumentalization of categories and history to organize violence against specific groups of its own population in order to achieve hegemony. Mobilization, in this case, diverts analysis and rests on the essentialization of characteristics, allowing for a reduction of the Other to a disposable, radical, otherness.

The frequency of the instrumentalization of ethnicity should not let us think this category is the only one that can be essentialized: religious affiliation can be transformed into a quasi-racial category, as happened in former Yugoslavia. The stigmatization of fluid categories such as social classes or age groups (Burgess, 2005; Arnaut, 2005) helps us better understand the process. Politicians attribute characteristics relevant to current issues to a group that others can easily perceive to be pursuing ends goals that conflict with the greater good or society’s so-called legitimate pursuits. The construction of behavioral traits is then essentialized (“racialized”), disentangled from any understandable context and bound to a social category made easily recognizable by this oversimplification. Very often, conflicting economic interests are at stake, but they are occulted and replaced by essential traits attributed to a specific group that becomes the target of all frustrations. Political mobilization can combine multiple categories such as age, ethnicity and socio-economic class, while the young are often recruited by political factions playing the generation card—which can lead to the mobilization of militias—to further their own interests. Politicians then resort to mobilizing youth and making promises whose keeping depends on the victory of their faction: in contexts of rapid socio-economic change, these promises include quick personal access to modernity and its material tokens, and to cash and other forms of wealth otherwise acquired through inheritance.

Agencies and stakeholders without borders

This brings us to a recurrent issue in anthropology today, namely the awkward opposition between identity and agency. While identity is an easy tool for political mobilization, it is also a perfect ideological tool because it conceals the aims of stakeholders at either the top (politicians, for example) or the bottom (personal motivations such as revenge or greed) and prevents the analysis that could lead to negotiations. Negotiations, indeed, can be perceived as a threat or a hindrance to some stakeholders, especially in situations of hegemony, or when circumstances make the quest for hegemony more urgent. Identity calls for apparent conformity while leaving personal pursuits unchecked. This is true in the field. It can also be true in the very human realm of academia. While politicians often deliberately divert analysis, social scientists who neglect to look behind the screen of identity do so unknowingly.

A very useful tool, social identity is not an explanation in itself but only becomes meaningful when seen as expressing the course an individual gives to his/her pursuits. An accurate understanding of all stakeholders is critical in identifying risk situations and preventing violence and genocide. This assessment involves combining political science, economics, and sociology with a realistic cultural approach, as identities and agencies are socially framed according to local world views. Local views and social practices, while constantly incorporating imported values, also build frameworks for the interpretations of events and channels through which mobilization can take place. In developing countries, these views and channels can differ widely according to wealth and contacts with various agencies (Hannerz, 1992). To give but one example, one cannot underestimate the role played by the media in Rwanda (Chrétien, 2002) but neither should it be overestimated, given that in many Rwandan areas only 25% of the population owned a radio and an even smaller percentage could afford batteries. It was, then, through the usual, informal channels of communication and social ties that mobilization could happen (de Lame, 2005; Fuji, forthcoming).

References to beliefs and traditions establishing cohesion are especially efficient in this mobilization. Social rituals (de Lame, 2004), religious practices (Ellis, 1999) and beliefs (de Lame, ibid.) can be diverted from their usual purposes as soon as new social divisions have been created by politicians and leaders; exclusion then becomes the complementary message of rituals of cohesion. By resorting to local ways and practices, to what is commonly called “tradition,” mobilization in the contemporary context of genocide becomes all the more effective as it brings extraordinary events—killing neighbors and kin—within the realm of everyday life (de Lame, 2004). When local leaders resist, outsiders are brought in, again according to ways familiar to the people: militias are engaged according to war traditions but their mobilization depends on modern motivations fuelled by a combination of frustrations and practices of a quasi-religious (or magical) character that reduce the future to the instant of action (de Lame, 2004; De Boeck, 2005; Comaroff and Comaroff, 2005:273) and give luck a chance. This is very much the sphere of witchcraft, as the deep perplexity that societies experience when faced with collective challenges (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2005:289) calls for a regeneration through organized violence (and eventually genocide) that provides actors with the switch to instantly restart the world. The initiators of events take the stance of initiators of the new history as they inscribe their deeds into the world while branding bodies and souls. This world is very much our common world, where faraway genocides resound with sinister tones in our own “imaginaire” (system of mental representation) as long as we do not try to understand the facts and carry our share of the burden.

Anthropology after genocide

A terrible gap separates anthropologists and scientists generally, from policy-makers and politicians. This gap widens leading up to the specific outburst of organized violence that is genocide, as the fight of politicians for hegemony, which lay behind mobilization, forecloses analysis. While the violence takes place, few – if any – academics are present in the field. Few journalists bother to capture complex background information. They can bridge the gap between the field and politicians but lack both the methodological distance and empirical proximity that would allow them to account for complex historical reality. Moreover, such an account would demand more than a quick reading, emotional public reactions, or political calculation. If anthropologists are academic stakeholders, politicians are more mundane ones, and their views can differ widely from those of academics. Some academics, however, manage to straddle both fronts. The post-genocide proliferation of writing on Rwanda testifies to this academic combination of opportunism and shock.

As far as developing countries are concerned, colonial superiority has given way to its post-colonial offspring: international development policies are implemented by foreign actors who feel superior and foster uniformity through the implementation of international “catechisms,” (Hibou, 1998) the creeds of which change over time. Observation, however, and the teaching of anthropology that derives from it, show that local diversity and complexity can divert their good deeds. In the case of Rwanda, the sudden influx of cash that development aid generated and the new inequalities it created were factors leading to fear and frustration (de Lame, 1996; 2005; Uvin, 2000). The side effects of good intentions are subjects of political and social studies but it seems that academic voices do not reach policy-makers while prevention is still the order of the day and the majority wants to think everything is going well. The specific role anthropologists can play by working at the grassroots level often remains unperceived: the image of the profession as linked to timeless, exotic societies contributes to this state of affairs unless, at the other spectrum of this image, they appear as intellectual trouble-makers.

But just as, say, identifying networks can help prevent mobilization, identifying stakeholders after a genocide can help rebuild a society based on a radically different perspective. This can happen through the careful investigation of grassroots realities and of how they are locally perceived and interpreted, and it is surely so in countries such as Rwanda, where the vast majority (90-95%) of the population, being rural, remains out of touch with the outside world. Working at this level is always difficult and extremely demanding. Undertaking it in the aftermath of a genocide can only be allowed by a trustworthy democratic government that cares for all members of its country’s population. This task binds the professional aim of the anthropologist—and other social scientists—to the defense of human rights because of the methodological neutrality both require.


On the whole, anthropology can play an effective role in identifying risks, preventing conflict and evaluating humanitarian aid, in promoting reconciliation and scrutinizing the possible political instrumentalization of international ethics. It does so within the special perspective of the discipline, which aims to approach social realities and strategies “from within” societies in order to help the outside world understand them. This approach produces works that are more complex than dumbed-down, media-friendly versions. Indeed, in order to be quickly understood and sold, the media oversimplify reality by reducing them to clichés easily understood by a wide audience. In doing so, they guarantee themselves a readership, a result anthropologists and social scientists cannot easily achieve because of the more complex nature of their endeavor and because they often do not bother to make their work accessible either linguistically or logistically (for wider distribution, for example). It also happens that they are driven by a desire for the production of knowledge that does not always match with the self-satisfaction some politicians and donors feel and display, or with the individual interests of politicians.

Taking sides is another means journalists can use to make their articles more attractive, by fostering a sense of participation among their readers. This last shortcoming is foreign neither to social and political scientists nor to historians (Pottier, 2002). However, their work can only be useful as long as they apply the standards of professional ethics and avoid being partial, use all their methodological tools to analyze facts and leave the reader free to make choices. As far as Rwanda and history are concerned, Vansina (2004) provides us with an example of history serving moral endeavors and social reconstruction (de Lame, 2002). One crucial lesson we can learn from his contribution is: after a genocide, it is important that life resume its course, and that knowledge and social interactions slowly integrate divergent memories into a present that makes sense of the past and leads everyone together toward a livable future.


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de Lame Danielle, Anthropology and Genocide, Mass Violence & Résistance, [en ligne], publié le : 4 Novembre, 2007, accéder le 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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