General methodology

The centrality of inter-disciplinarity

We intend to confront and combine approaches drawn from different areas of the human sciences in order to construct a common object of study: the corpse in mass violence. This project therefore brings together a group of researchers from the fields of anthropology, law and history, who all deal directly with the question of genocide and mass violence. The project’s aim is to shed light on the fate of bodies in situations of annihilation, a question which, for each of the societies concerned, is a matter of common sense as much as law or morality.

Interdisciplinary work is thus inscribed at the very heart of this research programme’s structure. At each stage of the programme, then, we aim to establish ever-closer exchanges between anthropology, which allows direct access to the sites of massacres, history, which retraces the temporal and spatial extent of the violence, and law, which, historically, has been the first discipline to attempt a comparative analysis of different genocides and to seek to theorise how societies react to what this violence has done to them. These exchanges between the three disciplines, has been made possible in the first instance thanks to the definition of a set of common methodological tools during the preliminary workshop that happened in June 2011. This dialogue should also be sustained during periods of study mission undertaken collectively in Europe (Belarus, Bosnia, Spain) as well as abroad (Argentina, Cambodia, Rwanda), with the aim of combining a diverse range of disciplinary perspectives from the data-collection stage onwards.

A qualitative approach

It is important to note that our approach aims to be qualitative rather than systematic or quantitative: what we are concerned with is the meaning of the social practices and discourses elaborated in order to negotiate this relationship with the bodies of the dead. Our approach is thus based on the analysis of a number of case-studies which exemplify certain highly significant historical and cultural configurations.

The examples upon which we have chosen to concentrate are sufficiently varied and numerous to allow a comprehensive typology of mass violence to be established. These will include internationally recognised examples of genocides (the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, the Cambodian and Rwandan genocides), as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity (committed in the former Yugoslavia), massacres (Darfur and Haiti), violence which is dispersed in geographical or chronological terms (as occurred in the Gulags or communist China) and political violence (such as that under the Argentine dictatorship or in Franco’s Spain).

Placing the Europe/World comparison at the centre of our analysis

One of the fundamental objectives of this work is to reveal the European experience in a new light and a new perspective in relation to the wider context of mass violence committed over the 20th century. Our approach is thus strongly comparative. Our research focuses on European mass violence. However, this research is opened out into a constant and sustained comparison with other emblematic instances of mass violence from the 20th century. Several European cases, such as Holocaust (J.M. Dreyfus), Armenia (S. Garibian), Bosnia (E. Claverie), Franco’s Spain (S. Wastell) will be complemented and elaborated upon using other examples from Asia (through the Cambodian genocide (R. Rechtman, A. Y. Guillou) and the Chinese famine (X. Zhou)), Africa (through the Rwandan genocide with N. Eltringham) and the Americas (through the example of political violence in Argentina with S. Garibian) as well as through comparison with the work of the International Criminal Tribunals (undertaken by C. Fournet). This programme, then, constitutes a real attempt at truly comparative analysis, since we seek in essence to define the extent to which it is possible to establish correlations between certain modes of destruction and certain political or symbolic motivations, as well as to go beyond individual cases in order to reveal which over-arching configurations and – if not which laws – which structures of motivation govern the destruction, identification and commemoration of bodies in phenomena of mass violence.