An International Approach to Genocide and Mass Violence
Do you believe criminologists need to take an ‘internationalist’ perspective toward criminological research on topics such as genocide and mass violence?

Do you believe criminologists need to take an ‘internationalist’ perspective toward criminological research on topics such as genocide and mass violence?

I believe that it will be useful for criminologists to take an “internationalist” perspective toward criminological research on the topics of genocide and mass violence, but only as a starting point to understand better the framework for why these crimes occur (and how to effectively prevent these crimes from escalating).

international approach to genocide

The Need for a Local Approach

However, I disagree that there is a one-size-fits-all approach, meaning that a more local, focused approach should be considered after using an existing theory as a baseline to consider the situational aspects, such as ideology, obedience to authority, escalating commitment, and adaptation to group norms (Harrendorf, 2014).

For example, consider two tragic genocides in recent history - the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. In both instances, dehumanization occurred to neutralize the killing of a certain group of people (Harendorf, 2014). Tutsis in Rwanda were labeled cockroaches by the Hutu, while Jews in Germany (and Europe) were labeled as rats by the Nazis.

However, the conditions and causes of the genocides are arguably different.

The source of conflict in Rwanda can be attributed to colonial heritage, chronic bad governance, and inadequate and conflict-generating political systems, among other factors (Shyaka, n.d ).

In Nazi Germany, a gang of Nazi criminals with deeply-embedded anti-Semitic beliefs hijacked the institutions of the government, also among other factors (Maier-Katkin et al., 2009). From here, they ruled by igniting fear and nationalism (Snyder, 2018). Although, Neubacher presents the possibility that crimes like the Holocaust are “inherently unclassifiable, as they portray a unique, incomparable and incomprehensible incident” (2006).

With this in mind, we need to consider social psychology and sociology, which lay the groundwork for criminological theories, which are key to understanding decision-making. Yet again, there is no single copy-and-paste solution to making sense of genocide (if that is possible at all).

The Role of National Culture and Local Politics

I believe that national culture and local politics have an equal, if not more significant, impact on the causes of genocide than existing criminological theories applied on an international level. These theories should be modified for the scale of the crime applied to the specific situation.

As Harrendorf suggests, a modification is necessary when considering known criminological concepts and theories, keeping an open mind that completely new approaches may need to be developed after closer assessment (2014).

An Additional Thought

Finally, I’d like to suggest that individual theories can be applied to people in power, escalating the individual theory to a state level. Consider how a drug cartel leader will have influence and command obedience over a gang motivated by his own needs. What’s to say that a highly influential political leader could not have the same influence over a desperate or unstable society?

Again, existing theories, such as rational choice theory, could be applied to this situation, triggering mass violence through the control balance theory, as an example (Karstedt et al.). A power-hungry leader develops a strategy using cost-benefit analysis, and the imbalance in power leads to mass deviant behavior.


  • Harrendorf, S. (2014). How can criminology contribute to an explanation of international crimes? Journal of International Criminal Justice, 12(2), 231-252. 
  • Karstedt. S., Nyseth Brehm, H., & Frizzell, L.C. (2021). Genocide, Mass Atrocity, and Theories of Crime: Unlocking Criminology’s Potential. Annual Review of Criminology, 4, 75-97 
  • Maier-Katkin, D., Mears, D.P., & Bernard, T.J. (2009). Towards a criminology of crimes against humanity. Theoretical Criminology, 13(2), 227-255 
  • Neubacher, F. (2006). How can it happen that horrendous state crimes are perpetrated? An overview of criminological theories. 
  • Shyaka, A. (n.d). The Rwandant Conflict: Origin, development, exit strategies. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from;sequence=1. 
  • Snyder, T. (2018, June 14). How did the Nazis gain power in Germany? The New York Times. Retrieved February 19, 2023, from