Harff’s Genocide Typology, Along with Some Explanation

I’m back, and I’m going to putting up a lot of academically-themed posts along with some of the usual news.  Today I’m raising, re-interpreting, and offering a slight critique of a typology of genocide that was offered a generation ago, as an early effort by a political scientist at a general theory of genocide.

Back in 1989, Barbara Harff–a researcher at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis who innovated a few crucial theoretical premises in the contemporary understanding of genocide–and Ted Robert Gurr co-authored “Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides,” a preliminary typology of genocidal episodes, in the political science journal International Studies Quarterly.  This typology was based on the motivations of the state in question:

“…(Our) definitions are not victim-centered.  Although the intrinsic characteristics of the victims are important, what is crucial are the characteristics and purposes of the state.  Of course the definitions reflect one of our basic theoretical assumptions: Whether an episode of mass killing is a genocide or a politicide depends on the combination of a state’s objectives, the motives of its ruling elite, the prevailing ideology, and the power relations within its authority structure.”

I make the same assumption about genocides, as is typical of current-generation theoretical work on the subject.  I make a few distinctions over the meaning of genocide is among different strategic contexts perceived by the state that will perpetrate it.  The basic point I want to make now (and which will be reasoned later) is that genocides are radical actions taken by nation states either to secure its territory in its state-building phase, or to prevent its loss.

“By our definition, genocides and politicides are the promotion and execution of policies by a state or its agents which result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a group.”  This definition of genocide is stricter than the Genocide Convention standard, which includes both conditions imposed to create mental anguish upon group members and conditions that make cultural continuity impossible; those qualifying conditions under international law are relevant from a moral as well as a legal standpoint, but undermine the conceptual coherence of the term, as I argued earlier.  However, this definition is still looser than Manus Midlarsky’s, which labels only those cases in which the state commits to policies designed to kill most or all members of a group as genocide, thus removing cases in which large numbers of an ethnic minority group are killed in ways which may qualify as crimes against humanity but which are still incidental to war or civil war.

They further elaborate that genocides are “victimized groups…defined primarily in terms of their communal characteristics, i.e., ethnicity, religion, or nationality,” whereas “In politicides the victim groups are defined primarily in terms of their hierarchical position or political opposition to the regime and dominant groups.”

This is where this research note gets complicated—and offers distinct theoretical contributions on this subject.  Harff and Gurr specify 2 types of genocide and 4 types of politicide:


“Hegemonial genocides: mass murders which occur when distinct ethnic, religious, or national groups are being forced to submit to central authority, for example during the consolidation of power by a new state or in the course of a national expansion.

“Xenophobic genocides: mass murders of ethnically, religiously, or nationally distinct groups in the service of doctrines of national protection or social purification which define the victims as alien or threatening.

“Retributive politicides: mass murders which are targeted at previously dominant or influential groups out of resentment for their past privileges or abuses.

“Repressive politicides: mass murders targeted at political parties, factions, and movements because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity.

“Revolutionary politicides: mass murders of class or political enemies in the service of new revolutionary ideologies.

“Repressive/hegemonial politicides: mass murders targeted at ethnically or nationally distinct groups because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity.”


This conceptual breakdown of genocide is so illuminating that I will adopt it without reservations or modifications.  In practice, genocides have always occurred in the context of attempts at either state-building or state-preservation; either rapid growth or rapid contraction of the state creates the favorable conditions for genocide.  This is the properly-understood context of the event.

Harff and Gurr’s typology of politicides, however, is both needlessly-complex and slightly misleading.  For one, I propose collapsing the category of “retributive politicides” into either repressive or revolutionary politicides, as in practice this quality of retribution, “targeted at previously dominant or influential groups out of resentment for their past privileges or abuses” occurs either in the context of fear of opposition (as is the case with repressive politicides) or in the case of perceived hindrance of an ideological program (as is the case with revolutionary politicides).  Furthermore, so-called “repressive/hegemonial politicides,” defined as “mass murders targeted at ethnically or nationally distinct groups because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity,” are a better fit for Stathis Kalyvas’ (2006) concept of “civil war violence,” which is the sum total of what is often reciprocal mass killing of civilians by both the state and insurgent groups aiming at separatism or social revolution.  Civil war violence is different from these other types of mass killing because it may be one-sided or two-sided, and in any case it may occur over the course of a long war rather than episodically as is typical with these other types, and it is geographically-contingent upon shifting zones of control in the war theater rather than the top-down, nationwide explosion of violence typical of genocides or politicides.

In acknowledgment of Kanchan Chandra’s recent (2008) definition of ethnicity as socially-contingent but inherited properties, I would modify Harff and Gurr’s general definitions as follows:

Genocide: The imposition by a state of conditions designed to destroy an impersonal hereditary group by the killing of most or all of its members.

Politicide: The mass killing by the state of the members of a voluntary association such as a political party, professional group or class of property-holders.


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