This article critically examines oversimplified categories—especially binary categorization—in analyses of collective violence. Researchers often use categories to make sense of complex situations. While they are necessary, these categories can oversimplify people’s lived experiences and can even directly harm individuals and communities during or after collective violence. Thus, we suggest that researchers continually assess their use of categories, and especially binary or otherwise oversimplified categories framed as mutually exclusive. To illustrate this argument, we focus on two major kinds of categories that researchers and others assessing collective violence often use: person categories (e.g., victim/perpetrator, civilian/combatant) and event categories (e.g., war/genocide, terrorism/insurgency). After highlighting issues tied to person and event categories based on our collective fieldwork experience, we propose that researchers can mitigate some of these issues through critical data collection and assessment, the triangulation of narratives, and the careful communication of research findings. We hope that this will help research on collective violence produce a more comprehensive understanding of suffering and resilience worldwide.
Problems with Oversimplified Categories in the Study of Collective Violence
Hollie Nyseth Brehm is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Ohio State. Her research examines mass violence and its aftermath, and she is currently the PI of two National Science Foundation–funded studies on transitional justice in Rwanda.
Michelle O’Brien is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Social Science Division at New York University Abu Dhabi. Her research focuses on the long-term social and demographic consequences of violent conflict. She uses a wide range of methods, such as semi-structured interviews, spatial modeling, and survey-based computational modeling.
j. Siguru Wahutu is an Assistant Professor in New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center of Internet and Society. His research examines the role of ethnicity and culture in media representations of human rights violations, global and transnational news flows, postcolonial land claims, and the political economy of international media, with a regional emphasis on postcolonial Africa.
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Hollie Nyseth Brehm, Michelle L. O’Brien, j. Siguru Wahutu; Problems with Oversimplified Categories in the Study of Collective Violence. Sociology of Development 2021; doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/sod.2020.0006
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