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date: 20 April 2018

Geographies of Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, and War Crimes

Summary and Keywords

Extreme political violence, i.e., genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes, can be examined within three explanatory frameworks important to geographical thought: nature and society; spatial identities; and geopolitics. Extreme violence is often closely associated with humanity’s failure to overcome human nature. These are fundamentally geographical concerns in the sense that they relate to geography’s central interest in humans and their environment. Scholarly works abound with Hobbesian images, often presenting primitive violence as a pervasive social condition in the absence of an effective ruler. The literature on state failure presumes the same contradiction between nature and the social-political order, but in reverse: without a conventional sovereign, social conflict emerges over basic resources. These theories suggest that the causes of extreme political violence can be identified at the intersection of nature and society, where human behavior cannot be extricated from its biological and environmental condition. Identity is understood primarily as cultural difference. Identities are an important element in any explanation of extreme political violence given that it stems from conflict between sociopolitical groups that are defined by some degree of cultural difference. Classical geopolitical analysis of extreme political violence has retained environmental and biological factors as ultimate causes. They assume that scarcity of resources and population growth drive culture, territorialism, and conflict. In contrast, contemporary and critical approaches focus on the language and action of politics, such as statecraft, diplomacy, and popular mobilization.

Keywords: genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, geography, political violence, geographical analysis, cultural difference


Geographical studies of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes analyze the spatial dimensions of political violence as well as the social, cultural, political, and economic processes that produce and are produced by them. Such studies are largely produced by scholars from across geography’s subfields but are of primary relevance to political geography, population geography and demographics, and cultural geography. These subfields constitute part of human geography, a social science drawing on its own conceptual frameworks as well as those of allied disciplines, especially anthropology, sociology, and political science. Geographical studies of conflict and political violence are a growing area of scholarship often grounded in extensive fieldwork (Flint 2005). Yet geographical scholarship is often overlooked by larger disciplines, especially political science, that have failed to grasp the difference that spatial and place based concepts make in understanding the political world (Agnew 1999). Furthermore, geographers are engaged in developing explanatory frameworks to address the interaction of population, territory, and conflict, for which they are also methodologically well equipped. Among these contemporary disciplinary concerns that enliven geographical work are those of scale, place(s), and social space. Each provides important insights for understanding extreme forms of violence.

The first of these, scale, raises questions about the appropriate level and geographical units of analysis that are fundamental to identifying the geographies of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes (Herb and Kaplan 1999; Marston 2000). Indeed, the question of scale requires an understanding of how we conceptualize such phenomena, for example, whether genocide is understood as targeting a group’s global population or a localized substate portion of it (Dahlman 2005). This touches on many of the definitional questions that consume the debate over what, exactly, we mean when we speak of different forms of political violence. Moreover, we are reminded that the motivations behind political violence often refer to territorial scales other than the state, such as regions or particular places. In turn, places are defined as sites of human activity and shared meaning, including contested meanings and conflict. They are continuously being formed and reformed by the on-the-ground work of institutions, communities, and localized identities. Place in this sense is understood as part of a sociocultural process, in which some relatively bounded area forms more than an inert stage and becomes the medium of social discourse and the basis for defining a social situation by its participants. This does not imply that place is a wholly localized phenomenon; places necessarily relate to one another as elements of a region, and respond to processes operating at broader scales (Paasi 2003). The degree to which places and regions are made and remade through political violence, furthermore, varies according to how political, economic, and social forces play out locally (Keating 1997; Yiftachel 1999). These forces also produce mental maps of what ought to be, shaping political visions and driving action that may lead to the violent reconfiguration of social space.

Social space is the medium in and by which social and material relations mediate a world of difference. Whereas the term “geography” is often used to describe the effect of location, distance, and topography on social relations, social space foregrounds the ways in which humans make and remake space by changing relationships of power and civility. Like all geographical phenomena, social space is uneven, contested, and fragmentary; it is both the product of social forces and productive of them. Social space dialectically organizes social relations – such as “in” and “out,” or “us” and “them” – and is organized by those relations through processes of fear, exclusion, jurisdiction, etc. It is important to recognize that when contemporary geography writes of “territoriality,” for example, it does so in terms of how political space is produced, not some static bounded terrain (Sack 1986; Delaney 2005). These and other key geographical concepts contribute importantly to contemporary geographical accounts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes, as described in this essay. They are also useful in navigating the definitional questions of spectacular violence.

Defining Geographies of Extreme Political Violence

Geography means, literally, the describing of the world we live in. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes present basic definitional problems since it is not always clear what these terms describe (O’Lear and Egbert 2009). Certainly, the twentieth century gave us an aesthetic reservoir and visceral repertoire of atrocities, which now trigger powerful, visual memories, a sense of injustice, and the weight of enormous moral opprobrium. The gaunt expressions and emaciated ribs of camp prisoners; eyes peering out of boxcars; piles of bodies and mass graves; burning villages – these images recur in startling symmetry across the Holocaust, the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur, yet arise from quite different scenarios and evoke divergent responses among viewers about what they are witnessing and whether and how to “take action” (Campbell 2002a; 2000b; 2007). Victims of political violence and war frequently adopt terms like genocide and ethnic cleansing as an appeal to our common humanity. Yet these terms have been applied to cases that are quite different from the strict terms of the genocide convention or the original meaning of ethnic cleansing (Levene 1999; Davis 2001; Li 2002). The meanings of ethnic cleansing and genocide have thus become inflationary, as is evident in the proliferation of -cides, such as ethnocide, gendercide, classicide, etc. Obviously, invoking atrocity – whether for academic or activist purposes – is a political act.

Extensive scholarship has already detailed the origins and (mis)uses of the terms genocide (Power 2002), ethnic cleansing (Naimark 2001), and war crimes (Williams and Scharf 2002). What is worth noting here is that these definitions are premised on divergent geographical assumptions about agents, victims, and remedies involved. The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the agreements that define war crimes describe individual criminal responsibility. As they are defined in international law, these are crimes conceived and executed by individuals – what are subsequently sometimes called criminal enterprises – even though they typically occur within a wider set of public institutions that may involve thousands of persons. Ethnic cleansing, however, is not codified under international law, but is instead a bundle of practices, that may include genocide and war crimes that together form a strategy of violently reorganizing political space (Dahlman 2005; Rosière 2006). Victims are grouped according to quite different geographies. The Genocide Convention creates protected groups based on national, ethnic, racial, or religious identity, each of which invokes its own geographical distribution (Dahlman 2005). Ethnic cleansing rests upon the idea that at least the aggressors have a clear sense of ethnic affiliation and territory, even though the reality is far messier. War crime codes are primarily concerned with distinguishing combatants from civilians and protected classes of combatants, such as wounded or prisoners, each of which is highly contingent on the definition of battlefield and the composition of armed forces. The trial and punishment of these offenses, however, falls squarely on states or any competent organs they agree to form. Bodies such as the International Criminal Court are thus contested elements of the geopolitical order.

Furthermore, both scholars and the popular press describe these forms of violence with additional geographical assumptions. In the remainder of this essay, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes will be referred to separately and under the more encompassing term “extreme political violence” while their analytical purchase will be examined within three explanatory frameworks important to geographical thought: nature and society; identities; and geopolitics. The literature reviewed is not all by geographers but addresses important geographical questions across several disciplines. Some of these disciplines maintain deterministic explanations that contemporary human geography explicitly rejects, though such assumptions figured prominently in geography’s past (Danielsson 2009). This is especially so with the first framework that relates to the natural environment and human biology. Such theories maintain a prominent place in the popular imagination and some scientific subfields, thus requiring that we distinguish between natural and sociocultural explanations of violence. In this manner, we can separately focus on how social space is conceived as either a vessel of cultural homogeneity or else a cauldron of inevitable conflict. These explanations are distinguished from a third literature that focuses on how violence becomes part of geopolitical projects to reorganize power, populations, and places within a society.

Nature, Society, and Extreme Political Violence

Extreme violence is often closely associated with humanity’s failure to overcome human nature. These are fundamentally geographical concerns in the sense that they relate to geography’s central interest in humans and their environment. Popular representations of genocide often portray the causes, methods, and victims as inextricably bound to a natural condition of want and fear. Hobbesian images abound in scholarly work, as well, often presenting primitive violence as a pervasive social condition in the absence of an effective ruler (Gat 2006). The literature on state failure presumes the same contradiction between nature and the social-political order, but in reverse: without a conventional sovereign, social conflict emerges over basic resources, albeit for diverse reasons (Homer-Dixon 1999; Le Billion 2001; Cooper 2002). These theories suggest that we may identify the causes of extreme political violence at the intersection of nature and society, where human behavior cannot be extricated from its biological and environmental condition. Like all theories that attempt to identify and explain extreme violence, these theories are beset by two problems. First, there is a lack of sufficient empirical data from before and after such events, rendering any explanation partial, at best. Second, explanations from nature are controversial because they often select too narrowly from among the causal factors leading up to violence or because they misidentify the causal relationship itself. More generally, these same problems plague explanatory models that identify the causes of human events in biological or environmental factors (Bell 2006).

Biological explanations of human behavior tend to focus on the manifestations of the pre-social, physiological composition of our specific nature, i.e., the human species. The various approaches included in this category include both deeply troubled theories such as social Darwinism and those based on genetics or neurobiology that have more recently come into favor as explanations of social behavior. Earlier, imperial geographies of human difference drew heavily from ideas such as Lamarckism, which described an evolutionary process by which learned characteristics were passed to offspring (Livingstone 1993:177–215). Human variety came to be seen as partially a consequence of accumulative improvement, or lack thereof, in response to environmental conditions. Such racialist and eugenic theories were based on what was at the time scientifically accepted proof, namely that human subpopulations could be identified through their characteristic phenotypes and that these differences explained apparent sociocultural differences. The appearance of extreme violence was thus considered biological, a function of competition over life’s necessities (Livingstone 1993).

Primate behavior is often cited as an appropriate analogy to human aggression and territoriality. These traits are typically interpreted as a survival instinct. Ethology, a field of study that compares behavior across species, shares with general evolutionary approaches several assumptions about the source of violence. First, these fields situate human violence as a species-trait resulting from natural selection. Human violence is an adaptive trait positively selected in the survival of the human species because it improves the chance of accessing resources and mating partners (Lorenz 1966). The gendered dimorphism of humans, furthermore, informs theories of a prototypical “demonic male” as the origin of violence (Wrangham and Peterson 1996). Control of territory serves as a proximate causal construct to explain violence, which is ultimately driven by survival and reproduction instincts. More troubling is the assumption that control over territory is necessarily an exclusionary activity; groups cannot commingle without conflict. Second, these approaches assume conditions of competition driven by scarcity that emphasize conflict behavior.

Like other social sciences, evolutionary explanations tend to ignore the more common pattern of conflict avoidance and cooperation because scientists assume such behavior is driven by the benefits of an absence of violence rather than the presence of altruism. In contrast, more recent primate studies present evidence that aggressiveness is more likely learned social behavior and that some species can learn non-aggressive behavior quickly, e.g., within hours (Sapolsky 2006). Social learning, therefore, proves to be a powerful agent capable of shaping and reshaping behavior, a hypothesis that allows for long periods of nonviolence as found empirically in human history. Accordingly, territory might be reconsidered as a field of social relations allowing for both cooperation and group interaction rather than exclusion and dominance. In other words, human biology is not necessarily the last word on aggressive behavior, as argued by some. Indeed, our biology may be an inert factor in violence or it may contribute to cooperative and pacific patterns (Aureli and de Waal 2000).

Environmental factors are also frequently cited among those driving social instability and conflict. Although such studies are not necessarily concerned with evolutionary behavior, they nonetheless privilege presocial natural conditions in explaining political problems. Malthusian explanations of conflict presuppose the role of environmental scarcity, especially food shortages, as an ultimate cause of political violence (Kaplan 2001). Contemporary environmental theories, however, recognize a more complex set of causal relationships between humans and nature by which social institutions are partially productive of their environments instead of being held wholly hostage to them (Dalby 2002). Environmental security as described by Thomas Homer-Dixon attempts to explain how scarcity becomes a factor in conflicts, though it is neither a sufficient nor a necessary one (Homer-Dixon 1999). Critics of scarcity arguments argue that land tenure systems, agricultural economies, and disadvantageous terms of trade, among other factors, make it exceptionally difficult to suggest that local shortages drive extreme violence (Peluso and Watts 2001). To be sure, environmental resources are fundamental for human life, providing a range of services from subsistence to national economic growth. But how important is the environment among other factors in explaining extreme political violence? The answer depends on how we model (or imagine) human–environment dynamics, a basic concern of geography.

Most models of environmental conflict are based on Malthusian assumptions of scarcity relative to population growth. Once growing demand outpaces resources, communities and households turn to violence to provide for themselves. The problems with this line of reasoning are many. First, scarcity and competition arguments are often crude proxies of violence caused by evolutionary instincts – falling back, in other words, on to biological determinism of social conduct. Such an example is found in Robert Kaplan’s Malthusian interpretation of conflict in Africa (Kaplan 2001). Similarly, Jared Diamond, an evolutionary biologist, argues that the Rwandan genocide was the realization of “Malthus’s worst-case scenario” (Diamond 2005:327–8). Second, scarcity arguments often confuse a condition of want with resource degradation, i.e., assuming that less equitable resource access is the same as fewer resources overall, when the opposite may be true (Fairhead 2001). Still, Diamond explains the Rwandan genocide as a function of inequitable, fragmented, and degraded landholdings that created “impoverished, hungry, and desperate” people but he does not adequately address productivity levels, social marginalization or food distribution schemes that necessarily link land and motives (Diamond 2005:322). A third problem, which Diamond grudgingly admits but cannot explain, is that factors other than population pressure are at work in genocide. In contrast, Homer-Dixon dismisses scarcity as an explanation for the Rwandan genocide that was instead, he argued, almost entirely “a conventional struggle among elites for control of the Rwandan state” (Homer-Dixon 1999:16–17). Indeed, numerous intervening political, social, and economic institutions bear heavily on human–environment relations (Des Forges 1999; Melvern 2006).

In contrast to scarcity models, extreme political violence might be the outcome of resource abundance. While both scarcity and abundance theories argue that material conditions drive political relations, the violent seizure of abundant resources may have little to do with evolutionary prerequisites. Accumulation strategies often employ violence to secure exclusive access to resources (Le Billion 2001). Primitive accumulation was how Marx described the violent dispossession of agricultural workers during the expropriation of their land (Marx 1887; Harvey 2005:159–65). It is also worth underlining that Marx described humanity’s material condition in terms of its “species being,” which is wholly the outcome of social relations, not natural preconditions. Economic conditions, such as that which drove up land prices in Rwanda, suggest that maintaining ownership rather than averting hunger might better explain some connections between resources and violence (Fairhead 2001:218). Violence as a strategy of accumulation is also more felicitous with the economic motivations of modern nationalist movements. Serbian paramilitary units responsible for much of the ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia during 1992 maintained a relatively clear division of spoils as “payment” for their services (Andreas 2004). These lootable resources – gold, jewelry, cars – were easily removed, leaving local Bosnian Serb political leaders to divide local immovable assets and office among themselves (Ó Tuathail and Dahlman forthcoming).

Preserving biological “purity” and seeking to correct injustices in the distribution of resources have certainly figured prominently in many justifications for political violence. It is dubious that these factors are the ultimate cause of social relations or necessarily drive societies toward violence. More importantly, the failure of these theories to explain the absence of extreme violence despite similar environmental preconditions casts doubt on the explanatory value of evolutionary arguments. Economic advantage is clearly an intended outcome of much extreme violence; however, there is little basis for accepting it as a causal factor, at least not by itself. More usefully, authors have sought to understand how localized cultures of political violence assert biological and environmental claims in mobilizing extreme violence. Michel Foucault’s description of biopolitics is here instructive as he describes the means by which the production of “scientific” knowledge about race, nation, and ethnicity creates the social power to imagine killing the other in order to let one’s own live (Foucault 2003:254–63). In not dissimilar terms, Ben Kiernan (2007:23–33) describes how a cult of cultivation and the desire for land circulate within the genocidal imagination. The Rwandan president and his coterie had painted their political movement as the “peasant revolution” overthrowing Tutsi “pastoral feudalism”; killing was the intentional work of “clearing the bush” (Kiernan 2007:565–6). Violently asserting such archetypal attachments to land is a function of contemporary politics rather than ecological necessity.

Spatial Identities and Violence

Public and scholarly interest in genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes are often energized by questions of identity, understood primarily as cultural difference. The literature on ethnic and nationalist forms of conflict and violence is vast, containing numerous and often divergent explanations of why identities are at the center of extreme political violence. The brutality of interethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Darfur, and East Timor deserves analytical attention, for good reason. These are also exemplary cases of the “new wars” that blur the distinctions between states and insurgents, combatants and civilians (Kaldor 1999). Brubaker and Laitin (1998) argue that the growing “ethnicization of political violence” is due to some states being too weak to overcome substate challenges, which often mobilize ethnic identities around struggles over power. More broadly, the collapse of Cold War structures meant that localized power struggles were no longer cast as ideological struggles, relying instead on other forms of legitimation (Brubaker and Laitin 1998:424–5). This historicist explanation does not preclude the role of identities in earlier conflicts but suggests instead that participants and observers did not always interpret conflict in terms of ethnic identity. Consequently, the “identity turn” in the social sciences has meant that many questions regarding extreme political violence are conceptually framed as sociological or behavioral issues.

This raises the question, however, of whether identity is a necessary and sufficient cause of violent conflict or merely one factor in a much larger and more complex set of sociopolitical dynamics. There is little agreement on the answer to this question, in part because of the wide range of social scientific theories about identity across the disciplines, which also employ different methodologies (Hale 2004). Important, empirically driven studies of ethnicity, conflict, and violence, however, conclude that major episodes of interethnic violence are “extremely rare” (Fearon and Laitin 1996). Interethnic peace and cooperation are not without incident, however, and some authors have sought to explain how inter- and intraethnic social institutions mitigate the potential for minor events to spiral into large-scale violence (Brubaker and Laitin 1998). This requires focusing attention on to larger and more complex social categories and relationships that often cut across ethnic and nationalist lines. Still, as Brubaker (2004) argues, too many studies of ethnic and national identity suffer from the underlying assumption that nominal cultural differences necessarily lead to sociopolitical conflict and violence.

Yet it is undeniable that identities are an important element in any explanation of extreme political violence. Analysis of the forms and patterns of violence convincingly turn up evidence that identities are a politically salient part of the conflict leading up to violence. Genocide as both an analytical and legal category depends upon the victims sharing a group identity. Ethnic cleansing is by definition a form of violence to remove the presence of a cultural group from a particular territory. It is not necessary, however, for the perpetrators to share a common identity, although most interpretations of these crimes assume they do or, at least, that perpetrators act in the name of a group. War crimes, as they are codified, do not consider identities, per se, but prosecutors often invoke identity as the motivation for persecution. More typically, extreme political violence is understood as resulting from conflict between sociopolitical groups that are defined by some degree of cultural difference. These definitions of culture may depend upon broad categories such as “race” or upon exceptionally narrow, even invented, differences such as ideological tendencies, for which the effective genocide of Native Americans by European settlers and the intra-Khmer genocide, respectively, serve as examples (Kiernan 2007; McDermott 2009).

The identities associated with genocide and ethnic cleansing, especially races, nations, and ethnic groups, are often studied by social scientists as composite actors whose members share a common viewpoint, motivation, or socioeconomic position. Nation and ethnicity are the most common categories of both practice and analysis, even if they are not described as such but through nominating referents, e.g., Serbs. These categories are used interchangeably with subtle differences, although nations are often portrayed as the product of expressly statist aspirations of a particular population while ethnicity relates to political identities of substate or transboundary cultural groups (Calhoun 1993). In modern history, both nation and ethnicity have been defined in highly cultural terms; that is, nations and ethnic groups are both culturally distinct groups with differing relationships to the state (Eriksen 2002). Problematically, the two terms are sometimes used equally by political actors and social scientists, potentially secreting political meaning into the analysis of those very categories (Brubaker and Cooper 2000). Most definitions of nations or ethnicity are predicated on differences between groups being far greater than the differences among each group’s members. This can collapse into groupist logic – a compositional fallacy in which the opinions and actions of a few are taken as representative of the whole (Brubaker 2004).

The popular imagination of nations and ethnic groups draws heavily from Romanticist ideals of group identity formed within natural history by processes directly or analogously based on biological, evolutionary, or environmental requirements for group survival (see, for example, Harvey 2000). Consequently, these so-called primordialist renderings presuppose that nations or “ethnies” are already socially and culturally meaningful groups prior to modern political history with strong place-based attachments (Smith 2008). The basic features of primordialist explanations of violence are drawn from their need to confront existential challenges to the group and the idea that conflicts “naturally occur” between groups, rather than being struggles for power between leaders or cadres. Primordialist explanations of violence do not always feature evolutionary impulses as the immediate causal variable, nor are they entirely deterministic. Influential authors such as Smith (2008) draw instead on the symbolic resources of language, religion, and other symbolic registers to explain group solidarity. Whatever their ultimate source, these authors view group differences as basic and largely insurmountable features of social and political life.

Influential primordialist renderings are common features of journalistic interpretations of conflict and violence. Robert Kaplan’s writing on conflict in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central Asia has done much to popularize the idea that ethnic antagonism is deep-seated and long-lived. His telescopic histories convey a sense that places which experienced identity-based violence in the past will continue to do so, although he offers no transhistorical causal mechanisms to account for his warnings (Kaplan 2000; 2001). For him, the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia derives from a nearly subconscious culture of cyclical violence and retribution (Kaplan 2005). Academic work, such as Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis, paints cultural enmity on an even bigger canvas, drawing lines of conflict between meta-cultural groupings on the world map.

The criticism of primordialism is extensive and lies beyond the purpose of this essay (see, for example, Tambini 1998; Geary 2002). These approaches do, however, share several problematic assumptions about social space that have to date been paid scant attention within the geographical literature. First, primordialist approaches assume that group membership is sufficiently clear to the actors and that meaningful social boundaries exist between groups. Consequently, groups are normatively defined as having their own social space, to the general exclusion of others. Second, these assumptions support a concept of cultural distance that approximates the degree of difference between two groups. Cultural differences are assumed to track some sort of “natural” geographical separation. This collapses economic, political, and other relationships into cultural terms. Third, cultural distance is thought to be inversely proportional to the potential for conflict. The less distance separating different cultures, the more likely they are to fall into conflict; the greater the cultural difference, the greater the need for physical separation. Conflict resolution, therefore, may be achieved by creating a physical distance between peoples commensurate with cultural difference. These assumptions share much with now rather dated evolutionary depictions of premodern life.

In contrast, constructivist accounts of national and ethnic groups focus on modern institutions capable of creating horizontal solidarity across relatively large non-intimate populations. As applied to nationalism, constructivist explanations dwell heavily on the organization of industrial economies or the formation of states as processes requiring the formation of solidarities that previously did not exist. These processes are exercises in the creative destruction of societies whereby structures of localized familial obligation and belonging are reoriented towards a broader horizon of solidarity (Gellner 1983; Kedourie 1993). As applied to ethnic groups, constructivists seek explanations of their appearance in the formation of modern cultural institutions especially as they develop with the state and economy. It is by no means certain that ethnic groups are meaningful without reference to the state, and as a basis for political motivation they are effectively nationalist movements even if their demands are limited to local or regional rights.

National and ethnonational movements also often write their own histories or invent new interpretations of history. These help to frame contemporary facts in ways that justify separatist, chauvinistic, or violent policies as the outcome of long-standing group interests. In a similar fashion, the membership and significance of ethnic or national groups is not static. Group leaders are often effective at mobilizing and demobilizing segments of their membership, policing conformity and marginalizing dissent (Fearon and Laitin 2000; Gagnon 2006). Likewise, the eruption of violence changes the dynamic of group identification, with cascading effects of polarization and fear (Brubaker and Laitin 1998; Fearon and Laitin 2000). The important difference between how group identities are used in practice and how they are used in social analysis becomes clear in explaining violence. The primordialist justifications used by nationalist politicians in exhorting violence are seen by constructivists as being the product of discursive and material practices fomented during a struggle for power within a society.

Dividing theories into primordialist and constructivist is not entirely satisfactory, however, as there are significant differences in approach and emphasis within each (Tambini 1998). So, too, are there important similarities among some of these competing accounts. Hale (2004), for example, notes that the primordialist–constructivist distinction loses salience on the question of whether ethnic identities are durable or malleable. In a similar vein, Brubaker (2004) takes issue with various theorists’ interpretation of ethnicity as a largely static and meaningful independent variable in explanations of conflict and violence. Geographical accounts of nationalist and ethnic violence raise several other issues, described below, that cut across the primordialist and constructivist distinction. The reasons for these lacunae have as much to do with the misreading of social space by analysts in other disciplines as with the general neglect of the topic among geographers (see, however, Yiftachel 1999; Paasi 2003). Although the literature on identity and violence is too large to summarize here, we can identify several sociospatial assumptions that need more careful analysis in many of the fields related to these topics, specifically assumptions about how territory, identity, and location contribute to conflict and violence.

To begin with, there is an important difference between explanations of territory and those of social space. In most political theories, territory is an inert object claimed for either its natural resources (e.g., arable land, minerals, living space) or its symbolic importance (e.g., historical homeland, irredentist bonds, land lost during conflict). As a resource, territory may be valuable in and of itself or merely as the realm of political power. Such claims to territory tend to regard group identity as something separate from territory, essentially casting group identity as pre-spatial. In these renderings, extreme political violence is epiphenomenal to the struggle for political power within a territory. Early renderings of the conflict in Bosnia tend to treat ethnic cleansing, for example, as merely the political struggle between ethnic groups taken to an extreme (Woodward 1995; Burg and Shoup 1999). In its abstract form, the idea that space is an inconsequential stage for action has been criticized within geography (Taylor 1994; Soja 1996; Agnew 2003), but the consequences of this critique have largely failed to inject spatial thinking into the work of scholars more directly concerned with institutional or social relationships in spite of its salience to their inquiries. An appreciation of social space begins by recognizing that space is more than an inert plain or resource but rather that it is a fundamental medium of social relationships. It enables and limits the possibilities of interactions and gives meaning to the complexity of life-worlds that are built around particular social conceptions of place, home, and community. It remains a concept of control over space but one that recognizes space as a social medium, shaped over time by practices, meanings, and imaginations that are not ephemeral and can entrench these particular social structures in the landscape (Lefebvre 1991).

This idea is perhaps more directly represented in the idea of “territoriality,” defined by Sack as “the attempt by an individual or group to affect, influence, or control people, phenomena, and relationships, by delimiting and asserting control over a geographic area” (Sack 1986:19). Ethnic cleansing and genocide are thus forms of remaking society by fundamentally altering the social space through violent removal and separation of sociocultural groups. But these practices are also bent on fundamentally reorganizing social space through: policing and violence that shift patterns and modes of belonging and ownership; the recomposition of public space and access to it; the erosion of social bonds of trust; the destruction of homes and a dispersal of communities; as well as the imposition of new regimes, laws, public cultures, and iconographies. Problematically, nationalist politics and diplomats trade in the currency of territory and misrecognize, sometimes intentionally, social space as merely an inert commodity to be haggled over. Too often, therefore, peace plans concede social space as entirely inconsequential to the “hard nosed” competition for space as asocial territory (Campbell 1999). The debate then becomes one over whether to partition or somehow reinforce the violent removal of populations as a means of “creating peace” (Kaufmann 1996; Laitin 2004). When civilian life and patterns of interethnic trust, shared livelihoods, and common institutions are themselves the target of political violence, as in ethnic cleansing and genocide, then territorial solutions always benefit the nationalists’ agenda to create “new political space.” The territorial fix meant to prevent continued conflict often blocks the paths toward restorative justice (Campbell 1998).

Parallel to the problematic assumptions of territory are those about identity. The study of identity is plagued by extensive conceptual imprecision to the point that the term has dubious utility (Brubaker and Cooper 2000). Among the conceptual problems with identity is the confusion of territorial referents and spatial dynamics. Most accounts of spatial identity accept uncritically the claims to homeland or region that become associated with identity’s political salience. Critical accounts of identity go a step farther in relieving identity claims from any necessary territorial content, often in the name of a type of constructivism that spills into voluntarism. Nonetheless, identities are part of a dynamic sociospatial process of interaction, communication, and bonding within and between putative identity groups as well as other socially relevant networks that thus changes the meaning and composition of those groups. Indeed, social identities are necessarily spatial, meaning that they refer to a socially mediated sense of place through the structure of meanings that interaction and communication attach to being there. To overlook this spatial aspect of identity, and social life in general, is to collapse all communities together by denying their materiality and meaning associated with place. As a result, there is no possibility of valuing the communities destroyed by ethnic cleansing and genocide except in terms of individual lives. The social requires a space.

Analyzing location means recognizing that social relationships and identities are neither determined by their territorial lexicon nor are they independent of a nexus in social space. Location, in other words, is known through the social relations it implies to place and to other locations, and not directly determined by Cartesian geography. Most approaches to identity, however, gloss over this social dynamic by relying on one of two locational interpretations of identity. On the one hand, many primordialists and some constructivists assume that social and spatial locations are naturally or preferably mutually exclusive: Even when groups commingle in the same territory, they operate independently of one another. Group differences give rise to conflict and may achieve extreme forms of violence in the process of separating and establishing a peaceful boundary. In this perspective, group mixture is an aberration or mistake, a product of coercive historical circumstance. These are often the positions of nationalists themselves, as in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, where forcibly separating the groups into different states was the primary wartime goal of the Serb nationalists (Ó Tuathail and Dahlman 2004a). Some have taken this metaphor farther to argue that the “natural” mixture of persons behaves analogously to alloyed metals, minimal separation being a necessary function of their material stability (Lim et al. 2007). On the other hand, many constructivist theorists and some primordialists assume that the source of deadly enmity is based on too much collocation among groups. Familiarity breeds contempt and thus life together provides a common and fertile ground for cyclical violence or the mobilization of difference in the struggle for power. Such processes are not necessarily reflective of differences in identity, per se, but rather articulations of disputes that can play out within any society or group. Mart Bax, for example, convincingly explains how escalating suspicions of political disloyalty during the Bosnian war sparked a violent feud between Croat families competing for tourism trade around the Catholic pilgrimage site in Medjugorje (Bax 2000).

The way out of these locational assumptions is not to view identity as a timeless independent variable that is the cause of conflict and violence, but to take more seriously the processes by which confrontation and enmity produce and redefine identities, galvanizing perceived differences into security dilemmas (Brubaker 1998; 2004; Brubaker and Laitin 1998; Brubaker and Cooper 2000). Still, cognitive approaches to understanding the dynamics of conflict and group formation have yet to take up seriously the clarificatory potential of social spatial concepts. They remain dependent on unproblematized interpretations of territory as a purportedly straightforward set of assumptions unrelated to the process of constructing identities. Yet critical perspectives on how political life produces meaningful social spaces of identity and enmity have been available for some time (Winichakul 1994; Krishna 1996; Ramaswamy 2002). Geographical approaches to these questions, however, rarely execute their research questions in the culturalist or historicist traditions of these more successful studies, nor by way of the social interactionist and behavioralist paradigms common in sociology, psychology, and political science (e.g. Herb and Kaplan 1999). This is an advantage in that political geography has largely avoided the slide into obscure quantitative modeling that dominates much of the work in the rational choice tradition. It is a disadvantage because geographical concepts of sociospatial processes are not incorporated into the more intensive research projects of allied disciplines.

Geopolitical Visions

A smaller number of more intensive, geographically relevant studies of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes have focused on how such forms of violence are imagined, rationalized, and executed according to particularistic visions for (re)organizing human populations and political space. As such, they are often subsumed under the mantle of geopolitics, understood in disciplinary terms as the spatial policies and practices by which power operates. This use of the term must be kept apart from classical geopolitics, which seeks to explain world politics in terms of natural causes. Classical geopolitical analysis of extreme political violence has retained environmental and biological factors as ultimate causes. They assume that scarcity of resources and population growth drive culture, territorialism, and conflict. Among the more neo-Malthusian arguments are those that take economic competition as the basis for contemporary conflict and violence. Political demography, in particular, focuses almost exclusively on positivistic correlations of population size to group power (Bookman 1997). Other authors have taken presocial geographical conditions, per se, as the underlying cause of enduring conflict. In particular, the work of political scientists who address forced segregation, partition, and secession frequently sustain the idea that only territorial solutions can resolve protracted violence (Kaufmann 1996; O’Leary 2001; O’Leary et al. 2001). Extreme political violence becomes an epiphenomenal consequence of boundaries drawn “incorrectly,” i.e., the failure of colonial state making to separate identity groups.

Contemporary geopolitics (see Murphy et al. 2004) and critical geopolitics (Ó Tuathail 1996) argue that classical geopolitics wrongly inserts a causal arrow – pointing from nature to politics – that obscures the machinations of political practice. Contemporary and critical approaches focus, instead, on the language and action of politics, such as statecraft, diplomacy, and popular mobilizations. Instead of the necessary response to natural conditions, these practices are recognized as particularistic claims about the world-as-fact, such as location and resources, which conceal much more shallow, ethnocentric ideas of world order and social power. The geopolitics of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes thus includes a wide array of work written from both positivistic (Wood 2001) and critical perspectives (Tyner 2008), but which equally illuminate the geographical assumptions of world politics and the spatial outcomes of political practices. These writings also adopt different objects analysis related to extreme political violence, whether demographics and forced migration (Dahlman and Ó Tuathail 2005), foreign policies (Ó Tuathail 1999), or territoriality and governance (Jeffrey 2006). There are, as well, geopolitical arguments made by scholars in allied fields, who recognize the importance of geographically sensitive explanations in more complete renderings of extreme political violence (Campbell 1999). These approaches attempt to overcome the methodological nationalism, frequently invoked in references to composite actors such as ethnicities or nations, without taking on the more social-psychological models employed in identity studies.

A number of critically minded scholars take as their starting point a desire to understand the rationalities involved in the production of extreme political violence. They analyze the modes of thinking behind murderous projects from a number of directions, whether as projects of the modern state, as the banality of evil, or the working of biopolitics (Agamben 1995; Billig 1995; Foucault 2003). Michael Mann (2005) offers a comparative study of extreme political violence that adopts a Weberian understanding of state and social relations. He argues that forms of political violence vary along two dimensions, the severity and form of the violence and the demographic extent of “cleansing.” These modes of violence arise through the interactions of the major sources of social power operating within modern society, ideological, economic, military, and administrative-territorial – a model for which his earlier writings are best known (e.g., Mann 1993). Political violence results from competing interests that subsequently identify particular populations as problems under their various projects. Importantly, Mann recognizes that there is no necessarily meaningful “societal” scale of analysis but that mobilizations, aggressors, victims, and tactics are embedded within territories and locations that range from nations and regionalisms to individuals and communities. Unfortunately, Mann’s sensitivity to scale often collapses geopolitics, or “outside” political involvement into mere context, while local events occur according to more stochastic uncertainties.

A separate mode of thinking draws on Foucauldian understandings of governmentality and biopolitics (Legg 2005). Geographies of governmentality attend to the spatial visions inherent in political agendas and practices, as well as the manner in which such projects form social practices that remake place and territory according to new “realities.” In keeping with Foucault’s analyses of power as the circulation of discursive categories and disciplinary practices within a society, geographies of extreme political violence seek to understand how population categories and the regulation of life are configured and disciplined within political agendas ranging from state power and nationalist movements to humanitarian work and reconstruction. Importantly, geographies of governmentality account for how identity, territory, and social space are put together within contested political projects with horrific outcomes (Ó Tuathail and Dahlman 2004a). James Tyner (2008; 2009), for example, argues that the Khmer Rouge did not merely commit genocide against perceived enemies but sought a larger, revolutionary project to recreate Cambodian society. In attempting to make not the new man but the new society, the Khmer Rouge remapped and remade Cambodia. They did so not merely metaphorically but as a revolutionary reorganization of social relationships, administrative technologies, and spatial identities built around their racist ideological project.

Geographers have also sought to understand how extreme political violence produces durable effects on the social and political landscape. These issues are often approached from critical geopolitical perspectives that examine the lives and places subjected to violent agendas that reorganize life-worlds and polities. The lasting outcome of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, was not simply a fragmented and weakly democratic governing structure but one premised on massive displacement and dispossession (Ó Tuathail and Dahlman 2004b; Dahlman and Ó Tuathail 2005). The subsequent efforts at restoring the rights of the displaced to regain property and return home were thus always subject to the flagging political will of international agencies to overcome the deeply entrenched ethnocracies created by ethnic cleansing in the first place (Ó Tuathail and Dahlman forthcoming). Geographies of humanitarianism also engage the visions carried by states and organizations seeking to intervene in or ameliorate devastated populations. The emphasis on human rights and the rights of the individual has given rise to a feminist political geographical analysis of how bodies in motion and ethics of care are managed and administered within national and international apparatus (Hyndman 2000). Nor can processes of justice and reconciliation escape the broader geopolitical questions of whose justice, how administered, where, and for whom? Despite their importance, these questions have been largely neglected by academic geographers. Important exceptions include Amy Ross, whose work on Guatemalan justice and truth commissions frequently addresses the role of multiscalar agendas, as well the importance of how such agendas unfold in a particular social and political context (Ross 2004; 2006; Oglesby and Ross 2009).

Extreme political violence has, indeed, been the outcome of geopolitical projects to reorganize populations and territories premised not merely on supposed historical injustices but as fundamental projects to alter, inter alia, multiethnic conviviality, political pluralism, and economic relationships. Such violence is not triggered by simply unleashing underlying resentments, but such passions must be stoked as part of the preparation for mass killing. Murderous political movements have frequently included intellectual cadres willing to legitimize future wrongdoing in a fantasized past. The Serbian nationalist movement, for example, was aided by academics who placed blame for troubles in late-Yugoslavia on their fellow south Slavic brothers (Cigar 1995). So, too, did Yugoslavia’s other nationalist movements find academics to support the contention that Yugoslavia’s borders were artificial and the population patterns unnatural. Similarly, in pre-genocide Rwanda, the professor of history Ferdinand Nahimana recast colonial and postcolonial history to legitimize the Hutu claims as part of Habyarimana’s broader effort to prime the population for the coming violence (Kiernan 2007:560–2). Such revisionist histories share a common geopolitical tactic to cast the arrangement of peoples and space as artificial byproducts of authoritarian or foreign interference.

Geography as Committed Research

Geographical analysis is well suited to addressing the obstacles to better understanding and, ideally, preventing extreme political violence. First of all, geographical concepts are integrative and have the potential to reverse the trend toward narrower, instrumentalist studies that examine only those factors that fit particular methodologies. Integration might also remedy the proliferation of neologisms, such as culturecide, classicide, gendercide, bibliocide, domicide, that dissect the outcomes of political violence at the expense of their broader context. Likewise, sensitivity to the interaction of politics at different scales can overcome the disconnection between geopolitical structures, local polities, and the situated social and economic processes that give rise to violence. Integration might also address the methodological individualism of war crimes proceedings by reintegrating the story of individual aggression and victimhood into a multiscalar setting of life-worlds and polities. The landscape concept provides a means by which to reconnect the important relationships between local demographics, economies, and cultural practices that lie at the middle of political violence. Both scale and landscape relate importantly to the social construct of place that is often at the heart of political incitement as well as the necessary medium of reconciliation. These concepts relate in important ways to human security in general, which is dissatisfying for its lack of geographical specificity. Geographers already understand how local communities are affected by depopulation, displacement, and technical problems such as landmines and resource extraction – problems that fundamentally alter places and landscapes and resonate across multiple scales.

Secondly, geographical approaches provide scholars with enormous facility in raising awareness and seeking to prevent extreme political violence. This potential results primarily from an emphasis on fieldwork, which geography shares with a dwindling number of fields in the social sciences. It is also the result of a commitment to studying particular areas and regions in their entirety, which provides geographical scholars with a deeper, more nuanced sensitivity to subtle shifts and trends that might signal trouble ahead. No doubt, this potential has been decimated by the focus on geographic technology, such as geographical information systems and satellite image analysis, at the expense of both traditional area studies and critical geographical inquiry (de Blij 2004). Nevertheless, many human geographers regularly employ situated fieldwork and analysis that provide rich empirical studies of populations, social and environmental conditions, and changing political and economic practices. As such, committed researchers are well situated to make observations about the precursors to violence, such as the eight warning signs of genocide (Stanton 1996).

Finally, as logical field observers, researchers should raise pointed questions among multiple publics when they find discourses and practices of segregation, marginalization, and victimization, documenting the attempts to polarize populations or their preparations and organization for violence against targeted groups. This does, indeed, raise ethical dilemmas for researchers whose research permissions might be withdrawn, or worse, but of what value is fieldwork if it is not made relevant to the lives of the politically vulnerable? Even geographical techniques may be usefully employed in taking a more committed stance against organized violence. The Office of the Geographer of State has recently made available aerial imagery of the genocide in Darfur through the popular GoogleEarth software (Levinger 2009). The Yale Genocide Studies Program has also incorporated geographic techniques to document discernible changes to the physical environment, thus bearing witness to the myriad effects of politics at its worst.

Scholarship on genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes has a number of purposes. Ideally, the inquiries made as to the origins and factors of organized violence against innocent people are made in the hope of prevention. However, every similarity found among violent episodes is tempered by diverse social, political, and economic preconditions. The laudable effort to find an Archimedean point has yet to produce singular explanations that could inform meaningful prevention. Moreover, wrongdoing is not necessarily the result of ignorance; previous studies of genocide have raised awareness as certainly as they have not prevented it from occurring again. Indeed, each violent episode has its Cassandra, ignored for political expediency. Yet scholarship can also bear witness to human suffering in hopes that some sense of justice, however small, will result in naming the accusers and remembering the victims. We must also be aware that public interest in these topics is often less committed to prevention and justice than to assuring those in the zones of geopolitical stability that their countries’ political traditions and security calculations are somehow automatically justified in the absence of such violence. Of course, even a brief history of such countries will reveal the deeds committed in the name of nation, security, and prosperity. A geographical commitment to describing our world therefore includes an ethical responsibility of care in rendering lives and places shattered by political violence.


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Woodward, S. (1995) Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War. Washington: Brookings Institution Press.Find this resource:

Wrangham, R.W., and Peterson, D. (1996) Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Find this resource:

Yiftachel, O. (1999) Between Nation and State: “Fractured” Regionalism among Palestinian-Arabs in Israel. Political Geography 18 (3), 285–307.Find this resource:

Genocide Watch. At, accessed Apr. 10, 2009. Seeks to raise awareness and influence public policy toward the prevention and punishment of genocide and other forms of mass murder. Site contains historical documentation and references to additional resources. Directed by Gregory Stanton, Genocide Watch is part of the International Campaign to End Genocide.

Genocide Studies Program (GSP), Yale University. At, accessed Apr. 16, 2009. The GSP, under the direction of Ben Kiernan, posts regular updates to ongoing research programs. Includes lists of publications, presentations, and databases related to genocide studies.

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. At, accessed Apr. 12, 2009; and, accessed Apr. 5, 2009. Online documents on the war crimes tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Established by the UN Security Council, these tribunals handed down the first convictions for genocide under international law. They have established important precedents and juridical interpretations for prosecuting numerous offenses.

International Criminal Court. At, accessed Apr. 15, 2009. Established in 2002 by the Rome Statute and recognized by 108 countries. Its jurisdiction covers individuals accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes but applies only to nationals of states party to the statute, or those referred by the UN Security Council.

AAAS Science and Human Rights Program. At, accessed May 23, 2009. Initiative involving scientific application of geospatial technology to monitoring and verification of human rights violations. Provides excellent case study of refugee flows during 1999 ethnic cleansing, as well as studies of other crises.