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Centre of Governance & Human Rights (CGHR)


4th February 2013

CGHR Research Group

Rethinking the Role of Ideology in Atrocities

Jonathan Leader Maynard (University of Oxford)

In the study of genocide and other forms of mass atrocity there is a widespread consensus that ideology matters. But in spite of this agreement all is not well with actual efforts to theorise ideology’s role. Theoretical and empirical coverage has been uneven, and there has been little if any effort by theorists to familiarise themselves with theories and research from the actual specialist field of contemporary ideology-studies. As a result, overarching theoretical accounts of the role ideology plays in violent atrocities remain limited and problematic. This paper aims to encourage theorists to think about ideology in a more systematic and productive fashion by analysing four questions: (1) what do we mean by ideology?; (2) who, in cases of atrocity, might be relevantly affected by ideology?; (3) why are these people successfully influenced by atrocity-justifying ideologies?; (4) how might ideology encourage these people to commit, or permit, mass violence? In discussing these four questions – and I shall focus primarily on the fourth – I aim to clear up a number of misconceptions or vagaries that frequent current analyses’ of ideology in works on atrocity and political violence. I ultimately offer a suggestive account of six recurring ‘justificatory mechanisms’ which collectively describe some of the common features of ideology’s role across cases of mass atrocity.

Discussant: Dr David Blunt (POLIS)