Sunday, October 14, 2012

So What is Your Dissertation Actually About?

I’ve been asked this question a number of times over the past few weeks.   So, I’ll attempt to explain it briefly, though I’m happy to answer questions or go into more detail.  

For my dissertation, I ask: What are the causes of genocide?  I know it’s a rather depressing topic, but I am simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by the fact that genocides continue to take place.  I like to believe that people are inherently good, though it’s often hard to maintain an optimistic viewpoint when faced with the reality that it hasn’t been uncommon for people to attempt to destroy others based on perceived differences. 

Many believe that those who commit genocide are psychologically ill.  However, numerous people participate in genocide; in the case of Rwanda, well over one million people participated in some form or another.  And, studies have shown that, more often than not, people who commit genocide are not psychopaths but rather psychologically “average.”  Thus, we have to look to other factors to understand genocide, such as the situational context. 

To attempt to understand the causes of genocide, I’m using several methods.  The first chapter (yes, dissertations consist of chapters; they’re essentially books!) is an event history analysis.  This is a type of statistical analysis of the preconditions of genocide in all countries over the last 50 years.   Using statistics, I essentially try to better understand the common factors in states that experience genocide (and those that do not experience genocide).  This includes a variety of factors, such as societal diversity, the type of government, resource scarcity, and international trading patterns.   Overall, I argue that societal, state, and international factors must be considered when trying to understand why genocides take place.

Statistical studies can be very useful to establish general patterns.  However, they do not allow a researcher to take specific histories into account.  Furthermore, myy statistical analysis only looks at causes of genocide leading up to genocide.  But, to understand the causes of genocide, we also have to understand what drives genocide.  How do genocides unfold?  Is there a process?  For these questions, I am working on three case studies.  For my non-social scientist friends, these are essentially in-depth looks at particular cases of genocide—the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan.  For each case, I’m trying to understand how the specific societies, states, and international factors combined to result in genocide.  Beyond this, though, I am also studying the process of genocides.  To do this, I am looking at how genocide unfolded over time and space; in other words, I am looking at temporal and regional variation in violence.  (For example, why were some months or some regions within countries more violent than others during the genocides?)  I am using several different methods, including visits to each of the countries and interviews with scholars, government employees, activists, and other citizens. Thus, if you are interested, next spring I’ll be posting about Bosnia, and next summer I’ll be posting about Sudan.

Thanks to all of you who have been reading this so far; I’ll be taking a brief hiatus but will post every so often.  I’ll also be posting more when I travel for the other two cases.


  1. Hollie! Wonderfully-interesting work!! Thanks for blogging ;)

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  5. What is your PhD going to be in, exactly? And where are you getting it from? I don't know if you'd be willing to offer such personal details - I visited Rwanda for a semester in post-conflict reconciliation during my undergrad and I've been looking into programs to further my study into genocide and its causes/prevention. Actually, any insight you could give into whatever program it is that you're doing would be very helpful!

  6. Certainly! I'd be happy to chat by email! Do you want to email me at