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Structural and psychological perspectives on the perpetrator of genocide

[journal article]

Marin, Roxana

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Abstract The present article is an attempt to briefly examine the general motivational matrix of the perpetrator of genocide and genocide-like historical episodes, with a special emphasis on two of the main explanatory directions, i.e. the psychological (both biological and social approaches) and structural-institutional ones. The study is preponderantly an individual-based inquiry, though such references as that to G. Le Bon's La Psychologie des Foules sketch the framework for social psychological perspectives on the genocidal killer. Though extensively concerned with psychological interpretations on the perpetrator of "mass political murder" (Chirot and McCauley, 2006) -which indeed abound in the literature consecrated to the topic and represent a perennial, although often repetitive, direction (Waller, 2001; Kelman and Hamilton, 1989; Blass, 1999; Milgram, 1974; Newman and Erber, 2002, etc)-, the paper favors the structural explanations, dominated by the sociological observations on the specific case of the Holocaust by Zygmund Bauman in the last decades of a "century of genocide" (Weitz, 2005), centered on the failure of modernity to sustain reason in a continuously developing context and on the subsequent alienation of the modern life. Subsidiarily, the impact of ideology is considered for the construction of the motivational mosaic turning ordinary men into perpetrators of genocide. The present analysis traditionally distinguishes between three layers of perpetrators (the leadership -the bureaucratic officialdom- the ordinary perpetrator), but insists on the ordinary perpetrator, the lower echelons of the infamous hierarchical mechanism of mass political killing. In its insistence, it discusses the "authorization" - "rationalization" - "dehumanization" explanatory scheme, the "peer pressure" hypothesis and the "neutralization theory", which constitute the basis for the debate on the perpetrator’s motives and rationality. On the other hand, for the perpetrator leadership, the classical discrimination between "intentionalist" and "functionalist" (Mason, 1981) is employed. Ultimately, in spite of the richness of psychological explanations, the paper concludes, structural explanations regarding the translation from ordinary people into killers can offer a more compelling, comprehensive account on the topic.
Keywords genocide; offender; motivation; neutralization; alienation; group dynamics; social psychology; historical development; social behavior
Classification Social Psychology
Free Keywords Entmenschlichung
Document language English
Publication Year 2012
Page/Pages p. 235-258
Journal Studia Politica : Romanian Political Science Review, 12 (2012) 2
ISSN 1582-4551
Status Published Version; peer reviewed
Licence Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works