Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa

PaulStanilandPhotoPaul Staniland, University of Chicago

Scott Straus has written an extremely important book, arguing that genocide has crucial ideological foundations, but that these conditions only lead to genocide when situational incentives drive a process of escalation. This contribution highlights the central role of ideas as a cause of genocide, while also outlining forces of restraint that can hold mass categorical violence at bay. Anyone interested in political violence must engage with this book.

Making and Unmaking Nations is driven by two observations. First, many existing explanations of genocide heavily overpredict its onset. Second, much of this literature does not systematically study “noncases” in which genocide could plausibly have occurred but did not. According to Straus, thin theories and sparse empirics limit our understanding of genocide and mass killing.

Straus offers several correctives to the unsatisfying state of the field. The most important is to insist on the causal importance of ideas. This is a leading contribution to a nascent ideational turn seeking to systematically incorporate ideas into our understanding of political violence. It marks a break from recent political violence research, which too often avoids or takes for granted political preferences, fears, and commitments in favor of purely organizational, strategic, and military explanations.

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Perspectives on Politics / Volume 14 / Issue 01 / March 2016, pp 202-203
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2016