‘Scholarship is divided into branches, and that leads to silos’

16 March 2021

The NIOD hybrid expert symposium ‘Holocaust and Genocide Studies: Looking Backward, Moving Forward’ will take place on Friday 9 April. It is meant to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies domain at NIOD and the University of Amsterdam, but its significance goes beyond that. Uğur Üngör, senior researcher at NIOD and professor by special appointment at the University of Amsterdam, explains.  

The text announcing the symposium on 9 April says that one of its aims is to bring together ‘the body of knowledge’ in the study of war, genocide and Holocaust and the respective ‘intellectual communities’. Are there in fact huge gaps between researchers in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and their bodies of knowledge?

'Scholarship has become highly specialised over the past hundred years. Early in the twentieth century, scholars could still write on a range of subjects. Today, scholarship is divided into many branches that take the form of specialisations and subspecialisations that result in publications. Researchers are required to read a lot of literature to stay up to date so that they understand where gaps in our knowledge exist. But it’s hard to keep up when there are so many papers and books being published. It would take ten years to catch up on all the literature published in your own area of specialisation, let alone the publications in other areas.

The result is that researchers in war studies and researchers in genocide studies no longer talk to one another enough. For example, a war studies researcher investigates a battle and the tactics of an artillery unit, but doesn’t think about questions like ‘How come violence in this period wasn’t restricted to armed groups but was also used against unarmed civilians?’.

In short, all the branches into which scholarship is divided lead to silos, a sort of tunnel vision in which researchers forget to consider other fields of research in their thinking and investigations. Those silos prevent researchers from taking a helicopter view and from interacting with researchers in other disciplines.

What’s difficult is that you have to specialise if you want to delve deeply into a subject. You can’t just keep reading widely. Reading widely is at the expense of depth, but depth is also at the expense of a wider view, because you forget to factor in the perspectives of other specialisations and fields of study.

This symposium will help researchers to broaden their outlook and will also foster networking. There will no doubt be many other symposiums after the 9 April event.'

You will be a panellist during the symposium session entitled ‘What is the future of genocide research?’. What is the future of genocide research, in your opinion?

During the symposium we will take stock of the research field and ask ourselves which branches of study are most productive. There is an imbalance in the field at the moment. We know quite a lot about some genocides, for example the genocide of European Jews during the Second World War. Around four thousand books are published on that subject every year. On the other hand, only a fraction of those four thousand books may be published covering the genocide in Cambodia. This is a problem. It means that we cannot describe the general process of genocide, and as a result, we also cannot accurately identify the causes of genocides and the common denominator. That is why there needs to be more research on the various genocides.

I also see a multidisciplinary future for the field. Historians study genocide, of course, but so do anthropologists, so do sociologists – you name it. If we were to merge our knowledge into a broader intellectual stream, we would gain more insights.

Are you yourself doing more research on unexamined genocides?

My dissertation, which I wrote in 2009, was about the Armenian genocide. It wasn’t a well-researched subject at the time, but more is being published on it now. Since 2012, I have been more interested in comparative studies on perpetration and authoritarian systems, research that is more theoretical in nature. I am also studying the conflicts in Syria and Iraq over the past 10 to 20 years, a period of growing violence against civilians and between armed groups.

Why are these recent conflicts of such theoretical and intellectual importance now? Well, if we were living in 1943 with the Holocaust taking place in Eastern Europe, we would not be able to talk to the officers involved in the process. We would only know what had been going on in their minds after they lost the war and the trials were under way. Today, by contrast, we have more opportunities to peer into the minds of the perpetrators. There are perpetrators of mass murder living in Syria and I have been able to interview them since 2011 by approaching them through Facebook or other online channels. This has given us a unique entry point into their world, one that we must take advantage of.